Monday, July 06, 2009

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty shill for new right wing think tank the Macdonald-Laurier Institute; Brian Lee Crowley paid $17,524 for roundtable work

The last thing Canada needs is yet another right-wing think tank spewing propaganda supporting more damaging tax cuts, smaller government, fewer unions, deregulation and privatization.

But there was Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last month using his office to shill for Brian Lee Crowley — currently the president of the far right public policy think tank Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) — and his latest endeavour, a conservative think tank in the nation’s capital called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

The Globe and Mail reported that Flaherty hosted a private dinner at the exclusive Albany Club in Toronto on June 19 to “raise support” for Crowley’s new venture.

In the article Flaherty a big fan of a new think tank (Globe and Mail, June 18, 2009) Crowley said he hopes to launch the Ottawa-based organization in the fall and has already raised $1-million.

Flaherty reportedly circulated a letter inviting rich Bay Street types to the event saying he was giving it “my personal backing… and I hope that you will consider doing the same.” The minister said bringing change to Ottawa is difficult.

“There are powerful actors in Ottawa, within the civil service, Parliament, the media and in many non-governmental organizations, that actively resist progress. ... Although I have always felt very well supported by friends and colleagues, I have clearly felt the need for independent research, support and promotion of these ideals,” which, The Globe notes, he enumerates as smaller government, lower taxes and greater personal responsibility.

Flaherty continues: “That is why I strongly support Brian Crowley’s project to create a national, non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa.”

The minister concludes his pitch to potential backers of the new think tank by saying: “I’d like to see him return with a strong, independent and well-financed organization behind him to help transform Ottawa for the better, regardless of who is in power. This important national initiative deserves to succeed. Please join me in ensuring that it does. My office will follow up with you.”

This certainly sounds like the finance minister using his office to fund raise for Crowley’s new project.

It’s interesting to note that the Albany Club, founded in 1882, bills itself as “the last political club in Canada” and “the secret to its longevity lies in its Conservative roots.”

“The Club’s history,” the website states “is reflected not just in its building and archives, but in many events. The contributions of past and current members starting with founding member Sir John A. Macdonald and including each subsequent Conservative Prime Minister are celebrated within the walls of the Club.”

The Albany Club is affiliated with over 90 private clubs around the world including the Calgary Petroleum Club and Saskatoon Club.

On November 7, 2006, Rob Wright, Deputy Minister of Finance, announced that Crowley had been appointed the 2006-2007 Clifford Clark Visiting Economist in the Department of Finance.

The post, established in 1983, honours the late Dr. Clifford Clark, who served as Deputy Minister of Finance from 1932 until his death in 1952. Occupants of the position advise the Department on emerging economic issues and take part in policy development at the highest level. They are recruited from the ranks of prominent Canadian professionals who deal with economic, financial and monetary issues in the business and academic communities, the Finance Department news release said.

Crowley, by the way, appears to be a steady contributor to the Conservative Party of Canada. According to the party’s financial records filed with Elections Canada the right-wing economist has donated at least $3,892.89 since 2004.

Crowley’s stint with the Finance Department ended last spring. A Mar. 20, 2008, AIMS news release announced his return to the think tank noting, “During his time in Ottawa, Crowley worked on a broad range of policy files and redesigned the pre-budget consultation process.”

Corporations Canada records show that the Macdonald-Laurier Institute was incorporated under the Canada Corporations Act - Part II on March 12, 2007. The directors at the time of incorporation or as indicated on the last annual summary as of March 31 of the year of filing were: Brian Lee Crowley, David McD. Mann, and Allan Gotlieb.

Mann is counsel for the Halifax law firm Cox & Palmer. Gotlieb was Canadian ambassador to the United States from 1981 to 1989. He is also the current chairman of the Donner Canadian Foundation which donated $48,000 last year to Crowley’s new think tank.

It’s obvious that during his time with the Finance Department, Crowley was busy setting up the new organization. And it wasn’t long before he was back working for the Harper government.

Records obtained from Finance Canada under freedom of information legislation show that Crowley played a significant role in the pre-budget consultation process leading up to the federal budget that was tabled on January 27, 2009.

In late 2008, Finance Canada contracted BCSG Enterprises Ltd., a company owned by Crowley, to assist in the 2008-09 pre-budget consultations. The term of the agreement was from November 26, 2008, to March 31, 2009.

The Statement of Work indicates that the department was “seeking the services of an individual to act as an advisor and moderator for a series of six pre-budget consultations roundtables that the Minister of Finance will be hosting between the month of December 2008 and mid-February 2009.”

The advisor/moderator was expected to perform the following tasks:

– In consultations with the Department and the Minister’s Office, provide advice on roundtable participants and event organization;

– Supplement departmental efforts in recruiting participants;

– Moderate six pre-budget roundtables, in the presence of the Minister and departmental senior officials.

“The individual must be fully conversant with the government’s economic and fiscal priorities, as well with the wide range of policy issues to be discussed at these roundtables. He/she must also possess a thorough knowledge of the key stakeholder organizations across the country, in addition to having the ability to facilitate a budget policy trade-off exercise, in both official languages,” the document states.

The proposal submitted by Crowley’s company notes that roundtables “will be modeled on the 2007-08 PBC process, and will involve five national roundtables to be held in Victoria, Saskatoon, Thornhill, Montreal and Saint John, NB, with a national wrap-up roundtable to be held in Ottawa.” The total cost of the project was pegged at $24,831.00.

An invoice dated January 24, 2009, was submitted by BCSG to Finance Canada in the amount of $16,611.00. According to an April 7, 2009, email from David Gamble, the director of Finance Canada’s public affairs and operations division, Crowley’s total actual expenses was $17,524.37. Gamble said Crowley “was heavily involved in the organization of the pre-budget consultations meetings” and “very hands on.”

It’s interesting to note that Crowley’s invoice shows that his services also included the invitation lists and preparing the questions to be asked at the pre-budget consultation roundtables.

The summary reports prepared by Finance Canada for the five national roundtables show that participants at the discussions were asked to debate two questions and provide the Minister with their top five priorities for Budget 2009. Additionally, they were asked to consider which of the five priorities would provide the most effective stimulus. The two questions, presumably Crowley’s, were:

1) What would provide the most effective and immediate stimulus to the economy? How would you rank and give suggestions on the following areas in terms of priority for the Government providing a stimulus:

– Access to credit
– Investing in the housing market
– Accelerating infrastructure spending
– Strong sustainable labour markets and training initiatives
– Traditional and emerging industrial sectors

2) Beyond the question of short-term stimulus, what steps should the Government take to ensure that the Canadian economy remains internationally competitive, continues to attract investment and create jobs?

The structure of the first question makes it clear that Crowley and the government’s objective was to try and frame the discussion around the fives pre-determined areas of priority. The summary reports though seems to show that this strategy wasn’t overly successful as the recommendations from participants at the meetings often went beyond what the Harper government seemed willing to consider.

A good example of this was the closed-door roundtable in Saskatoon on December 18, 2008. Some of the recommendations from that meeting included:

– Be cautious about further subsidizing the oil sands sector;

– Social housing needs to be a priority and aboriginal housing should be part of the stimulus;

– Keep people on EI, to allow them to keep their jobs. Supplement EI for part of their week;

– Implement micro-financing (re: Winnipeg has a poverty reduction council);

– Provide stress-relief for civil servants;

– Encourage bio-fuel development as an alternative to fossil fuels;

– Invest in solar energy (i.e. Germany is the world-leader of solar energy) and make people aware of renewable energy;

– Provide multi-year funding for the non-profit sector, a sector that is important to the entire economy.

Incidentally, the controversial subject of spending billions of dollars on nuclear reactors or nuclear waste storage facilities apparently wasn’t mentioned.

In the end the federal government was really only interested in seeing how roundtable participants ranked the list of pre-determined priorities they were given.

“When asked to rank their number one priority from the list of five in Question 1, participants voted 12 for access to credit and 12 for infrastructure spending (tally confirmed by Ted Menzies),” the summary report states.

Canadians should be concerned that its federal budget consultation process was essentially turned over to the head of an unaccountable right-wing think tank; and that the finance minister, perhaps the second most powerful position in the government, is openly using his office to promote and drum up support for a new organization that will no doubt espouse the same right-wing economic policies that the Conservative government still hold dear.


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