When the CCPA was founded 40 years ago, it was in direct opposition to a handful of right-wing, “free market” policy groups who, despite being on the political scene for only a few years, had become influential in the halls of government and the news media. From their earliest days, these think-tanks aimed to weaken public faith in government’s ability to do good in people’s lives.
Rather than try to balance priorities like full employment, regional development and environmental protection, they proclaimed, government’s preoccupation should be the “free” exchange of commodities (goods or services) by whatever company (Canadian or otherwise) can do it most efficiently (i.e., cheapest). State agencies should integrate business input and methods at every step of the decision-making process. Corporate income taxes must come down. Public services should be turned over to the private sector.
This ideological project called neoliberalism got a boost when Margaret Thatcher declared “there is no alternative” to the market economy. On this continent, the Jimmy Carter administration started the U.S. on the deregulatory path; Ronald Reagan pressed the accelerator pedal. Brian Mulroney would toe the neoliberal line in Canada, privatizing state enterprises, deregulating telcos, air transport and other sectors, and abandoning regional development to multinational demands for continental integration in the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement and later NAFTA.
Jumping into the fray, the CCPA set out to prove there were alternatives to this anti-government, anti-worker and antisocial agenda. We strongly criticized federal and provincial deregulation and pandering to the corporate sector, and allied ourselves with labour unions, students, Indigenous groups, the environmental movement and others to push a more human version of economics. In the process, as William K. Carroll and David Huxtable wrote in 2012, the centre “helped form…a social democratic community of practice, committed to reforming and possibly transforming Canada into a more just, ecologically sustainable society.”
Today, on the threshold of climatic breakdown and with inequality at historic levels in much of the world, the moral bankruptcy of the neoliberal project is all too apparent. There is no market-based way out of this mess. Randomly put your finger on a world map while blindfolded and you have a 50/50 chance of touching a country embroiled in mass unrest related to neoliberal austerity, absentee government and the failure of political parties to think outside the “free market” box.
Yet in Canada there are now 20 times the number of think-tanks on the scene as when the CCPA was founded in 1980 and virtually all of them work within the narrow confines of economic orthodoxy. They are still influential with civil servants and political parties and are quoted regularly in the news. Nationally and internationally Canada endorses progressive sounding variations on the neoliberal theme: environmental policy, housing and other infrastructure initiatives, and even foreign aid are fine and good as long as someone in the private sector realizes a return on their investment.
It seems to me the CCPA is even more essential today than it was 40 years ago. But how and in what ways? I asked a few colleagues to help me answer that question.
CCPA research “provides a focal point for progressives—academic, labour and civil society—so that we may develop thoughtful, reflective positions and policy that allow us to redraw the limits of what's possible,” said Erika Shaker, interim national director of the CCPA. We show “how different political choices would reduce inequality and produce more equitable and sustainable societies.”
David Macdonald, a senior economist in our national office, highlighted the “hardcore quantitative analysis” we do to understand key domestic issues. “Numbers and economics are often used to obfuscate the operation of power,” he said. The CCPA, on the other hand, wields numbers to strengthen the case for social justice–based reforms to policy, law and government practices.
Simon Enoch, director of the CCPA-Saskatchewan, likened our work to “a how-to-guide” for the Canadian left. “Want to de-commodify essential aspects of our lives? Here’s what we could do," he said. "Want to ensure an energy transition that leaves nobody behind? This is what we could do.”
I like that idea a lot. For one thing, the CCPA’s work across Canada backs it up again and again (see pages 14-15 for some highlights from 2019). But more importantly, I think Simon’s point gets to the heart of what the CCPA offers in this time of political uncertainty and transition.
With the right priorities and effective policies, government can be a force for good in people’s lives. Neoliberalism’s light is fading, but there are no guarantees it won’t be replaced with something much worse. As long as the CCPA is here, and with your support, we promise to be an unmovable voice for social, economic and environmental justice—for today and the next 40 years.
The Monitor goes back to school
Finally, I’m very excited to draw your attention to the entirely unique magazine wedged into the middle of this one. From now on, twice a year, the Monitor will include a full issue of Our Schools / Our Selves (OS/OS), the voice of progressive education in Canada, which the CCPA has been publishing since 2000 under the editorship of Erika Shaker. Let us know how you like it!
Stuart Trew is Senior Editor of the Monitor and an occasional trade researcher with the CCPA.