So you want to build a progressive movement in Canada

by Tim Barber. Posted May 17, 2013


Last November, Larry Summers opened his talk at our packed Canada 2020 event, by saying that think tanks, such as Canada 2020, were vital to the political process. In his view, much of the North American political discourse is the result of a carefully placed op-ed, or a strategically researched issue brief from a think tank.

We were delighted to hear this. But we were also mindful that Dr. Summers was speaking from a U.S. perspective: think tanks do indeed play a crucial role in shaping the policy agenda in Washington. Our long-time U.S. associate, The Center for American Progress (CAP), was seen by many as a government-in-waiting during the Bush years. This was not far from the truth as many staff – including Melody Barnes whom we will host at our health event next week – and even more ideas made their way from CAP to the Obama Whitehouse. What John Podesta has built in the past ten years, and the impact that CAP has had on the U.S. policy agenda, is nothing short of extraordinary.

In Canada think tanks have generally been thin on the ground, and typically associated with specific political parties. This remains true today.

We launched Canada 2020 in 2006 because we wanted a space for progressives of all stripes to meet, discuss, and share ideas in an environment that was free of the partisan mentality of old. For seven years we have been hard at work building out that space with our sold-out free events, online engagement, conferences, debates, research briefs and yes, carefully placed op-eds. We’re proud of the work we have done and the voices and ideas that we have featured: we have never had more momentum than we do now.

Other organizations are now beginning to join us.  That’s a good thing – we welcome these additions to the conversation. But as the progressive movement grows, it becomes increasingly important to carve out a unique vision, and a substantive offering.

This is what we have been doing in our marquee project, The Canada We Want in 2020. We identified five areas in which the federal government can and should play a more progressive, strategic role: reducing income inequality, increasing innovation and productivity, rising to meet the Asia challenge, securing our health system for the future, and squaring the carbon circle.

In each of these areas we have fueled new thinking, and engaged different voices in our effort to build a more progressive Canada for 2020 and beyond.

Ultimately, we at Canada 2020 believe that governing is about making choices. Sometimes, and ideally, the choices that governments make are strategic – the product of hard thinking to address major hurdles which coalesce at a particular point in time.

We believe that Canada is at such a point in time today – and that Canada 2020 is playing an important role in driving a discussion about the role of the federal government in Canada.

A serious public policy strategy for the country means doing less of some things, while focusing decisively and aggressively on a few important things. This requires in-depth analysis of the really big challenges and opportunities facing the country. It requires governments to be straight with Canadians about the risks and rewards that lie ahead, so that citizens will buy into a clear direction set by government.

The basic orientation of Canada 2020 is that the federal government has a vitally important role to play in developing and implementing strategic policies, focusing governments and other institutions in society on the big challenges the country faces, and mobilizing consensus for action. In other words, we believe that the federal government can be a force for significant and positive change.

This does not necessarily mean big government. But it does mean intelligent, innovative, analytical and strategic government. It could conceivably result in smaller government, focused on a few big and important areas of public policy that really matter to the Canada’s future.

Canada 2020 is very proud of what we have achieved in our first seven years and we look forward to continuing to build a progressive community around our shared interest.