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Commentary: Where is the Conservative vision to advance and protect Canadian interests abroad?

***A shorter version of this article was published by the National Post, Aug. 2, 2011***

Recently Canada has lost several public policy centres, or think-tanks, that have long been important to Canadian engagement abroad. Several of these groups, like the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), were created by the government to do things that it cannot to advocate for Canadian interests abroad and help policy-makers and the public understand what world events mean for Canada and what we can do in response.

The loss leaves Canada at a competitive disadvantage with our primary competitors and colleagues on the international stage —all of whom use think-tanks to advance their interests in trade, security and to place their views and values into international discussions.

To take one recent example in the Middle East, over the last year Canadian television and newspapers have been filled with experts from think-tanks who have explained events, provided context and helped shaped our thinking in Canada. These think-tanks though were almost all American, with an occasional European, but no Canadian, organizations.

Since when did we outsource our thinking on the Middle East to the Americans and are we comfortable with this?

In the case of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), we are closing on the eve of the Prime Minister’s trip to the Americas, a region that the government says to be Canada’s second foreign policy priority. In contrast, it was a previous Conservative government that travelled to the region to announce the founding of FOCAL as a tangible symbol of Canada’s engagement with the hemisphere. Australia, like Canada, has also recently made our hemisphere a priority. But, it has chosen to follow the model of previous Canadian governments and has just created its own Americas think-tank to better position itself and defend its interests in our hemisphere.

Australia joins Spain, the rest of Europe, and even countries like Thailand, that are creating think-tanks on Latin America.

While others are building for the future Canada is going in the opposite direction.

The recent loss of policy research centres is tied to the elimination of government funding. This is part of a broader intent, but unfortunately not a plan, of the government to have the private sector take on a dominant role in funding think-tanks. The government is correct in its intent. In the longer-term this shift arguably will be better for think-tanks in Canada. It will place them on firmer financial footing, better align them with real, hard Canadian interests and create broader constituencies outside of Ottawa.

Yet, for this to occur there must be a plan, a process of transition guided by a vision and strong leadership. If not, then there will be further erosion and loss with a greater reliance on American institutions that produce thoughtful commentary, but always from a U.S. perspective.

Aside from the potential for misguided entry into foreign entanglements, for our commercial interests this is a serious problem. From softwood lumber to reconstruction in Haiti, to a trans-Pacific trade pact, Canadian and American interests are in competition. Jobs, prosperity and security in Canada depend on the country having the same assets and tools that our American and other competitors are using to define and advance their interests.

Making think-tanks viable in Canada will require all sectors to work together. The public policy research community is prepared to come up with the new ideas and models. The private sector will have to become engaged and prepared to contribute at levels equal to companies in the U.S. and elsewhere. The government, though, must show leadership, not in solving the issue, but in bringing all sides together. This was the case in Spain, Australia and elsewhere and will be no different in Canada. National interests are at stake.

If the government does have a vision for Canada in the world and is concerned with defending Canadian interests abroad then it needs to act and do so before we fall further behind.

Carlo Dade is Executive Director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL).

 

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