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Whose 'Independent Thought' Is Andrew Coyne Plugging?

Political ideas he champions in column are standard neoliberal fare.

By Donald Gutstein 7 Jun 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Donald Gutstein is an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is working on a book about neoliberal think-tanks, the media and Stephen Harper, to be published in the fall 2014.

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Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne's 'good news' in Canadian political thought is good for whom?

Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne is adept at pushing conservative ideas without having to stand behind them. Stephen Harper accomplished this feat with "ethical oil" and "radical environmentalists." These ideas seemed to pop up everywhere, but never from Harper's lips.

Coyne's June 4 column is exemplary. In it he has "some good news to report," that the "first shoots of independent thought have begun to reappear." We're beginning to move away from the years of "suffocating consensus" of Canadian politics.

You can read the column in the Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Windsor Star, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, or Montreal Gazette.

But before we break out in cheers, we need to realize that the news is good for just a few of us; in particular, the libertarians, neoliberals and conservatives in our midst. For the rest of us, we have to ask how independent this thought really is.

Here's his list:

Eliminate supply management. Coyne claims this policy "makes food more costly for millions of families, for the benefit of a few thousand farmers." No thought here that the purpose of the policy is to ensure the continued existence and viability of a domestic agricultural industry. That would be getting in the way of the market.

Promote toll roads. Coyne applauds Ontario's Mike Harris government for financing a new highway with tolls and claims it is the wave of the future. No thought that not everybody can afford to travel on toll roads and bridges. The market should determine usage.

Institute right to work. Coyne bemoans the fact that workers in unionized workplaces have to pay dues because they benefit from the union's efforts to raise wages and improve benefits and working conditions. No thought that right-to-work will pit individual employees negotiating contracts with their bosses, and we know how that will turn out. The union shop must go because it gets in the way of the market.

Introduce private ownership on First Nation reserves. Coyne credits Stephen Harper for moving forward on this file, which would give natives living on reserves the same rights as other Canadians. He gives no thought to the fact that such a policy would destroy the ability of First Nations to make collective decisions about the future of their communities. Collective ownership and decision-making is anathema to the market and must go.

Controlling the public philosophy

Coyne asks "why so many logjams have come unstuck at the same time." We might ask why so many neoliberal ideas are overwhelming the public policy agenda simultaneously. Coyne has a few suggestions. It could be the influence of the Internet and social media, resurrecting the old canard of technological determinism.

Or it could be the "knock-on effect" of previous "reforms" such as free trade, although he doesn't explain how this would work.

His strongest suggestion is that it is the result of "individual acts of political courage" by politicians such as Martha Hall Findlay, Elaine Wynne, Tim Hudak, Stephen Harper, Joyce Murray, Nathan Cullen, Stephane Dion and Mark Warawa.

Blame or credit individuals, not other forces in society.

There's another possibility Coyne should consider. Neoliberal think-tanks -- Fraser Institute, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and Montreal Economic Institute -- have pushed these ideas for years. The ideas moved onto the policy agenda after Harper gained control of Parliament.

As Harper and Tom Flanagan wrote in the late nineties, "the purpose of the conservative movement is to change public opinion and public policy, not solely to elect to office a party with a particular name." But once a party with a particular name -- Conservative -- was elected to office and Harper became prime minister, Flanagan changed his mind.

"Winning elections and controlling the government as often as possible is the most effective way of shifting the public philosophy," he wrote. "If you control the government, you choose judges, appoint the senior civil service, fund or de-fund advocacy groups, and do many other things that gradually influence the climate of opinion."

Neoliberal think-tanks are key in influencing the climate of opinion, but they require large dollops of funding from corporations and conservative foundations. In recent years the biggest payouts have come from the Aurea Foundation, gold tycoon Peter Munk's vehicle for funding the neoliberal revolution. Since its formation in 2006, Aurea has given over a million dollars a year to the Fraser Institute and its allies to promote ideas like eliminating supply management, introducing private ownership on First Nation reserves, instituting right to work, and privatizing government programs and services like highways and bridges.

It's curious Andrew Coyne didn't think of this, because he's on the board of directors of the Aurea Foundation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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