The Parkland Institute: Alberta’s Unofficial Opposition
September 1, 2004
In an oil-rich province with a seemingly undefeatable Progressive Conservative government, it can seem more than a little difficult to challenge the status quo. Gordon Laxer knows this, but it didn’t stop him from creating the Parkland Institute, a left-wing think tank he describes as Alberta’s “lone alternative voice.”
Laxer, a political economist, author of several books on Canadian economic history, and current director of the Parkland Institute, was first inspired by the events of the 1993 provincial election to fight back against the lack of political dissent in Alberta.
“[Then Liberal leader] Laurence Decore was saying ‘we need brutal cuts,’ while [Premier] Ralph Klein was saying ‘we need major cuts.’ The Liberals basically did a right-wing runaround the Conservatives in that election,” explains Laxer. “There was a lot of fear around at the time, especially in the public sector. You had all these people getting laid off, and they would say, “Well, I’m sorry I lost my job, but the premier had to do it because there’s this incredible debt crisis.”
Examining Power and Wealth: An Alternative Research Institute
This acceptance of the political situation frustrated Laxer. Before the next election, he, along with other like-minded people, decided that the province needed a public-policy research institute that could act as an alternative to right-wing organizations like the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute.
From this decision emerged the Parkland Institute, with a mandate to “examine power and wealth differentials, social and classbased conflicts, and ways in which public policy and public choice shape and are shaped by these factors.” The Parkland Institute has a public membership, and most of its research projects are done by volunteers. By 1996, plans for the institute were underway and, by 1997, it had entered into the public eye as part of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
This attachment to the university did not go uncontested, however, and the notion of being part of any institution created some initial controversy.
“There was a debate amongst the 15 or 20 people who were initially involved in the idea of having a research institute and what role it could play,” explains Laxer. “Some people wanted to be inside the university, while the grassroots, community-based people interested in bottom-up democracy wanted to stay outside.”
However, the faculty’s offer of initial funding to get the institute off the ground was too good to refuse. “We kept it in the Faculty of Arts, even though we wanted the Parkland Institute to be part of an Alberta-wide research network,” says Laxer. “But we have managed to do that anyway. We have representatives from the University of Calgary, the University of Lethbridge, Athabasca University and from outside the Faculty of Arts at the U of A, as well as members from outside the academic community. Besides, we get lots of benefits from being part of the University of Alberta, including credibility.”
Credibility as a Necessary Form of Defense
From day one, this credibility has been essential in helping the institute weather attacks from the government. Because they wanted to wait until they had something specific with which to announce their opening, the institute didn’t go public until they had co-published Shredding the Public Interest, a book written by current Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft contesting the idea that social spending was out of control when Klein became premier in 1992.
“So we announced the foundation of the institute at the same time that we announced the release of Taft’s book,” explains Laxer. “And Ralph Klein rescued us from what may have been obscurity by denouncing Taft as a Communist the next day. We had a lot of fun with that story. It made the fourth page in the Globe & Mail and, once that happened, all the news media picked it up, including The Economist in Great Britain. This was two weeks before the 1997 election was called, and, by the time the election was over, we had sold 13,000 copies in Alberta, which is truly astounding. I even heard rumours after the election that Taft’s book had single-handedly turned Edmonton against the Conservatives.”
Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute, believes the unprecedented sales of Shredding the Public Interest have helped to change the country’s conception of Albertans. “Shredding the Public Interest became a national bestseller and even got coverage internationally,” he says. “I think that’s the first time we helped to show people, people outside of Alberta anyways, that not everybody in Alberta necessarily supports the ideology and policies of Ralph Klein.”
With a huge amount of early publicity under its belt, the Parkland Institute set about “changing the world,” as Laxer puts it. “We wanted to critique what some people call neoconservatism, as we thought that a lot of the policies the Alberta government was putting forward were harmful and not necessary. So we wanted to do a high quality of research around policy alternatives.”
Acuña sees their mandate then and now as one of encouraging dialogue.
“We want to broaden the scope of political dialogue in Alberta through research, and we want to get an alternative view out into the mainstream,” Acuña explains. “I think it’s necessary to the political environment of the province. Without a group like Parkland offering alternative views and alternative types of research, there is a huge propensity for groupthink in a place like Alberta. The discussion has a tendency to become really monolithic, really one-sided, and a group like Parkland is necessary to provide a range of views and a range of opinions.”
This range of opinions includes everything from an annual conference currently in its eighth year to research projects on everything from health care to the environment to electricity deregulation.
According to Laxer, one of the Parkland Institute’s greatest achievements over the years was the research it put out when Edmonton was thinking of privatizing Epcor, the company that provides the city with its water, electricity and natural gas.
“Edmonton’s city council was strongly in favour of privatizing it, and they had commissioned Royal Bank Dominion Securities to do a study on its benefits and drawbacks for $350,000,” explains Laxer. “For $5,000 we did an alternative study that actually got much bigger front-page news than the Royal Bank study. In the end, city council voted seven to six against privatizing.”
Support for the Parkland Institute’s willingness to look at major issues from an alternative point of view is widespread throughout the province. Gillian Steward, a founding board member and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald, believes this is because of the institute’s “willingness to dig a little deeper than anybody else.”
“I think I got really interested in the concept behind Parkland because I had come out of a newspaper background,” explains Steward. “By the early nineties it had become pret ty obvious to me that the media in Alberta was really only presenting one point of view as to what was going on in the province politically.
They were basically aligning themselves with the Conservative government. So to my mind there was a real need for a research institute that was going to look into some of the things that were going on, particularly some of the ramifications of the policies the Klein government was introducing.”
Clear Answers to Privatization
Steward did her part to satisfy this need by conducting several studies on the benefits and drawbacks of health-care privatization, including a book she co-authored with Taft called Clear Answers. “We wrote this book to challenge what the government was saying about the need for more privatized medicine,” she says. “We wanted it to act as a response to the Klein government’s plans around introducing private clinics and private hospitals. We were able to present plenty of evidence that wasn’t being presented by the government that showed that privatized health care not only costs more money, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee good health care, either.”
Taft says he has always enjoyed writing for the Parkland Institute, as he admires their willingness to give him a certain degree of academic freedom. “One of the things I really respect about the Parkland Institute is that they never pressured me to come to any particular conclusions, and I wouldn’t work for any research group that did,” Taft explains. “They would present me with issues, like the sale of Epcor or the privatization of health care, but they never pressured me to come to any particular conclusions, and I really admire their respect for good academic standards and independent thought.”
Conference: Against Isolation, For Diversity
Perhaps this respect for independent thought is best expressed through the institute’s annual conference. According to Acuña, the conference has two main functions in Albertan society.
“Often one of the hardest things for people and social movements to deal with is the isolation of feeling like you’re the only one who thinks a certain way, and I think the conference, by bringing so many people together, helps reinforce that there are others who support what you do and have the same kind of priorities,” he explains. “The other function is to attract people with different viewpoints and get them engaged in the topics and issues that we’re raising.”
The conference, which last year attracted over 800 people, not only offers attendees the opportunity to meet other like-minded people in workshops and discussion groups, but brings in major national and international speakers as well. Some of the betterknown speakers the Parkland Institute has brought to Edmonton over the years include Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, John Ralston Saul, Maude Barlow, Vandana Shiva, Michael Parenti and several others.
This year’s conference has the theme, “Uncommon Dreams: Visions of the Public Good.” Speakers will include journalist and author Linda McQuaig and Joel Bakan, author of both the book and the film The Corporation. According to Acuña, the purpose of this year’s conference is to uncover what the word “public” really means.
“It occurred to us that a lot of people spend a lot of time saying the word ‘public,’” he explains. “They talk about the public interest, public services, public education and the public good, and we thought, ‘Well, who is this public they’re talking about? What does it mean? Does it exist within an identifiable community? And, if so, where is it and how do we go about advocating on behalf of it?’”
Besides the conference, to be held November 19 to 21 at the University of Alberta campus, the institute’s plans for the future include several new research projects, focusing in particular upon issues surrounding water and the oil sands in Alberta.
Ultimately, the Parkland Institute has played an important role in proving that political debate in Alberta is alive and well. It has also been fundamental in changing the political environment of the province, an environment that was once seen as “undemocratic,” according to Taft.
“The people of the province were being misled and at times lied to about government actions and spending problems,” he explains. “There was very little tolerance for any disagreement with the premier or the government, and Alberta was becoming a very unhealthy democracy where meaningful, respectful debate was being replaced with angry putdowns. It was these concerns and forces that led to both Shredding the Public Interest and the foundation of the Parkland Institute.”
Laxer agrees that the institute has helped forward the cause of democracy in the province.
“It’s extremely unhealthy to have a one-party state and to have no debate on anything, where the government says one thing and everybody else says ‘yes, yes, yes,’” Laxer says. “You need a second opinion. That’s what democracy should be all about, and that’s what the Parkland Institute is here for.”