Mark Kennedy / Postmedia
For years, Ed Broadbent fought his battles on the front lines of Canadian politics as leader of the federal NDP.
These days, he’s taking his fight to a different plain — to the battle of ideas, of influence and of political relevance.
He is chair of a think-tank — the Broadbent Institute — that champions “progressive change,” trains activists and confronts some of the long-term issues political parties ignore.
He’s intent on countering the influence of Canadian think-tanks such as the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, established in 2005 by former Reform leader Preston Manning.
“Mr. Manning, from his point of view and from the conservative point of view, has done very well,” Broadbent said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen.
“They have had an impact on the public debate. And it’s time we did some catch-up, frankly.
“Mr. Manning’s institute does it on the right and we want to do it on the left in Canada.”
Call it the battle of think-tanks. Left versus right. Broadbent versus Manning. Progressive versus conservative.
The two organizations have now become parallel incubators for ideas in Canadian politics, unrestrained by the formal partisan ties that can stifle debate among true believers within parties. Moreover, unlike most traditional think-tanks, both organizations offer training on how to achieve political change — all the way from community groups or city hall to provincial and federal politics.
This weekend in Ottawa, the Broadbent Institute, founded in 2011, will hold its first annual “progress summit.” About 600 people are expected to attend.
The conference will feature topics such as: income inequality; the federal government’s “attack” on the labour movement; the rights of indigenous peoples on natural resource development; and how businesses can build a “green economy.”
The institute believes in the merits of learning from “progressives” elsewhere in the world. Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard will headline a list of speakers that includes a French politician describing the “rise of the right” in Europe, and a human rights “marketing director” based in Washington, D.C.
There will be a session on how to use Google and social media in campaigns, and on “lessons from winning progressive campaigns in the U.S. and Canada.”
The event is virtually a mirror image — with different policy leanings — of the annual Manning Centre conference, the most recent of which was in Ottawa in early March.
Chuck Strahl, a former Conservative MP who chairs the Manning Centre, said the country is well-served by having parallel think-tanks because political parties are more focused on winning elections.
“The parties themselves are forced, if you will, to focus on what they do best and that leaves it open for other organizations like the Manning Centre and the Broadbent Institute to delve into some of the big issues. We don’t have to get elected to anything.”
Strahl said he welcomes the emergence of the Broadbent Institute.
“It’s not really a competitor; it’s a competitor for ideas. We’re not tilling the same soil here. We’re looking for people on the conservative end of the spectrum, but we both have the same sort of objective: to engage them in civil society.”
Broadbent said his institute faces a big challenge getting its message out because many of the country’s prominent think-tanks, such as the Fraser Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute, are predominantly conservative.
Broadbent’s institute is not a registered charity, nor does it plan to become one. It funds its operations through donations — often $5 or $20 from thousands of donors, says executive director Rick Smith — and will have a budget of over $1 million in the next year
There is a strong NDP tinge to the group; some key players have held prominent jobs in the party.
But the institute proclaims it is an “independent” and “non-partisan.” It has the support of Allan Gregg, once the Progressive Conservative party’s chief pollster, and John Laschinger, formerly campaign manager for many federal and provincial Progressive Conservatives.
Indeed, Smith said the institute appeals to a broad range of Canadians.
“On any given day, the vast majority of Canadians are untethered from any particular party affiliation. They’re open to good ideas and they’re looking for a good debate about the issues of the day. That’s is the kind of audience we’re trying to cater to and reach.”