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Connor MacDonald: The UK’s think tank culture offers a tantalizing alternative for Canada’s Conservatives

Commentary

To work in British politics is to be awash in papers. Command papers, Green papers, White papers, think tank research papers, consultation documents, party manifestos, and that’s even before we get to the newspaper columns.

Imagine, then, what a British politician would think reading Howard Anglin’s comments on Erin O’Toole’s demise: “the one time he was forced to put principles down on paper they weren’t bad.” I can imagine a chorus of junior ministers, up and down the ranks of Whitehall crying in unison: “just one time?!”

I jest, but there is a serious point here about the paucity of intellectual life above the 49th parallel. We don’t have a culture of real debate, nor do we expect much of our politicians when it comes to substantive intellectual contributions. The closest we get are those “I’m running for leader” books that have no substance and worse titles. Common Ground (Trudeau) and Values (Mark Carney) come to mind.

This is a problem for Canada. Sure, there are really interesting writers (everyone at The Hub, for example), but there is very little in the way of a sustained policy conversation between governing and political institutions and within broader civil society. The Canadian government still has not released its China strategy, seven years on. Not so in the United Kingdom. Put it this way: the British government just released a 332-page White Paper, and one of the main critiques levelled at it is that it lacks detail.

And the problem goes beyond the Canadian government; it is particularly acute in the Conservative Party of Canada, now that it is in opposition. It is frankly absurd that we don’t have the greater capacity and stronger institutions to better equip a Leader of the Opposition to develop a policy programme beyond that required for an election platform. The policy capacity of political parties is necessarily limited and yet we don’t quite have in Canadian political life a strong enough ecosystem of adjacent institutions and voices supplying new ideas and compelling policy recommendations.

This has contributed to a highly centralized policy process that is marked by a lack of policy innovation. Take the development of party platforms for instance. Because of the necessary secrecy of the platform process, you end up getting policy that’s conceived of and developed within the leader’s office, with limited input from civil society, caucus, or the party membership. This default to centralization tends to lead to a preference for poll-driven policy making over creativity or long-term thinking. As we saw with Erin O’Toole, the leader also has no way to cultivate new intellectual ground with the party nor is he or she able to effectively road-test ideas before they become official policy.

Compare that to the Shadow Chancellor here, who wrote a 66-page pamphlet outlining her views on the British economy, or any number of books that Cabinet Ministers publish regularly setting out their views on public policy questions. These documents are necessarily exercises in strategic ambiguity in places, but they set out a general philosophical direction, and involve a degree of intellectual rigour about which Canadian politics can only dream.

Laying all the cards on the table here, I tend to think that Erin O’Toole’s policy re-orientation was necessary and captured the shifting nature of conservatism in an era of low-interest rates and a public health crisis. Yet, despite the changing nature of the public policy landscape, and the renewed strength of the Liberal Party, the Leader’s office completely lacked the mechanisms to road-test policies, to seek ideas widely across civil society, and to operate a policy shop that wasn’t fundamentally oriented around political staff with day-to-day responsibilities. It was bound to be challenging to pull off a major policy shift in modern Conservative politics in that context.

Here, Canadian Conservatives could learn a lot from the United Kingdom, whose intellectual rhythms, certainly on the right, are driven by a plethora of think tanks with close proximity to political parties and the political process.

Take my think tank, for example. Policy Exchange was founded in 2002 to modernise and refresh the broad centre-right and in particular to be a “safe space” where both sides of the political spectrum could debate the most pressing questions while presenting important public policy to government. Since that time, we have worked closely with civil society, the private sector, and the government to help generate new and interesting policy ideas. Most recently, our report “Modernising the United Kingdom” included a huge range of policy suggestions, such as deepening devolution, re-structuring Whitehall, and suggesting innovative ways to address the goal of net-zero emissions. We are the intellectual driving force behind the British government’s “Indo-Pacific tilt” (through a Commission chaired by our very own Stephen Harper) and our Judicial Power Project has helped re-imagine the role of the judiciary.

It has also been a key place for Ministers and Shadow Ministers to stress-test ideas. In the 2017 election, the Conservative Party in the UK learned the hard way when a social care policy prepared off the hoof, without input from civil society, derailed their quest for a stable parliamentary majority and almost let Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn into office. Think tanks here play a key role in giving policymakers options.

What is more, think tanks provide a platform for policy entrepreneurship for MPs not in the government. Canada lacks any institutions to help MPs develop strong views outside of the leader’s office and the civil service infrastructure. Places like Policy Exchange give MPs access to expertise and the space to think seriously about key public policy issues. That can only be a good thing, especially in Canada’s hyper-disciplined and ultimately counter-productive party culture.

Finally, a stronger and more overtly political think tank culture would allow Conservatives to have both a more robust and a healthier conversation about the future. Policy Exchange is the most influential think tank in the United Kingdom, but it exists within a firmament of others as well. The point here is that a debate about conservatism’s future can be something more than personality and something less than all-out war. As we have seen in the past few weeks, Canadian Conservatives desperately need a glue stronger than personal charisma and structures that dissipate anger.

Renewed engagement with the world of Canadian think tanks on one hand and a greater effort on the part of think tanks to root their analysis and recommendations in practicalities of political economy on the other hand, may be the missing ingredient. Think tanks can and should be a big part of an exercise of intellectual renewal within Canadian Conservative politics.

As you can probably tell, one of the reasons I’ve stayed in the United Kingdom for so many years is because, compared to back home, the quality of the political debate and policy discussion is so much stronger. I don’t think this is an inevitability. Canada is wealthy enough and our politicos are talented enough to generate our own think tank culture. While I am staying in the Big Smoke for a while yet, my door is always open to anyone who might want to chat about how Canada, and conservatism in particular, can get the intellectual life it so richly deserves.

Labour Market Insights: High absence rates, working from home and other labour market trends in Ontario

Commentary

It’s no surprise that COVID-19 continues to have an ongoing influence on employment trends in Ontario. Throughout the past 22 months, employment has ebbed and flowed as all sectors have been impacted by the public health measures put into place by the province.

As readers may know, between January 5 and January 31, Ontario moved backwards to Step Two of its Roadmap to Reopen plan. This involved the reimposition of public health measures including reduced social gatherings, encouraged remote work, closed indoor dining and gyms, and reduced capacity to 50 percent for retail and various other businesses. It also resulted in students were learning virtually until January 17.

As we will see from the following data, courtesy of Workforce WindsorEssex’s unique data source which covers job postings from across the province (excluding the City of Toronto and the far north-eastern region), these restrictions certainly impacted some sectors more than others. The employment data bears out these differentiated impacts.

The 10 most in-demand occupations in January 2022 compared to the previous month were as follows:

Over the month of January, the top-10 in-demand occupations constituted over one-quarter of all job postings (46,528 job postings or 28.8 percent) in the covered regions. The number of active job postings decreased by 1,321 in January 2022 relative to December 2021 from total postings of 162,852 to 161,531. This represents a month-over-month decrease of 0.8 percent in terms of active job postings.

Looking at Statistics Canada’s labour numbers for the whole of Ontario, the province lost about 50,000 jobs – from 7,601,700 in December 2021 to 7,551,000 in January – which represented a 0.7 percent reduction in total employment. Yet these employment levels are still up 5.5 percent compared to January 2021 and 1.5 percent compared to January 2020.

Two occupation groups – (1) Food Counter Attendants, Kitchen Helpers and Related Support Occupations and (2) Cooks fell in demand for the third straight month (down 26 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, in January relative to December). This is to be somewhat expected. The public health measures in place in January were challenging for restaurants and bars, which were closed to indoor dining and had to rely on delivery and takeout options as demand for outdoor dining dipped due to cold temperatures.

In fact, according to Statistics Canada, employment in Accommodation and Food Services decreased 7.2 percent province-wide in January as compared to December with 361,700 employed in the sector in January and 389,900 in December. This is up 11.3 percent from 324,900 compared to January 2021, but still more than 19 percent below employment levels in January 2020.

Job postings for Other Customer and Information Service Representatives were up 3.7 percent in January as compared to December. Other Customer and Information Service Representatives includes customer and information services representatives who answer enquiries and provide information regarding an establishment’s goods, services, and policies and who provide customer services such as receiving payments and processing requests for services. They are employed by retail establishments, contact centres, insurance, telecommunications, and utility companies and other organizations throughout the private and public sectors. As this work is typically performed in an office environment, it is likely that the majority working in this occupation were engaged in remote work during the month of January.

Those employed in Transportation and Warehousing in Ontario increased 0.5 percent province-wide with 386,000 employed in January compared to 384,200 in December, according to Statistics Canada. This is also up 10.2 percent from 350,200 in January 2021, but still below pre-pandemic levels of 396,700 (or 2.7 percent) in January 2020.

This sector includes organizations involved in transporting passengers and goods, warehousing and storing goods, and providing services to these establishments. The modes of transportation are road (such as trucking, transit, and ground passenger), rail, water, air, and pipeline. Important to note is that the Transportation and Warehousing sector also includes national post offices and courier establishments and in fact Canada Post was 11th on list of top-10 companies hiring in January with 862 active job postings. We also saw employers increase the number of job postings for Transport Truck Drivers in January by 14.7 percent over December.

The top-10 companies hiring in January 2022 compared to the previous month were as follows:

We can also see the impacts of the public health measures here. McDonald’s Restaurants, which ranked second on the list in December, did not make the top-10 in large part because it typically hires (1) Food Counter Assistants, Kitchen Helpers and Related Support Occupations and (2) Cooks—both of which saw declines in job postings.

We do see places like Lowe’s Canada, The Home Depot Canada, Walmart Canada, and others that would hire Retail Salespersons prominent on the list. Other companies, like TD Canada Trust, Scotiabank Canada, and Rogers Communications Canada Inc. would account for the increase in postings of Other Customer and Information Service Representatives.

With the restrictions in place throughout January now somewhat relaxed and further restrictions slated to ease on February 21, we may see increased numbers for job postings next months as businesses across the province grapple with the changing employment landscape.

For more information about Workforce WindsorEssex and their valuable LMI, please visit workforcewindsoressex.com.