Odds & Ends
by Norbert Cunningham

Another hearty good morning to you all! Today a bit of a tribute and a few observations about the Maritimes’ very own think tank, the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS), based in Halifax and headed by founder Brian Lee Crowley, a man I first met when he walked into this newspaper office 10 years ago, introduced himself and asked if I had time for a chat. Since then we’ve talked many times, and the Times & Transcript has printed his opinion columns, in recent years on a twice a month basis. This year AIMS is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Not right-wingers
What to say? First, let’s dispel a common myth propagated by those who often don’t like what AIMS says or does: the myth is that this is “just another right-wing conservative mouthpiece, the eastern equivalent of the west coast’s Fraser Institute.” That is simply untrue and anyone who spends so much as half an hour talking to Mr. Crowley or carefully reading AIMS material, would recognize the reality, even if they don’t agree or fully agree with AIMS positions and arguments. I’ve no use for the Fraser Institute, which is purely right wing ideology and more often than not engages in “research” that consists of vigorously seeking out facts tailored to fit its preconceptions and pre-formed conclusions rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves and building an argument out of them, even if some can, and will, take the same facts and argue something else. The former is pure ideological blindness and horrible research; the latter is good research and putting valid ideas and argument out in the public to generate discourse. AIMs does the latter. In fact, of all the think tanks in Canada, I think Atlantic Canada is better served by AIMS than most regions because its approach is in fact a solid academic one. It is also one of the few independent organizations viewing a wide range of issues from a purely Maritime perspective.

No wind swinging
All that said, and evidence to back my contention will be found throughout what follows, AIMS does have what many will consider a small-c conservative bent, perhaps not surprisingly since its focus is heavily, though not entirely, on economic issues and what it believes will be good for the Atlantic Canadian economy. In general, that includes finding ways to wean our economies off their dependence on government aid so they can grow and prosper on their own. In the Maritimes in particular, that immediately raises concerns and fears that, to use a Watergate phrase, the federal government could just simply leave the region “swinging in the wind.” This may be something we need to guard against, but it sure isn’t a policy AIMS or Mr. Crowley advocate contrary to what unthinking critics sometimes suggest.

Nuturing debate
I called Mr. Crowley for a chat before writing this and put it to him: his response was that AIMS definitely wants to “nurture debate” via thoughtful and effective research, but he often wonders if the critics I mention actually read the material the institute puts out. He knows from first-hand experience that many people who have done so have expressed surprise. AIMS for example, supports a national pharmacare program because it believes it would be good for Atlantic Canada, a position not usually associated with right-wing ideologues or the current big-C Conservatives in Canada. Mr. Crowley personally also has “no quarrel” with the idea of a guaranteed national income, although it is not an AIMS policy. So how can that be?

Analysis comes first
AIMS, in its work, does ask some basic pre-set questions, then tries to analyze whatever the issue at hand may be, in light of those questions. It looks at, for example, the strengths and weaknesses of the public sector and whether it is the best way in the region to deliver or achieve stated government goals. Sometimes it is, sometimes not, in AIMS’ opinion, but it does ask “what evidence is there” to support the wisdom of any given policy. Some policies it has found to be “totally useless.” Thus, we ought to perhaps at least pay attention and take seriously when qualified academics and experts stand up and challenge long-standing policy on such grounds! After all, what if they are right? What if many of the policies of governments, provincial or federal, have actually been holding the region back more than helping it? Wouldn’t a change of tactics or policy be in order? Unless of course the public and governments of the region are perfectly happy for their region to live in perpetual dependence on the generosity of the rest of Canada, something that may not be wise to count upon.

Paying its own way
How in all this does AIMS protect its independence? For one thing, it raises all its own money, accepting none from governments. This year’s budget is $1.5 million, a long way from 10 years ago when the whole thing was initiated on a cheque for $15,000! To ensure independence and “intellectual honesty,” Crowley says they draw upon experts at regional universities, and they have a board of directors and advisory boards (including one Nobel laureate) that constitutionally cannot intervene in day to day operations or research.

Last Word
Here is Phil Crane: I never let politics get personal. You can have the most intense, heated debate on issues, and so long as you keep it on issues, you can go out and have coffee afterwards and you’re good friends.

To read the second part of this series, click here.