Broadbent Institute primes progressives for 2015 election - and beyond

Rosemary Barton
January 16, 2014
This article originally appeared on CBC News.

Canada's newest "progressive" think tank is getting ready to train new foot soldiers for the battleground of the next election, which will be held no later than October 2015.

In turning its attention to training and electoral literacy, the left-leaning Broadbent Institute is attempting to become as influential and successful as the conservative Manning Centre, founded by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning in 2005.

The Broadbent Institute, created in 2011, has a ways to go, but Rick Smith, the current executive director, said it's time for the left to get moving.

"The right, the conservative movement, to its credit, has spent a lot of time over the last few years, training up a new generation of leaders and the progressive side of the spectrum needs to start doing the same thing or we’re going to be in some significant trouble down the road," Smith said.

Officially, the Broadbent Institute says it is non-partisan, though it is chaired by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and its board has other NDP members. Smith said the organization wants to be a "big tent" to allow all progressive Canadians a place to come and think about ideas.

But part of that is also about getting a political movement more organized.

Making politics personal

The Manning Centre and various other programs led by Preston Manning train hundreds of Canadians in an effort to improve democracy, but also to strengthen the conservative movement long-term.

Robert Gibbs, left, U.S. President Barack Obama's former press secretary, stands with Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith and chair Ed Broadbent. The institute is looking to U.S. Democrats for help in training progressive election workers. (Broadbent Institute/Flickr)

The Broadbent Institute wants to do the same. In the months ahead it will roll out training sessions, one in Saskatchewan later this month and one at its first “Progress Summit” in March. It has tapped some former Barack Obama campaign organizers and other American Democrats to help develop the training.

Smith said part of it is about getting progressives to tell and sell a better story to Canadians: less based on the nitty gritty details of policy, and more on personal values.

"Conservatives in the last few years, on many issues, have told a more convincing story than progressives have," Smith admits. And he said while there is much to be admired with the Manning Centre, it is also a mistake to draw too many parallels. For instance, he said the Manning Centre can depend on more corporate money while the Broadbent Institute is more "people powered."

Olivier Ballou, the Manning Centre’s director of communications, has no problems with the comparisons and said, “We are flattered the Broadbent Institute tries to copy us.”

On at least one front, though, it is hard to compare.

The Manning Centre had money in the bank before it was even started, with some reports pegging the amount in the millions of dollars. And while it is a non-profit organization, the centre does disclose its annual revenue, which in 2012 was $1.3 million.

The NDP invited Canadians to donate money to the nascent Broadbent Institute in memory of federal leader Jack Layton following his death in the summer of 2011 — butthat move fell apart because the institute was not yet incorporated and Elections Canada wouldn't allow the party to solicit donations on its behalf.

The institute won't give any financial details, except to say it has "less than the Manning Centre" but did recently meet a goal to bring in 1,000 new donors before the end of 2013.

Smith said he has been surprised at the response.

"It's coming from right across the country, it’s coming from the broadest possible spectrum of people and you know what, it’s coming from a lot of people who at the end of the day might not even define themselves as progressives."

Linking politicians and ideas

Much of the attraction may be because think tanks offer a place to consider ideas and a place for politicians to find them.

Jim Armour, a vice-president at Summa Strategies and former director of communications for Preston Manning, said Manning always warned about politicians running out of new ideas.

"When you enter political life you’ve got only so much gas in the tank in terms of ideas. You're coming in to do something, to further some idea or a policy, but once you’re in politics it’s very difficult to refill that gas tank. There's no kind of in-flight refuelling system."

Armour said that's the benefit of organizations like these: they can generate ideas. And while he admits the Broadbent Institute is a "sophisticated operation," he also thinks it is far more partisan than what Manning is doing.

"[The Manning Centre is] not out there shilling 24/7 for Stephen Harper. It's very much, 'here are some really big ideas, why don't you follow.' That's very much what Manning was all about as head of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance."

What both organizations are are trying to do is improve democracy. Smith said Manning has put "his money where his mouth is" and said that is to be admired.

The hope of the Broadbent Institute is to make progress on some key issues and help fight back against the conservative movement. Meanwhile, Smith said, the Conservative government is injecting his organization with "a kind of fierceness to get a move on."