Conference with links to Liberals gets money from Trudeau government
Published Friday, April 1, 2016 10:20PM EDT
Last Updated Sunday, April 3, 2016 2:29PM EDT
The federal government helped sponsor a policy conference featuring a slate of Liberal politicians that was organized by a think tank with close ties to their party.
Treasury Board President Scott Brison, Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne were among the invited speakers at the Canadian Open Dialogue Forum, a two-day conference held in Ottawa on Thursday and Friday.
The Forum is a not-for-profit organization set up by Ottawa Internet company PubliVate and Canada 2020, a self-described progressive think tank run by one of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s closest friends, Tom Pitfield.
Brison’s department provided in-kind support for the conference and also gave the Forum a contract valued at $22,100 to develop a set of principles related to open government. The Forum received another $25,000 for the conference from the Ontario Treasury Board, which is headed by Deputy Premier Deb Matthews. She also spoke at the conference on open government.
Canada 2020 made headlines last month when it hosted two events in Washington D.C, including a glamourous party the night before Trudeau attended a state dinner at the White House.
The event featured a campaign-style video introduction before Trudeau’s speech and saw celebrities such as Toronto recording artist The Weeknd mingling with high-profile Liberals.
Canada 2020 says it has received funding from other governments, including the Conservatives, and has featured Conservative and New Democrat MPs as speakers. Former cabinet ministers John Baird and Jason Kenney have spoken at past events.
Canada 2020 spokesman Alex Paterson said in an email that the Open Dialogue Forum is an “independent, non-partisan organisation” and “is proud to have the support of all levels of government as it seeks to make our policy process more open.”
But groups that want to influence public policy shouldn't be taking any government money, says Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and expert on applied ethics.
"Anytime you have a political party in power and you've got political operatives running a think tank, you have to wonder how independent is that and is it really serving the needs of the country," he said.
Trudeau opened his speech at the Canada 2020 party in Washington by thanking Pitfield, a childhood friend who had worked on his 2013 leadership campaign.
Pitfield’s wife, Anna Gainey, was elected president of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2014, with quiet support from Trudeau’s inner circle of advisors.
Pitfield co-founded Canada 2020 in 2006 along with lobbyists Tim Barber and Susan Smith, a well-known Liberal television pundit. The organization currently shares office space with their lobby firm, Bluesky Strategy, but is in the process of relocating.
Brison on Thursday said Thursday he saw nothing wrong with his department contributing to the open-government conference.
“It would be actually strange if Treasury Board were not interested in and supportive of public policy development by any group that has a shared interest in better government and more open government."
There is no sign that the federal government, under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, funded sympathetic public policy organizations such as the Fraser Institute or the Manning Centre.
“The Harper government sponsoring a conference on open government is highly unlikely,” he quipped.
The NDP-linked Broadbent Institute, which held its own conference in Ottawa this week, said it does not take funding from the federal government.
Other speakers at this week’s event included Ottawa city councillor Tobi Nussbaum, and former clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters, the top public servant in Harper’s government, and Don Lenihan, a senior associate at Canada 2020.