As readers of this magazine know well, Tom Kent was the founding editor of Policy Options. Before and since he was: a wartime decoder, a newspaper editor, policy secretary to Prime Minister Pearson, founding deputy minister of two federal departments, president of two Crown corporations, a Dean, the chairman of a royal commission and a visiting fellow at Queen’s University. In addition to editing Policy Options from 1980 to 1988 he was a fellow of the IRPP from 1985 to 1991. On the occasion of IRPP’s 30th anniversary, he is being made a Lifetime Fellow of the Institute. Policy Options editor William Watson talked with Mr. Kent on March 22, 2002.


William Watson: How did you first get involved in the IRPP?

Tom Kent: Well, I was invited to join the board.

William Watson: That was right at the outset?

Tom Kent: No, not at the outset. The IRPP, as you know, began in 1972. I really paid very little attention to it for quite some years. It seemed to be very slow getting off the mark. But then, toward the end of the 1970s John Aird got very much involved in fundraising and Michael Kirby became President. I knew Michael fairly well in Nova Scotia and I suppose it wasn’t unreasonable that I became a member of the board.

It was at my first board meeting, in the fall of 1979, that Michael ”” who had stirred things up by getting out a lot more publications than there had been before, though with no particular pattern and in a bit of a rush ”” proposed that there be a magazine. And he brought to the board a sort of mock-up of a magazine that he thought appropriate.

The board ”” me in particular, I guess ”” didn’t like the mock-up. We liked the idea. There was never really any debate about the idea: it gave continuity, it fulfilled the purpose of informed public discussion, and so on ”” which in the first few years the Institute hadn’t really done. So the idea of a magazine was fine. But the prototype was more like a house mag- azine than the sort of thing that I think most of us on the board, certainly I, felt immediately it should be.

And so I found myself chairman of a board committee to flesh out the idea. Which we did, quickly. I actually didn’t become editor at that point: for the first few issues, I was technically chairman of the editorial board; the original idea was that most of the editing work would be contracted out to the people at that time who were producing Saturday Night.

William Watson: Whose editor at the time was Robert Fulford.

Tom Kent: Yes. He wasn’t very much involved himself, except in pick- ing the art that we had on the front cover for a while. But his people were theoretically doing the editing of the magazine. And I was chairman of the editorial board and leading the effort to get the contributions. We quickly found out that if you twist people’s arms to write, particularly on Policy Options terms (that is, not paying them), but at the same time you want the articles to be written in plainer language than comes naturally to quite a lot of the logical contributors, the person who was doing the collecting and so on really had to take the editorial responsibility properly. And so it became a job. Which, quite unrealistically, we decided would be a quarter-time job. But it also meant that, since I was then going to be paid something, I left the board of the IRPP and from the fourth issue I appear, not as chairman of the editorial board, but editor. That was the December-January issue of 1980 (it was quarterly then, you remember).

William Watson: You feel they asked you to chair that committee, to consider the idea, essentially because of your background in journalism?

Tom Kent: I think as one-time assistant editor of The Economist, that was the most obvious qualification you could have, considering what The Economist was in those days.

William Watson: How did it work in the early days? What problems did you face and what was your vision for the magazine?

Tom Kent: For the first issue or two, of course, the problem was to get contributions. And that involved a natural twisting of arms of people who were close to the Institute or people you knew, and so on. And as you yourself pointed out in that 20th anniversary issue, your first issue in 2000, we got pretty good contributions in our first year. For example, as you mentioned, Irving Brecher foresaw what afterwards developed into the free-trade initiative. Pretty soon, we were getting the sort of articles that served the purpose of an informed discussion of public policies, with a reasonably long view, and also, above all, discussing them in plain words. We put great emphasis on plain words for informed discussion of definitive opinions.

Although, as I say, the initial problem was to get contributions, in no time at all ”” within a year or so ”” we were getting plenty and so we moved from the original four issues to six, and then to ten a year. I think it’s fair to say that it went well more quickly than I would have dared to start by assuming.

William Watson: Does having a magazine cause the IRPP to lack focus, because you’re running contributions on a wide variety of subjects?

Tom Kent: I would say that the IRPP should not have too close a focus. It should have a research program of its own, and obviously that should be focused, in at least a strategic sense. But the most important function of the IRPP surely is to encourage ”” to feed, develop, provoke ”” informed discussion of the whole range of public policies. I don’t think the IRPP should ever limit itself to a narrow agenda. I agree that research has to be somewhat concentrated, but that’s precisely why, in my view, it’s very important that there be a magazine as well. In a sense it’s a separate function from the function of the research program. But it’s equally a very important function for the IRPP. Perhaps I’m a little biased here, but I would say it is the most important function of all.

William Watson: I won’t quarrel with that bias, since I suffer from it myself. You were editor for, what, seven years?

Tom Kent: Well, it was effectively eight. The practicality of doing it, and certainly doing it, theoretically, quarter-time really depended on my wife, Phyllida, having given up her own professorial duties in 1980, flinging herself with some enthusiasm into doing a lot of the work. She’s an editor by nature and by academic background so it became very much a joint product. But in the fall of 1987, we decided and so told the IRPP that the time had come to give it up ”” though the first issue of 1988 was the result of our editing. As you know, there is a transition. So it was a full eight years. I started work on it in late 1979, and ended it in late 1987.

William Watson: Without being too self-congratulatory, you were happy with the way it proceeded?

Tom Kent: Yes. The response from contributors showed that we were providing a needed forum for policy discussion.

William Watson: Was it much different when you left it than it was when you began?

Tom Kent: No, we got fairly sharply to the ten times a year, which I think is important in holding people’s attention. A quarterly is not good from that point of view. And one disappointment, as I recall, was that while the circulation rose very well for a few years, it then became fairly flat.

William Watson: What do you think should be the relationship between the magazine and the Internet?

Tom Kent: There is no question that magazines are going to be on the Internet. I don’t think that the Internet is a substitute for magazines”” not, certainly, for the Policy Options sort of magazine. The Internet is a wonderful source of information, and if you want articles on a particular subject, you’ll get all sorts of articles off the Internet. But the real purpose of the magazine is what I’ve called an informed discussion, not information as such. Informed discussion of policy, and what policy should be, is the important thing. And you’ve got to find a way of maintaining that, and not letting the Internet become just a source of isolated bits of information, something that diminishes the real interplay of ideas. Which is what Policy Options is for.

William Watson: A thought that periodically recurs is that Policy Options should go to exclusively web-based publication since you can save a lot of printing and paper costs that way. Do you see magazines moving in that direction? Do you think it’s a good idea?

Tom Kent: Obviously, there is some moving in that direction. There’s bound to be. But I would have thought it a great pity to lose the physical format completely. There is surely no conflict between the two. You can put out a lot more stuff on the Internet than you put in the magazine, if need be. The Economist is doing that now, of course. But I don’t think it removes the need for something that people can sit back and read, without straining their eyes over a computer, or taking it down and off the printer. And certainly, if you’re going to do what I would hope is the continued purpose of the IRPP ”” which is to stimulate and inform a broad range of discussion on public policy issues and their interconnections, over the whole range of public concerns ”” then the format of the magazine is crucial. People take some- thing different away from it by seeing many different topics in it. That purpose can’t be served outside the magazine format, however the Internet develops. I don’t think that broad-based discussion of public policy, at the informed but plain words level, really can take place satisfactorily without the Policy Options ”” or for that matter, The Economist or what you will ”” type of publication.

William Watson: Let me change the topic to think-tanks. Apart from your editorial experience, you were involved in policy for quite some time. How do you see the role of think-tanks having changed?

Tom Kent: Going way back, in the 1950s, the only think-tank in Canada that I can think of was the Conference Board. Which was really at that time just an offshoot of its U.S. parent. And there was the Canadian-American committee in which Arthur Smith was involved. But that was about the sum total of think-tanking. The C.D. Howe Institute was only formed some time in the 1970s, as I recall, and by the time it got going it was well on into the 1970s. So if, sitting in the Prime Minister’s office, we wanted something researched, and couldn’t do it with our own resources, we turned to academics. I remember, for example, getting Norman Ward, who was a leading political scientist at that time in Saskatchewan, to do work for us on ”œmaking Parliament more effective,” which concerned parliamentary committees and the like. And I remember also asking oth- ers to do work on the economics of pension plans. We went to the aca- demic world. There were no think- tanks to go to.

William Watson: How do you think their advent has changed the policy process? The think-tank goes right to the public, and tries to influence the government by putting things out in the public domain. If you commission a professor to do something, that may not create much of a stir in the public.

Tom Kent: No. Quite. As I say, in my days, in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there really weren’t think-tanks to go to. In that time, some- thing of what think-tanks now do was actually being done by political par- ties. There was much more in the way of organized debate and public discussion centered on political parties than there is now. In those days, the most natural outlet for policy wonks ”” and they did exist ”” was in a political party. Specialist policy groups multiplied from the 1970s on, rather than in the 1950s or 1960s.

William Watson: That the parties are not more policy-oriented is clearly something you regret.

Tom Kent: Most definitely, yes.

William Watson: How do you think the ideal think-tank would operate and do you have any advice for the IRPP in that regard?

Tom Kent: This is going to sound rather silly perhaps, but my first advice would be: don’t think about the IRPP as a think-tank. All I mean is that ”œthink-tank” is such an elitist idea. You surely want to be a research organization and to have researchers for that purpose, but the IRPP’s real purpose is to inform public discussion. And let me emphasize public discussion, not direct advice to governments. The role should be to help focus public discussion. I’m not very serious in saying ”œdon’t use the word think-tank,” but what I mean is: don’t let the flatly elitist concept of the think-tank be too dominant.

William Watson: We’re supposed to be part of the discussion, we don’t just throw thoughts out?

Tom Kent: Precisely, yes.

William Watson: What was your relationship with the IRPP when you were doing Policy Options?

Tom Kent: It was at times difficult, because there were certain conflicts for limited resources. The Institute’s researchers wanted more money, and there was Policy Options taking quite a bit of money. And there were people on the research side who did want Policy Options to be more of a house organ than we were prepared to let it be. So there was a certain amount of tension, but not to a debilitating degree, except that we did economize a lot in the physical costs: on cheap newsprint and a very tight make-up and so on. And that probably was a handicap. Probably the circulation could have developed faster, and even perhaps more, if we’d been able to make it more attractive. But still ”” this may sound self-satisfied ”” I think on the whole we did all right.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License