The first months of a new government is the perfect time to look at the role proliferating think tanks play in influencing public policy change.
The first rule of think tanks is that they are not really think tanks at all. The word tank implies insularity yet bodies such as the Centre for Independent Studies, the Grattan Institute, the Institute of Public Affairs and the Australia Institute are powerfully engaged with the world. Nor is abstract thought core think tank business: these institutions are chiefly concerned with the generation of public policy. It’s hard to imagine any of them, irrespective of ideological inclination, disavowing Karl Marx’s axiom that the point of philosophy is not so much to interpret the world as to change it. There are times in the life of these policy change agents when they themselves become hostage to fortune, and the first few months of a new Government is an ideal time to observe them in flux. In the next 12 months think tanks aligned to the right are expected to thrive as their advice is brought to bear on government decision-making. But nothing is straightforward in the world of policy advocacy, in part because no one segment of the ideological prism owns any one policy: climate change being the most obvious case. It’s also the case, as The Grattan Institute’s chief executive John Daley points out, that a party in opposition is more likely to undergo a process of policy reflection and renewal than one in government, and it’s at such times in the political cycle that they are most in need of independent advice. So business might be expected to pick up for think tanks attuned to Labor and, paradoxically, soften for those of the right. “Oppositions lack the resources of a bureaucracy helping them to dream up good ideas so think tanks can have more of an impact on them,” Daley says. “In general think tanks have better relationships with shadow ministers than ministers.” Daley’s institute, founded five years ago with matching grants totalling $30 million from the Commonwealth and Victorian governments, declines commissions from political parties and corporations. “The minute you do that it’s hard to maintain your independence because you’re thinking about what to say in your next report, if it’s going to offend the corporation or government department you’re going to be pitching to in a few days,” he says. The Grattan institute, though fiercely independent, is by no means disengaged from the political realm. “We talk to a wide range of public servants, advisors, ministers and shadow ministers,” Daley says. His reflections open a view of the traffic between policy institutes and government. “Sometimes it’s a matter of us saying, ‘We’ve got some work underway on X and we think you might be interested, we’d like to come and talk about it’. Sometimes it’s a case of them saying, ‘We’ve read your published piece on such and such and would like it if you could come and talk to us’. And sometimes we’ll meet at a third party event and strike up a conversation.” The political cycle is not the only thing altering the milieu in which think tanks operate at the intersection of information, debate and policy: the fragmenting media landscape is also a force for change. The Lowy Institute for International Policy, the nation’s most highly ranked policy institute globally, maintains a non-partisan approach to policy advice. “New media technologies create opportunities for a think tank such as the Lowy Institute,” says executive director Michael Fullilove. “More than five years ago we led the think tank market in establishing our own blog, The Interpreter, now recognised as one of the world’s liveliest forums for the discussion of international affairs. More generally, the new technologies make it much more feasible now than it was a couple of decades ago for Australian scholars to publish in the best forums in the world, for instance The New York Times or Foreign Affairs. There is no reason why an Australian who has something to say, and the ability to say it elegantly, should not reach an international audience.” The nation’s most voluble think tank is the Institute of Public Affairs, helmed by John Roskam. A political scientist with close Liberal Party ties who describes himself as a liberal conservative yet rejects the tag right wing – “that to me means Pauline Hanson” – Roskam runs a consistent free-market, at times libertarian, line on everything from public funding of the ABC to state surveillance. Asked about the impact of media fragmentation on his ability to find a voice in the Australian political conversation he answers emphatically: “It’s fantastic. We’re now able to get our views across to friends and foes at the push of a button and marginal cost.” He is charry, however, of being too closely identified with one side of the ideological divide, arguing that the IPA’s recently vocalised support for the proposed takeover of GrainCorp by the US agriculture behemoth ADM found support in the ALP, while the institute and the Greens take a similar line on civil libertarian issues such as surveillance. Roskam, who as IPA executive director since 2004 has seen two changes of government federally, concedes that the biggest change to date in IPA business comes in the form of “new members of parliament requesting information on a range of issues. But on another level it doesn’t change much in that we will continue to do policy for the long term irrespective of who occupies The Lodge. Given that we are a free market think tank we hope to be spending less time defending our existing freedoms and more time expanding our freedoms.” And in a sign of the IPA’s growing confidence Roskam adds that he will be pressuring Tony Abbott to make good on policy reforms that the institute has been advocating, such as a carbon tax review, reform of the national curriculum, and the repeal of section 18 c of the Racial Discrimination Act. Nor is there anything shy about his broader ideological aims. “We talk here about swinging back the pendulum,” he admits. At the opposite end of the policy spectrum is The Australia Institute, which styles itself a “progressive” think tank. The institute is led by economist Richard Denniss, formerly a strategic advisor to the Greens, and he plans to focus in the medium term on social issues such as equity, and in particularly on the uneven distribution of wealth from the mining boom – the “winners and losers”, as he puts it. The institute is also vocal in its questioning of coal seam gas exploration, and raises a strongly reasoned opposition, in the language of classical liberal theory, to the lack of competition in the Australian banking industry. Denniss draws a sharp distinction between policy think tanks and politicians: the former “speak on behalf of their research” while the latter “speak on behalf of a constituency”. Part of his job, as he sees it, is “to tell a politician that if you don’t do X on behalf of the large numbers of people who care about X I’m going to tell them how disappointing you are. It’s a very direct and effective way of influencing the political mind.” It’s less effective, he admits, if a party has decided that it can get by without the support of a particular constituency, or if its support from that constituency is rusted on. “Then you might struggle,” he says. The strategy pursued by Denniss is largely indirect. “I don’t go out of my way to lobby politicians,” he says. “On a wide range of issues we seek to influence the public mind, as well as the minds of non-government organisations and business leaders. In the battle for influence we wield evidence and ideas, commentary and debate. For me it’s not so much a question of whether or not I can get a meeting with the minister as whether or not our ideas are likely to be influential in this environment.” The Centre for Independent Studies, while it shares a similar disposition to the IPA, adopts a quieter and more cerebral approach to its work. “We are a little unusual,” admits its executive director Greg Lindsay. “That might be a reflection of my background. When I started the CIS in 1976 I was not an economist; I was not a policy person; I did mathematics and philosophy at university and I was concerned with the things that make societies free. Our fundamental objective was to examine that, and while a lot of it does have implications for policy I think we need to think a little more broadly on issues.” To that end the CIS holds an annual lecture on religion, and leavens its diet of talks and papers on the failings of education and multiculturalism, the need for tax and health reform, with others on subjects such as Images of Liberty and Power or the role of Enlightenment values in Australia’s foundation. Though different from many other think tanks in its desire to remove itself from the cut and thrust of policy and survey a more varied cultural canvas, the CIS has much in common with other think tanks. Lindsay concedes, for example, that he has a different relationship to the new government than he did with the old. And yet some things, in think tank land, never change. “We made a fair effort with the previous federal government and we got on well with some and others made us tear our hair,” he says, “but that could happen with this lot too.” lowyinstitute.org ipa.org.au grattan.edu.au cis.org.au tai.org.au Images: 1) Michael Fullilove, Greg Lindsay, John Roskam 2) John Daley, Richard Denniss