Crook analysis of think-tanks

Marcus Smith and Peter Marden are not the only people who believe think-tanks can be analysed without giving any serious attention to what they say or do. Andrew Crook, author of this piece in today’s Crikey on the new Melbourne University-based think-tank the Grattan Institute, seems to share their approach.

Though the Grattan Institute is yet to publish anything, or appoint any staff other than a CEO with no obvious partisan or ideological background, Crook claims that

it’s shaping up as a quasi arm of government that replaces frank and fearless advice with something eminently more pliable. The irony is that the Rudd Government’s obsession with experts … reflects less a return to a disinterested public service and more a proliferation of pick-and-mix advice witnessed at 2020. Grattan is looking like a permanent 2020, staffed by wonks rather than celebrities.

The ‘evidence’ for this is the usual follow-the-money logic (the feds kicked in some cash) and some rather imaginative guesswork from some members of the board, which along with some people with Labor connections includes some less well-known Ruddites such as my former boss and Liberal Minister David Kemp.

Crook’s analysis of the general think-tank scene is no better:

[it] represents the dawning of a new era as the right-wing think tanks of decades past are subsumed by the ALP-connected. Add Grattan to outfits like OzProspect and PerCapita — whose bright sparks attempt to solve society’s problems through their own enlightened managerialism — and you’ve got an intellectual revolution afoot.

If Crook had Googled OzProspect, he might have noticed it is nearly two years since they updated their website. Per Capita doesn’t seem to have had any opinion pieces in the media for nearly three months, and its policy director, Michael Cooney, recently quit. If there is going to be an ‘intellectual revolution’, Grattan will have to do all the work.

And:

the IPA, and its ideological bedfellows at the Centre for Independent Studies and Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute have been effectively frozen out of the national debate.

Actually, the CIS’s media presence has increased significantly since the Rudd government’s election (some of it generated by Rudd and his Ministers turning up to speak at CIS functions). And over the last few years, under John Roskam’s leadership, the IPA has been steadily rebuilding its profile.

Like almost everything written about think-tanks, Crook’s piece is just an ignorant and lazy rehashing of the author’s prejudices and preconceptions.

16 Responses to “Crook analysis of think-tanks

  • 1
    Chris Berg
    December 12th, 2008 15:45

    If you’ll forgive the PR intrusion – the IPA has published 74 opeds in newspapers since October. Speaking on behalf of my colleagues, we don’t feel very frozen out either.

    The free market think tank world seems to utterly perplex the left, and they respond to it with an odd combination of imitation and insult.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    December 12th, 2008 15:52

    Chris – Thanks for the stats! I know that November was a record month for the CIS, but I could not recall the precise numbers.

  • 3
    charles
    December 13th, 2008 06:07

    “Ruddites”

    What a word. If he succeeds in carving out a derogative set name that is being used by those arguing against him, all I can say is, what a man.

  • 4
    AlanC
    December 13th, 2008 10:33

    How much of a correlation is there between getting one’s opinions aired in the newspapers and on radio and actually having decision-makers take those opinions seriously and (even better) accept those opinions and implement them in public policies?

    Nearly twenty years ago, when I was working as a minor flunky at the IPA, some of the higher-ups returned one day from a meeting with some of the financial donors, concerned to prove that the think-tank’s Education Policy Unit was justifying its existence by showing that it was exerting “influence”.

    This was actually a bit of a problem, since the IPA was regarded with such visceral loathing by the Victorian Labor government of the day that their own flunkies churlishly wouldn’t even fax me copies of press releases which they had publicly released. They would have sooner cut off their own noses than accept an idea which they knew to have originated in the IPA. So what could we do? I was set to work collecting mentions of the Unit’s work in the media.

    I think after twenty years that it is no great breach of employee confidentiality to also mention another memorable incident. I was manning the phones for a few minutes one day while the receptionist was taking a break (as I said, I was a VERY minor flunky) when a radio station called, wanting Des Moore to speak on air in less than 30 seconds time. Des was in a meeting, but he talk the call.

    It occurred to me then that a lot of think-tank “influence” consisted of smoke and mirrors, and watching the voluminous think-tank output in the intervening years has done nothing to lessen my scepticism.

    Full-time journalists generally have a daily quota of stories that they are required to file, regardless of whether there is war or bushfire or economic collapse or Liberal Party faction-fights or (what is much worse for them) everything is right with the world. The successful think-tanks have become highly adept at making themselves readily available to provide sound bites at less than a minutes’ notice, as well as producing a steady stream of papers from which journalists who have no time to do their own in-depth digging, can readily extract quotations.

    But making journalists’ lives easier doesn’t equal real power.

  • 5
    Chris Berg
    December 13th, 2008 11:12

    AlanC,

    I can’t speak for the IPA of the past, obviously. But that Victorian Labor government was succeeded by a Victorian Liberal government which many people argue was substantially influenced by work of the IPA’s Project Victoria.

    Obviously parsing what exactly we mean by “influence” and “national debate” is pretty much impossible, so we measure proxies like media profile. I have a lot of sympathy for the Churchill point that there is no such thing as public opinion, there is only published opinion.

    But I suspect you have equated think tank methods with think tank purposes. There may be other ways to participate in the “national conversation”, but I’m not sure that there are any more effective ways.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    December 13th, 2008 13:16

    Apart from some paranoid fantasies on the left, nobody believes think-tanks have ‘power’. But they do want to have long-term influence. As Chris notes, this is very hard to measure, since the actions of a think-tank are most unlikely to be the *only* influence on a decision (and think-tanks themselves are also often giving greater prominence to general ideas that are out there anyway), and even if think-tanks were the only influence a politician is not going to give that as his or her rationale.

    An issue has to become politically important, and what the think-tank is saying has to seem like a plausible solution to the problems that are making an issue important. I think Chris’s example of IPA’s Project Victoria is a good one. If Victoria hadn’t been near bankrupt a plan to cut the size of government would not have been considered. If there had not been someone of the intellectual substance of Alan Stockdale (who had been reading classical liberal thinkers since the 1960s) as Shadow Treasurer and political daring of
    Jeff Kennett as Premier the IPA would not have been listened to. But as it was, IPA work did help shape the reform agenda of the early 1990s.

    From media reports, Gillard’s review of higher education policy is set to recommend a voucher system. This idea has been around for decades, of course. But think-tanks have been its only persistent advocates. Influence? It’s hard to say. But I believe think-tanks do play a positive role in public debate, even if many of their ideas end up as no more than dial-a-quote filler for journalists. Better our dial-a-quote than yet more commentary from rent-seekers and lefties.

  • 7
    AlanC
    December 13th, 2008 15:28

    I don’t doubt that establishing influence is hard, and it certainly takes more time and resources than I have at my disposal — but I don’t think it is necessarily impossible. I suspect it can only be done retrospectively, and depends on an adequate supply of historical evidence.
    Was Lionel Murphy influential or merely prescient? I saw a book of that title in the Melbourne Law Institute Bookshop a few years ago. I didn’t buy it, but judging by the extracts that can be found on Google Books, a close, careful reading of the legislative and judicial record allows some answers to be given (or different answers to be given for different areas of law).

    In the case of the relationship between the IPA and the Kennett government, I’m not sure that your argument doesn’t work in favor of my own scepticism. What you seem to be saying is that, for a think-tank to gets its message accepted, people have to be predisposed to accept it. That’s called preaching to the choir, not exercising influence.

  • 8
    Andrew Norton
    December 13th, 2008 15:45

    Alan – Ministers and High Court judges have direct power as well as easy access to other decisionmakers, so they aren’t a good analogy. The most direct comparison with think-tanks in modus operandi would be with academics, but in the overall political system I think they are most like issue movements such as environmentalist, women’s, peace, gay etc. Generally, they don’t seek office themselves (though the Greens are an exception), but they try to influence people’s perceptions of what issues are important and/or how they should be resolved.

    I agree that predisposition to accept a detailed package is important, but how are those predispositions created? The Liberal Party had no history prior to the 1980s of challenging the economic status quo in any fundamental way. Indeed, the economic reform movement had no real political history in Australia; it had to come from somewhere, and think-tanks were part of that ‘somewhere’.

    Many players in the higher education debate – from both political parties, interest groups, and the media – seek my views on higher education policy because I have expertise and a profile largely due to my think-tank work. I can’t quantify any influence I may have had, but the ideas I promote have certainly had much more of a hearing than would otherwise have been the case.

  • 9
    charles
    December 14th, 2008 12:20

    Andrew writes:

    “The Liberal Party had no history prior to the 1980s of challenging the economic status quo in any fundamental way.”

    As the Liberal party didn’t drive economic reform in Australia it really doesn’t matter much when they became interested.

    The first step in thinking about think tanks is to look at the actual changes, who drove them and then ask where the ideas came from, if you can’t be honest with yourself when it comes to assessing who did what when, then your not likely to unravel the question.

    -Reduction of tariffs was started by Whitlam, slowed by Fraser and accelerated by Hawk and Keating.
    -International banks allowed into Australia:- Hawk,Keating.
    -Imputation credit – Hawk,Keating
    -Reduction of tax on share transactions -Hawk Keating
    -Compulsory Superannuation-Hawk,Keating
    -Floating of the Australian Dollar-Hawk,Keating
    -End of senseless industrial action-Hawk,Keating (sometimes carrots work better than sticks, felt a bit sorry for the pilots who miss read the changes and suffering the consequences ).
    -Restructuring of the car industry and textile industry. Not 100% successful, but Hawk,Keating again.

    When it comes to the liberal party, what do we have.
    – GST Costello.
    – Independence of the reserve bank Costello
    Not a long list.

    I’m old enough to remember the Whitlam’s tariff reductions, like many things done by Whitlam it did not come across as a well thought out long term strategy but a knee jerk reaction to an inflation problem, his action however became the start for a trend, I doubt any think tank was involved.

    I think you could easily argue that the foundation and direction of the Hawk-Keating changes was a report commissioned by Fraser and Ignored by Howard ( from memory it was called the Connell report, but it’s pre Internet and I can’t find a reference).

  • 10
    Andrew Norton
    December 14th, 2008 13:04

    Campbell report. To the federal Liberal list workplace relations reforms should be on the list, though now being substantially wound back, even to pre-Keating in some respects according to reports. But we were talking about the Kennett government, which was radical and had lots of unfinished business.

    But I don’t see who did what being hugely relevant to the question at hand. Think tanks generally don’t act as consultancies, or set out check lists of what governments should do. The IPA Project Victoria was an exception to general practice. Their main work is more on the general climate of ideas, and from that perspective media mentions are a reasonable proxy measure.

    An added complication is that much of what think-tanks do isn’t (and makes no claim to be) original in a theoretical sense. It is more advocating ideas that are under-represented in local debates, but which other people could find from historical and/or international sources.

    Friedman’s basic ideas on vouchers, for example, were first set out in the 1950s, and included in a book (Capitalism and Freedom) that has been a steady seller for more than 40 years. I’ve been the most persistent advocate of them in higher education, but the idea long predates me in Australia; they were in the Liberals’ 1991 Fightback! package, 6 years before I got involved in higher ed policy).

    I think I can claim some small credit for keeping the idea circulating, but it will be a range of factors coming into alignment which will ’cause’ them to happen: important interest groups coming on side, the backing of the Victorian government which is doing similar things in voc ed, the frustration caused by the micromanagement of the Nelson reforms, and the failure of the centralists to seriously address the issue of how to allocate places efficiently.

  • 11
    charles
    December 14th, 2008 15:04

    Sorry got on the wrong tram.

    I wouldn’t add workplace relations to the list, it is not going to survive. It’s going to be little more than a speed bump in the road to wherever we end up. You could add winning the waterfront dispute, but that really isn’t policy, just a fight that had to be fort.

    In Victoria I think it all came down to Alan Stockdale, was he influenced by IPA, I have no idea. Because other states have followed the Stockdale reforms I think it’s fair to add his achievements to the Liberal list, that helps them out.

    If your honest, Alan Stockdale and Paul Keating have revolutionized this country. I look at both the major parties and I see great people and failures, that is why I now have so little time for party politics and left and right labels.

    Take vouchers, I suspect they are going to get introduced by a minister who comes from the left faction of the labor party. I suspect they are the right way to go, that aside I admire Jillian Gillard for having the brains, the intellectual flexibility to try something new and the ability to give it a go.

    To be fair to the centralists, there is one union fight left to be fort, someone has to deal with the AMA, their influence on medical education is part of the problem.

  • 12
    charles
    December 14th, 2008 15:37

    Very interesting.

  • 13
    Andrew Norton
    December 14th, 2008 16:17

    Not really. A standard all-you-need-to-know is who donates approach, with little or no analysis of what think-tanks actually do or say. You’d never know from these accounts that think-tanks consistently oppose special deals for corporations, which many on the left support (in the deluded belief that they promote ‘jobs’).

    According to a book by Abjorensen I am reading, even federation was a conspiracy to promote the financial interests of the rich. I will provide at hatchet review in due course.

  • 14
    charles
    December 14th, 2008 17:59

    Are seem to be arguing the left don’t have think tanks ( just as my link does – I wonder about the Fabian Society, and the Evatt Foundation), in which case they must be a creation of the right ( if left and right are the only options). That leads to what is for me a genuine question. Who or what is the right. Your just indicated business doesn’t get a free ride, I assume no sane person wants to claim the policies of USA Hawks. The USA ( under a republican president) has pretty much nationalized their banking industry, with the car industry soon to follow, does that now become right wing policy?

    Or is the right now nothing more that a group that complains about the left, and continue to drag up long forgotten arguments.

    If right wing think tanks matter, I ask the question, is the Liberal party currently a policy free zone because the think tanks aren’t thinking, or because the Liberal party is wondering if listening to right wing think tanks is such a bright idea.

    My own view is the extreme left had their waterloo when the USSR collapsed, the extreme right are now collapsing under their own stupidity (be it was think tank induced or otherwise I don’t know). Labor seems to have pretty much got over the left/right thing, the poor old Liberal party seems to be struggling trying to argue old wars. Your continual attempt to cast things into a left/right dichotomy leaves me wondering if your a little lost.

    A labor minister, from the left faction bringing in a voucher systems for universities, surly such an outcome leads you to question the whole structure.

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    December 14th, 2008 18:25

    Obviously the ‘left’ covers a lot of territory and the ‘right’ even more so. But when used in context they do convey meaning.

    More nuanced terms should be used where necessary, which I think I mostly do.

  • 16
    derrida derider
    December 15th, 2008 12:31

    “I’m old enough to remember the Whitlam’s tariff reductions, like many things done by Whitlam it did not come across as a well thought out long term strategy but a knee jerk reaction to an inflation problem”

    Which is an injustice to Whitlam, who had suffered a lot of unpopularity within the ALP over years by pushing for lower tariffs. He knew very well what he was doing.

    An old mentor once told me “good policy change only happens where preparation meets political opportunity”. Think tanks help provide the preparation, not the opportunity. I disagree with an awful lot the CIS and the IPA say, and the latter puts out a lot of stuff that is just propaganda for their (often rent-seeking) funders’ interests. But I’d never deny their effectiveness at preparing the ground.