Archive for the 'Think tanks' Category

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:

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Do think tanks follow God or mammon?

The latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science contains an article called ‘Conservative Think Tanks and Public Politics’, by Marcus Smith and Peter Marden. They are against the former and claim to be in favour of the latter.

Smith and Marden don’t seem to able to decide whether think tanks are driven by God or mammon (the possibility that people who work in think-tanks might be sincerely interested in good public policy is not even considered).

The first part of the article is a conventional (left-wing) narrative of how business interests created think-tanks to serve their financial interests. But then it switches to God, arguing that the Christian Right is increasingly influential in the ‘networks of interests associated with conservative think thanks’. According to Smith and Marden, the Christian Right argues that ‘Australia has fallen victim to a culture of permissiveness, rampant materialism, and instant gratification.’ Why commercial interests would want to support opponents of these excellent business opportunities is never made clear.
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How novel are Per Capita’s ideas?

In The Australian this morning, Dennis Glover puts the case for the Per Capita think-tank because

The alternative to the CIS-Institute of Public Affairs view, therefore, has to come from elsewhere [ie, not from the Old Left]….

In the absence of a strong contest, the intellectual ideas of the Australian Right are now in danger of hardening into an ideological dogma, dominated by prefabricated and increasingly predictable soundbites.

Now the CIS is all for competition. But it is not clear to me that it is promoting ‘ideological dogma’ against the fresh thinking that might come out of a ‘new progressive agenda’ set by Per Capita.

Per Capita, for example, thinks that a huge increase in public and private investment in education will reduce poverty and increase per capita income. The ‘private’ part is perhaps controversial on the left, but the basic argument about the importance of education is orthodoxy. Every survey finds that the public wants more money spent on education.

Fresh (or at least fresher, since studying intellectual and political history suggests that genuinely new ideas are very rare indeed) thinking would be to question this orthodoxy. Perhaps for example Andrew Leigh’s research showing that we are spending more on schools but getting worse results. Or Peter Saunders’ argument that raising the school leaving age is a bad idea. Or my point that many graduates are working in jobs that don’t need university qualifications.

Perhaps we do, overall, need more spending on education. But in education policy, this is the dogma that needs testing in debate.
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Guy Pearse’s greenhouse conspiracy theory, the Labor version

Last year Guy Pearse, adopting the pose of a Liberal dissident, authored a 417-page conspiracy theory called High and Dry. The book argued that John Howard’s climate change stance was the result of the fossil fuel lobby and ‘neo-liberal’ think-tanks. Pearse’s imagination was running so wild on the CIS’s role that I was incorporated into the conspiracy, despite my silence on the issue.

I’m now wondering who will feature in the Labor version of High and Dry. Yesterday in Crikey (here for subscribers) Pearse said:

Kevin Rudd may not look like he’s following John Howard on climate change, but he may well be. The strategy and rhetoric are more polished, but the confusion between polluter interests and the national interest seems much the same.

While the CIS isn’t featuring in this version of the story (though perhaps when Rudd turned up a the CIS to give a speech attacking our beliefs it was really just a cover, and we control him too), the argument that this is about polluter lobby groups is still there.
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Another left-wing think-tank

After my post noting that ‘progressive’ think-tank Per Capita hadn’t published any research in their first year, they did put out this paper on employment services. But their output is still modest, and I wondered whether with so many other job opportunities for left-leaning people Per Capita was having trouble recruiting staff to do their work.

Despite Per Capita’s slow start, the idea that think-tanks might be a useful vehicle for the left persists (rather than an alternative theory that the right uses them because they don’t have other institutional backing like universities and unions). According to a report in The Age

LEFT-wing unions are funding a new think tank, Catalyst Australia, as they aim to counter the influence of such right-wing rivals as the Institute of Public Affairs.

Catalyst Australia’s executive director, Jo-anne Schofield, said the group aimed to engage in the work-life balance debate and to challenge current thinking on economics.

With financial backing from cave-dwelling unions like the CFMEU and the MUA we can be confident there will be little of the fresh thinking promised by Per Capita. Their name has already been taken by a corporate teambuilding outfit. And I think think-tanks can generally make their most useful contribution early in the issue cycle, rather than issues that have already been around for years like work-life balance. But we will see.

Per Capita at one

The ‘progressive’ think-tank Per Capita was launched a year ago today. It’s off to a fairly slow start. Many blogs which are mainly hobbies for their contributor(s), including this one, have produced far material in the last twelve months than has Per Capita. And most of what Per Capita has produced are newspaper opinion pieces, which take only slightly longer than a substantive blog post to write.

Unusually for a think-tank, they don’t seem to have any published research. The closest thing I could find was a ‘Dear Prime Minister’ (lefties love open letters) publication called ‘Memo to a Progressive Prime Minister’, but this is more of a manifesto with endnotes than a traditional think-tank research paper.

Presumably the research is still coming – there is a page on their website promising it – but so far they are lacking what gives think-tanks credibility and profile. With most of the social democratic talent either with secure university jobs or in one of the hundreds of government staffer jobs currently available to them, perhaps Per Capita is struggling to find people to do their research.

If they can lift their output, the manifesto provides some support for commenter John of Newtown’s suggestion last week that Per Capita was a ‘progressive fusionist’ institution. There are market-based policy suggestions in the manifesto, including a national water market and even a proposal for students to sell shares in their future income stream (the CIS was there first on that one, of course). At the same time, there are calls for ‘public investment’, but investment based on proper analysis of costs and benefits.

All that is a significant improvement on much other ‘progressive’ thinking, and from a liberal ‘fusionist’ perspective on really-existing conservatism, which too easily ends up as National Party agragrian socialism, particularly on issues like water. I hope Per Capita succeeds. But for the moment it looks like they are finding out how hard it is to run a think-tank.
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The right-wing blur

For many commentators, the political right is just a blur. The various labels – conservative, neoliberal, neoconservative, New Right, economic rationalist – are thrown around according to fashion as much as meaning. Six years ago (pdf) I wrote an article on how ‘New Right’ was largely squeezed out by ‘economic rationalism’, which in turn was being challenged by ‘neoliberalism’, now the favourite. Despite the irrelevance of ‘neoconservatism’ to Australian politics, it is frequently used here as if it had some descriptive power. In the blogosphere we debate posts on what classical liberalism and conservatism have in common, but journalists don’t even know that there is a difference.

I was reminded of this twice over the last few days, first in this George Megalogenis piece and again when I read Monday’s Crikey. According to the radical leftist Jeff Sparrow,

Remember Katherine Betts’ The Great Divide? Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians? Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class? Mark Latham’s From the Suburbs? The decades worth of columns in The Australian; the reports churning out from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies?

The narrative was always the same. A chasm separated ordinary, decent Howard-voting Australians from an arrogant tertiary-educated, intellectual elite: a clutch of sneering know-it-alls who wanted to overrun the country with immigrants, make everyone guilty about Aborigines and brainwash the youth with Parisian post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.

Certainly there is a populist conservative strain in right-of-centre Australia. But this is not universal. Read the rest of this entry »

How effective is The Climate Institute?

Australia’s richest think-tank, The Climate Institute, has been carefully following the model set by board member Clive Hamilton’s The Australia Institute. It feeds the media’s love of public opinion surveys, even targeting the current election media frenzy with polling in marginal seats on climate change. It produces attention-grabbing semi-gimmick research, like their latest report which calculates superannuation costs if action on climate change is delayed (a male of my age will be $1,165.46 a year worse off in retirement, it says with all the spurious precision of economic modelling). Despite Clive’s strict insistence on leisure, both his think-tanks take advantage of slow news weekends to release reports on Sundays.

Yet despite all this the Climate Institute’s profile seems modest. The superannuation report had a bit of media coverage, but nothing like the masses of publicity the Australia Institute can often pull, particularly in the Fairfax papers and on the ABC. The Climate Institute is a new think-tank, of course, and it will take time to build a reputation. But I doubt it will ever do as well as The Australia Institute.

The basic problem is summed up in its statement of purpose:

Established in late 2005, The Climate Institute has a five-year goal of raising public awareness and debate about the dangers to Australia of global warming and to motivate the country to take positive action.

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Guy Pearse’s high and dry argument

At the start of the month, I suggested that Guy Pearse, author of High and Dry, a critique of the Howard governmet’s climate change policies, use his wesbite’s ‘Clarifications and corrections’ page to correct the claim that Greg Lindsay had any responsibility for the government’s policies.

My argument was based on the facts that Lindsay has had nothing to say on the topic (which Pearse admits), and that the CIS had published only a handful of articles on climate change, and none for several years. It seemed to me to be a wildly implausible notion of ‘influence’, that all you have to do is print a few pieces and – hey presto! – the government adopts your policy. Strangely, given this theory of influence, my dozens of articles on higher education reform over more than seven years, not to mention my prior role as the actual Ministerial adviser on higher education, have failed to secure the desired outcome. Ditto many CIS policy suggestions on tax, welfare, and other subjects.

Now Pearse has responded to my post, and though he does, near the end, back-pedal a bit, it is mostly a flimsy exercise in guilt by association.
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Liberty and Society seminar

Younger readers of this blog (Sukrit and Leon I know of, and maybe some lurkers?) might be interested in the CIS Liberty and Society programme, a weekend live-in seminar on classical liberal ideas. The next one is in Sydney over the weekend of 14-16 September, with 6 August the deadline for applications. It’s free, and the CIS will also pay most of your travel expenses if you live outside of Sydney.

For people who have been in the past (it’s been going since 1996) we are planning drinks in Melbourne on 23 August. I’ve emailed everyone we have records of living in Melbourne, but there were a few bouncebacks and there are probably some people who have moved here since they attended L&S. If you are interested in coming email me anorton AT cis.org.au

And for other people who have been in the past, there are a couple of Facebook groups:

This one set up by Jacques Chester, now in Perth.

And this one set up by Robert Wiblin, who is at the ANU.