Will the Per Capita think-tank find a niche?

According to The Age, next Wednesday will see a new ‘progressive’ think-tank launched, Per Capita.

This idea has been floating around for a while – I gave them some advice many months ago – so it will be interesting to see how well it goes.

I have had doubts about whether their organisational structure is the right one. For example, when advertising for an Executive Director earlier this year they wanted a rare mix of skills –

You probably have
• an advanced degree
• a reputation as a ‘thought leader’
• an understanding of how ideas, economics and politics interact, including professional public policy experience
• professional management experience, sufficient to manage a small but complex organisation
• strong communications skills, including experience of the electronic media and an ability to write well
• adaptability, flexibility and problem-solving expertise and an entrepreneurial mind-set
• a background in public policy, politics, the media, academia, management consultancy or business.

but then offered only a 12 month contract.

Unsurprisingly, the successful applicant, David Hetherington, doesn’t obviously meet more than a few points on this wish-list. I could find only one published article, this four-year old Online Opinion piece, which is just a summary of the standard union line on minimum wages.

The policy director, Michael Cooney, is a long-time ALP staffer. He’ll bring strong political connections and policy experience to the job, but like Hetherington he has no pre-existing intellectual reputation based on published work. And how long would he stay once a Rudd government started recruiting?

Then there is the name, ‘Per Capita’. It’s less of a mouthful than ‘Centre for Independent Studies’ or ‘Institute of Public Affairs’, but I’m not sure how much thought has been given to its search engine aspects. At least to begin with, it will have trouble competing against the millions of other uses of ‘per capita’ that Google will turn up. As the businesses that have tried to cheat search engines to get a higher rating show, it’s important for potential customers to be able to find you easily.

But Per Capita’s biggest challenge will be finding a niche in the intellectual-political world. Social democrats have enjoyed so much success in the past, and their ideas are so firmly entrenched in governmental institutions, that their policy thinking tends to be oriented toward adaptation and fine-tuning more than eye-catching radical alternatives. However, I believe the think-tank structure is best suited to the agenda-setting phase of policy development – being free from either interest group or electoral pressures they can say or suggest things that others cannot. Perhaps social democrats don’t really need think-tanks in the CIS or Australia Institute mode, where much of what they say is still too far beyond the existing consensus to be acceptable policy in the short to medium term.

6 thoughts on “Will the Per Capita think-tank find a niche?

  1. On the other hand, Michael Cooney could become very influential if the ALP are not elected and begin the examine the future prospects of social democracy.

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  2. With the CIS and the IPA both recently protesting they are not “right wing” (sniffing the wind?) will there be any room at all for another think tank?

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  3. Ideally, I would have thought that they wouldn’t have wanted to launch now. To get traction, they need to show that they’re independent from the ALP, just as Demos and IPPR did in the UK (and as Evatt didn’t do in Australia). But the Rudd machine will have a low tolerance of friendly fire in an election year.

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  4. Certainly, launching the ‘physical’ entity without an internet presence in the current age seems a rather rash beginning. However, any social democratic presence is better than none in the current Australian conservative climate.

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  5. It does have a website now. There was only a construction worker hat there when I tried the various possible web addresses the day I wrote that post, so while I thought that would be its address I decided against including a link that could be wrong.

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