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.

25 thoughts on “Another left-wing think-tank

  1. But has much actually happened policy-wise on work-life balance? If this is code for a ‘second wave’ of IR re-regulation and pushing ahead with paid parental leave, etc, this might be a good time to strike.

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  2. In my experience ‘left-wing’ tends to mean socially liberal and economically authorian and ‘right-wing’ is the other way around for each. But the IPA seems to be arguing basically along the same sort of lines as the CIS, albeit with a lot more emphasis on the economics.

    So is the CIS considered ‘right-wing’? I don’t think it is. The IPA, in my opinion, is probably borderline right-wing but really just liberal in general.

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  3. Rajat – The CIS is getting into this, as it should given the potential for more regulation, but this has become so mainstream that I think-tanks will have trouble getting themselves heard with much bigger names dominating the debate.

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  4. There is a general perception that both the CIS and the IPA are ‘right-wng’ with the IPA being more right than the CIS. In a simple left-right continuum that is approximately correct. If you differentiate social and economic isues, then the view becomes more nuanced. In the latter view neither is ‘conservative’.

    The CIS is a classical liberal think tank, while the IPA are a free market think tank. There is, of course, a very, very high correlation between those two world views. Not everyone at the IPA, however, is a classical liberal (but most are).

    The CIS takes a longer view in the market for ideas, whereas the IPA has a shorter view. So the CIS does not get involved in day to day skirmishes, while the IPA does. There is enough scope in the market for ideas for both organisations and both strategies.

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  5. I would also say that the IPA is more political in its approach, ie by putting words into politicians mouths: see here.
    One thing I really admire about the CIS is that it stays above the politics, whilst I can sense a distinct political bias in the IPA’s approach. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a think tank having a political bias – But I think that it means that for example Labor Party politicians would be much more keen to listen to what the CIS has to say and attend their events and gives speeches, I don’t think they would be that keen to do the same with the IPA.

    Regarding Andrew’s point “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)” -Centre-left think tanks like Demos or IPPR in the UK or PPI in the US have been successful. Those countries also have universities and unions to provide institutional backing, but centre-left think tanks play a really active role in, or even lead policy debates anyway. In my view, having a think tank is a much better way to push a policy agenda – Relying on people in universities or unions means you forgo the coherence and focus that a think tank provides.

    I too am doubtful as to what impact Catalyst Australia will have, and whether it will merely attempt to “challenge current thinking on economics” by digging up some old redundant thinking and dressing it up as something new. I wonder if Catalyst Australia is modelled on Catalyst in the UK.

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  6. Yes, the IPA gets into day to day skirmishes. The Fuelwatch scheme is both illiberal and anti-market and somebody needs to say so.

    Gary Johns, a former IPA staff member, was an ALP government minister.

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  7. Yes of course it’s important for a think tank to put forward its views on issues such as Fuelwatch – But they can either do it politically or non-politically, and the IPA tends to do it very politically, e.g by inventing a promise that Kevin Rudd supposedly made regarding petrol prices. Think that detracts from the argument that is being put forward. Yes, I know of Gary Johns, but don’t think that having one former ALP minister as a former employee negates the political bias in the IPA. And again, I’m not saying think tanks should never have a political bias, I just don’t think it is the best approach to take and I prefer the CIS approach.

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  8. Christian – I agree that the think-tank structure has political advantages, such as being more focused and on-message than academics and less compromised by interest group requirements than unions. The UK is a good counter-example to my theory. In Australia, only the Australia Institute has so far succeeded as a think-tank on the left, and it has a very distinctive viewpoint that it not so well represented in academia. I guess I tend to think the more entrepreneurial think-tanks who push views that aren’t already orthodox are the most important, with those just set up to better sell ideas that are already orthodoxy being much less interesting.

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  9. by inventing a promise that Kevin Rudd supposedly made regarding petrol prices

    🙂 You’re being just as naughty as Tim was in the Australian op-ed. True, Mr Rudd did not actually promise to do anything about petrol prices. But he was happy enough to lead people to believe that he had so promised. Now it took until 2000 or 2001 before it became apparent that the Howard government was mean and tricky. Its only taken 6 months before people have realised the Rudd government is mean and tricky.

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  10. Sinclair – Well, he actually did promise to “do something” (whether it is effective or not is another matter) – By having a Petrol Price Commissioner and looking at a few other things but he never said it would actually decrease petrol prices or help keep them at record lows. And I disagree that he was “happy enough to lead people to believe that he had so promised”, I don’t see any evidence of that. I highly doubt that if you ask anybody why they voted for Rudd it was because he promised to make petrol less expensive. I think the emphasis was on just trying to do something at all, rather than just standing back and giving up like Coalition did. But this is probably off the topic of this post now…

    Andrew – I agree that “the more entrepreneurial think-tanks who push views that aren’t already orthodox are the most important, with those just set up to better sell ideas that are already orthodoxy being much less interesting” – I definetly believe a think tank needs substance and not just to be a public relations vehicle. Then again, I think the Australia Institute is so unorthodox (and often ridiculous) that I doubt how much it actually effects the policy debate.

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  11. Hopefully the Age will run my FuelWatch piece in the next couple of days – I even have the bit where Mr Rudd indicated his Petrol Commissioner wasn’t a silver bullet – so I understand the nuance of his Policy Launh speech.

    Back on topic. It is a hard slog trying to influence the policy debate. For all that everyone (especially the left) carries on about the influence of the CIS and IPA, it is hard work with little immediate return. To effect any change you have to be relentlessly on message for a long time.

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  12. Yes, you’re right about the hard work for little immediate return (although I myself don’t work for a think tank, yet, so don’t appreciate it fully). Interestingly, the UK think tanks such as Demos and IPPR got a much quicker return on their work – Demos had only been around for a few years and then Blair was elected on a platform based on their “third way” policy agenda. But yes, for the centre-right think tanks it was a much longer struggle until their ideas came to prominence in late 70s and 80s. I was watching Commanding Heights on DVD the other day and thought that Hayek had the hardest slog of all, he had to wait until his mid-70s for many of his ideas to be implemented by governments and probably felt forgotten for most of the previous 3-4 decades.

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  13. Christian – Off topic again, but I think Sinc is right on the impression Rudd was leaving last year, by raising all the ‘kitchen table economics’ stuff. If he was criticising Howard for being out of touch on these issues, he was letting people think that he could do something about it. In a post last August I said:

    “In 2004, the Coalition encouraged us to believe that the double-digit interest rates experienced during the last Labor government might return with a new Labor government. This year, Labor is suggesting, with all the fine-print qualifications the Coalition attached to interest rates last time, that it might be able to do something about grocery and petrol prices…..

    they are setting the same trap for themselves that the Coalition set for itself in 2004. There is even less the government can sensibly do about either petrol or grocery prices than it can sensibly do about interest rates. So Labor are gambling that luck will be on their side by the time of the 2010 campaign.”

    This was always the most obvious line of attack for the Coalition. It’s bad luck for them that this is happening in 2008 rather than 2010.

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  14. Christian, I don’t think it is possible to tackle policies like FuelWatch without commenting on the politics. Small government will not be possible until we tackle the political and psychological drivers that allow politicians and voters to believe that the government can fix every problem.

    If that means, as Tim did yesterday in the Australian, pointing out that this government came to power by making promises – or implying promises – that it cannot possibly achieve, then thats how it has to be done.

    Public policy today has arguably more political content than policy content – if we were only to critique the specific legislation on the table, our narrative would be woefully incomplete.

    Although, obviously as a think tank, that is a balance we have to manage carefully. I like to think that the IPA is broadly as critical of both sides of politics – certainly I cannot remember any time when I have written nice things about the Howard government as an IPA employee.

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  15. “implying promises”

    Now there’s an oxymoron if ever I’ve read one. How apposite, coming from the IPA.

    “the IPA is broadly as critical of both sides of politics”

    What rubbish. The Wilson piece was Liberal party talking points.

    Such as this: “The only way Rudd can redeem himself is to reduce the Government’s profit margin on petrol, the excise”.

    This is economic illiteracy, pure and simple. See Alan Wood in today’s Oz. You’d never see the CIS publish that nonsense.

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  16. Alan Wood (and others) are mixing up two things. Oil prices and tax policy. The government can do nothing about oil prices and as far as I can see nobody is suggesting they try. The debate is about tax policy and competition policy – by definition that debate will be political. Mr Rudd has implemented a competition policy solution to petrol pricing and Mr Nelson has proposed an excise tax solution to petrol pricing. In a state of confusion the government responded by also proposing a GST solution to petrol pricing.

    It is a huge leap from saying world oil prices are determined by demand and supply to saying therefore Australian petrol prices are ‘optimal’ or also determined by those same forces of demand and supply. Australian petrol prices are determined by demand and supply and taxation and petrol quality standards and corporate strategic behaviour. Competition policy will impact the corporate strategic behaviour – which may or may not flow through to pump prices. Taxation policy will always flow through to pump prices. So the debate is not about market forces, the debate is about government intervention in the market.

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  17. Chris – I don’t think there is anything inherently special or unique about FuelWatch compared with any other aspect of government policy that involves government regulation or intervention, that would require the IPA to tackle the politics of it rather than focus purely on the policy of it. In fact, if there is such a strong policy argument against it, then arguing against it on that basis should be sufficient and compelling enough. Of course any issue has political aspects to it – But I think that those are best left to politicians to focus on and argue about. I respect the work of the IPA, but I often think it doesn’t have the right balance when it comes to emphasis on politics vs policy – But that may just be the result that it does get involved in the more day to day scuffles as Sinclair mentioned earlier, and that it is simply hard to avoid getting too involved in the politics when that happens. I just believe the CIS has a better balance, and it doesn’t stop them from tackling big issues like welfare dependence and the size of government.

    Andrew – I understand your point, however Rudd did go out of his way in interviews last year to state things like that he won’t guarantee that policies A, B, C will reduce grocery or petrol prices. Whilst Howard basically made guarantees that interest rates would always be lower under a Coalition than Labor Government (which then put him the corner). But yes, “kitchen table economics” is a murky area – Interestingly that report that Alan Fels produced with a few other people a few weeks ago regarding shopping centres and planning restrictions, that had some interesting conclusions regarding grocery prices particularly in Sydney.

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  18. Christian, I don’t think FuelWatch is in this case a particularly unique example of politics and policy interacting, but I think it is a good example. The challenge of trying to deregulate and shrink what appears to be an inevitably growing and regulating public sector makes it necessary to discuss the root causes of the push for bigger government and overregulation. That to my mind means figuring out why politicians argue that government can do things it can’t – and pointing it out. Which is what I think Tim’s piece tried to do.

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  19. “It is a huge leap from saying world oil prices are determined by demand and supply to saying therefore Australian petrol prices are ‘optimal’”

    Indeed, since the greenhouse gas externality from burning petrol is unpriced, they are not*. But that means petrol prices ought to go up, not down.

    * If you don’t believe this, take it up with Ross Garnaut and the Department of Climate Climate .

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  20. I totally agree the GHG externality is unpriced. The debate is about the size and significance of that externality, not its existence.

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  21. There is a huge tax on petrol already, which acts as a “carbon tax”. Indeed — it is too high given most estimates of the costs of carbon. If we want a pigouvian tax on petrol to adjust for GHG, then we should cut the fuel excise.

    It is not true that fuel excise is hypothicated to road funding. All revenue goes into general revenue. As it should.

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  22. In 1980, when I went to Huntingtower, petrol was the second cheapest liquid in Australia. It would be interesting to see where it lies now in terms of relative increase to its peers.

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  23. Rights wingers are NOT supporters of free markets. They are like left-wingers, supporting a highly regulated and authoritarian market place which the state coordinates for some nationalistic end. The classic example, of course, being Nazi Germany. It is this issue that ultimately sees the Left and the Right merge.

    “Liberalism” is not “right wing.” And it certainly is not “left wing.”

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