Think Tank Talk

I was rather critical recently of Ryan Heath’s new book, but he has written what I think is the best article yet on why Australia’s progressive thinktanks need to get their act together, and what they can learn from their British counterparts. It appeared in the New Matilda sealed section last year, and Ryan has now given me permission to reprint it over the fold.

On think tanks
Ryan Heath

In British politics the biggest players and institutions are laws unto themselves. The systems are simply too big to be controlled by any one machine. There are more than 100 ministers in Tony Blair’s government – he can barely remember their names, let alone control their day-to-day actions. The Whitehall civil service machine, 533 000 strong, is certain and defensive about the moral superiority of its political independence. Media editors and proprietors can be a feral bunch with mass audiences to back them.

Indeed, I’ve often thought that the reason Britain doesn’t have a successful ‘Liberal’ party any more is that it doesn’t need one. Having broken many class system shackles and democratised its decision-making elite, the whole place is so uncontrollable that it must be liberal.. In politics and power, being liberal is the only long-term refuge from a situation one can neither command nor control. Here is the nub of difference between Australian and British politics.

Australia has 148 Commonwealth MPs, a further eight small-ish state and territory political elites, a bullish system of government-funded political advisers, only two national newspapers, a fledgling digital TV and radio market and not a single think tank worth writing home about. It is a set of systems almost destined to be controlled.

Control is not an option in the UK and is barely attempted (MPs are not expelled for crossing the floor – fifty will do it in any given week). And what difference does that make? You don’t waste time trying to control – so you have much more time to think.

Which is what I came to do one sunny Saturday in May at the Trades Union Congress hall in Fitzrovia, London, a long drop kick away from the shopping throngs of Oxford Street. At the second annual conference of the Compass (Part think tank, part campaign group. Slogan: direction for the democratic left) I found what amounted to a rock concert for politicos. Fun, not depressing, with pop music blaring from the speakers and inspirational quotes from Gandhi, Mandela, and Roosevelt on the blown up PowerPoint slides between sessions. It was a day that was fresh without being fringe, with a closing address by the adored Robin Cook – his last major public appearance before his death.

The vitality of the Compass event does not sit in isolation. Whereas young political party members in Australia spend their weekends at committee meetings or undertaking mindless marginal seat campaigning for their elders and betters, in the past year I’ve taken trips with members of the Young Fabians to Spain and Edinburgh and participated in an interactive ‘democracy dinner.’ (insert Power Inquiry url): It’s part of a summer-school learning culture that places thought above letterboxing, and I did it without even being a member.

This whirlwind of activity is where the progressive British think tanks find themselves after fifteen years of reinvigoration. In the words of the revered BBC political correspondent Andrew Marr: ‘[the government] goes to the specialists of the think tanks and academic research for its ideas.’

During its decade in the political wilderness from 1979, an important chunk of the British Labour movement used its time for reflection well. Even those who have never lived its effects know the results. There was the invention of Cool Britannia as a piece of serious research by the Foreign Policy Centre think tank and the re-nationalisation of Railtrack which maintains the UK’s railways. More impressively Britain witnessed the ‘New Deal’ which spawned revitalised communities, a national system of personal welfare and career advisers for all, and launched a hundred other social policies across the West including the ‘baby bond’ where every child gets a trust fund topped up at intervals by the government that can only be accessed at 18. The country that produced the world’s first think tank (the Fabian Society) in 1884, created a think tank industry that boosted an opposition and now sustains a government.

And in Australia, where is our think tank industry? After all, we are the country that invented the concept of ‘New Labour’. A decade after the ALP entered opposition, we don’t have one. There is, of course, the headline grabbing and vicious Centre for Independent Studies on the right, but it’s hardly an industry. As for CIS’s rigour – their stalwart Professor Wolfgang Kasper admitted to me in 2002 that their ‘academic advisory council’ had never met in twenty-six years. As for their independence a letter writer to The Age in early 2002 says it all: ‘The “I” in Centre for Independent Studies seems like the “D” in German Democratic Republic.’

The Institute of Public Affairs and the Evatt Foundation enjoyed a heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s with budgets of up to $1m a year, but in struggling to move beyond clich̩d research and events programmes both now operate on severely reduced budgets. Think tanks of course are not to be confused with talk tanks- like the Sydney Institute Рsuccessful though it has been. To give a direct comparison: the UK Fabian Society has a rigorous research programme and office space while its Australian counterpart runs a good events programme but little else.

Whereas political advisers often leave government in the UK to work at think tanks (Nick Pearce, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research or Neal Lawson at Compass are current examples), in Australia they are more likely to cash in on their contacts by working for leech-like ‘public affairs’ firms (read ‘mercenary lobbyists’)

The breadth as well as the depth of the UK’s think tanks is another sign of success. In the Premier League you find the likes of the Institute for Public Policy Research – IPPR – (www.ippr.org) along with Demos (www.demos.org.uk) and The Work Foundation (www.workfoundation.org.uk). And any casual observer can hook into interchange through Policybrief (http://www.policybrief.org/ ) the co-operative web project providing a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all public policy initiatives in the UK. The second division is more than two dozen strong.

And whom do these think tanks talk to? The most senior people in the political classes, of course. Unlike in Australia those leaders seem to realise they should never stop learning. Policy Network, for instance, runs international progressive conferences each year attended my ministers and presidents. Even Tory think tanks are reasonably engaged with the Labour movement. Nicholas Boles, the openly gay head of Policy Exchange and Tory election candidate is appearing in several guises at Labour Party Conference. The cross-party Social Market Foundation and Adam Smith Institute have forged even better links across the political spectrum.

To quantify the difference between The Australia Institute (TAI) and the UK’s Institute for Public Policy research, consider the relationship of these two independent bodies with the Labor parties of their respective countries. In Australia The Australia Institute’s greatest link is its head – the former Labour researcher Clive Hamilton. Hamilton is not openly linked to the party and only occasionally addresses factional meetings to speak on his research, and TAI ran no events at the ALP’s first ‘fringe conference’ in 2004. The IPPR, in contrast, is running 26 full-scale events over five days at the 2005 Labour Party conference. It’s programme is co-sponsored by Channel Four (the nearest thing the UK has to SBS) and there are more than 20 Ministers speaking including 10 of the 21 Cabinet members.

If one compares the research programmes of the two organisations the differences are no less stark. At any given time IPPR has multiple foci and a busy stream of interns and project-based researchers coming and going through its Covent Garden doors. It’s fabled ‘Commission on Social Justice’ laid the base for much of New Labour’s first term thinking. Right now it is conducting a major inquiry into the future of the Civil (public) service and runs a Migration, Equalities and Citizenship project overseen by the young Australian Danny Sriskandarajah, to name but two. Its financial backers and partners seem to know no bounds and include ‘magic circle’ Law firms, liberal think tanks, consultancy firms, oil companies, professional bodies, drugs companies, UNICEF, insurers, green groups, Amnesty, Oxfam and Save the Children. So if you are of the view that it’s not appropriate to accept money from large corporations when running campaigns or conducting research, the message from the UK experience is ‘get over it.’ Those who do not get over it, get run over by it here.

What are the other key characteristics of these UK think tanks? James Crabtree, a think tank veteran at just twenty-eight and now a Fulbright scholar says the key characteristic is this: ‘Vibrancy and youth – they are places to be young and open to ideas.’ For Jess Asato, another rising star at the Social Market Foundation (www.smf.org.uk), the basis for the UK success is clear: ‘independence’ and ‘high quality research underpinned by academic standards, and politically savvy. ‘Think tanks can also provide a check on government policy-making that opposition parties find hard to do because they lack in-house expertise.’

If that lack of impact from an Opposition sounds too familiar, maybe it’s time to wake up and learn from the Mother Country.

Ryan Heath is a former ALP staffer, now working as a civil servant in London at Cabinet Office. He is 25. These are his personal views.

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7 Responses to Think Tank Talk

  1. Not even England’s weather seems to sap Ryan’s enthusiasm for hip London. But really the only significant gap in the Australian think-tank market is for the social democrats – so unsurprisingly Ryan notices this more than most. The Australia Institute and the CIS are both effective at what they set out to do, which is not to act as research arms for the government, but to try to raise issues and influence the general climate of ideas.

    While it is true the CIS Academic Advisory Council never meets, I’m not sure that was the idea behind it. As an editor, I have consulted all but two of the people on it (including using two of them as referees in the last few weeks). For reasons explained in a Catallaxy post some time ago, I am not a huge fan of the academic refereeing process. But I am very keen to force people like Ryan to make cheap shots rather than be able to point to actual instances of intellectual stuff-ups – of which I could find more in the HECS chapter of his book than the CIS makes in a decade! – so we do make extensive use of external advice.

  2. I haven’t read Heath’s book, only what Andrew Norton had to say about it, but if I recall correctly, Andrew faulted him for some inaccuracies.

    This article seems to have the same problem.

    Indeed, I’ve often thought that the reason Britain doesn’t have a successful ‘Liberal’ party any more is that it doesn’t need one

    The Lib Dems currently have their highest number of seats in the Commons since 1923, and just won a Scottish by-election against Labour with a massive swing despite leadership problems. Far from not needing a liberal party, much commentary, for instance in the Guardian, deplores the decline of the liberal tradition in Labour at a time when Blair has attacked civil liberties repeatedly.

    During its decade in the political wilderness from 1979, an important chunk of the British Labour movement used its time for reflection well

    The Labour Party’s time in the wilderness started in 1979 and ended in 1997. That’s almost two decades. And the rise of the thinktanks was an artefact of the 90s.

    Control is not an option in the UK and is barely attempted (MPs are not expelled for crossing the floor – fifty will do it in any given week).

    In any given week? It’s a major issue when backbench rebellions occur, and the whips and Government aren’t running around celebrating the strength of parliamentary democracy to put it mildly!

    Nor can the Fabian Society in the late 19th century and early 20th century be accurately described as a thinktank.

    It’s hard to take his substantive argument seriously when so much of what he writes is simply wrong as to fact and interpretation.

    FWIW I think the major difference between Britain and Australia in terms of thinktanks is the anti-intellectual culture here compared to the UK (think of how many Labour identities write books – Hattersley, Crosland, etc). This is kind of alluded to, but missed as an explanatory factor.

  3. Labor identities write books here as well – rather famously in the case of Mark Latham, but also Lindsay Tanner, Barry Jones, Gough Whitlam and others. But not of the same intellectual calibre as the Brits.

  4. Shaun says:

    Andrew, I agree with you that right wing think tanks are in a healthier state in Australia. But I think Ryan’s point is still a significant one.

    As someone who now lives and works in policy in London, I can say that the think tank market in London is simply much healthier than in Australia. There are certainly more, they are better funded, they employ more people and perhaps most importantly, they have more influence in government. In fact, some may say that have too important a role in government.

    I’ve given some thought to this, and while cultural issues are probably part of the explanation, my sense is that the basic factor is money. Money talks and as a city living off its financial district, London has a lot of it.

  5. Christine says:

    Money and size really do make a huge difference, and Australia is just a lot smaller than Britain. So let’s do a quick comparison with Canada.

    Well, Canada is relatively well endowed with good think tanks, which do have pretty strong links with politics and major political players. The CD Howe Institute (rightish-centre economics, currently headed by an academic tax policy expert), the Fraser Institute (definitely conservative, more populist), the Institute for Research on Public Policy (probably leftish social/economic policy, though until recently headed by a guy who helped the Conservatives on their election campaign and has recently been appointed to a seat on the Senate), the Caledon Institute (lefty), and a few more I’m personally less familiar with. They compare favourably I think with the Australian versions, although I have to say having just had a look at CIS and TAI they do more than I had recalled.

    (Ryan’s main argument with these two seems to be that they’re ‘vicious’ rightwingers or not well named? Then his argument is just as Andrew says, that there aren’t enough leftish think tanks of the sort he’d like to participate in, isn’t it?)

    What Australia does have that Canada doesn’t is some extremely good quasi-government policy analysis organisations – the ACCC and ABARE spring to mind. I also think the academic sector has a bigger influence in Australia than over here. Probably all evens out in the wash, I’d guess, though I think the level of public understanding and debate on policy issues is a bit stronger in Australia than in Canada.

  6. Another factor is the Britain is much more centralised than Australia, so its policy elites are likely to communicate more closely than in Australia. Only the Australia Institute is based in Canberra, and it is the least interested of all the think-tanks in day-to-day policymaking.

  7. harry roberts says:

    what about the liberal party’s menzies research centre…haven’t they done some pretty good work???

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