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
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 Blairâ€™s government â€“ 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, Iâ€™ve often thought that the reason Britain doesnâ€™t have a successful â€˜Liberalâ€™ party any more is that it doesnâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€“ 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 Iâ€™ve taken trips with members of the Young Fabians to Spain and Edinburgh and participated in an interactive â€˜democracy dinner.â€™ (insert Power Inquiry url): Itâ€™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: â€˜[the government] goes to the specialists of the think tanks and academic research for its ideas.â€™
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 â€˜New Dealâ€™ 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 â€˜baby bondâ€™ 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 worldâ€™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 â€˜New Labourâ€™. A decade after the ALP entered opposition, we donâ€™t have one. There is, of course, the headline grabbing and vicious Centre for Independent Studies on the right, but itâ€™s hardly an industry. As for CISâ€™s rigour â€“ their stalwart Professor Wolfgang Kasper admitted to me in 2002 that their â€˜academic advisory councilâ€™ had never met in twenty-six years. As for their independence a letter writer to The Age in early 2002 says it all: â€˜The â€œIâ€ in Centre for Independent Studies seems like the â€œDâ€ in German Democratic Republic.â€™
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 clichÃ©d 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 – successful 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 â€˜public affairsâ€™ firms (read â€˜mercenary lobbyistsâ€™)
The breadth as well as the depth of the UKâ€™s think tanks is another sign of success. In the Premier League you find the likes of the Institute for Public Policy Research â€“ 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 UKâ€™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 Instituteâ€™s greatest link is its head â€“ 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 ALPâ€™s first â€˜fringe conferenceâ€™ in 2004. The IPPR, in contrast, is running 26 full-scale events over five days at the 2005 Labour Party conference. Itâ€™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. Itâ€™s fabled â€˜Commission on Social Justiceâ€™ laid the base for much of New Labourâ€™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 â€˜magic circleâ€™ 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 itâ€™s not appropriate to accept money from large corporations when running campaigns or conducting research, the message from the UK experience is â€˜get over it.â€™ 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: â€˜Vibrancy and youth â€“ they are places to be young and open to ideas.â€™ For Jess Asato, another rising star at the Social Market Foundation (www.smf.org.uk), the basis for the UK success is clear: â€˜independenceâ€™ and â€˜high quality research underpinned by academic standards, and politically savvy. â€˜Think tanks can also provide a check on government policy-making that opposition parties find hard to do because they lack in-house expertise.â€™
If that lack of impact from an Opposition sounds too familiar, maybe itâ€™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.