Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Think our political debate is tanking? Ask the s(c)eptic celebs

Think our political debate is tanking? Ask the s(c)eptic celebs.

The role of think tanks hit the headlines last week when the U.S. based Heartland Institute became embroiled in the denialgate controversy. Australia has a diverse range of think tanks covering much of the political spectrum, most with prominent public profiles.

The bright sparks of the commentariat are ubiquitous. It seems impossible to make even short visit to the mass media, especially ABC radio or television, without running into one of the young jerks from the conservative (or is it libertarian) Institute of Public Affairs. Chris Berg and Tim Wilson have an opinion on everything. Name a topic and you can guess what their research has discovered before they speak. This foresight is a skill shared by tankers of all political persuasions.

They not only comment on the latest spoke in the news cycle, they are often its origin. The Grattan Institute, a brains trust of the middle ground, has led recent news headlines with its report on energy No easy choices: which way to Australia's energy future? and its education research Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia

The current programs of the Grattan Institute focus on ‘productivity growth, cities, school education, tertiary education, and energy’. Their board is made up of academics, senior public servants, a former Liberal MHR, big business CEOs and lawyers. There are three women in the ten, reflecting most company boards in Australia. Grattan’s CEO John Daley has worked in most of these areas.

Often we are dished up research with attitude. “Who needs a car industry anyway?” The Centre for Independent Studies thinks "perhaps not". It’s hard to know if Tony Abbott is taking his lead from them or vice versa. The CIS supports ‘a market economy and a free society under limited government where individuals can prosper and fully develop their talents’. It has that in common with U.S. right thinkers The John Birch Society. CIS has only two women on its board of twentyone with a similar composition and backgrounds to Grattan. It is very much the big end of town, although its Executive Director Greg Lindsay was a high school teacher before founding the organisation in 1976. Their research scholars number sixteen.

Recently CIS staffer Sara Hudson contributed a good news story to News Limited’s online blog The Punch: An Indigenous program that’s boxing clever. Perhaps a Jimmy Sharman Troupe employment program is in the offing to replace the much maligned Community Development Employment Program. Her expertise is Indigenous Affairs. With a job description that starts with ‘welfare dependency’, it is not hard to anticipate the direction of her research.

Wikipedia lists 34 think tanks in Oz. The entry has the National Civic Council and the H. R. Nicholls Society but not the Climate Institute.

One prominent organisation that describes itself as ‘the country’s most influential progressive think tank’ is The Australia Institute. Its concerns include poverty and ‘our planet’. Executive director Richard Denniss has a strong media presence. One of the five women directors out of eleven is Australian Council of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney.

Behind the sparkling teeth of the young jerks lurks many an old stager. Frank Lowy’s passion for soccer, including the unsuccessful bid for the World cup, is well known. His Westfield shopping centre empire helps to fund the Lowy Institute for International Policy. ‘It ranges across all the dimensions of international policy debate in Australia - economic, political and strategic – and it is not limited to a particular geographic region.’ Its Board includes climate change reviewer Professor Ross Garnaut and its International Advisory Council sports former Australian Rupert Murdoch. It has a very large cohort of research staff and visiting fellows.

Think tank cross-fertilisation is first class. Samantha Hardy, a Strategic Adviser at Graeme Wood Foundation, is a director of the Australia Institute. Graeme Wood, of wotif.com fame, is the philanthropist behind the latest online media venture, The Global Mail. Before he switched to the Grattan Institute as program director for higher education in 2011, Andrew Norton spent 11 years working for both the University of Melbourne and CIS. IPA Executive Director John Roskam has strong Liberal party connections. Liberals on the Board include former Federal Minister Rod Kemp and Victorian powerbroker Michael Kroger.

Another tank that Wikepdia does not mention is the climate change skeptical Galileo Movement. They do undertake research, though #thinktank might be too rich a tag for an organisation that knows what it will find beforehand: ‘to expose misrepresentations pushing a price on carbon dioxide'. Their parton is radio shock-jock Alan Jones. Former Western Mining Corporation CEO Hugh Morgan and billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart have been linked to Galileo. Morgan is also President of the Lavoisier Group, another global warning skeptics organisation.

Galileo has ambitious aims:

‘The Galileo Movement seeks to protect Australians and our future in five areas:
- Protect freedom - personal choice and national sovereignty;
- Protect the environment;
- Protect science and restore scientific integrity;
- Protect our economic security;
- Protect people's emotional health by ending Government and activists' constant destructive bombardment of fear and guilt on our kids and communities.’

Its methods sound more like those of a political pressure group:

‘We address those five areas in four ways:
- Exposing UN IPCC misrepresentation of science, climate and Nature;
- Presenting real-world science and advocating for scientific evidence as the basis of policy;
- Revealing economic damage from needless additional taxation burdening people already reeling under high and rising costs of living;
- Revealing environmental damage of bureaucratic control taxing and 'trading' carbon dioxide.’

A huge agenda, but those who are hoping for long term protection of their freedoms will be disappointed:

‘Expected life-span: The intent is to terminate the Galileo Movement when the push to price carbon dioxide is destroyed. That's anticipated to be by the next federal election.’

It seems that the Galileo Movement is really only interested in regime and tax change.

Their experts include: Professor Bob Carter of Heartlandgate fame, Professor Ian Plimer, Dr Jennifer Marohasy, Jo Nova, David Flint, Andrew Bolt and Lord Monckton. Marohasy is now a research fellow at Central Queensland University after five years with the IPA.

Meanwhile, it is great to know that Oz is in safe and secure hands - the firm grip of the defence establishment that is. The Australia Defence Association (ADA) claims to be ‘Australia’s only truly independent, actively non-partisan, community-based, public-interest guardian organisation and ‘think-tank’ on defence and wider national security issues.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also claims independence but was set up and funded by the Howard government. It continues to accept government money but also receives private funding.

Another defence organisation is the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), based at the Australian National University. Its head is Hugh White, is a frequent media contributor. His past includes Deputy Secretary of the Department of Defence and ALP adviser.

These defence tanks never seem to capture any new ground. Those that weren’t completely wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan certainly weren’t right in any meaningful way. They have a worse record of predicting disaster than most of the economists who occupy the extensive desks of groupthink land. It is hardly a surprise that Hugh White was a regular companion of Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report before and during the Iraq invasion.

A number of the think tanks are not flush with money. The Sydney Institute is a niche operation with a tiny staff, consisting of conservative commentator Gerard Henderson, Anne Henderson, an executive assistant and 3 office personnel. Viewers of the Insiders will be familiar with Gerard’s cheery countenance as a regular panellist over the years.

The minnow is The Brisbane Institute,‘Queensland’s premier think tank and independent forum for ideas, insight, inspiration and innovation’, with three policy staff and one administration. It has University of Queensland, Brisbane City Council, State government and private company funding. Board member Philip Bacon is the well-connected owner of the eponymous art galleries.

As the name suggests, the Evatt Foundation sports a range of mostly left-centrist ALP types and fellow travellers. It appears to have few permanent research staff but its website was far from enlightening about resourcing.

One progressive organisation that punches above its funding is the Centre for Policy Development. Executive director Miriam Lyons is fast becoming a panel celeb on current affairs platforms such as the ABC’s Q&A and the TV version of the Drum. The CPD is a relatively recent addition to tanking, opening in 2007. It grew out of the online magazine New Matilda but is now quite separate. 4 of the 6 members of the research arm are women. The board boasts directors with trade union experience, as well as former Whitlam staffer and head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet John Menadue.

Fulltime pipers are expected to rap for their paymaster. Often it’s a case of seeing what your patrons and benefactors believe. On the other hand, whether they are paid or just patronised, visiting fellows and commissioned authors appear unconcerned by potential conflicts of interest. Visiting fellows at the Lowy Institute include Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper, Peter Hartcher, Political and International Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and the very enterprising Hugh White.

Facts flow forth from the cluttered foreheads of the think tank performers with such predictability that it would be harmless, if it were not so pervasive. It is just one of many reasons our political understanding and debate is tanking.

Update: Free copy of How to Get Expelled From School "Offer comes courtesy of The Galileo Movement."

Very public-spirited of them!

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