Are Think Tanks Undermining Australian Democracy?
October 27, 2015 11:58 PM   Subscribe

"Are Think Tanks Undermining Australian Democracy? The past decade, for example, has seen powerful American think tanks (link is external), headed by political elites and backed by significant philanthropic funding, fundamentally re-shape key aspects of schooling. This has raised serious questions about whether elite economic and political actors are ‘working through’ think tanks to undermine democratic processes and the ideals of representative democracy."
posted by man down under (13 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
A rare exception to Betteridge's Law, think tanks are absolutely toxic.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 12:09 AM on October 28, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't mind the proliferation of Australian think tanks so much as not being able to remember which ones are severely right wing since apart from say, The Whitlam Intitute (I'm guessing not right), there are few clues in all the similar sounding names as to their leaning. An acrostic or some such memory aid would be handy.
posted by drnick at 12:30 AM on October 28, 2015

Nah, the IPA is great: their white papers are the easiest way to work out what policies I hate. Less snarkily: I wish there were stronger rules forcing transparency of funding. I don't mind that the IPA exists: I do mind that I don't know who funds them.
posted by langtonsant at 12:45 AM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, the article certainly doesn't prove the point. Pointing to America, and saying 'it could become like that here', is rather half-assed.

I'd argue a think tank like the Grattan Institute (which is transparent about its funding) is making a positive contribution to democracy.
posted by yesbut at 12:55 AM on October 28, 2015

I'd argue a think tank like the Grattan Institute (which is transparent about its funding) is making a positive contribution to democracy.

Genuine question, in what way is the Grattan Institute aiding democracy? Their bland neoliberal bromides have nothing to do, surely, with the will of the people?

A person could argue, theoretically that some think tanks may aid in the development of evidence based public policy (snort, the Australia Institute, I suppose, and... crickets), but in terms of developing democracy, that's a bloody long bow to draw- they almost all fail to give a voice to the marginalised and otherwise under-represented in our democracy (unless you consider ACOSS a think tank).

Indeed, both left and right (the latter far more dominant in every respect) are overwhelmingly funded by, run by, communicating to - and for - those who are over-represented in our democracy: the wealthy, the educated, the white, the male. And they are mostly funded by, of course, that critical missing voice from our democracy - private companies with their own dodgy barrows to push.

Yeah, there's the odd Australia Institute, Lowy Institute, Asia Pacific Strategic Policy Institute, etc - but the decent are outgunned in every way by the IPA, the Waubra foundation, the Australian Environment Foundation, Access Economics, etc etc etc. And they are outfunded by dodgy advocacy outfits like the Australian Food and Grocery Council, etc.

Don't forget many of these are getting a tax lurk out of it too.

Because of their cosy partnership with MPs both current and former, and the capitalists controlling some of our largest companies, they are able drive public policy in order to benefit their funders with little to no examination. The gullibility and reflexive stupidity of our journalist establishment means any piece of push polling nonsense with a catchy headline gets a run in the papers, allowing them to frame debates about climate change, wind farms, industrial relations, plain packaging, container deposit schemes, coal power, intellectual property laws, real estate, taxation and more - overwhelmingly to the detriment of proper policy development, and the public.

They are fucking virulent pustules erupting from our political landscape and their popularity is a damning condemnation of our politicians, their susceptibility, and distrust of public servants. If I was king for a day I would ban them under pain of being put in stocks.
posted by smoke at 1:15 AM on October 28, 2015 [12 favorites]

Fair Q.

Firstly, I consider think tanks to be part of the same broad spectrum of organisations as peak bodies like ACOSS. But some think tanks are less transparent about their roots than peak bodies - secret funders etc. - which in my view makes them less respectable also.

I like that think tanks, and peak bodies, present their arguments and evidence publicly (obviously not only so, but a lot of the work is via public reports). Conversely, at least in Australia, it seems politicians spend plenty of time making sure we hear very little about the evidence and arguments that are circulating among the public service.

In that sense I believe think tanks are contributing to democracy, because they're putting a lot of effort into publicly sharing ideas & evidence. I appreciate being able to read their reports and reasoning, and making my own assessment.

But yes, if your definition of contributing to democracy is representing marginalised and under-represented voices, there's not many Australian think tanks aiming to do so. But then, neither is our governmental system.
posted by yesbut at 3:11 AM on October 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

I like that think tanks, and peak bodies, present their arguments and evidence publicly

It's not the public presentation that bothers me, per se (though the enthusiastic fellatio and glib repetition the soundbites get from the media sure as hell does), rather the the private arguments and access these people get to MPs. here's a great example, and an even more depressing one - but more generally think on the disastrous impact the IPA has had in the last term of government particularly.

Companies and sectors have a place in government, and that place is through senate committees and inquiries, as part of broader, holistic, public and on record consultations, and through the goddamn public service like everyone else.

In that sense I believe think tanks are contributing to democracy, because they're putting a lot of effort into publicly sharing ideas & evidence.

But, like, they're putting a lot of effort into those things for a reason -they are, in the main, doing it to get something out of it, not for the general enlightenment of the electorate or parliament. They are not putting effort into sharing ideas and evidence, so much as putting effort into driving a particular policy outcome.

Whether one agrees with that outcome or not, the power they wield in achieving this is grossly disproportionate, especially in context of their overstated expertise.

I mean, you could argue it's all part of the rough and tumble of the marketplace of ideas, I suppose. But we must acknowledge how heavily the field is tilted, here.
posted by smoke at 3:32 AM on October 28, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hmmm, I realise I'm sounding fairly strident here. I should qualify that I don't feel think tanks are incapable of good policy recommendations based on sound evidence, analysed by well-qualified experts in the relevant field - they totes are. I link to think tank releases on my facebook all the time as examples of good public policy with great recommendations.

I just think, in toto, their impact has been overwhelmingly negative on govt, policy and public discussion of policy, despite the odd win here or there, and I acknowledge that the research that appeals to me is, frequently (though not always. But mostly always) and not coincidentally the research that aligns in a persuasive manner to my ideological beliefs and prejudices.

I do not believe politicians - lacking in many cases any qualifications, experience, or general intelligence - are immune to the prejudicial bias that I roll about in on my facebook and impassioned rants to innocent acquaintances who make the mistake of engaging me on a hobby horse. I don't hold the levers to the country, though, and can indulge my bias without betraying the public. This is why I feel their influence is so insidious. Politicians struggle to maintain independence and listen to expertise as is, when they are being egged on by a range of orgs with more bias and then money's involved, it's essentially a form of corruption.

An interesting example is ASPI, I mentioned above. They don't get funded by like, Lockheed Martin or anything, but because some of their staff are so enmeshed in defence or the study of it, they can sometimes display the behaviours of not defence analysts, but of another arm of the defence forces. It's like a weird version of regulatory capture - they can't not think like Defence (let the record reflect; I don't think this is like, a huge problem or a universal one with ASPI, but it's worth keeping in mind when you read impassioned pieces about why we need more defence funding and aircraft carriers or something fucking nonsensical).
posted by smoke at 3:56 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

I used to work for a think tank and I may again some day. I would say think tanks are problematic for several reasons:
-they vastly over represent the interests (or views) of the powerful
-there are a lot of incentives to distort the truth in subtle ways, and in that sense they may be a net negative in the marketplace of ideas
-it's absurd that at least in the USA, they are not required to disclose their funding to get tax exempt status

On the other hand, policy expertise is socially useful, somebody needs to pay those people, and taxpayers sure aren't throwing their wallets around these days. (not to mention the government is not the only view that should be represented)
posted by ropeladder at 5:10 AM on October 28, 2015 [4 favorites]

Think tanks have become a convenient way for politicians to undermine public servants; they provide a range of options that a given policy maker can choose to adopt according to their political ideologies while maintaining the pretence the it is based in solid reasoning. It really is pretty disgusting when you think about it.

I agree that the "it's becoming like the US" argument is not well made in this article, but, well, Australian politics is becoming like the US, and I think the influence of think tanks has a role here. The partisanship is more pronounced today than it has ever been, particularly on the education front. Government funding to private schools, deregulation of university fees, cutting funding of universities in favour of high schools etc. These are all policies driven on political lines. The public has no idea what the best course of action should be because we have nothing but vested interests dominating the airwaves.

And smoke is absolutely correct: The lazy, unthinking, 24-hour news cycle-obsessed media of this country are absolutely complicit in stifling honest discussions about what is actually in the best interests of Australians.

One last point: The public servants in Australia do a pretty good job of creating policy positions. For any given issue, there will be multiple white papers generated from various departments that provide a relatively comprehensive assessment of the impact different policy changes will make across the board. And they're pretty damn independent, to boot. If they weren't, governments of the day would not be so quick to delay their findings and ignore their recommendations as they are want to do (*cough*Henrytaxreview*cough*). I know that people distrust government, but I would still trust public servants more than The Australia Institute, and that's a think tank I think actually has a lot of good ideas.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:37 AM on October 28, 2015 [6 favorites]

As already mentioned, the article barely makes an argument; "the US is bad, and Australia could be too!". Bravo.

The quality of think tanks varies hugely. Grattan produce actual arguments backed by evidence. IPA is a rent-a-crowd. CIS usually remember to run a spellcheck over their reports. Most of them, and almost all peak bodies, are useless; making self-interested arguments that stand up to minutes of close scrutiny, or repeating what you already believe and so are worthy of much considered head-nodding.

As for their influence on policy makers, my view is not much. Any politician can smell rent-seekers from a mile away. The real value of think-tanks is providing ready-to-hand arguments to justify decisions that have already been made on the basis of political necessity and/or expediency. It's not good form to admit this policy is to appease the lunatics on your backbench and branch meetings, but the CIS will have some prepared-earlier nonsense for you about the economic benefits that no one of polite company is going to double check until it's long forgotten i.e. next week.
posted by kithrater at 2:17 AM on October 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

somebody needs to pay those people

Why? In the past, governments spent money on research in the public interest. That's their job. Why should we let big business pay for research to get the answers they want to hear so they can turn around and use that to shape public policy? Why don't we just eliminate the middle man and let big corporations run everything? You know they want to.
posted by sneebler at 6:54 AM on October 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

« Older LYING.   |   "How much—indeed, how little—should workers be... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments