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. For instance, there are over 100 ministers in Tony Blair’s Government – he can barely remember their names, let alone control their day-to-day actions. And the Whitehall Civil Service machine, 533,000 strong, is certain of its moral superiority and quick to defend its political independence. Beyond the governmental players, the media can be a feral bunch with mass audiences to back them. I’ve often thought 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 place is so uncontrollable that it has to be liberal. In politics and power, being liberal is the only long-term refuge from a situation one can neither command nor control.

Fabian pamphlet

Fabian pamphlet

Here is the nub of difference between Australian and British politics. Australia has 226 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. Australia’s is a set of systems almost destined to be controlled, whereas in the UK control is not an option and is barely attempted (MPs are not expelled for crossing the floor – 50 will do it in any given week). And what difference does that make? In Britain, 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 June at Congress House in Fitzrovia, London, a long drop kick from the shopping throngs of Oxford Street. At the second annual conference of 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 ex-Minister 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 (supposed) 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’. 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 15 years of reinvigoration. In the words of the revered BBC political correspondent Andrew Marr: ‘[In the UK, 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. And we know the results: the invention of ‘Cool Britannia’ as a piece of serious research by the Foreign Policy Centre think tank; the re-nationalisation of Railtrack which maintains the UK’s railways; more impressively, Britain’s ‘New Deal’ which spawned revitalised communities, a national system of personal welfare and career advisers, and launched a hundred other social policies across the West including the ‘baby bond’ where every child gets a trust fund topped up at 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. The breadth and depth of the UK’s think tanks is another sign of success. In the Premier League you find the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), Demos, and The Work Foundation. A casual observer can hook into interchange through Policybrief the co-operative web project providing a ‘one-stop shop’ for all public policy initiatives in the UK. And the next division of think tanks is more than two dozen strong. And to whom do these think tanks talk? The most senior people in the political classes, of course. Unlike Australia, these leaders seem to realise they should never stop learning. Policy Network, for instance, runs international progressive conferences each year attended by ministers and presidents. Even Tory think tanks are reasonably engaged with the Labour movement: for instance, Nicholas Boles, the head of Policy Exchange and a Tory election candidate is appearing in several guises at this week’s Labour Party Conference in Brighton; and the cross-party Social Market Foundation and Adam Smith Institute have forged even better links across the political spectrum. And in Australia, the country that invented the concept of ‘New Labour’, where is our think tank industry? 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. As for CIS’s rigour – their stalwart Professor Wolfgang Kasper admitted to me in 2002 that their ‘academic advisory council’ had never met in 26 years. And their independence was summed up by a letter writer to The Age in early 2002: ‘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 $1 million a year, but in struggling to move beyond clichéd research and events programs 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 program and office space while its Australian counterpart runs a good events program but little else. Whereas political advisers often leave government in the UK to work at think tanks (Nick Pearce, Director of IPPR, 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’). To quantify the difference between The Australia Institute (TAI) and the UK’s IPPR, consider the relationship of these two independent bodies with the Labor parties of their respective countries. In Australia, TAI’s greatest link is its head – the former Labor 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. Its program is co-sponsored by Channel Four and there are more than 20 ministers speaking including 10 of the 21 Cabinet members. If one compares the research programs 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 – to name but two of its ongoing projects – it is conducting a major inquiry into the future of the Civil Service, and runs a Migration, Equalities and Citizenship project overseen by the young Australian Danny Sriskandarajah. IPPR’s financial backers and partners seem to know no bounds and include ‘magic circle’ law firms, liberal think tanks, consultancy firms, oil companies, professional bodies, drug 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 while running campaigns or conducting research, the message from the UK experience is ‘get over it.’ What are the other key characteristics of these UK think tanks? James Crabtree, a think tank veteran at just 28 and now a Fulbright scholar says the key characteristic is: ‘Vibrancy and youth – they are places to be young and open to ideas.’ For Jess Asato, another rising star at the Social Market Foundation, the basis for the U
K 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.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.