Thirty years ago, every main party supported the central pillars of the Federation-old Australian Settlement. Who would have thought that in 1983 a Labor government led by a former ACTU boss would initiate the most far-reaching program of economic liberalisation in Australian history?
Five years or so later, Australia's left-liberal intelligentsia finally caught up with history, and launched a short-lived but concerted counter attack. Ignoring the real plight of the cosseted Australian economy, they blamed the recession we had to have on the rise of economic rationalism. Every cyclical economic ill was traced back to the decision to float the dollar. For good measure, economic reform was portrayed as an existential threat to the Australian way of life and as a vast right-wing conspiracy to boot.
For the past 17 years, Australians have enjoyed an unprecedented era of economic prosperity and rising living standards. Today it seems that everyone is an economic rationalist, now that the benefits of winding back the discredited policies of the past are obvious. On this front, at least, once noisy critics have grown silent.
The transformation of Australia's economy did not occur in an intellectual vacuum. The critique of protectionism and excessive regulation, some of which was developed in work published by the Centre for Independent Studies, played a part in facilitating the reforms of the '80s.
This is the only way to measure the worth of a think tank: by the quality and results of the public policy ideas it promotes. But while the times have changed on some fronts, for many the song remains the same. This week, the so-called progressive side has been keen to promote its latest foray into the think tank business. It has suggested that because Kevin Rudd and not John Howard is the occupant of the Lodge, Labor ministers shouldn't associate with so-called right-wing think tanks.
A think tank that relies on partisan slogans such as progressive or Hayekian to brand its contribution to public life assumes an uncomfortable position. In effect, it chooses to lead with its dogmatic chin while burying its head in its ideological navel. An organisation that conceives of itself as the extra-parliamentary arm of a political party will inevitably descend into heresy hunting to force recalcitrant members to toe the party line.
Because governments come and go, a credible and independent think tank doesn't trim its sails to the prevailing electoral winds. Its job is to identify the difficult policy issues that in many cases defy the usual categories of Right and Left, such as the propensity for governments of all colours to preside over big taxing and spending regimes. Rather than take the line of least resistance and endorse partisan policy, all too often the difficult task is to upset a bipartisan status quo to encourage debate and prompt much-needed innovation and improvement.
Ten years ago, few dared to question whether the long-term unemployed should be entitled to welfare in perpetuity. Today, due in no small part to the writings of the CIS's Peter Saunders, no government could try to dismantle the mutual obligation system without drawing renewed attention to the destructive social consequences of welfare dependence.
Five years ago, a commonwealth-led intervention to restore social norms in remote Aboriginal communities would have been unthinkable. As her fairest critics admit, the work of the CIS's Helen Hughes has set out the most cogent and persuasive case for reversing 40 years of misguided Indigenous policy.
So far, the Rudd Government has given every indication that the intervention, and the watershed it marks in Indigenous policy, is here to stay.
For a think tank, the real sign of success is when the existing policy consensus breaks down to the point that politicians of diverse, and perhaps unexpected, persuasions endorse a new idea.
For more than a decade, the CIS's Jennifer Buckingham has been almost a lone voice in the education debate calling for public education reform and the introduction of a voucher system and greater parental choice. Fortunately, the outcomes this will promote, rather than how those with vested interests prefer to caricature them, is what matters for politicians with a serious interest in policy. Who would have thought even a year ago that a federal Labor education minister, Julia Gillard, would support school choice?
Just like ensuring work, not welfare, is the norm in all Australian communities, creating a school system that provides even disadvantaged kids with a decent education is a goal that transcends the rough-house of party politics. The true test of a think tank is whether politicians of all stripes see the inherent value of the good ideas it promotes. So long as this is the case, a think tank will easily defy the crude labels that the truly partisan unsuccessfully try to attach to it.