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The looming spectre of the right-wing think-tanks guiding Australia's future

By Russ Grayson - posted Wednesday, 17 September 2003


A spectre is haunting Australia ... the spectre of the over-influential think-tank.

Forgive the paraphrasing, but any assessment of the state of the nation cannot ignore the pervasive influence of the agencies that plot and plan to influence how governments and the public think about the nation and its institutions.

There is no denying the fact that think-tanks, notably those of the right-wing subspecies, are instrumental in setting the public agenda, expert in getting their ideas and commentators into influential media and effective in setting the boundaries and terms of reference of public affairs.

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Think-tanking is a practice the right does well and the left poorly. As for the considerable body of opinion that spans the distance between these polarities, well, it is largely invisible because it is unrepresented. Yet it is fought over by the think-tanks and their social ideologues because its vote can determine the fate of governments, institutions and economies.

Ironically, some think-tankers of the right-wing strain actually believe they somehow represent this "middle ground" of the Australian polity. Take their use of the word "elite" in recent public discourse to describe the management and editorial staff at the ABC. Sure, the ABC might have its own peculiar, middle-class-oriented corporate culture, but for right-wing think-tanks and their apologists to describe them as "elite" is a bit rich. What, after all, could be more elite that a comparative few such commentators largely isolated in their think-tanks and institutes?

No, I'm not some leftist opponent of the likes of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). I agree with some of their analysis as I do with much analysis from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (with the exception of their alarmist assertion that terrorists could use the Solomon Islands for training bases; rural residents there are well aware of what goes on even in remote parts of their customary territories).

The role of right-wing think-tanks has been noted in a paper by Ian Marsh, published in the Australian Journal of Management (12 December 1994):

The neo-liberal or "new right" group of think-tanks generally cluster around the strategic or agenda end of the policy process. The group has been spectacularly successful in popularising a particular public policy agenda for responding to the changed world economy - reduced public expenditure, lessened role for the state, "neutral" industry policy, weakened trade unions etc ... Some suggest this group has attained a paradigm shift in conceptions of the role of the state held by political and bureaucratic elites.

Valuable work in context

The work of think-tanks can provide valuable intellectual input into the political process but only when read in a context balanced by alternative views and proposals. It is when the right-wing (or left-wing, for that matter) think-tanks are seen as more than what they are - organisations of like-minded individuals pushing some ideological line - that you get trouble.

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Look at the federal government's allocating to the IPA the investigation into the transparency and accountability of non-government organisations (NGOs). The antipathy of the IPA to NGOs is well known, so it is a fair question as to how independent, unbiased and free of ideological influence their report will be. Given their attitude to NGOs, it will come as no surprise that their findings, likely to be negative and critical, will be seen by many as lacking credibility. The move by the Prime Minister can only be described as "silly".

The government's move has been noted internationally, reported on the Global Policy Forum's website and by the Christian Science Monitor, which stated: "... in a move that critics see as politically motivated (Prime Minister John Howard's government) has hired a conservative think-tank to investigate NGO influence on some government agencies".

The article goes on to describe how NGOs are "... gaining credibility on the world stage for attempting to reform world markets and politics to make them more humane" and to be receptive to market-based solutions to global problems. It also notes that some NGOs "... have become focal points for controversy", citing allegations about the role of some in Aceh and Papua.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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