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A “halfway house” for policy: the role of the think tanks in Australian democracy

By: David Brockwell z5162724

Think tanks have been described as “withering”, “corrupted” and “mysterious” organisations in a “shadowy world” of faceless political influence. But those who work at some of Australia’s most influential think tanks think otherwise.


During a global summit of think tanks in 2015, one participant called them “self-appointed know-it-alls without a mandate”.


Recent views have been no kinder, with an article in today’s Weekend Australian accusing Australian think tanks of “self-interested hypocrisy” on the federal budget.


But according to the people who actually work in Australia’s think tanks, these portrayals ignore the vital role that they play in Australian democracy.


Matthew Lesh, a research fellow at the classical liberal Institute of Public Affairs, likens think tanks to “halfway houses” for translating ideas and principles into policy.


“As our political parties become dominated by machine man or party hacks or whatever else, the space for principle really disappears,” says Lesh.


“It becomes very much, ‘How can we win the next election?’ and ‘What is the policy that’s going to be the most popular?’ and of course our two parties have a responsibility to do what is popular, as that is their ultimate goal.


“But when it comes to principles, we show what issues they should lead from the front, and try to move public opinion through our advocacy for ideas. We can be there to provide support when it comes to those ideas.”


On the other side of politics, a similar approach drives the progressive-minded Evatt Foundation, whose vice president Frank Stilwell lectured for 40 years in political economy at the University of Sydney before he became a part of a think tank.


“In the modern social environment, there’s a lot of fragmentation of opinion and a great diversity of ideas,” says Stilwell.


“Think tanks can at least provide some systematic way of accessing research and distilling information in ways that are useful to the major political parties and the public.


“We’re not directly concerned with changing society; we’re concerned with emphasising those aspects of Australian society that we think offer the most progressive future- it’s nudging, rather than transforming.”


This week, Australian think tanks have set their sights on the federal budget, trying to break down its intricacies and highlight its outcomes for the Australian populace.


Following its unveiling on Tuesday, think tanks have supercharged the public debate on the budget with a flurry of media releases and public appearances intended on providing the public with some idea of what the budget will mean for them.


But conveying the essential meaning behind convoluted government policies is no easy feat, says Karla Pincott, communications director at the libertarian Centre for Independent Studies.


“We work hard to make sure our research is in accessible language and clearly structured to make it understandable to everybody,” says Pincott.


“Our key aim is to research the issues and present that research.


“We are still able to effectively communicate that research to government and stakeholders, as we’ve been doing it for 40 years and have built our reputation around it.”


Emma Dawson, executive director of socially progressive think tank Per Capita, also says that distilling government policy like the budget into something average Australians can read is a “difficult process”.


“It’s about taking an idea and going, how can I break this down? How can I explain this in a way that is accessible and digestible,” says Dawson.


“We’ve already put out a media release on budget night, and we put out a newsletter (on Thursday)”.


“We actually put out our own fantasy budget a week ahead of the budget in Crikey, which laid out what we thought we’d like to see in the budget, and it’s significantly at odds with what the government put out.”


But in spite of their differing views, think tanks across the political spectrum agree that they share an important responsibility for the public debate.


Though they may align themselves with conflicting political and social viewpoints, representatives of the think tanks say they serve not as engines of party politics but rather as spokespeople for the public.


Dawson says Per Capita’s relationship with right-wing think tanks is “respectful, if disagreeable.” For Dawson, the importance of the think tanks lies in their appearance in the public forum.


“There’s no kind of bitter rivalry going on, much as people might like to think there is. We don’t agree on very much, but the relationships are cordial,” she says.


“I mean, these are people that are engaged in the battle of ideas- they’re at least trying to make a contribution.


“I appeared on Sky News with Simon Breen from the IPA and Simon Cowen from the Centre for Independent Studies. We vehemently disagree about the way that society should be structured, but it’s better to have that battle of ideas openly in a respectful way rather than to dismiss or belittle one another.”


Matthew Lesh from the IPA maintains a similar position, saying that think tanks on both sides of the ‘battle of ideas’ form an integral part of public debate in Australia.


“There’s a phrase in think tanks called the ‘Overton Window’, and that is about trying to move the general window of acceptable possibilities when it comes to policy,” he says.


“We’re often on talk shows and in the media with individuals from other think tanks.


“Most of the time we disagree; sometimes we do agree.”


Far from undermining of Australian democracy, says Lesh, the think tanks act as conduits of public opinion, giving a platform to different perspectives and values.


And just like Lesh’s characterisation of the ‘halfway house’ role of think tanks, Frank Stilwell believes in a broader purpose for think tanks in serving the public.


“I really think there’s a symmetry here in terms of the politics,” he says.


“All of these organisations are within what you might call the respectable range of public opinions.


“I think we ultimately see ourselves as having a broader public education role; when you get to the essence of it, think tanks really do serve to promote particular visions of Australia’s future.”

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