Think tanks and transparency

The Americanisation of Australian politics is exemplified by the growing number of think tanks here – although thankfully so far some Australian ones are generally more transparent and more independent than their US counterparts.

The Institute of Public Affairs 70th anniversary dinner (the blog didn’t attend and wasn’t invited) is an example of the problems which can arise. Personally, despite being opposed to much IPA thinking, I find many of their ideas interesting and worthy of debate. Director, John Roskam, presents some interesting ideas in between the ideologically-driven stuff (such as his AFR columns at the start of the GFC calling for dramatic cutbacks in government spending) and Chris Berg has some challenging thoughts about the nanny state and the health thought police. However, the IPA doesn’t disclose details of donors or supporters so, when they publish a viewpoint on some issue or other, you can’t check whether someone who might benefit from it helped make it possible. This is not to suggest that the IPA colours its views to that of its donors but rather to highlight the fact that the general policy of disclosure of interests practised in most media outlets and academic journals is not followed by the IPA. That general policy is simply a matter of transparency.

The IPA argues that protecting contributors and supporters is necessary and would say that contributors don’t influence outputs. Probably most of the supporters know what the IPA world view is and provide funds because they expect that view to be promulgated rather than encouraging it by their donations. But it always looks odd when – side by side with other articles in media outlets – Chris Berg’s pieces (for instance) never have disclosures while others regularly do. The IPA is not alone in this and other Australian thinks tanks from left, right and all over the place are pretty much the same. Most of the time you have a pretty good idea what line a particular think tank is going to take on a particular issue but not everyone studies think tanks and their outputs closely enough to work that out. That’s why transparency and disclosures of interest are important.

How the situation can get out of hand is exemplified by the US. Not only has the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the electoral process to floods of corporate and vested interest money but there is also a network of think tanks and bodies which push policies, lobby and campaign at local, State and Federal level. The source of much of the money behind this activity is mysterious to say the least.

The Centre for Media and Democracy in the US, publisher of PR Watch, a staunch critic of the PR industry, has been investigating some of these bodies over the years. A major investigation was of ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council) which campaigns at State and Federal level and drafts legislation and has been very successful in getting Republican Party politicians to enact or try to enact that legislation. Needless to say the legislation doesn’t focus on extending welfare or public health care, nor protecting union rights, increasing minimum wages, gun control or other similar issues. The CMD’s campaign about ALEC, and its disclosure of some of its campaigns, has resulted in some corporations withdrawing from the organisation.

CMD’s latest investigation has been into the State Policy Network, a series of state-based organisations run by a woman called Tracie Sharp, which funnels money from people such as the right wing billionaires, the Koch brothers, into campaigns to change laws US state by state. Full details of some of the campaigns, funders and links with ALEC, can be found here.

Many of the donors were also deeply involved in campaigns to defeat Obama and bankrolled Karl Rove’s unsuccessful efforts. George W. Bush famously nicknamed Rove ‘turd blossom’ but in recent years the smell of success has turn a bit to the stench of failure.

As a general rule most think tanks, while ostensibly just promulgating policy ideas, have an agenda which has political implications. They campaign to bring about legislative and other changes. No-one wants to legislate to control think tanks although the IPA and the Howard Government were adamant that organisations with tax deductibility status ought not be allowed to undertake political campaigns. But there is a strong argument for greater transparency so that people can judge for themselves cui bono.

DECLARATION OF INTEREST: The author donates to the Australia Institute and is a member of Transparency International, an organisation which campaigns for transparency in government and corporate activities and finances.