During the election period, as always, Australia’s think tanks will be scrutinising the merits of political campaign promises while their boards help them to push for better public policy.

    With the federal election looming, calling for an evidence-based policy agenda in amongst the turmoil of hot takes and low blows can prove fraught for Australia’s think tanks.

    “During an election campaign, a wide range of lobby groups, think tanks, unions and business groups all try to rise above the parapet and have their voices heard,” says Grattan Institute board member Carol Austin FAICD. “The political parties themselves also try to get the community focused on their agenda. It is a really crowded marketplace.”

    Regardless of whether a think tank is affiliated with a political party or is bipartisan, right-wing or progressive, each seeks to contribute to political debate and influence public policy. “Achieving reform is always hard, and the frenetic environment of an election campaign makes it even more difficult,” notes Austin, a former director of HSBC. “When you add in the pressures of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it becomes an enormously challenging period.”

    When the first of these elite institutions began to appear in the 1940s, scholars dubbed them “universities without students” and the “new partisans”. Executive director of the Menzies Research Centre Nick Cater believes that the role of think tanks has never been more vital. He sees his organisation as injecting nuance into what can often degenerate into a “Punch and Judy” style of political debate.

    “Forty years ago, the campaign speeches by Australia’s political leaders were highly detailed in terms of policies, but that gradually got squeezed out,” says Cater, a former editor of The Weekend Australian. “What’s often missing in the political debate is depth, and that is especially true during the election period. We find that journalists are eager to use our research because it helps them to challenge the politicians’ promises.”

    The Grattan Institute is laser-focused on seeking achievable change. Its researchers look for policy areas that have received undue attention and are not caught in a quagmire of endless political point- scoring. “We’re not going to write a treatise on public versus private healthcare,” explains Austin. “We’re quite specific in the recommendations we make. In the health area, for example, we have made recommendations on improving the efficiency of hospitals, reforming the market for prostheses and reducing the cost of pharmaceuticals.”

    Grattan considers an election an important opportunity to bring all of its work together into an integrated reform package. On 27 February, it published its Orange Book 2022, a blueprint of practical, evidence-based reforms. It includes ways to boost incomes, improve health and education, create better transport links and make housing more affordable. The Orange Book is designed to sit alongside the Blue and Red Books, which are produced by the bureaucracy for an incoming Coalition government and a Labor government, respectively.

    Common good

    When Glenn Barnes FAICD was chair of Australian Unity Limited in 2012–16, he gained insights into fundamental problems facing the country’s health and aged care sectors. This led to a broader awareness about the issues plaguing Australia’s governmental systems, and he became thoroughly disenchanted with the state of politics.

    “Any issue that has complexity will be avoided because politicians continue to focus on political games,” he says. “It’s all about hanging onto power rather than doing what we actually asked politicians to do, which is to serve the common good.”

    In 2019, Barnes established the Citizens for Democratic Renewal, which he co-chairs with former NSW Labor education minister Verity Firth. The organisation seeks to reverse the loss of trust in Australia’s political system, which would be achieved, in part, by “returning to evidence- based policy development”. Its ultimate aim is to create a citizens’ assembly, as Ireland did in 2016, to contemplate political questions that include an ageing society, climate change and the constitution.

    “We seem to get ideas being driven by a few people in government, without really any evidence of the need for a policy,” says Barnes. “It’s driven more by party prejudice.”

    Party affiliation

    The Menzies Research Centre was founded in 1994 and named after the founder of the Liberal Party, from whom it receives funding (Labor’s equivalent is the Chifley Research Centre). Cater and his team work closely with the Liberal Party to help it build a policy agenda, but it functions independently, he says. “We talk to people in the Liberal party a lot, but it’s not a case of us taking orders from them — we wouldn’t be any help if we just mirrored what they were thinking.”

    During the election period, the centre examines the merits of the policies presented to the electorate, and particularly those of Labor. In the lead-up to the 2019 election, it zoned in on perceived flaws in the Opposition’s energy policy. “[Labor] put a plan out without doing any modeling,” says Cater. “We did some solid modeling and then put that before journalists, so that they had something to challenge Labor with. Journalists were looking for something solid, beyond the ‘he said/she said’ stuff.”

    After undertaking detailed polling, the centre had a “material impact on the conservative side of politics” by persuading it that a clear majority of Australians were in favour of acting to mitigate the impacts of climate change. “It’s hard to remember now, but the Liberal Party was very divided on climate change before the last election — and it came together around that position,” says Cater.

    In an article in The Conversation, Monash lecturer Dr Narelle Miragliotta writes that the perceived importance of party think tanks to Australia’s main political parties has grown in recent years as a result of a decline in party memberships, which has fallen to around one per cent of the population. “Party think tanks are increasingly carrying out those critical linkage and educative roles that were once undertaken within formerly vibrant political parties.”

    Getting results

    Cater contends that his organisation’s affiliation with the Liberal Party keeps it focused on what can be achieved in realpolitik.

    “Policy is not just about an idea, it’s about implementing the idea,” he says. “You’ve always got to factor in the willingness of bureaucracy to embrace [policy change] — whether there will be enthusiasm or inertia. Some think tanks end up putting through beautiful proposals that never see the light of day.”

    The detailed research undertaken by think tanks is critical in moving Australian public policy forward because political parties lack the necessary staff numbers to carry it out. “A think tank is dedicated to developing new policy proposals, whereas the bureaucracy has to administer government policy,” explains Fergus Hanson, director of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

    Agree to disagree

    Grattan’s board takes ultimate responsibility for the content of its reports, while editorial responsibility rests with its CEO, Danielle Wood. Grattan is committed to independent analysis, so a report may recommend something that an individual board director disagrees with.

    As Austin explains, the board’s role is not to achieve consensus on a report’s findings, but to ensure that the research meets its rigorous standards. Under the guidance of new chair Lindsay Maxsted FAICD, previously chair of Westpac, board meetings often involve “lively, intelligent debates that are high-level and focused”.

    “We are custodians of the endowment that’s been set up to fund the organisation,” says Austin. “We work hard to ensure that we generate revenue, but we also work hard to protect Grattan’s independence and the quality of our analysis. We do not undertake commissioned research as we believe this may be seen to compromise our independence.”

    An important focus for the board is holding the institute accountable to its mission to improve the lives of all Australians through independent research. “We’re not interested in just writing a report and letting it sit on the shelf,” says Austin. “We want to stimulate debate and contribute to better policy outcomes. We take our reports to Canberra and brief government and opposition members as well as the independents. We also meet with state politicians, federal and state bureaucrats, and opinion leaders.”

    The Grattan board seeks feedback on whether its researchers’ ideas are getting traction. It receives regular reporting on the number of report downloads, opinion pieces published, podcasts listened to and references made in the media and during parliamentary sessions. One measure of success is receiving mixed feedback from political parties on its findings.

    “We know that we’re successful if we’ve annoyed the government and the opposition over the course of the year,” says Austin. “If it were the case that one side of politics supported everything we did and the other opposed it, as a board, we would be concerned that we were becoming partisan. We’d look at the way in which we are conducting our research.”

    Achieving influence in reform

    Hanson says that the pathway to influence is through original, empirical research. Synthesising a pre-existing knowledge base will do little to advance public policy, and neither will a short- range focus. “There’s often a temptation for think tanks to chase immediate events, but their real value is in longer-term, deeper strategic thinking. That work is more enduring and productive than the day-to-day reaction to events.”

    Ahead of every election, ASPI publishes its Agenda for Change report. The bipartisan think tank does not take an organisational position on issues — letting the research speak for itself. In a previous report, for example, Hanson argued the need to look at foreign interference through a broader lens, rather than focusing exclusively on its effect on Australia.

    “We tend to ignore the impacts of disinformation and foreign interference in other countries,” says Hanson. “If you look at our region, there’s a big arc of fragile democracies that span from below Japan across to India. We need to pay more attention to these democracies, because we’re going to win or lose the region based on whether those states can be preserved as democracies or whether they flip into being authoritarian states that are basically client states of the Chinese Communist Party.”

    ASPI has already been instrumental in raising awareness around Australian university collaborations with Chinese military-affiliated universities, following groundbreaking research published in 2019.

    Regardless of who wins the election, ASPI’s mandate will remain unchanged. However, this year its research findings are coming under a brighter spotlight, which Hanson welcomes. “Normally, foreign policy is a very long way down the list when it comes to election campaign topics,” he says. “This year, China has become a particularly prominent issue. It’s interesting that a foreign policy issue has percolated to the top of the agenda.”

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