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Australia's politics academics should look at themselves before calling the IPA and CIS biased

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 27 May 2016


I am always amused when Australian academics display misguided confidence about their own abilities when criticising others who offer a different policy view. For example, Damien Cahill, who has long argued that centre-right think tanks were opposed to all things progressive (including trade unions and social justice advocates), stated in 2013 that the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) conducts policy and research work that is ideological, closed to alternative views, and limited in value because of its reliance upon corporate funding.

It is also rather fanciful to suggest that the IPA and Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), with their "same old prescriptions for deregulation, marketisation and small government", provide a relatively easy sparring partner for the left given "there is a willing audience right now for the message that inequality hobbles democracy and that everyone benefits when we limit the power of wealth".

By focusing on a very recent debate in the Australian Journal of Political Science (AJPS), the journal representative of the Australian Political Studies Association, this article calls on critics of the IPA and CIS to recognise the bias and poor scholarship of academia itself, in line with Gregory Melleuish's recent observation (AJPS 2015:719-734) that AJPS articles since 2000 "do not usually contribute to a narrative that sheds light on the larger, longstanding, structural issues of Australian politics".

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While the response by Ariadne Vroman and Anika Gaujamade (AJPS 2016) to Melluish argues that the AJPS contributes a body of work that points to "structural and policy effects of neo-liberalism", a term used by academics to explain every perceived adverse policy trend since the 1980s, AJPS articles since 2012 hardly move beyond a centre-left bias to address the various strengths and weaknesses of different policy perspectives.

This is despite the post-2007 global financial crisis situation where Australia too has relied on growing public/private debt to fuel economic activity, a context where three prime ministers have been dumped by party colleagues since 2010 at a time when governments are struggling for viable policy options in a competitive international economic environment.

Of the 113 of 178 AJPS articles I observed that focused on Australian policy issues (see following table), there are very few articles that comprehensively address key economic policy issues.

On the one hand, Cahill (AJPS 2013:71-84) calls for a better conceptual framework definition to explain the influence of neoliberalism upon the Howard government, which included the marketization of unemployment assistance, expanding private health insurance and private education, the privatisation of Telstra, and the promotion of labour market deregulation. Cahill, having downplayed the role played by neoliberal think tanks, gives greater attention to the context of the day given that changing economic circumstances have resulted in different power relations between capital and labour to allow neoliberal ideas to flourish.

Defying such gloomy analysis of recent policy trends are a just a few AJPS articles. For example, Fenna and Tate (2015: 393-411), having examined 25 income trend and 17 wealth distribution studies of the Australian experience, conclude that "there has been far less of a rising inequality trend than is often assumed or argued". Fenna and Tapper (2012: 155-172), using ABS fiscal incidence figures for the period 1984 to 2004, previously challenged the view that Labor and Coalition governments had succumbed to neoliberalism as the welfare state had got larger despite bipartisan support for economic liberalisation.

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But, in terms of comprehensively evaluating recent policy trends and what they mean for Australia's future in line with existing policy realities, hopefully by weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of different policy perspectives about what the extent of government intervention should be, the AJPS might as well not exist.

Take ongoing budget deficits, arguably the most important policy issue evident in Australian policy debate since 2012. The AJPS produced just two articles discussing budgets directly. Lukin (2015: 258-278), reviewing the budget speeches of Costello (1996–2007) and Swan (Labor 2008–13), notes how Costello's speeches were "singular, consistent and highly partisan" while Swan failed to project "an alternative, consistent narrative of his government's agenda and achievements". Walter and Uhr (2013: 431-444), examining the budget surplus debate during the Gillard minority government (2010–13) when the major parties competed for control of the voice advocating "responsible economic government", concluded that Labor lost due to its election promise to deliver a budget surplus by 2012–13 rather than pursue prudent macro-management.

Centre-left bias is evident in the AJPS on most issues. Of social welfare, Wilson (2013: 286-306) argues that Labor's social welfare spending from 2007 was hindered by tax revenue being too low despite the implementation of the mining and carbon taxes in 2012 and voter responses to an ANU Poll (September 2011) which found support from low-income earners and university-educated voters. Mendes (2015: 427-441), laments the failed efforts of ACOSS (2011–13) to have the rate of the Newstart allowance for the unemployed increased despite gaining outside support (policy reports, petitions, media releases, key interest groups and parliamentarians). Mendes declares that the Australian welfare state has a "historical preference for labour market engagement over broader social rights".

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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