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Think our political debate is tanking? Ask the s(c)eptic celebs

By Kevin Rennie - posted Friday, 24 February 2012

The role of think tanks hit the headlines last week when the U.S. based Heartland Institute became embroiled in the denialgate controversy. Australia has a diverse range of think tanks covering much of the political spectrum, most with prominent public profiles.

The bright sparks of the commentariat are ubiquitous. It seems impossible to make even short visit to the mass media, especially ABC radio or television, without running into one of the young jerks from the conservative (or is it libertarian) Institute of Public Affairs. Chris Berg and Tim Wilson have an opinion on everything. Name a topic and you can guess what their research has discovered before they speak. This foresight is a skill shared by tankers of all political persuasions.

They not only comment on the latest spoke in the news cycle, they are often its origin. The Grattan Institute, a brains trust of the middle ground, has led recent news headlines with its report on energy No easy choices: which way to Australia's energy future? and its education research Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia


The current programs of the Grattan Institute focus on 'productivity growth, cities, school education, tertiary education, and energy'. Their board is made up of academics, senior public servants, a former Liberal MHR, big business CEOs and lawyers. There are three women in the ten, reflecting most company boards in Australia. Grattan's CEO John Daley has worked in most of these areas.

Often we are dished up research with attitude. "Who needs a car industry anyway?" The Centre for Independent Studies thinks "perhaps not". It's hard to know if Tony Abbott is taking his lead from them or vice versa. The CIS supports 'a market economy and a free society under limited government where individuals can prosper and fully develop their talents'. It has that in common with U.S. right thinkers The John Birch Society. CIS has only two women on its board of twentyone with a similar composition and backgrounds to Grattan. It is very much the big end of town, although its Executive Director Greg Lindsay was a high school teacher before founding the organisation in 1976. Their research scholars number sixteen.

Recently CIS staffer Sara Hudson contributed a good news story to News Limited's online blog The Punch: An Indigenous program that's boxing clever. Perhaps a Jimmy Sharman Troupe employment program is in the offing to replace the much maligned Community Development Employment Program. Her expertise is Indigenous Affairs. With a job description that starts with 'welfare dependency', it is not hard to anticipate the direction of her research.

Wikipedia lists 34 think tanks in Oz. The entry has the National Civic Council and the H. R. Nicholls Society but not the Climate Institute.

One prominent organisation that describes itself as 'the country's most influential progressive think tank' is The Australia Institute. Its concerns include poverty and 'our planet'. Executive director Richard Denniss has a strong media presence. One of the five women directors out of eleven is Australian Council of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney.

Behind the sparkling teeth of the young jerks lurks many an old stager. Frank Lowy's passion for soccer, including the unsuccessful bid for the World cup, is well known. His Westfield shopping centre empire helps to fund the Lowy Institute for International Policy. 'It ranges across all the dimensions of international policy debate in Australia - economic, political and strategic – and it is not limited to a particular geographic region.' Its Board includes climate change reviewer Professor Ross Garnaut and its International Advisory Council sports former Australian Rupert Murdoch. It has a very large cohort of research staff and visiting fellows.


Think tank cross-fertilisation is first class. Samantha Hardy, a Strategic Adviser at Graeme Wood Foundation, is a director of the Australia Institute. Graeme Wood, of fame, is the philanthropist behind the latest online media venture, The Global Mail. Before he switched to the Grattan Institute as program director for higher education in 2011, Andrew Norton spent 11 years working for both the University of Melbourne and CIS. IPA Executive Director John Roskam has strong Liberal party connections. Liberals on the Board include former Federal Minister Rod Kemp and Victorian powerbroker Michael Kroger.

Another tank that Wikepdia does not mention is the climate change skeptical Galileo Movement. They do undertake research, though #thinktank might be too rich a tag for an organisation that knows what it will find beforehand: 'to expose misrepresentations pushing a price on carbon dioxide'. Their parton is radio shock-jock Alan Jones. Former Western Mining Corporation CEO Hugh Morgan and billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart have been linked to Galileo. Morgan is also President of the Lavoisier Group, another global warning skeptics organisation.

Galileo has ambitious aims:

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This article was first published on Red Bluff.

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About the Author

Kevin Rennie is a retired secondary teacher, unionist and has been an Australian Labor Party member since 1972. He spent eight years teaching in the Northern Territory: four in Katherine, followed by four in Maningrida, an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Kevin lived in Broome from January 2007 to May 2008 and now lives in Melbourne. He blogs at Red Bluff, Labor View from Bayside and Cinematakes. He is also a Global Voices author.

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