Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

They could appear to themselves every day… Think Tanks and CIS’ charity status #auspol

2011 was the year a former politician released a book which blamed a vicious cycle between politicians and the media for the ‘dumbing down’ of public discussion.  As the year rolled on, the discussion didn’t.  The media, it insisted, had nothing to do with the quality of public debate.  It was merely a mirror feeding the public back into itself, like a highly polished Klein bottle echo chamber.
Over summer, as the ennui set in and my mind began to wander, I pondered Ben Birnbauer’s article in New Matilda in which he argued that ‘in the right environment with tax breaks and other incentives, it may — just may — be possible for other models for quality journalism to succeed.’
But maybe – thought I – just maybe, 2011 focussed too much on the role of politicians and the media in public debate.  Aren’t there other policy elites – like ministerial staffers, public servants, etc. – who should also be held to account for the lacklustre public debates?  Will 2012 be the year that we cast the net wider to ensure the politicians and the media have an environment conducive to quality public discussion?
(As a very parenthetical remark: imagine how wonderful an episode of Q&A would be with the secretaries of PM&C, DFAT, Treasury, DIAC, and APSC on the panel.)
Also, aren’t there other groups within society whose purpose is to enrich public debate?  For example, think tanks.  The ideal think tank is a research institute which scrutinises and develops policies independently and then feeds ideas into public discussion.  They complement the role of universities, bridging the gap between academia and public policy.  These independent policy research centres could provide alternative points of view to those preached by the bigger political parties and, where politicians spin the facts and rhetoric for political gain, the public could turn to these institutions for clarity and light.
In our ideas-poor society, these think tanks would be a public good, lifting the quality of discussion and cultivating an engaged and aware electorate.  At last, there would be quality content in the media echo chamber and politicians would have their feet held to the fire by an electorate armed with reasonable questions.  If they fulfilled this function, it’s not unreasonable that the government could support them and foster their growth with tax breaks similar to those suggested by Dr Birnbauer for the media.
Alas, it is doubtful that we live in a world with these ideal think tanks.
I am an avid reader of the policy papers circulated by Australian Policy Online but I cannot remember the last time I read actual research by an Australian think tank.  Syntheses of existing research to fit ideology, yes.  Restatements of existing ideas into government submissions which fit ideology, sure.  Opinion articles stuffed to the fishy gills with ideology, absolutely.  But we’re not getting the novel, innovative, intellectually-challenging policy research that they should be producing.  Either the research doesn’t exist or it’s not translating into public discourse.  Given the frequency that a number of these think tanks appear in mainstream media (particularly on ABC’s The Drum), I find it difficult to believe that they’re starved of opportunities to broadcast their research output.
Then again, there are about thirty think tanks in Australia and I tend to hear regularly from only two of them, neither of which is terribly impressive on the research front.  Under the “research” section of the CIS website, they list book reviews published in their in-house magazine and opinion pieces published in the august, peer-reviewed journals: Crikey, SMH, and The Drum.  Meanwhile, in the Institute for Public Affairs’ 2009/10 annual report, they claim to have published “over a dozen” research papers and two books.  The same report suggests that have been at least thirteen research staff members during the year, making a total of about one item of research output per staff member for that year.  If only University of Sydney academics had it so easy.
Worse, when think tanks perform research-like activities, such as surveys and polling, I don’t trust them.  The classic example here is the Institute of Public Affair’s infamous poll which discovered “82% of Australians think protecting freedom of speech is more  important than protecting people from being offended” when asked “which of these two options is the most important? That the government protect the right to free speech, or that people are protected from being offended?”  I don’t trust think tank polling (of any political persuasion) in the same way I don’t trust polls run by political parties.  I expect them to be biased or underhanded somehow, and often don’t have the time to scrutinise them myself to double check.  I also don’t expect that they would release their “research” if it contradicts their ideology.  And if society at large doesn’t trust the “research” coming out of the think tanks, what good are they?
In Saturday’s SMH, Parnell McGuinness argues that the quality of think tanks is being undermined by a fundamental confusion of purpose: “in Australia advocacy is often confused with public debate, and the advocate with the public intellectual”.  Research institutes not doing research isn’t an Australian phenomenon.  The recent edition of National Affairs published an essay by Tevi Troy which discussed the shift of American think tanks from public policy research centres towards more active participation in politics.  While there are a few important points of difference (the volume alone – there are some 1,800 think tanks in the US – affects how think tanks will behave in order to secure funding from donors), it is likely that Australia will progress down a similar path.  My least favourite senator has seeded his own think tanks and activist groups.  Former minister and current blowhard, Peter Reith, discussed, without a hint of irony, establishing a think tank as an “independent voice” to analyse “the problems” of the current workplace relations system.
Oh, well.  I guess we shouldn’t get too upset that the Platonic ideal isn’t reflected in this imperfect material world of form.  At least they don’t get the tax perks Dr Birnbauer recommends for the media.
Oh, wait!  They totally do!
The Institute of Public Affairs, for example, is endorsed as a Deductible Gift Recipient, making it easier for them to engage in fundraising activities (like a public hospital or university could).  But the real winner in this absurdity is the Centre for Independent Studies which is is registered as a charitable organisation.  A Charitable Institution is an institution that is established and run to advance or promote a charitable purpose; listed as such, the CIS is entitled to GST Concession, FBT Rebate, and Income Tax Exemption.  But what is CIS’ charitable purpose?
It wasn’t that long ago that we were discussing whether charities like Aid/Watch, Oxfam, the Wilderness Society, and World Vision could still claim tax deductibility if they engaged in advocacy work.  The argument was that charity work was supposed to be apolitical: trying to change government policy was advocacy and therefore not charity.  Aid/Watch won( their case, with the High Court deciding that charities could also be advocates.  It doesn’t follow from this that advocacy groups are charities.  In which universe is the Centre for Independent Studies as a charity?  They don’t even mention their charitable work in their “About” section.
Back when the media inquiry was discussing tax perks for media organisations, Fairfax stated that it would be “unbecoming” for an organisation to claim independence from the government while seeking its financial assistance.  Maybe Fairfax is incorrect.  Perhaps organisations can accept all kinds of tax perks from the government while remaining independent in its criticism of other rent-seekers.  I don’t know.
What I do know is that Australians are missing out on the think tanks they deserve and the government could correct this by linking tax perks to research output.  As mentioned earlier, it is not utterly unreasonable that the government could grant special tax concessions to think thanks that fulfil a public good role – although “charitable institution” status seems a little bit too, ahem, charitable.  As McGuinness noted and as an extension of the reasoning in the Aid/Watch case, there is nothing inherently wrong with a think tank having an advocacy element.  If we want think tanks to engage with and cultivate productive public discussion, it is difficult to see how denying their advocacy role would be advantageous.  But the advocacy should not come at the expense of the research and in order to retain the tax advantages, think tanks should submit an overview of their research outputs for the year.  At least then the public can ensure tax perks are being bestowed upon worthy recipients.
Last year’s debate about the media and politicians failed to discuss other policy elites who should be nourishing public debates.  Perhaps 2012 will turn its attention to the taxpayer-supported think tanks which don’t appear to be pulling their weight.

2 responses to “They could appear to themselves every day… Think Tanks and CIS’ charity status #auspol”

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