Thursday, January 02, 2014

Think tanks on the left - a preliminary survey

Two related but slightly different twitter engagements have me writing this blog post.

The first followed

This question from @Gwyntaglaw was not something I could answer in 140 characters!  (The first part of my two part reply had read "ALP does not have the policy strength to tackle the question of thorough reform of the welfare system - but it could."
@VanBadham's argument is that the changes that "pushed Australian single parents from a family pension onto the dole once their child turned eight" were a betrayal of Labor values.  The argument did not reject the validity of attempting to deliver reform, just that the reform chosen under the label "Building Australia's Future Workforce" did not reflect the kind of policy development that previous Labor Government's showed.  In fact, the policy seemed to be more about addressing the failure to deliver a surplus and indeed a bit of pandering to those who peddle the story of young women only having children to get benefits.
It was summarised as:
The party of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating has the policy knowledge, history and experience to do what is required to reform welfare as a system that equalises social opportunity for all Australians. That it squandered its chance for meaningful reform through the BFAW and then abandoned single parents to the politically fabricated budget panic belies a party which has allowed itself to become spooked by the propaganda of its opponents.
I was questioning whether the party today indeed actually had the "policy knowledge, history and experience" described. 
It followed on from an earlier engagement with @Gwyntaglaw also on the topic of left think tanks.
It seems to me that it really isn't possible to mount a review of welfare policy until there is a wider socio-economic program to underpin it.  Hence I am serious about the question of the need for a "seminal text" (noting that Marx is definitely not it) that is a subject for another longer piece of writing.  As an example at the end of my post on confirmation bias I used the term "social justice" as an example at the end on terms that are used by one side of political debate that result in a completely different interpretation from the other.
For now this is just a quick trawl through the left think tanks and a thought about their capacity to assist Labor.
The first observation to make is that while the history of Think Tanks is long, especially in the USA, they are perhaps more renowned for the role they played in the rise of the neoliberal right in that country.  Indeed it was based on a call by William Simon that "The only thing that can save the Republican Party … is a counter-intelligentsia. … [Conservative scholars] must be given grants, grants, and more grants in exchange for books, books, and more books."  In short, the Think Tank was seen as a response to the perceived excessive influence of the Left in other institutions - especially Universities.
So it comes as a bit of a shock to refer to the left wing think tanks, though there are such things even in the US. 
Wikipedia provides a list of think tanks by country.   At the time of writing it listed the following [with my assignation of the leaning of the body in square brackets];
  • Air Power Australia [unaligned]
  • Australia Institute (TAI) [left]
  • Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) [unaligned]
  • Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) [unaligned]
  • Brisbane Institute [unaligned]
  • Committee for Economic Development of Australia [right]
  • Centre for Independent Studies [right]
  • Centre for Policy Development [left]
  • Development Policy Centre [unaligned]
  • East Asian Bureau of Economic Research (EABER) [unaligned]
  • Evatt Foundation [left]
  • Grattan Institute [unaligned]
  • H.R. Nicholls Society [right]
  • Institute of Public Affairs (Australia) (IPA) [right]
  • Lowy Institute for International Policy [unaligned]
  • Mannkal Economic Education Foundation [right]
  • Per Capita [left]
  • Sydney Institute [right]
  • Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC) [unaligned]
  • United States Studies Centre [unaligned]
  • Western Australia Policy Forum [right]
    The count is 4 left and 7 right - but the list is not complete (it doesn't include the McKell Institute, Whitlam Institute or Catalyst for example). 
    The left think tanks as I can identify them and what they say about themselves is;
    "The Australia Institute is the country’s most influential progressive think tank. Based in Canberra, it conducts research on a broad range of economic, social and environmental issues in order to inform public debate and bring greater accountability to the democratic process. ...The Institute is determined to push public debate beyond the simplistic question of whether markets or governments have all the answers to more important questions: When does government need to intervene in the market? When should it stand back? And when regulation is needed, what form should it take?"
    "Though we call ourselves a think tank, the Australian Fabians are more than this. We are based on a social and intellectual movement: the UK Fabian Society has been a central part of democratic socialist, social-democratic and Labor tradition thoughout the 20th century in Britain, and the Australian Fabians in Australia since 1947. Our output is thoroughly contemporary and relevant: by dint simply of who we are, it is organically connected to the history of the left.
    Our goal is not merely (as by and large it is for other think tanks) to produce interesting ideas for the elite policy community. It is the promotion of socialist and progressive thought throughout society. We aim to change the intellectual climate of the Australia (and indeed of the wider world). We want to make broadly left of centre ways of thinking commonplace."
    "Catalyst is a collaborative policy network. We work closely with trade unions, non-government organizations, academics and practitioners to promote progressive policy solutions to some of today’s most pressing social and economic issues.
    Our simple vision is for good lives, good work and good communities."
    "The Centre for Policy Development is a public interest think tank dedicated to seeking out creative, viable ideas and innovative research to inject into Australia’s policy debates.
    We give a diverse community of thinkers space to imagine solutions to Australia’s most urgent challenges, and we do what it takes to make their ideas matter."

    "The Chifley Research Centre is the Labor Party’s official think tank, committed to the advancement of public policy debate and progressive thinking in Australia. To this end, the Centre promotes policy discussion in universities and throughout political and industrial forums; commissions academic research into pressing and long term public policy issues affecting Australia; provides strategic policy advice to the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party; and works in conjunction with other research and intellectual bodies to promote better understanding of the Australian political and policy environment."
    "The Evatt Foundation is committed to advancing the highest ideals of the labour movement, such as equality, participation, social justice and human rights, by promoting:
    research and discussion of public issues;
    awareness of social, political and economic aspects of Australian life;
    academic and applied research for trade unions, the labour movement and other community organisations;
    education and vocational training;
    young artists in Australia."
    McKell Institute
    "The McKell Institute is a public policy institute dedicated to developing practical policy ideas and contributing to public debate. The McKell Institute will explore and discuss a wide range of policy issues and reforms including:
    Improving the State’s infrastructure, particularly transport, to encourage economic growth and development and meet the needs of a growing population.
    Economic policies that support growth, foster job creation and the expansion of small business.Supporting increased economic engagement with key international trading partners to deliver investment and create jobs.
    Making housing more affordable for all Australians, particularly for low income families.
    Creating and maintaining work environments which are safe and free from discrimination, while providing fair remuneration and conditions for workers, particularly those in low paid jobs.
    Preserving our natural environment and taking action to protect future generations from the effects of climate change by moving to a low carbon economy.
    Providing quality and affordable health and dental care for all Australians, while increasing investment into mental health research and support for sufferers.
    Ensuring that governments invest in our public and private education system at all levels, to provide all Australians with a first class education and the opportunity to retrain when necessary."
    "Per Capita is an independent progressive think tank dedicated to building a new vision for Australia.
    ...The study confirmed the gap in the Australian marketplace for ideas. Well-funded conservative think tanks were presenting detailed arguments in the public arena, but progressives had failed to seriously contest these conservative positions. ...
    We decided to establish Per Capita to present the economic and moral cases for progressive policy reform in Australia."
    "The Whitlam Institute records the historical legacy of Gough Whitlam’s years in public life and fosters the contemporary relevance of the Whitlam Program to public discourse and policy.
    The Whitlam Institute is guided by the ‘three great aims’ that drove the Whitlam Program of 1972. They are:
    to promote equality; 
    to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land; and 
    to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.
    “We want to give a new life and a new meaning in this new nation to the touchstone of modern democracy — to liberty, equality, fraternity.” Gough Whitlam, ALP Policy Speech 13 November 1972"
    The immediate observation one makes is that this constitutes quite a high number of separate think tanks - especially since none of them individually achieves the cut-through of the IPA, the Sydney Institute or even the Centre for Independent Studies. 
    The next observation is that there really is a lack of clarity about the objectives.  Catalyst stands out because it is actually quite narrowly focussed on the Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. 
    The rest have either fairly vague notions of encouraging involvement in policy processes or otherwise to promote "progressive" thinking.  I haven't done the research but I don't think right wing think tanks talk about promoting "conservative" ideas - they do talk about promoting the concepts of freedom and of markets.
    To a large extent this vagueness then permeates a lot of the work - with lots and lots of stuff on environmental and rights issues, and less on economic issues.  And where economic issues are addressed they commence from the framing of the right - that economic issues are about markets - rather than the framing of the left - that economic issues are about institutions and in particular power structures. 
    Turning to the actual question posed by @Gwyntaglaw of which left leaning policy shops are up to the task of really grappling with the structure of the welfare system - to create a post welfare state welfare system?  The answer is that the troika of Chifley with Per Capita and CPD could do it.  Ideally Chifley would frame the overall project and the other two would do elements of it.
    Chifley was getting close to addressing the issue at the Progressive Australia conference late last year - a theme of which was to pay particular attention to what could best be described as "early intervention" to escape disadvantage.  The difficulty is that the thinkers still seem to frame "disadvantage" as some kind of statistical luck-of-the-draw event.  In reality it is an outcome of the operation of power structures. 
    A very simple example of this is how the metaphor of a "labour market" has seen corporations largely vacate the field of skill development. Where once a young Australian could hope to be employed by one of our large firms or state owned enterprises and be trained to do a sequence of jobs now the employer is only interested in getting skills from the market - if their skill needs change they sack the workers they have then hire a new lot.  This has become particularly destructive behaviour in the field of ICT skills. In short the adoption of the concept of "labour market" has pushed the responsibility, cost and risk of skill development entirely onto the worker, while the corporation disproportionately benefits from the "surplus value" thus created. 
    An analysis of the welfare system needs to recognise these institutional distortions.
    1. Institutional Economics.
    There are many economic theories that constitute the field of heterodox economics. Institutional economics is one of these - that simply has at its core the proposition that "institutions" cannot be removed from proper analysis in political economy.  In some respects Marx was an institutional critic of the classical economists Smith and Ricardo. Veblen was an institutional critic of the neo-classical economists. More recently there are different strands - one based on the concept of transaction costs that seeks to explain the existence of firms, the others like Galbraith focus on how institutions result in deviations from market theory. 
    2. How the single parents pension won a conservative voter.
    My mother was a conservative voter her whole life (her father had been very briefly a UAP member of the NSW Legislative Assembly).  The only time I think she might have voted Labor was for Gough - and in particular for the single mother's pension. As a doctor she had seen too many women staying in abusive relationships because they would have had no means to support themselves if they left.  The pension and no fault divorce were incredibly significant reforms.

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