Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.
With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.
This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.
The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.
It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.
There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.
And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.
Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.
The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.
I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.
That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.
This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.
Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.
This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum