Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

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

Who’s the demon?

At the risk of being called naïve or an apologist, I feel compelled to challenge the demonisation of big business.

While it is something that has been troubling me for a while, my concerns have become crystalised by the anti-mining mutterings of my esteemed colleagues on Twitter.

In recent days, the more we non-economists hear about the misnamed Resource Super Profit Tax, the more sensible it seems.  But it has taken serious journalists such as Peter Martin and George Megalogenis to take the time to translate this arcane but practical arrangement into plain English.

We should not have been subjected to the shrill objections and counter-claims of the mining industry and Government.  Any government worth its salt on the issues management front could have turned this resource and risk sharing arrangement into a good news story by bringing the mining industry into the tent and getting them on side before the RSPT announcement was made.

Is this me being naïve?  Or did the Government want the mining industry to be seen to be taking a hit swiftly after it dodged an earlier bullet with the abandonment of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme?

Did the Government consciously demonise the mining industry in an attempt to regain a few brownie points from the electorate?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the title for the new scheme.  The moniker given to the Resource Super Profit Tax smacks of the same hyperbole applied to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.   The RSPT is no more a real tax than CO2 is real pollution.  But these labels provide a mechanism for the government to simultaneously suggest there is a serious problem and that it is addressing this problem with a new acronym, I mean, program.

Aside from this, is the demonisation of the Australian mining industry justified?

Yes there have been sins in the past.  And there are still some out-riders who think they can still get away with it dodgy practices.  But it is no more logical to burden all miners with the sins of the few, than it is to do the same with teachers, car drivers, or internet users.

Mining companies work on 20 and 30 year timeframes.  They understand better than most of us the bounty and the limitations of the earth.  Even so, it took them a while to realise that the natural environment is not limitless in its capacity to rebound from the stresses of mineral extraction.  It took them even longer to understand how their operations impact on people and societies.  But they did come to understand these factors and they took action to change.

Around 10 years ago, led by Australian mining company CEOs, the global industry took the unprecedented step of commissioning an international NGO called the International Institute for Environment and Development (www.iied.org) to run the world’s biggest community attitudes survey.  The survey was to find out what communities, governments, environmentalists and other activists in both the developing and developed worlds thought about the mining industry and what they wanted to change about how the industry went about its business.

Some mining companies walked away from this process because they found it too confronting.  To my knowledge, none of those companies operate or have a presence in Australia.  Some NGOs walked away too because they thought it was a greenwashing exercise.  But after two years of the community talking and the mining industry listening, some real outcomes emerged.  Perhaps these were less ambitious than some would have liked.  But they were a start.  A new mining entity was established at the global level to continue the discussion with NGOs and to deliver the undertakings.

My point is that mining companies know better than most that they have to be “good corporate citizens” in order to keep their social license to operate.

It is these companies who have built roads and communities alongside their operations in rural and remote Australia.  They have built infrastructure for water and electricity generation.  They have education and employment programs for their local people.  They have invested in these communities with their shareholders’ funds because governments would not.  And as a result they have a relationship with their communities that politicians and other companies could only ever dream of.

While some critics of mining are prepared to acknowledge this investment, they call it the resource curse – communities and economies made dependent on mining revenue that are left stranded when the operation ceases.  This may well occur if a mine is closed before its time due to emergency or insolvency.  But most major operations include the cost of withdrawal from the community in their initial project costings.  This withdrawal includes building capacity within the community to ensure that it can continue to thrive once the mining project has concluded.  If you want a real example of that strategy, then look no further than the thriving ex-mining town of Newcastle.

I’ll have other things to say about the anti-corporate, anti-capitalist bandwagon.  But for today, I’ll finish by saying this: when a politician points at someone and says they are bad and need to be dealt with, first ask yourself why the politician wants you to believe him …….