Australian party think tanks: symptoms of party malaise or party resilience?

Party think tanks

 

Australian parties are unusual compared to their Anglo-American counterparts in having their own state funded think tanks.

 

There are four such entities affiliated to the main parliamentary parties at the present time: the Chifley Research Centre, related to Labor; the Green Institute associated with the Australian Greens, the Menzies Research Centre attached to the Liberal Party; and the Page Research Centre, which is aligned to the National Party.

 

Political think tanks are not an entirely new phenomenon in Australia. In the period between the 1940s and the 1980s, there were think tanks that were closely associated to, but formally and operationally separate from, the labor and non-labor party groupings. The best-known example on the non-Labor side of politics was the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), created in 1941. On the Labor side of politics, there have been two think tanks with conspicuous ties to the ALP: the Fabian Society (of which the Australian Fabians is its descendent); and the Evatt Foundation.

 

However, the 1990s witnessed the appearance of the ‘official’ party think tank in Australia. These think tanks were qualitatively different from earlier political think tanks in three critical respects. First, they were the creatures of their respective party organizations, and national party organizations more especially.  Secondly, party think tanks have an explicit connection to their related party, even if they are semi-autonomous from the party organization. Thirdly, party think tanks have been the recipients of a public subvention to support their activities since the late 1990s.

 

The presence of party think tanks raises a number of interesting questions, such as what do they do exactly, and why do parties necessarily need them to perform functions that one might reasonably expect to be the operational and financial responsibility of the party proper?

 

The ‘what’ of party think tanks

Although party think tanks define their core functions in terms of applied research and policy analysis, only a small fraction of their every day activities are orientated towards these tasks in practice.

Two key factors explain why party think tanks have only limited (as against “no”) involvement in conventional research activities. First, the think tanks operate with only a small staffing complement. The Menzies and Chifley centres each employ a full time executive director and a part time professional support officer, while the Page Centre and the Green Institute have only a part time executive director. A second reason relates to the political sensitivities associated with party policy formulation. The party in government typically has little need for policy and research support because they have access to the resources of the public service. The party in opposition is often wedded to the idea that party policy formulation is a matter for either the parliamentary fraction or membership wing of the party, or both.

 

Notwithstanding their limited role in undertaking conventional research tasks, the think tanks are engaged in an array of activities that provide both direct and indirect forms of support to their kindred party. Leaving aside variation in the functional (and ideological) priorities across the four think tanks, all undertake various electoral, policy and political tasks that assist their kindred party. Among their most prominent activities, the think tanks connect like-minded interests, including relevant policy communities to the party, and the parliamentary wing especially. They help to promote the party’s message through media engagement and involvement in public debate. They also help to educate and socialize their party’s base, whether by organizing conferences, public seminars, managing blogs and hosting training events. Further, the think tanks are often involved in efforts to preserve the party legacy through archival work.

 

The ‘why’ of party think tanks

 

The appearance of party think tanks could be said to reflect the fact that Australian parties are no longer vehicles of mass integration. As parties have become professionalized, bureaucratized and centralized, electioneering and campaigning has been prioritized over social and political outreach. Similarly, the numerical decline of the membership has affected the parties’ capacity to perform those democratic linkage functions that the voluntary wing once performed for their party with genuine zeal, dedication and free-of-charge. The think tanks help to overcome some of these capacity deficits though their membership, voter, and other stakeholder out-reach activities. According to this assessment, party think tanks are simply a pragmatic response by the parties to a highly fluid political, electoral, technological and social context. The altered terrain in which parties now compete requires them to invoke different organizational strategies that are suitable for contemporary political and electoral realities.

 

A less generous view on what has motivated the establishment of state funded party think tanks is that they are simply another manifestation of the growing inter-penetration of parties with the state. The enthusiasm exhibited by Australian parties to channel state resources to fund their activities further reveals the extent to which they are embedded within the state, and how little interest they ultimately have in undertaking deep and pervasive organizational reform.

 

Both of these assessments contain some truth, and draw to the most likely explanation for their emergence, which is that party think tanks are expressions of the desire by Australian parties to remain connected to civil society but at the state’s expense.

 

Narelle Miragliotta teaches in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Monash University