Wednesday, January 28, 2015


End of the holidays.

Time to sit down and start working again. How better to begin than by thinking about thinking?

A slightly younger looking Melissa at the AIIA

The Lander Institute kicks the new year off with its annual survey of think-tanks, and so this column begins there.

But what about other organisations? Unfortunately, the government has slashed funding for them over the past year.

As I wrote in the Canberra Times, It makes one wonder if we really are a knowledge nation . . .

The executive director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs is smiling the biggest smile you've ever seen.
Melissa Conley Tyler is understandably excited as she welcomes a small crowd to the tiny, '70's office in Deakin. Scones and Danish pastries sit on a table to one side, offering the prospect of imminent refreshment and conversation. But first, the well-worn carpet is scraped as the metal legs of office chairs push to and fro. The audience sits down. Tyler, beaming, floats to the podium. 
"We are delighted," she begins, "that the Institute has been recognised as the top think tank in the region". The accolade has been bestowed by the prestigious Lauder Institute of the University of Pennsylvania. The AIIA has marched up the league table to be rated as the "top think tank in Southeast Asia and the Pacific". It has beaten 59 other (sometimes far better resourced institutes) to the title. A glance at Tyler's beaming countenance suggests that her own determined efforts are largely responsible for the remarkable achievement.
Not that other Australian think tanks have been left out. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has, for example, been rated the No. 2 "think tank to watch" in the entire world. Other centres are also mentioned favourably, although that's perhaps not surprising. There are, after all, 48 categories (ranging from "best think-tank conference" to "top think tank by area of research") in which the 29 Australian organisations compete for ratings. Nevertheless, the overall impression is one of dynamism. 
Tyler's aware of the arbitrary nature of such rankings. However, this is her moment and it's only fair to pause and enjoy the sight of her basking in this deserved triumph. She set herself an objective and she's achieved it. Nevertheless, if the independent think tanks are riding high, the same can't be said about the government sector. The federal budget still hasn't been passed but the savage cuts to the research sector are already being implemented. Big cuts: $111 million to the CSIRO; DSTO losing $120 million; CRC's funding cut by $80 million; ARC grants slashed by $74.9 million. But it seems no organisation is too small to escape the reaper.
Geoscience Australia's funding cut by $36 million; even ANSTO's nuclear research funding loses $27 million off the bottom line. And communications technology funding? Another $45 million will be gouged out of that from 2016. If the future of Australia is the knowledge business this seems to be rather funny way of demonstrating it.
This is, of course, part of the government's problem. As we settle down after the final holiday of the season and enthusiastically look forward to the prospect of returning to work, it's understandable that everyone is looking ahead and attempting to discern what the new year will bring. And that's the problem for Tony Abbott.
He may have stopped the boats and axed the tax but this represented simply getting rid of Labor's self-created problems. There's nothing "new". The forward agenda appears to be all about returning us to the past. Monday's honours list included one cringeworthy addition to the bunyip aristocracy of knights and dames, nevertheless it appears all our former PM's including most crucially John Howard have decided to refuse Abbott's re-minted title.
The problem with the titles originates from the same place as the lack of women in cabinet and on the honours list and the slashing of funding for research. There's no view of the future and the very idea of change is regarded as a threat. The difficulty is that the processes of the past won't represent the solutions to the future. Voters instinctively understand this. They want a vision. The difficulty for politicians is that the old answers no longer resonate.
A recent article by Tim Colebatch in Inside Story examined a fundamental problem with our current economic assumptions. Immigration has always been seen as a boon. Immigration brought people with skills who developed the country. Today that equation no longer works. In the past three years the working population has grown by more than a million people. Unfortunately only 385,000 jobs have been added in the same time. Even when (if) the economy gets going again it will take years to suck up those who've been shovelled onto the unemployment heap at a critical point in their development, and there can be no guarantee some will ever find their way to work. 
Solving such problems will require new ways of thinking. The earlier fundamentals have changed and this is rendering irrelevant the old answers that are confidently trotted out by people who aren't prepared to engage with the new world. This points to the importance of encouraging and cherishing new ideas instead of simply regurgitating the old ones, time and time again. 
The Lauder Institute has been continually refining and adding to its ranking of think tanks. That's good. Some years ago, for example, it added a ranking for struggling think tanks, or those with budgets of less than $US5 million ($6.3 million). Other assessments now include "new knowledge, innovative policy proposals or alternative ideas on policy", because it's exactly these sorts of out-of-the-box suggestions that appear to offer viable methods of engaging with the future. 
The idea that Australia is somehow still a "knowledge nation" remains deeply embedded in our psyche. The truth is we're not. The efforts of think tanks will be vital if we want to turn that around, but so will the efforts of government. Unfortunately it's difficult to feel sanguine that either side of politics will be prepared to commit. 

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