John Menadue. Think tanks, cash for comment and the corruption of public debate.

May 21, 2014

In recent months we have been partly appalled and partly amused by the urgers and spivs from both sides of politics that have been paraded in Sydney before the Independent Commission against Corruption. Most recently we have seen developers and others using fronts to launder money to hand on to political parties. Even the Young Liberals have decided to get into the act with their ‘Black Ops’.

But there are other more serious problems with think-tanks that receive large amounts of money, seldom disclose their sponsors or donors and then conduct overt political campaigns, invariably on behalf of business and the conservative side of politics. These cash for comment think-tanks hawk themselves around as ‘independent’! They are often nothing of the sort. They are propagandist fronts for the laundering of money for special interests. Yet organisations like the ABC give them remarkable free time to espouse the views of their secret funders.

Consider the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). In 2010 an IPA Director, Alan Moran, told the Productivity Commission ‘We’ve got about 4,000 funders … there are occasions when we may take decisions which are somewhat different from those of the funders. Obviously that doesn’t happen too often, otherwise they’d stop funding us, but it does happen occasionally.’  I could rest my case there but the IPA has a colourful record in fronting for special interests.

In his 2007 book on the PR industry ‘Insider Spin’ Bob Burton wrote ‘A little funding routed by a think-tank [like IPA] enables the policy agenda of corporate funders to be projected to a broader audience with more credibility than if it did it for themselves’.

In 2008 the IPA wrote an article “Big Fat Beat up” questioning the relationship between obesity and junk foods. We were not told whether the junk food industry was a funder of IPA

In 2010 the Gillard Government announced legislation to force all cigarettes to be sold in plain packages. With the help of the ABC, the IPA attacked the government at every opportunity on this issue. The ABC gave IPA’s Tim Wilson almost unending interviews. He also got a run on seven commercial radio stations. Asked by Media Watch whether the IPA received funding from Big Tobacco, Tim Wilson’s response was ‘The IPA does not disclose its membership list’.

IPA’s John Roskam argued last year for more investment in dams and roads in the Northern Territory together with special economic zones. What IPA did not mention was that its policy proposals on the Northern Territory followed very closely what Gina Rinehart had been saying. Interestingly she was the guest at IPA’s 70th anniversary dinner last year. Asked if Gina Rinehart was a donor to IPA, James Patterson responded ‘The IPA is funded by voluntary contributions of our 3,256 … members and supporters. We are very grateful for their support and we respect their privacy’.

IPA’s major successful campaign has been to give a platform to client change sceptics. It funded two full-page advertisements in The Australian, costing about $100,000. The advertisements attacked the government’s climate change policies.  Who funded this campaign?  The IPA did not tell us. Was it the fossil fuel industry? Was it Exxon, Shell, Caltex and BHP Billiton? With a policy of non-disclosure IPA provides a front for powerful rent-seekers.

In the year to June 30, 2010, the IPA hosted forty events around the country against the carbon tax. I suspect that the polluters paid the cash and the IPA provided the comment.

The IPA told us in the Drum those pub lockouts and 3 a.m.  closing where a bad idea “because the Australian public consumes a large quantity of alcohol and gets into very few fights” How much does IPA receive from the alcohol industry.

A few years ago the IPA launched a sustained attack on NGOs as being unaccountable, unrepresentative and not worthy of charitable status. But the IPA enjoys charitable tax status. Has the Tax Commissioner examined the murky financial world of the IPA?

Why should the ABC which the IPA so desperately wants to get rid of, give the IPA extended coverage to its ‘scholars and fellows’. The ABC does this on a wide range of its programs – The Drum, TV Breakfast, Radio National and more.

Businesses are attracted to front organisations which will espouse and promote their views. The IPA and others are part of a rigged and prejudicial public debate. They are doing more to damage our democratic life than the shifty developers we see parading before the ICAC.

The Free Enterprise Foundation of the NSW Liberal Party and Joe Hockey’s North Sydney Forum are small beer compared with the IPA which fronts for rent-seekers who hide behind the scenes.

Professor Ross Garnaut has spoken of the ‘diabolical problem’ of conducting in Australia a balanced and informed debate on important public policy issues. We had such a debate during the Hawke and Keating periods of the 1980s and the early days of the Howard Government. The IPA and their ilk are a major part of the “diabolical problem” that Ross Garnaut refers to. They are debasing public debate. They will not disclose who funds them and organisations like the ABC give them an armchair ride.

Surely at the least, the ABC should not put to air anyone from a “think tank” that does not disclose its donors because the assumption must be that they are a cash for comment enterprise.

Think tanks are important players in the battle of ideas but this battle needs to be conducted honestly and transparently


I was founding Chair and am a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. We disclose our major supporters and donors.


I will be writing further about the corruption of public debate; the role of lobbyists, the influence of News Ltd, a rogue organisation and the public influence of “independent” business economists who are employed by vested interests and particularly the banks. Where are the independent and informed public commentators? They seem to have abandoned the field and their public responsibilities.

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