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Businessmen played a central role in setting up, funding and promoting free market think tanks that flourished in the 1970s and 80s in Australia and staffing their boards. These organizations imported US free market think tank material into Australia, for example from the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation and the Foundation for Economic Education. Other businessmen involved include media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Elders IXL’s John Elliott, and former head of Australian Stock Exchange Ian Roach. Mining and resources companies have been prominent funders including WMC, Santos, Shell Australia, Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA) and BHP.
The growth of these conservative business-financed think tanks contributed to the ‘new prominence of neo-conservative ideas in economic debate in Australia’ which was labelled the ‘New Right’ or 'economic rationalism'. It embodied a belief that ‘economic resources are better allocated through market forces than by government intervention’ or alternatively ‘a doctrine that seeks to extend market principles to as many aspects of human life as possible’.
For critics the ideology was anything but rational but for vested interests, particularly business interests, it was entirely rational. In operation it meant that ‘considerations of economic cooperation and social justice’ were subordinated to ‘the principles of the free market, private enterprise’ and individual incentives. Government functions and services were judged by narrow economic criteria rather than their responsiveness to social needs.
Since the late 1970s think tanks have proliferated in Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand. This has been especially so during the 1990’s. In 1990 there were 15, by 1993 there were 75. Most of them were pro-market and opposed to government intervention. They constantly reiterated the unbreakable ‘connection between economic and political freedom’ and ‘their long-term aim is to re-define the terms of debate on political and social issues in ways favourable’ to the corporations which funded them.
These think tanks particularly targeted elite opinion. Writing in the Australian Financial Review in 1990, Tom Dusevic observed:
…the plethora of think-tanks which has emerged in recent times… have sought to set the agenda, influence government policies and get their doctrines into the mainstream.
To do this they have waged what has amounted to the greatest propaganda exercise outside wartime. Their targets are the intellectual elites in politics, the bureaucracy, business and the media.
The think tanks provided research and data to support the corporate push for the economic rationalist agenda and fed the media and the school system with specially tailored information. At the time Australia was facing some economic problems such as high inflation and low economic growth and these think tanks represented the situation as an economic crisis caused by a failure of the welfare state. They attacked government and union power and spending and praised the virtues of free and unimpeded enterprise.
Although these corporate-funded pro-market think tanks still used the ‘old boys networks’ of ‘the club, the state, the media, the university, etc’, they ‘developed new ways of operating, for example, the conference circuit, and the journal’ as well as the submission, the report, and the consultancy; all used to apply ‘focused pressure on target bodies.’
A number of Australian think tanks are modelled on US think tanks and have close ties with some of them including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute. Millions of dollars were being channelled into these organizations each year for the promotion of conservative, market-oriented ideas.
Ian Marsh, who has published several reviews of think tanks in Australia, and was a research director in the Liberal Party, views think tanks as the ‘springboard for the new right in Australia’, influencing both major parties, and championing in the wider community ‘a range of new issues to the political agenda – privatisation, deregulation, microeconomic reform, labour market reform, trade liberalisation’.
Their output is massive, despite their limited funding compared with US think tanks. During the 1990s more than 80 think tanks employed about 1,600 people and each year published about 900 reports and discussion papers and held 600 conferences and symposia.
Marsh argues that think tanks have been ‘spectacularly successful’ in achieving reduced government expenditure, reduced government intervention, weakened trade unions and a ‘level-playing field’ industry policy. In 1996 he noted that having ‘done their job on privatization, deregulation and competition policy’ they were moving onto the ‘social agenda’ to tackle issues such as welfare.
In their wake, economic advisors and management consultants such as ACIL Economics, Allen Consulting, Access Economics and the Centre for International Economics, took over the role of influencing government behind the scenes on ‘economic’ policy as well as providing the detailed technical advice necessary for implementation of free market policies.
On the other hand, Guy Pearse, in his book on the Howard government and its response to climate change, points out that government ministers "regularly give speeches and make major announcements at events organised" by think tanks such as the IPA and CIS. "Often ministers adopt the arguements of the IPA, the CIS" and others "in public statements without attribution".