The rise of think tanks in Australian politics

Are organisations like GetUp the future of Australian policy development? AAP

Over the previous two decades, a plethora of advocacy organisations have emerged seeking to engage and inform the public on political issues. Some of these entities, such as Get-Up, are self-funded bodies that are financed by supporter contributions.

Alongside these organisations exist an elite collection of think tanks that perform a similar range of educative functions but which have close links to the main political parties. What is further distinctive about these organisations is that they receive public disbursements.

It should be noted that the monies received by these centres is very much a matter of public record. Nor is there anything inherently problematic about them accepting or receiving public funding, especially because they play an important role in promoting policy debate and discussion.

But what is instructive about the existence of publicly funded party think tanks is what they reveal about the state of Australia’s political parties. Party think tanks are increasingly carrying out those critical linkage and educative roles that were once undertaken within (formerly vibrant) political parties.

The perceived importance of party think tanks to Australia’s main political parties has grown in recent years owing to the decline in the levels of party membership.

The mass membership was the key mechanism by which parties connected with the citizenry. However, ABS data shows that only 1% of the Australian population reported active participation in a political party in 2007 compared to 4% of the population in the 1960s.

Only the Australian Greens has managed to defy the trend, with it grass roots base continuing to expand, albeit from a low base.

There is no agreement within the scholarly literature about the reasons the public are increasingly reluctant to join parties.

Some have argued that mass detachment from political parties is a function of social, cultural, or historical factors. Ian Marsh suggests that social and cultural changes are generating new issue based cleavages that cut across the established party divisions, and to which the mainstream parties have only weakly adapted, thereby undermining the perceived relevance of traditional parties in the public mind.

A second school of thought holds that the cause of the malaise resides deep within the organisational and structural modes of modern parties.

According to this view, the fault lays with parties that have effectively splintered from civil society. This perspective has its roots in longstanding claims that mass parties, from which many of Australia’s most successful parties have evolved, are rarely capable of subsisting as internally democratic institutions.

German sociologist, Robert Michels famously warned that as parties professionalise, many of the democratic aspects of their decision-making processes would be stifled in the pursuit of political expediency, therebv reducing incentives for public involvement in parties.

More recently, some have suggested that the modern party has chosen to foster closer ties to (and dependence on) the state rather than rely for support from its grass roots base.

None of this should be taken to means that the age of the “party” is over. Parties continue to monopolise those functions associated with the formation and maintenance of government.

One only need survey the political affiliations of those currently serving in the parliament to get a sense of how central parties are to the recruitment and selection of candidates to public office (eg. 98% are aligned to a political party).

Nonetheless, the fact that parties appear to be contracting-out some of their linkage and educative responsibilities to think tanks suggests that the modern party may have a dwindling appetite (and capacity) to undertake those functions that once defined an important element of its purpose.

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