Inspired by Shane Maloney’s Brunswick Institute –‘one of Australia’s leading independent sources of opinion’, ‘conveniently located in the shed in the back yard of Shane Maloney’s residence,’ and funded by his wife – I’ve often wondered if I should start my own institute. Perhaps a Centre for Right-wing Apologist Politics that analyses Liberal policy. Then maybe I’d get invited to contribute to the ABC’s Drum as often as Kevin Donnelly, Director of the one-man Educational Standards Institute. That’s 52 times between 16 Dec 2009 and 28 June 2013. My favourites amongst his posts are 4 July 2012: Don’t let class envy wreck school choice and 21 December 2011: Tertiary institutions discriminating against the middle class. But make no mistake: Kevin is still sure that the ‘Cultural-left is dominant in areas like the ABC, the Fairfax Press, most of our universities and amongst our so-called public intellectuals.’ ‘Listen to the news, read the papers or follow public debates and it soon becomes obvious that the consensus on most issues champions a Cultural-left perspective.’ Really? Does he live in a parallel universe, or just not subscribe to the Murdoch press? I wonder who funds his Institute.
A closer look at Donnelly’s views suggest that he isn’t really interested in education as such. Sure, he wants more religion in the syllabus, and quite likely agrees with Christopher Pyne that kids should know more about Gallipoli (which version, I wonder?). But what he’s really interested in is making education a market commodity. It’s about the parents, not the children. Here’s his view of what education policy is all about: ‘Whether introducing vouchers (or tax credits) to enable more parents to choose Catholic and independent schools, establishing community schools free from government control (known as charter schools in the U.S.) or allowing schools to develop an alternative to a state mandated curriculum, there is an alternative [to free public education].’ ‘Let the market work.’ No surprises that he’s a member of the IPA, whose wish-list for the Abbott government includes ’12: Repeal the National Curriculum’ and ’13: Introduce competing private secondary school curriculums’. Of course he’s going to tell the Abbott government what they want to hear.
Frightening as this is, my point isn’t just about Dr Donnelly. It’s about where the Abbott government gets all its so-called expert advice. Clearly not from experts. Having an evidence-based expert view on something is apparently a disqualification for giving advice to the Abbott government.
Their first-line resource is the Murdoch press. In the Quadrant article (where else?) announcing the formation of his Institute, Donnelly can only find The Australian and commentators like Andrew Bolt to stand as spokespersons for a conservative perspective. Journalists writing for the Murdoch press – including Bolt – are at best commentators, with little more claim to expertise than I have. Their role is to fuel the culture wars. Andrew Bolt’s conviction under section18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is surely the reason why Attorney General Brandis wants to repeal it. There’s probably a number of pet culture war projects of commentators like Bolt that the Abbott government will obligingly undertake. These are the frontline skirmishes in the culture wars.
Other straws in the wind include the appointment of Business Council of Australia president Tony Shephard to head the National Commission of Audit. He’s a business lobbyist – nothing impartial about him. Then on a rather different note, Abbott would rather take the advice of celebrity overseas-adoption advocate Deborra-Lee Furness, than that of the National Intercountry Adoption Advisory Group which he abolished only weeks before.
But the main source of LNP advice looks like being the rash of conservative think tanks that have appeared over the last few years. The main one appears to be the IPA (actually much older, founded in the 1940s), whose funding is at best opaque, but believed to include mining and tobacco interests. A number of key points of their agenda have already been accepted by Abbott. Those working or writing for the IPA, such as Donnelly himself, Chris Berg, Tim Wilson or Bob Carter may or may not have some expertise in their areas – one might question what Tim Wilson knows about climate change – yes, before the new job on the Human Rights Commission he was director of climate change policy for the IPA – or what Bob Carter, Science policy advisor knows about it either. The point is that they are openly partisan. The Menzies Research Centre – the name does give it away – is another local conservative operation, whose executive director Dr Don Markwell, has been appointed Senior Adviser on Higher Education to Christopher Pyne. The Menzies Research Centre is run by a board of business men (well there’s one woman out of seven members) and ex Liberal politicians, and is openly supported by big business like AMP and Deloitte. No prizes for guessing their agenda.
Then there’s network of interlinked climate change denial organisations, including the IPA, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Australian Environment Foundation, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, the Lavoisier Group and various other overseas groups like the Heritage Institute and the Heartland Institute. They are the fronts for propagating opinions of deniers like Ian Plimer, whose views are apparently shared by Tony Abbott. Though he hasn’t actually read Plimer’s book, Abbott says that he ‘is a highly credible scientist and he has written what seems like a very well-argued book refuting most of the claims of the climate catastrophists.’ This is partisan advocacy gone mad. But having disbanded the Australian Climate Commission, disparaged the CSIRO and the public service, who else is there to ask?
It seems to me that what we are seeing is a nasty mixture of anti-intellectualism, cronyism and pig ignorance, where ideology trumps any rational assessment of the facts. Of course I agree that all intellectual positions are based on values. And that governments seek the advice they want to hear. But this egregious reliance on those who are blatantly partisan and lacking in expertise is a recipe for disastrous policy outcomes. These are not the failings of a government taking time to find its way; they are the habits of mind of right-wing ideologues, whose decision making is only likely to get worse. My Centre for Right-wing Apologist Politics is looking good.