Liberal think tank revels in the pursuit of ideas - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Liberal think tank revels in the pursuit of ideas

Now celebrating its 25th year as a genially elitist influence on Australian minds, The Centre for Independent Studies seems to have shed the tag of ‘right-wing think tank’.  It may be a beneficiary of a general retreat from a label so overused as to give the impression there is no thinking done on the Left.

In a way, it is ironic that the CIS should be thus set free. It first came to wide public notice in 1978 through a newspaper headline: ‘Where [Milton] Friedman is a pinko’.

Greg Lindsay, its founder and executive director, says CIS is economically conservative but socially liberal.  So it is, I guess. In some 80 books and monographs, 75 occasional papers and dozens of short position papers, and in its quarterly journal Policy, the Centre  has supported the individual over the collective, and individual authority in determining the role of government.

That’s classical liberalism. But the twists and wriggles of political history have led to its being identified nowadays as conservatism.

‘Lindsay has also modelled CIS on American think tanks. Wow.’

Probably The Centre for Independent Studies has escaped being seen as demonic by always living up to its name. It is truly studious, impeccably independent. It has never accepted government cash or kind, never undertaken study projects for a sponsor. It raises about $1.5 million a year in donations – not bad, since it makes no deals.

Since I first became acquainted with CIS a dozen years ago, I have developed a bit of a crush on it. It’s been an oasis of empiricism in the desert of ideological bias, ad hominem aggression, hidden agendas and reckless speculation over which public discourse is waged here, and to which I have doubtless contributed a few shovels of sand.

CIS’s almost idiosyncratic reasonableness is reflected in vast lists of sources provided in many of its publications. Of the 85 pages of a recent monograph by Jennifer Buckingham about the special difficulties of boys in contemporary Australia, 16 consisted of a reference list.

Lavish sourcing is partly a defence against nit-picking by academic referees, but mainly an encouragement to readers who want to pursue a subject further – and maybe come to different conclusions from CIS authors.

Most CIS publications are distillations of the ideas of outsiders. Its 20 staff – half of them part-time – are, essentially, highly educated idea hunters. The internet is their game park.

‘The ideas the centre disseminates are aimed at influencing public policy. It doesn’t campaign but hopes its ideas may slip into the consciousness of policy makers.’

The average circulation of a CIS publication is little more than 800. But the readers come from the upper levels of business, the bureaucracy, journalism and the academy.

In earlier days, Lindsay was not much concerned with broad media coverage – mainly, I think, because it was hard to stir up interest. But the CIS’s increasing noticeability encouraged him to employ a media representative, with good success. Indeed, Lindsay has started bemoaning his own lack of writing talent.  He is no Swift.

“It’s hard to say how much influence we have,” he says. “Maybe none.”

He doesn’t really mean that.

Nor does he have cause to. In virtually all public discussion of the family in society, I now detect echoes of the series of monographs put out by CIS senior fellow Barry Maley and a team of young scholars, under the general title Taking Children Seriously.  The resolutely secular Lindsay was a leader in recognising the influence of the churches in shaping policy in this secular society. He found a resident fellow with a doctorate in theology to confirm and write on this perception.

Pushed, Lindsay will concede that one of the Centre’s first monographs, arguing the folly of restricted shopping hours, may have speeded the move to liberalisation. The CIS argument (misguided, in my opinion) against the Australia Card – as an infringement on personal liberty – may have tilted the balance in a close debate. Its present series on the education system will certainly have influence at a time of discontent among parents.

Lindsay is the engine of CIS. As a high school maths teacher, he started it in his toolshed after virtually stumbling on the think tank concept during a visit to the US.

A congenial man, Lindsay networks inexhaustibly, making 100 or more phone calls a week. His overseas net encloses Latin American novelists, publishing tycoons and Czech prime ministers as well as eminent scholars. He is a vice-president of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international assembly of liberal intellectuals, and in his element at its biennial conferences.

‘Lindsay sees the CIS developing into a ‘community of scholars’ from which policy makers
can draw information, maybe even inspiration.’

Explaining his job, he likes to quote economist Friedrich August von Hayek: ‘Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society . . . a living intellectual issue and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and the imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are. . . dark.’

The CIS has gathered good momentum towards this end in its first 25 years.

About the Author:
Frank Devine writes an opinion column twice a week for The Australian, and a weekly language column for The Weekend Australian.