15/08/2012 - 10:59

Think tank findings stir debate

15/08/2012 - 10:59


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The Mannkal Foundation has challenged accepted wisdom on many public policy issues – exactly what a think tank is meant to do.

The Mannkal Foundation has challenged accepted wisdom on many public policy issues – exactly what a think tank is meant to do.

THE name of the building that is home to the Mannkal Foundation says it all, at least for those who know the world’s famous economists and philosophers.

The building is Hayek on Hood, named after Austrian Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the great contributors to the Chicago School of free market, liberal thought.

Hayek died in 1992 but continues to be an inspiration to former gold miner and company director Ron Manners, who established Mannkal in 1997.

Mannkal is a no-holds barred free market think tank, which this week issued a stimulating booklet titled ‘Project Western Australia: A growth and productivity agenda’.

The report was co-authored by former federal government MP John Hyde, who was ahead of his time when he joined with a few parliamentary colleagues in the 1970s to establish the ‘dries’, a group that advocated economic rectitude and prudent management of public finances.

Mr Hyde proceeded to establish the Australian Institute of Public Policy and then run the Institute of Public Affairs, which continues to be one of the most prominent think tanks in Australia.

When I stopped to reflect on Australia’s think tanks, I was surprised by how many there are.

Some are deliberately bipartisan, such as the respected Committee for Economic Development of Australia, led in WA by state president Ian Satchwell.

Last week it hosted Labor’s Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, who turned the traditional left-right divide on its head by lecturing Liberal Premier Colin Barnett on the virtues of privatisation.

Another bipartisan body is the Committee for Perth. Its executive director, Marion Fulker, features in this week’s edition of WA Business News with her contribution to the debate over public transport policy.

Perth is also home to Future Directions International, which has a focus on strategic issues around the Indian Ocean rim, along with energy and food security issues.

Nationally, the Lowy Institute – formed in 2003, with an endowment from Westfield Group founder Frank Lowy – has made a strong contribution to public policy debate.

Many think tanks overtly set up camp at one or other end of the ideological divide.

Earlier this year, union leader Paul Howes launched the McKell Institute, arguing it would do a better job than other so-called ‘progressive’ think tanks such as The Australia Institute, the Australian Fabians and the Centre for Policy Development.

It was also meant to counter the influence of groups such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies.

Mannkal and the IPA jointly backed Project Western Australia, which supports many (but not all) of the policy reforms advocated by WA Business News over the past decade and more.

WA Business News publishes a diverse range of commentary and analysis but broadly advocates policies that allow markets to work freely, transparently and effectively, and offer opportunities for the private sector to thrive.

In that sense, we welcome most of the recommendations and conclusions in Project Western Australia, which range across health and housing to ports, taxis, liquor licensing, shopping hours and more.

The report is underpinned by a view that there are limits on how much governments can achieve. Many politicians do not understand this, often preferring to pursue visionary dreams.

The report seeks to challenge some widely held views, like the popular support for northern development, seemingly at any cost.

It notes, for instance, that the Ord River project has been a serious drain on the economy.

More significantly, it advocates a framework for evaluating government projects, big and small.

“The issue is not whether particular developments will eventually become appropriate, but rather whether the resources could have been better employed at the time they were committed,” the report states.

It notes that history is filled with examples where governments exceeded their traditional role, at a cost to the public.

The report also explores tricky questions such as who really benefits from public spending, in areas like public transport and education – is it society as a whole, or is it primarily individuals?

The answers aren’t always clear, but the questions are definitely worth exploring.



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