I’ve been to many gatherings of the great and good, but I’ve never attended such a high calibre function as the Centre for Independent Studies’ 30th anniversary dinner in Sydney last week.

More than 600 guests crammed into the ballroom of the old Regent down on George Street – some of the most powerful and influential men and women in Australia.

The Prime Minister spoke, but it was the comments of the Centre’s founder and chief executive, Greg Lindsay, that were most interesting:

You’d be amazed at the range of think tanks that exist worldwide. Take just one example, the Albanian Liberal Institute. What does Albania conjure up in your minds? One image I have is the super highway from the airport as described by PJ O’Rourke. I think it was eight lanes. What a highway. Trouble was, it went for only 300 metres.

Albanians wish to be neither the butt of jokes nor the poor relation on the continent any longer. A think tank is an important part of the new world for them. The institute there has a staff of three and a budget of $50,000. The three main principles that it promotes are individual rights, the market economy and the open society. Sound familiar? It should, and it’s exciting. That story, or something like it, is being told in almost every country in the world.

Indeed, if you visit the website of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, you’ll even find a DIY guide to starting a think tank of your own.

Rivalry can be fierce. John Roskam, the head of the Institute for Public Affairs, was at the CIS do, but just a few blocks away Gerard Henderson and the Sydney Institute were hosting a rival show. That was pretty spectacular, too. Their guest speaker wasn’t someone you hear from everyday – ASIO boss Paul O’Sullivan.

Think tanks are a $US500 million industry worldwide. About $US300 million of this money goes to the United States think tanks, but the leftover is still significant.

Where does the money come from? Lindsay doesn’t name the CIS’s donors. In response, however, he points out that the CIS doesn’t accept government funds or undertake specially commissioned, “tied”, research. Funding is an issue for think tanks worldwide. A wide range of donors is needed to maintain independence, and for differentiation.

It’s easy to see how think tanks can become second-class agents of business. And it’s also easy to see how potential donors want think tanks to be virgin whores – how they fancy their purity of thought but want them to take the money and get dirty.

Interestingly, though, the global trend amongst think-tanks of the centre-right appears to be for a majority of funding to come from private individuals, not corporates.

The CIS has 24 staff and an annual budget of $2.5 million. As Lindsay said on the night, it has provided “words which have helped define the contemporary language of public debate”. To continue its work, a fund was launched on the night with the aim of raising $10 million. The money is already coming in.

Entrepreneurship in ideas is clearly booming – but it appears that the details of donors will be one subject the think tanks are silent on.

Peter Fray

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