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CIS at Twenty-Five
Frank Devine talks to Greg Lindsay
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The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) turned 25 this year. In that time it has moved from Greg Lindsay's backyard shed to less rustic premises in St Leonards, and from obscurity to an established place in Australia's intellectual and political life. Much of the early history of CIS, the meaning of 'Independent' in its title and its relationship to politics were covered in an interview Andrew Norton, then editor of this journal, did with Greg Lindsay five years ago (Policy Winter 12:2 1996). This interview picks up where the last left off, continuing the conversation about the ideas that have sustained CIS through the last quarter century, and that will carry it forward to 2026 and beyond.

Frank Devine: There's a great start to L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between, where he says that the past is another country, they do things differently there. In what way was Australia a different country when you started 25 years ago?

Greg Lindsay: Twenty-five years ago-or maybe 30 years ago-Australia was a very different place. Many people would say it was monocultural, probably boring, and conformist, but comfortable. Australians had enjoyed a long period of stability and growth through the 1950s and 1960s in economic and political life. But by the late 1960s things began to change, both culturally and intellectually. The issue that probably stands out as the greatest cultural shift was Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. That activated the minds and the souls of a lot of people who were starting to take control of the opinion-forming processes.

FD: Was there a youth reaction hostile towards the Establishment because of the Vietnam War?

GL: Yes, not only amongst the young though. I started university in 1968 and a lot of my friends, many of whom were liable to be drafted, prolonged university life to avoid being conscripted. The Vietnam War was certainly an issue that affected the thinking of vast numbers of people of all ages, combined with what many people saw as a tired and out of touch government. Then in came the Whitlam government with promises of great things. While it turned out to be incompetent on most things economic, except for freer trade, I believe it was refreshing that it was elected. It finally ended Australia's involve-ment in Vietnam, something which at the time I supported and, more importantly, ended conscription which I didn't support.

FD: On what grounds did you support the Vietnam involvement?

GL: I thought that communism had to be stopped. The whole domino theory was plausible, because virtually the whole of Southeast Asia was very unstable at the time. As it turns out, of course, the communists did take over eventually in South Vietnam, though we should remember that the years of the war also saw the creation of ASEAN and the laying of the foundation of prosperity in the region as a whole. Even in Vietnam, it wasn't too long before Coca-Cola signs started turning up in Hanoi. So maybe the peaceful forces of globalisation were already at work in places like that.

FD: Did you lose faith in Whitlamism pretty quickly?

GL: Yes, though economic instability did not really begin with Whitlam. It began in my view during the Gorton-McMahon period, which is when inflation began to go up. I don't remember exactly what the inflation rate was in 1971 and 1972. It was certainly not 2%, but more around 7%. Things got really bad as far as inflation was concerned, of course, after the OPEC oil crisis of 1973-74.

Inflation was a problem not only in Australia, but also in America and elsewhere. The US government was limited by the amount of money it could raise through taxes, and so it essentially printed off more money to fund the Vietnam war. Then Nixon tried wage and price controls in an attempt to control the subsequent inflation, while back in Australia, we had the Prices Justification Tribunal attempting to do more or less the same thing.

The Australian government had also become more and more involved in things like health and so on. It was Menzies who started the intervention into higher education and schools, and all this was carried on further by successive governments.

I just had this notion that all this was not right. So the early 1970s was a period of intellectual activism and some political activism on my part.

FD: What was your political activism?

GL: As I said, I was dismayed at what was going on at the federal level with the Whitlam government. There was the incompetence of economic management, but there were other issues as well that offended my sense of what a free society is all about. They had a Minister for the Media which seemed a bit Orwellian to me.  Commentators, economic and otherwise, who appeared on TV were interventionist. Intellectuals dismissed business as a bad thing, and so on.

One of the reactions to Whitlam was the establishment of the Workers Party, in which John Singleton was prominent and in which I was briefly active. It was an absolutely free market libertarian political party. It had a sort of comet-like existence through 1974 into 1975, when it ran candidates for the federal election. It's interesting now to see how much of its original platform has become part of political thinking these days.

In the end, I decided that the problem was not political, but intellectual. While the Whitlam period was a terrific break in a sense, the cost of it was that it established a new cultural hegemony that we're still working through, with people owing their livelihoods and motivations to politics in a way that wasn't the case in the 1950s and 1960s.

FD: Could you explain that?

GL: People react to incentives no matter who they are. The Whitlam government under Clyde Cameron increased salaries in the public sector by a hitherto unheard of amount-overnight. Once upon a time people became public servants partly for the security. But Whitlam turned the public service into a pacesetter, and began to politicise too much of society. This was, for instance, when government support for the arts became more comprehensive -

FD: -are you saying the government was buying itself into places where it didn't belong?

GL: I think so, but cleverly.  Paul Keating was the climax to it all in a way. He knew how to manipulate symbols. To be fair to Keating, he was also responsible, along with Hawke, for major changes in economic thinking or policy. They were a great duo for quite some time. They brought in major reforms that have been of great benefit to Australia. A lot of the commentariat and intellectuals still don't quite understand it. They call it economic rationalism, a totally meaningless concept, at least in the Australian context.  The use of the term probably says more about the person who uses it than anything else.

FD: So Australia was choking in government intervention, which was affecting its progress.

GL: The prevailing view was that governments could best manage our economic affairs. I felt that while government certainly had a role, its responsibilities should be seriously reduced. Government should have very little role in the economy and certainly no role in private affairs. Welfare, for instance, was much smaller prior to the 1970s. The march of the welfare state since then has been relentless. We're talking 30 years now, which means two or more generations of welfare dependency. That reflects an intellectual homogeneity, and dominance of a way of thinking about how people should be assisted that in my opinion has been a disaster.

FD: How much of a resistance was there in the 1970s to the intervention of government?

GL: Not a lot really. It was just the way things were, how we thought about things.  Everyone seems to want something for nothing. A free lunch, even when it is illusory, is highly prized. Australians probably realise that there isn't such a thing as a free lunch, but at the same time if you can get one and if the person paying doesn't know they're paying, you'll say 'yes please'.


FD: Let's move on to the future for Australia and the future of the Centre over the next 25 years.

GL: Australia has clearly got a wonderful future. It's one of the two main countries that people admire for its freedom, its prosperity and vitality, the other being the United States.  We are a prosperous country, although we are still trying to expunge some of our old political and cultural institutions.

FD: I recently drove from Sydney to Perth and back. I was told what a boring trip it was going to be, but it was very exciting. You'd move through places-ruins really-where people had tried something and it had collapsed so that all that was left was a solitary chimney. Then you'd move on a few more miles and find they'd packed up and done something else.

GL: That's exactly the point. Doing something else. One of my early influences was a French political economist, Bastiat, whose 200th anniversary was celebrated earlier this year. He wrote an article in which he raised the question: what's the result of trying to protect people from change? Basically, he says that it's foolish to try.

In the article, Robinson Crusoe and Friday are walking down the beach, and a plank gets washed up. Crusoe goes to pick it up, and Friday tells him to throw it back. Crusoe asks why, because they clearly need the plank as they are building a house. Friday's answer is that they won't have anything to do if they take this free plank, because they will not actually be making the plank themselves. This is, of course, one of the stupidities of the protectionist fallacy. Crusoe goes on to explain why it would be silly to throw it back.

So to return to your anecdote, if the man who had the house which was around the chimney-say he had a farm or the service station or whatever. If people had said that it was terrible that his land had dried up or that we should try to help him out by subsidising petrol, he wouldn't be doing that something else. He would be running a marginal operation propped up by the government.

FD: That seems to have been part of the philosophy of the Centre; that is, always thinking of something else, not ever riding down ploughed paths.

GL: You've got to look forward, and look sideways as you're looking forward. I remember Václav Klaus when he was here ten years ago to give the annual John Bonython Lecture. At the end of the lecture, someone asked him about the old communists in Czechoslovakia.  He said that if you drive forward looking in the rear vision mirror, you are unlikely to get anywhere. You'd crash, basically. He felt that his country had to move forward and make the best of what they had. Learn from the past, both the good and the bad, but if you worry too much about the past and old ways of doing things, then you won't get anywhere. At the same time, you've also got to look out to the side, because there might be new turnoffs at some point. This is the magic of entrepreneurship and the magic of human ingenuity.

FD: And Australia's past is really a scaffolding rather than a great solid thing, so forward looking is a natural thing for Australia.

GL: I don't think we celebrate Australian economic and cultural history the way we should. We've gone through this period-call it the black armband view of history if you must-where the focus was on such things as economic failures, the treatment of Aboriginals and minorities and so on. Of course there were mistakes and these things should not be ignored, but there were also great advances. Yet there is no real understanding now, amongst the young particularly, of the imagination and creativity of the men and women of 100 years ago or more-of the way, for instance, they made their way with their horses and carts and with the women in full-length dresses, the fashion of the time, from Sydney to remote, hot and dry areas like, say, Lake Mungo to try their hands at farming. That is probably part of the romance of Australia, but it just shows you the willingness of people to try, to set up these properties on very large pieces of land and face some enormous hardships. We should celebrate that even though some of the efforts were no doubt pretty reckless.  The willingness to try, and try again, is the future of Australia, of anybody really. It's exciting. Government should try and give people more control over their own resources so that they can multiply them.  They should also resist the calls to prop them up when things go wrong.  Let them move aside for others-and do something else.

You've got to look forward, and look sideways as you're looking around.


FD: What projects have you got going now that you think will be continuing vigorously in 2026?

GL: We've been expanding our social policy work over the last 18 months. We will be looking at ways of resolving some of the great social and cultural issues, bringing about changes in public perceptions, putting out better ideas about where we should be going and how we should be thinking, and attempting to change policy and the minds of government. We are trying to encourage greater responsibility on the part of individuals and families for their own well-being, and well-being in more than just an economic sense.   Some of the components of this will be looking at taking individual responsibility for welfare and education, and restoring marriage and family as  fundamental bedrock institutions in society.

FD: The CIS research programme 'Taking Children Seriously' was a grand project, but it's now around eight years old.

GL: That's right. It's now part of a bigger project on social policy, still focusing on the important institutions that allow children to have the best start in the world, and working out ways that they can take advantage of what they have. Everyone has different attributes and skills and intelligence, and we're letting children down if we don't work out ways that they can take advantage of what they have. I think that the last 30 years of social policy have betrayed children, and too many adults have also betrayed children-problems of education, crime, and family failure are adult problems.

FD: What do you think of Mark Latham's Legacy-like idea of having mentors for some boys?

GL: Once upon a time we had built-in mentors and they were called dads. But if there are families where the dads are not there, then to have other ways of doing it is crucial. I was 13 when my father died. He had been in the Army during the War, so Sydney Legacy took our family under its wing and appointed a Legatee. His responsibility was to try and help out the family and act as a mentor to the children.  The idea is a very important one and there was a practical instance of it working well in many families.

FD: Was he important in your life?

GL: Not especially in this instance. The Scouts were probably more important-another good example of a mentoring institution. There is obviously no hard and fast rule on this.


FD: What did you think of Rupert Murdoch's rather melancholy view of education-that unless we snap out of it in a big way, we will drop down as an unimportant and unprogressive country?

GL: I think education on the whole is a good thing. People who have it usually do better in life than people who don't. Should everyone have the same? Certainly not. Some people's capacity may be damaged by trying to push them into things that they have not the skills or interest to do. There are plenty of kids in school who are not gaining anything by being there, at least in that sort of environment. If you put them somewhere else, it might be different.

As for higher education, it is a sector in Australia that, like most places in the West, has grown substantially over the last 30 years. There is a view, as put forward by Murdoch and the Business Council, that we're not spending enough, and that the number of people going on from school to university is lower than X or Y. I don't think that that's necessarily where we should be focusing. I'd be quite happy to spend more money on higher education. The taxpayer is not happy about that, but let's say we did. Let's say the budget for higher education was $X billion, and we multiplied it by one and a half. Would you spend it on the same structure that we have now? No, I don't think you would. Spending more money on bad policies is a mistake.  As the Americans say, 'if you're in a hole, stop digging'.  Basically I think we need substantial reform in the existing system before we spend a lot more taxpayers' funds on higher education.  Reform in that sector is very hard to achieve.

FD: Do you think tertiary education is crucial for our future in 25 years?

GL: Education is certainly crucial, but we live in a global economy. There are plenty of tertiary institutions in the world that are better than ours, and Australians can attend them. The question is whether we are prosperous and exciting enough to attract the best back here.  We could try saying, 'OK, go to Harvard, but please come back', but at the end of the day, the nation has no control over the individual and nor should it.  If we have some sense that this is the best place to live, then we have to realise that not everyone agrees.  We have to work to improve all aspects of our society, all the time.

FD: So replicating Harvard in Australia would not necessarily be a good objective?

GL: I think it would be fantastic if we could do it, but we don't need 40 of them.  An endowment of US$18 billion like Harvard's would be quite handy too!

FD: Is this the problem? There is no gradation of universities?

GL: There are eight universities here-the older ones-that may think they are 'better' than the rest. In some respects, they probably are. But we have this uniform, regulated system that determines where funding goes, and until that's ended, we'll have 40 universities trying to be Harvard or Stanford and that's just ridiculous.

FD: The American system strikes me as quite good, from Harvard down to the two-year community colleges, which provide training.

GL: In America, if you start off at Dogpatch college, and you show capacity to go beyond, say to Yale, you move on. The Ivy League universities for instance, as well as the Chicagos, the Stanfords, are not shy about looking for talent. The American school system is appalling in lots of ways, but the university system has some of the best as well as some of the worst. In terms of having elite institutions of learning, however, you can't go past the American system.


FD: As you know, I've often wondered whether CIS could develop into a small, private, liberal arts university.

GL: For CIS to make the transition to a university would take a leap of imagination-and budget-that's probably beyond me at the moment. There's no reason why not, but it would involve going from a position of research and advocacy to teaching. That's a big ask. We've had one go at trying to start a private university here. We were involved in trying to help the offshoot of the business school at Rochester. The difficulties of doing so in the Australian government-regulated, government-funded, government-controlled system are enormous. The government is essentially giving away the product for free and that's hard to compete against.

That said, it hasn't stopped plenty of private schools from starting. There are big private schools that charge a lot of money, and there are cheaper ones. People are paying $12,000 a year when they could go down the road for free, or for $100 a year or whatever. It means they are willing to pay for a better product, or what they think is a better product.

FD: I think sometimes that you have the intellectual foundation-25 years of it really-for creating a university.

GL: There's no question about that. It's a question of what we are trying to do and the importance of ideas, the importance of scholarship. We have an underlying foundation of classical liberal traditions on which we base our thinking about issues. If we were to teach classes on political theory and philosophy, would we then feel constrained to teach in the same intellectual tradition for which the CIS was established? I would hate to lose that sense of purpose of what we stand for. We are concerned about what a free society is made up of and to lose sight of this would unwind all I have tried to do for a quarter of a century.

So to answer the question, I would say no. I think it's probably not what we are here for. It'd be a nice idea and I'd love to run such an institution, but I like doing what I am doing, and there's only one of me. If we were to develop in some way like the major American institutions, and we certainly show signs of heading that way, then maybe in five to ten years, it will be a more powerful centre of ideas and scholarship. That would be a fine achievement in itself.

FD: The really ancient universities of Europe gathered together societies of scholars and students, who attached themselves more or less accidentally.

GL: You never know. I mean, no-one's out there with a grand plan. You ask me about CIS in 25 years. I don't know. We'll see when we get there

Frank Devine
is a columnist with The Australian, and a longtime friend of CIS.

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