CIS at Twenty-Five
Devine talks to Greg Lindsay
here for PDF version
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.
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?
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
Was there a youth reaction hostile towards the Establishment
because of the Vietnam War?
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.
On what grounds did you support the Vietnam involvement?
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.
Did you lose faith in Whitlamism pretty quickly?
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
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.
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.
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.
What was your political activism?
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.
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.
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.
Could you explain that?
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 -
-are you saying the government was buying itself into places
where it didn't belong?
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
So Australia was choking in government intervention, which
was affecting its progress.
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.
How much of a resistance was there in the 1970s to the intervention
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'.
Let's move on to the future for Australia and the future of
the Centre over the next 25 years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
And Australia's past is really a
scaffolding rather than a great solid thing, so forward looking
is a natural thing for Australia.
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
got to look forward, and look sideways as you're looking around.
FUTURE OF CIS
What projects have you got going now that you think will
be continuing vigorously in 2026?
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.
The CIS research programme 'Taking Children Seriously'
was a grand project, but it's now around eight years old.
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.
What do you think of Mark Latham's Legacy-like idea of
having mentors for some boys?
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.
Was he important in your life?
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.
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?
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.
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.
Do you think tertiary education is crucial for our future
in 25 years?
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
So replicating Harvard in Australia would not necessarily
be a good objective?
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!
Is this the problem? There is no gradation of universities?
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.
The American system strikes me as quite good, from Harvard
down to the two-year community colleges, which provide training.
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.
THINK TANK TO UNIVERSITY?
As you know, I've often wondered whether CIS could develop
into a small, private, liberal arts university.
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.
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.
I think sometimes that you have the intellectual foundation-25
years of it really-for creating a university.
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.
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.
The really ancient universities of Europe gathered together
societies of scholars and students, who attached themselves
more or less accidentally.
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
the quarterly review of The Centre for Independent Studies.
For more information on subscribing to Policy, click HERE
If you are interested in the Centre's activities and publications,
why not subscribe to e-PreCIS, our regular
email update on the latest news and events.
html capable email facilities, such as Microsoft Outlook Express
or Netscape Messenger)