What planet are they on?

Within two weeks of collecting $4 million in taxpayer money, ASPI claims the Australian government is short-changing think tanks

19 July 2021 | Marcus Reubenstein (APAC Digital Image)

Though the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has yet to file its annual statements for 2020-21, Department of Finance figures reveal it was a bumper year for the think-tank. In total it collected more than $11 million from the Federal Government, although ASPI still promotes the headline number that its “core funding” from the federal government is a modest annual grant of $4 million.

In addition to this grant, the total value of commonwealth service contracts handed to ASPI has exploded from $1.6 million two years ago to more than $7.1 million last financial year.

Yet in a two-part series, in ASPI’s Strategist publication, the think tank says that is not enough.

Please, sir, I want some more

When it comes to publicly funded research groups, ASPI is hardly ‘sleeping rough’, yet it now proclaims on its website, “As Australia’s strategic environment changes, foreign policy funding must change too.”

In what can only be characterized as a bizarre and self-serving argument, ASPI is advancing the theory that Australia “lacks a think tank sector of sufficient size and breadth to provide the diversity and depth of perspective and analysis which is critical to robust policymaking.”

It appears the $220,000 delivered from taxpayers to ASPI’s Canberra offices every single week last year was not enough.

If the think tank sector had “more government money” proclaims ASPI, “that would help and would allow organisations to sustain multi-year programs of work instead of scraping together dozens of small grants to make it through the year.”

Twenty-four hours before this altruistic proclamation, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet bestowed upon ASPI a $55,000 grant under the description “Sponsorship of event or celebrity”. Did ASPI need that to make it through the year?

A couple of days earlier the commonwealth tossed ASPI $11,000 to run a two day seminar for Royal Australian Air Force personnel. In October last year the Office of National Assessments handed ASPI $11,220 for a “roundtable workshop” for which there are no specific details but most other ASPI roundtables appear to be one-hour events.    

The small bucket list

One of the key annoyances ASPI cites, in its claim government is not doing enough for the struggling think-tank sector, is that Canberra is only handing out grants in small amounts. “This small-bucket approach,” writes ASPI, “encourages production of reports based on short-term, and shallower, research efforts. These reports are cheaper to produce, and prioritise analysis and opinion over original data-driven work. They are a less considered and robust contribution to policymaking.”

Yet according to ASPI’s latest annual report it churned out 57 publications in a single year, its analysts authored 26 chapters in various books, and ASPI contributed 82 opinion articles to mainstream media outlets.

ASPI publishes a report, of some kind or another, every second day of the year, which it maintains are of the highest integrity.

All the while pointing the finger at the broader think tank industry labelling such “small-bucket” reports as being shallow and lacking in proper consideration.

In the six months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ASPI Executive Director Peter Jennings attended conferences in Tokyo, Vancouver, Milan and Berlin. Other senior staff took trips to New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.  

ASPI made submissions to five parliamentary inquiries, its analysts were almost constant fixtures on ABC Television and Sky News and it ran 103 events across a single year.

Whilst ASPI analysts presents themselves as world leading authorities, the first page of every ASPI report comes with this less than reassuring disclaimer, “No person should rely on the contents of this publication without first obtaining advice from a qualified professional.”

The two-part critique, bemoaning the lack of government resources for external policy formation in the Foreign Affairs portfolio, had one glaring omission. There was zero mention of the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) handed ASPI a $1.5 million “management advisory services” contract just three months earlier.

More importantly, did DFAT first obtain advice from a “qualified professional” before handing over all of that taxpayer cash?