A general site mainly for journalists.

Stewart Fist, journalist, columnist and film-maker.

The Think-Tanks

Note: There are many independent think-tanks, so the society needs a general discussion about the role these organisations pay ... the power and pressure these "policy/promotional" organisations exert on public perceptions and political parties. Get-up, for instance on the left.

The Atlas Group Network

However we must also focus specifically on the global Atlas Group network which now boasts that it has 500 'independent' member think-tanks around the world. This is a 'network of networks' which deliberately has no common name -- there is no label like "Freemasons" or "Knights of Columbus" that critics or the media could attached to this global network, and this deliberate group-name anonymity has proved important to them in allowing promotion of an image of local "scholars" who have spontaneously come together, and in some mysterious way found ways to finance themselves "... to discuss non-partisan political ideas ..." (if you believe their propaganda). They generally claim to be a "policy institute.

The term they use themselves for their political inclinations is "neo-liberals", which suggests the stress is on personal liberty, cultural freedoms and conservatism. They are, in fact, generally socially progressive (although often religiously conservative), but the main focus is on promoting a distinctly free-market form of libertarianism.

Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged

The name "Atlas" for the network comes from the famous book of Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged" which depicted a dystopian USA in which all private businesses suffer under increasingly burdensome laws, regulations and strident unionism. It promoted the need for a joint effort by the business elite to oppose communism and union activism. It celebrates authoritarianism, with a society dominated by wealthy, superman-type leaders of who are wiser and stronger than the masses (which is why it is often claimed that they were light-weight Nazis).

'Randianism" developed into a West-coast USA cult called "Objectivism", which was later incorporated into the growing libertarian networks because it fitted well with their emphasis on Hayekian economics and the related market-mechanism ideas.

The importance of the Atlas network now in corporate lobbying is:

  • It is a world-wide network of like-minded right-wing business-oriented individuals, who believe strongly in the value of collective action, but prefer to hide their collective links by not using any common name. They are as closely related as the Freemasons and the Knights of Columbus in most ways -- but the names they choose for their branches gives the public no indication of their commonality or group alignments.

    They share Hayekian and Randian views with a pro-market/anti-regulatory philosophy. This allows them to gratefully accept funding from industries with poisoning and polluting problems both in the form of annual grants (retainers) and for individual commissions (both for the branch, or for individual "senior fellows"). They never reveal their sources.

  • They generally share a fierce opposition to Communism and Socialism, and blend this into unionism, because these tend to place limits on corporate attitudes, products, and expansions.
  • The bibles of Libertarians are F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and a range of publications by Milton Friedman/James Stigler and the Chicago school of economics. They believer fervently in the idea that the free-market must be allowed to function with an absolute minimum of regulatory oversight. This leads them to also believe strongly in small-government and the need for reductions in corporate and wealth taxes since this money is better spent by leaders with private ambitions.

    In economic terms they are characterised by being anti-Keynesian, and opposed (until recently) to almost all health and environmental regulations. They want to privatise hospitals and universities, and (until recently) they have been the major circulators of the climate-denial hypothesis.

  • Most of them maintain that attempts at regulation are counter-productive, and that "Public Choice" (an extreme Libertarian economic philosophy) is the way to avoid stagflation and periods of economic depression.

This basic philosophy makes them sound like a non-religious cult, but they have many rational and well-educated adherents, and I think it is very important not to create the impression that these people are nut-cases or right-wing fanatics. The main advantage the so-called "scholars" gain from membership in these organisations is mutual support and personal promotion into positions of political and economic power. (Tim Wilson, Mike Nahan, etc)

In fact my problem with these organisations is more to do with their ethical standards. Libertarian ideals have the advantage of allowing these organisations to engage in third-party lobbying activities to the financial advantage of both the groups and the individuals involved ... and to engage in the business of paid lobbyist while pretending to be high-minded ... usually without a tinge of conscience about their blatant promotion of harmful corporate interests.

They maintain that it is up to the individual to pay attention, read any warnings, buy wisely, and make his/her own decisions. Governments shouldn't interfere. They claim that the market mechanism itself is a highly efficient communications network conveying evidence for preferences from the buying public back to the manufacturer, and this is all that is needed.

IDU/PDU:It should also be noted that parallel to the Atlas network (which claims to be non-political) is a conservative political network known as the International Democrat Union, which has regional offshoots such as the European (EDU) and Pacific Democrat Union (PDU) with top-level links into conservative parties (Bronwyn Bishop and Senator Robert Hill are the Australian coalition links). They hold biannual global meetings and their channels are also used for business lobbying, but this is distinctly political in nature.

The political left obviously has its own similar networks and channels, but since the days of the Comintern, the unions have been dying and their influence is probably minimal.

Atlas Group Network

The organisation of this global group of think-tanks took place in the anti-communist era of the Cold War (1955) when multi-millionaire Antony Fisher (who ran Britain's massive Buxted caged chicken business) joined forces with journalists Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon to create the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London to promote the economic ideas of Frederich Hayek and his disciple Ludwig von Mises.

Fisher and the IEA became advisers to PM Margaret Thatcher and he was later knighted by her, while Ralph Harris became Lord Harris of High Cross who ran the IEA until quite recently. The organisation developed its own mini-network in the UK, which included the Adam Smith Foundation and also (in 1973) the University of Buckingham which is the UK's only private, business supported university. The IEA also had sub-units: the Social Affairs Unit (Digby Anderson), and the Environmental Unit (Roger Bate) among others ... [plus contracts to run the FOREST smoker's rights organisations around the world, and the ESEF, European Science & Environment Forum (both for BAT).) The ESEF is a "junk-science" (anti-science) operation which is a promoter of climate denial.

Ludwig von Mises in Europe was active in promoting a number of similar think-tanks which became vaguely connected to the IEA. He was mainly responsible for the Mont Pelerin Institute which holds annual conferences to discuss anti-communist/socialist activities, a general rejection of Keynesian economics, and the development of free-markets/free-trade against the rise of unionism and regulation.

At a Mont Pelerin conference in Switzerland in 1976, Fisher met and fell into a relationship with a very-rich American widow with similar far-right-wing views. He left his wife and moved to the USA where he joined forces with some of the local Californian and Canadian Hayekian and Randian (Objectivist) discussion groups. Eventually they set up a small network of think-tanks, initially around Fisher's own Pacific Institute for Public Policy (1979), the Fraser Institute, the Institute for Humane Studies, and a half-dozen others.

By 1984 they had a mini-network of 18 US think-tanks, which were then only vaguely linked to the IEA. However this solidified through annual meetings for the executives at Mont Pelerin (from 1961 on), and these meetings became the World Economic Forum at Davos.

The Atlas Research Foundation established by Fisher morphed into the central network node of American network as it extended further, and it was totally under Fisher's direct control. In 1971 Fisher formed the International Institute for Economic Research and the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in 1980 - and then the International Policy Network in 2001 (which we now know as the "Atlas Group Network").

Fisher died in 1988, but his daughter Linda Whetstone remains the power behind the throne of the network. His second son (by first wife), Mike Fisher (who founded Whale Tankers Ltd back in the UK), plays only a minor role in the IEA, although he is active still in the Aims of Industry think-tank (opposition to UK nationalisation) and the Freedom Association (a major UK Brexit organisation).

Why do think-tanks exist?

They don't create policy, they don't do research, they only advocate for business through their access to political and media channels.

They use the terminology of universities ("Senior scholar") and claim independence in the development of their views. But clearly they are not independent and they are not scholarly in the sense of engaging in any original and independent research.

However they maintain the charade of 'scholarship' and non-partisanship, and the media appears to accept this without question.

The main reason for their financial success is almost certainly because the provide a service for large corporations that normal lobbying and PR can't match. This is because companies and industries with problems need spokesmen from so-called 'independent third-party' organisations, and the think-tank can provide this. While the ABC and the better newspapers would tend to discount or disregard most of the self-serving statements made by a corporate executive of a known paid lobbyist, they will quite happily report the claims of a "senior scholar at the Institute of Public Affairs". Both the ABC's "The Drum" and the Sydney Morning Herald's op-ed pages utilise "Tom Switzer, the Executive Director of the Centre for Independent Studies" as a commentator on almost everything.

The main attraction of think-tanks for companies and industries is that they provide a way of slipping a spokesperson behind the normal journalistic/editorial obstacles of the public broadcasters and quality print media.

Australian Think-tanks:

In 1970 Antony Fisher provided the finance to helped Sydney school-teacher Greg Lindsay create the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), which has since spawned its own Queensland and New Zealand offshoots. They jointly remain linked across the Pacific to the Atlas Foundation network node (global lobbying commissions pass down these channels).

The CIS is closely affiliated with the Cato Institute and the Heritage Institute, both of which have extensive sub-networks, and it appears to have especially close links to the American Enterprise Institute. It regularly draws senior "scholars" (staff and executives - like Tom Switzer) from this source. The CIS itself also has some close (undefined at present) links with the US Studies Centre.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Melbourne, developed in quite a different way; it was a fund-raising vehicle for the Menzies United Australia Party (which became the Liberal party). It was founded by Rupert Murdoch's father, George Coles (of supermarket fame), and Charles D Kemp who was then working at the Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers. "CD" Kemp took over the running of the IPA and it became a family-controlled, Coalition fund-raising, political lobbying business. The control stayed with the Kemp family until 1990 when his two sons (Rod and David) were both elected to Canberra as Liberals (one MP, one Senator).

Two years before the Kemps had made their move to Canberra, the most celebrate "Dry" Liberal MP in Australia, John Hyde, merged his (West Australian Libertarian) Australian Institute for Public Policy (AIPP) with the Kemp's IPA. As the Kemp brothers increasingly became more directly involved in campaigning and the party, he took over the IPA as CEO. He changed it's focus more towards being a Libertarian cult, and he transferred a contingent of his aggressive AIPP lieutenants across the Nullabor from Perth (they became fly-in/fly-out "scholar/executives"). The three most obvious from WA are Mike Nahan, J Ray Johnstone, and Chris Uylatt, and they began to drive the IPA financially, running it as a commercial lobby-shop, along with the economic and public polling subsidiary ACIL (ex Tasman Institute).

The IPA'a sub-network consisted of Gerard Henderson who ran the South Australian branch; the Tasman Institute (which later became a commercial contracting group known as ACIL Tasman, then ACIL Allen - run by Alan Moran and George Brownbill); the HR Nichols Society (Peter Costello) which shares a PO Box with the Lavoisier Group (Ian Webster, Ray Evens, Hugh Morgan, Peter Walsh and Gina Reinhart (all WA Mining interests), and the almost unknown Crossroads group.

The CrossroadsJim Carlton, John Hyde and

Peter Shack (all Liberal MPs) in December 1980. [Shack has since been jailed twice for fraud while Carlton later headed the Red Cross! Philip Scanlan, the PR Head of British-American Tobacco (later Consul-general in New York) was also involved]. Crossroads Group operations are funded by Howard Clough and the Clough-family mining companies (they now fund the IPA). Hyde's AIPP, also had a Singapore branch which was funded by Palm Oil interests and this (briefly?) became a member of the IPA family.

John Hyde of the IPA and Greg Lindsay of the CIS met in either late 1987 or early 1988 and signed a cooperation and territorial agreement. They would not to poach each other's financial resources, and they shared a publishing enterprise to produce reports and books, and pass lobbying operations between them on occasions. However there seems to be some reservations about cooperating, and often some distance between the two groups.

Gerard Henderson had just transferred to Sydney from Adelaide to establish the NSW branch of the IPA, and this territorial agreement left him out in the cold. He broke away from the IPA and established the Sydney Institute, with Philip Morris as the main tobacco funder (he had played a major role in the transfer of the Marlboro Grand Prix from Adelaide to Melbourne under Jeff Kennett). Obviously these think-tanks have mining industry funding as well as tobacco and chemical industry funding, but the emphasis here on tobacco is because it has the main documentary evidence.

The Melbourne-Perth IPA group retains its links back to the IEA and Europe, and their tobacco funding came along this route from British-American Tobacco in London (WD & HO Wills in Melbourne). Tobacco money for the Sydney groups (both CIS and Sydney Institute) come across the Pacific from Philip Morris in New York -- and some commissions directly from the local company.

If you read the papers systematically you will find that the Atlas alumni turn up as cheerleaders in every disaster the economic rationalists have visited on Australia in the last twenty years. From the privatisations of geographic and service monopolies (ports and airports); the creation of pseudo markets where none existed before (electricity and gas); to making uni fees and the delivery of other related services "contestable" (employment services, vocational education); to the obvious value of having a single standard network supplying telephones, video and internet along a single optical fibre (NBN).

Philip Morris US Domestic Grants to US Think-tanks

This is just one examples of the range of retainers given to the US Libertarian think-tanks by the cigarette company's domestic division.

The International division of Philip Morris in New York also funded the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute directly (the retainers), while we know that commissions were handled by the local PM Australia company. In addition, the Tobacco Institute of Australia also handed out generous grants, while the local Philip Morris organisations dealt directly with the political parties. Donna Staunton was an ex-lawyer from Clayton Utz law firm, who was seconded to run the Tobacco Institute of Australia, then poached by Philip Morris as their head of Corporate Affairs. She later helped George Trumbull privatise the Australian Mutual Provincial (AMP) and was contracted by the Liberals to help them privatise the CSIRO (she failed).

We don't have similar thin-tank budget documents for British-American Tobacco or its subsidiary, WD & HO Wills, because the Howard Liberal Government refused to take legal action against the tobacco companies as they did in the USA. Nearly all Australian document are copies from the British and American files.


Philip Morris (USA), the domestic company, paid these annual grants by way of retainers to think-tanks in the Atlas Group network which provided services. Project commissions would also have been paid for specific tasks.

The Philip Morris International division made a few grants to the Sydney think-tanks directly from the New York office (for some unknown reason). The Australian domestic cigarette company must also have had its own annual gift list.

Don't forget that the Philip Morris conglomerate also owned Kraft, General Foods, Lindeman's Wines, and a number of coffee, confectionary and soft-drink companies. The gifts, grants and commissions from these would have been handled by their own staff. We don't have access to these documents.

(scroll pages down)               1994 Atlas Network grant list from Philip Morris US          (the domestic company).

A later grant list - Atlas and others (1995)

Philip Morris Australia's - political grants 1995

New York Office grant approvals - 1995

Stewart Fist,
70 Middle Harbour Road,
Lindfield NSW 2070

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