There was a time, not so long ago, when corporate Australia lined up to throw money at the nation’s oldest think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. That time is past.
“Twenty or 30 years ago,” says John Roskam, whose 17-year tenure as executive director ended a couple of months ago, “we had dozens of ASX 100 companies supporting the IPA. Now, there’s not one.
“Not one,” he repeats, for emphasis. “Not one of the ASX 100 companies supports the IPA.”
No wonder Roskam sounds dispirited. Big business created the IPA. It was set up in 1943 following the collapse of Australia’s major conservative political party, the United Australia Party, in opposition to the perceived “socialism” of the Curtin Labor government.
Its founders included the chairmen of BHP and Coles, as well as the head of the Herald and Weekly Times newspaper group, Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, among many other business leaders.
The fact that corporate Australia now has largely abandoned the IPA – although the Murdochs, whose business is listed offshore, are still supporters, as is mining magnate Gina Rinehart, whose interests are held privately – may be the clearest indication of the declining influence of not just the IPA but right-wing think tanks in general.
There are many other indicators, too.
Consider the jobs and skills summit held by the new Albanese government a month ago and attended by a who’s who of business, union and civil society representatives. The IPA did not get an invitation.
Instead, Danielle Wood, chief executive of Grattan Institute, a centrist think tank, was not only invited but gave the keynote address. The speech was widely lauded, although Roskam is dismissive of the “left-wing” ideas she offered: “There’s never been a tax or a regulation that the Grattan Institute hasn’t liked.”
Ideas are an issue for the IPA. Professor John Quiggin, laureate fellow in the School of Economics at Queensland University, is something of a student of the IPA and other policy influencers of the right. He says these think tanks did have fresh ideas once and they persuaded a lot of politicians in this country and across the developed world, particularly the English-speaking nations.
In the era of Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the United States and John Howard in Australia, the neoliberal ideas they advanced – cutting taxes, limiting the power and size of government, privatisation, financial deregulation, labour market deregulation – made them very influential.
But, says Quiggin, the economic ideas they advocated – “some of them reasonable, some not” – have not changed since then. “They haven’t had any new ideas for a long time. And this is true globally.”
At the height of their influence, these organisations proliferated. In 1976 the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) was founded in Sydney, followed by a slew of other outfits.
Quiggin ticks off some of the names: the H. R. Nicholls Society, the Lavoisier Group, Bennelong Society, the Samuel Griffith Society.
“With the partial exception of Samuel Griffith Society, they have all pretty much died,” he says. “The only real new entrant is something called the Australian Institute for Progress.”
It is a tiny outfit based in Brisbane and has had negligible impact. A recent attempt to set up a big, new, Liberal Party-aligned think tank in Sydney, the Blueprint Institute, has descended into chaos after several quite credible – if conservative – economists quit, citing concerns about the integrity of its research.
“There’s obviously been a big decline,” Quiggin says.
There are essentially two major right-wing think tanks left, the IPA and the Centre for Independent Studies. There are three if you count the Menzies Research Centre, whose executive director since 2014 is Nick Cater, a former senior journalist and editor with the Murdoch media.
Of these three, the CIS is generally seen as having the strongest claim to being a vehicle for independent research – which, after all, is the prime purpose of a think tank. Menzies is essentially an arm of the Liberal Party, so not truly independent. And the IPA, says Quiggin, “now seems to be to a significant extent a career path for right-wing young men. A lot of Liberal MPs have gone through the IPA”.
Roskam himself is not only a party member but has stood several times for preselection. He has worked as both a Liberal staffer and for the Menzies Research Centre.
The interesting thing is that he also concedes the decline in the influence of the IPA and right-wing think tanks in general, particularly when it comes to advancing their core economic agenda.
“I would certainly say that when it comes to economics, and financial policy … both the Coalition and the Labor Party are far more inclined to look at policies, solutions and suggestions from the centre and the centre-left than the centre-right or neoliberal think tanks, for want of a better term,” he says.
“My disillusionment with the policy thinking on the centre-right over the last 10 years, you know, is very real. Twenty or 30 years ago, the centre-right was a lot more vibrant than it is now.
“And I think it’d be fair to say that those on the centre-right of politics have been tremendously disappointed by the eight-and-a-half years of federal Coalition government. Attempts of economic reform officially ended with the 2014-15 Abbott–Hockey budget, when they tried to introduce some reforms and they were rejected by their own party and by public commentary. Basically, everything has been frozen since.”
Few would remember the radical failure that was the 2014 budget as fondly as Roskam does. It proposed a co-payment for Medicare; cuts to legal aid, including for Indigenous Australians and domestic violence victims; targeted family tax benefits and pensions; and a 20 per cent cut to university funding. It raised the pension age, capped redundancy payments, sought to raise prices under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and broke an election promise of a paid parental leave scheme, among other swingeing cuts. It was wildly unpopular and bits began falling off it almost immediately, either abandoned or defeated in the senate.
Roskam acknowledges that “the IPA is pushing against the mainstream, certainly in the case of economics”. He notes that to the extent it still has political influence, it is more with fringe players on the right.
“Many of our free-market supporters are more likely to vote for the Liberal Democrats these days than Liberal. Many people, including myself as a Liberal Party member, are frustrated with the direction of the Liberal Party. The libertarian alternative through the LDP is becoming more and more attractive.”
He blames the main conservative parties for policy timidity and blames the polity in general for being too comfortable. “Thirty years of prosperity has meant that no government has thought they needed to continue to reform.”
And he blames the business community – who used to be big supporters – for being too concerned with social issues and “virtue signalling”. What Roskam doesn’t accept is that there might be something wrong with the policies right-wing think tanks continue to push.
To some extent, argues Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, they have become victims of their own success. “They were at the forefront of a radical ideological shift in Australia, and when that became accepted, much of their raison d’être disappeared and they had to find other things to do,” he says.
Back in the 1980s, Hamilton says, “the right-wing think tanks were speaking a language that political leaders on both sides wanted to hear. In the US particularly, they had been beavering away on their neoliberal economic policies for decades and, quite suddenly, their time had come. And they swept the board, basically.
“There was little opposition other than a few individual academics who were criticising the shift to free-market fundamentalism. But there was very little organised or systematic opposition. So, I set up The Australia Institute in late ’93, early ’94.”
Then, in 2008-09 the Grattan Institute was established with an initial endowment of $35 million, including contributions from the Commonwealth and Victorian governments and from BHP and NAB, both of which had been involved in setting up the IPA 65 years earlier.
They are quite different organisations, Grattan and The Australia Institute. The former is consciously centrist and the latter unabashedly progressive – Roskam and his fellow travellers would say leftist. But both organisations produce high-quality, evidence-based research.
As Roskam concedes, these new think tanks are now far more influential than those on the right. One only has to look at the relative media profiles. Research from The Australia Institute and Grattan features prominently in news coverage. If research from the right appears at all, it is largely in the form of commentary. While some appears in mainstream outlets, much is focused on fringe titles.
“I think The Spectator is important,” Roskam says. “Quadrant continues to be important. The commentators on Sky News are important. The Catallaxy Files, that folded last year, was important.”
Alongside The Australia Institute and Grattan, a host of civil-society organisations are also producing data and research-driven work. Collectively they – along with 40-odd years of real experience – have shown the flaws in the neoliberal agenda.
Supply side, trickle-down economics served to increase inequality. Deregulation of the labour market yielded flatlining wages. Privatisation all too often resulted in reduced services. The GFC showed clearly the perils of deregulating the finance sector and the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the necessity of competent, well-resourced government as well as the fragility of globalised supply chains.
That’s not to say any radical shift is imminent. But, Quiggin suggests, there is now an acknowledgement that the neoliberal economic experiment has gone as far as it can and further than it should have, and is in the process of being moderated.
Roskam is of much the same view, although he is far less happy about it.
“Economic reform, as we on the centre-right would understand the term, has largely been exhausted,” he says. “This is why the centre-right has expanded its ambit into other issues, cultural issues. So, you know, we do a lot of work on education, on universities, on the national curriculum, on freedom of speech…”
In the case of his organisation, these “cultural issues” have particularly included climate change. The IPA website is replete with climate denialism – it notes, for example, that Earth’s carbon dioxide levels were far higher 400 million years ago, so can be no threat now.
Recently one of its stable of climate sceptics obsessed over the Bureau of Meteorology’s rain gauge records in Lismore during February’s catastrophic floods, first arguing that weather records showed a bigger downpour in 1954, then, on finding bureau data showing there was record rain on February 28, attacking the bureau for not making the data more prominent.
When it is put to Roskam that such nitpicking is pointless, and that the IPA is flogging a dead horse, he vigorously demurs.
“The science is not yet settled,” he says. “One of our roles is to continue to disseminate our research to those who are still fighting the fight. For example, [Queensland senator] Matt Canavan.”
Roskam takes heart from the fact that after 20 years of IPA pushing, “nuclear power is absolutely back on the agenda. The Coalition and [federal member for Fairfax] Ted [O’Brien] has said he wants to have a debate about it.”
The point here is that the IPA is now much less focused on economic reform than it is on culture wars. It is less about research and more about polemics.
Take an example, from the work of Georgina Downer, daughter of former Foreign Affairs minister Alexander Downer. Georgina was an “adjunct fellow” with the IPA prior to her two unsuccessful attempts, in 2018 and 2019, to win the South Australian seat of Mayo for the Liberals. During her couple of years there, she appeared frequently as a television commentator and produced a lot of articles, some of which also ran in mainstream media, on a range of issues – but she produced no actual research.
In one piece she welcomed the election of Donald Trump as US president on the basis that he would “dramatically” cut taxes and government programs, would reject “liberal internationalism, political correctness and the progressive politics of urban elites” as well as “the international environmental movement and its fatwa against carbon”.
This sort of culture-baiting is increasingly the stock in trade of the IPA. Roskam is not only unapologetic for it but he also sees it as important to the organisation’s finances.
“Why is there relatively less economics now compared to our cultural work?” he asks, and answers himself: “Because I think the funding model of all the think tanks has changed over the years, to what concerns individuals.”
In the absence of support from big corporate donors, Roskam says, “we’re now supported by 8000 individual members. The big difference is individual philanthropy”.
Where corporate donors are motivated by the calculation of interests, personal donors are driven by strong feelings. You’ve got to “activate the base”, as they say in American politics. Indeed, Roskam acknowledges, “that’s been the direction of the United States”.
Thus, the IPA will continue to promote climate scepticism and has set itself in firm opposition to giving Indigenous Australians a Voice to Parliament. “We are,” Roskam says, “the voice against the Voice.”
It will continue to push for the removal of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Likewise, it will continue to express concerns over education through the Centre for The Australian Way of Life – launched by Lachlan Murdoch in March – which seeks, among other things, to produce a new history curriculum.
It might keep the money coming in from dedicated donors – notably Gina Rinehart, whom Roskam calls “a wonderful honorary life member” – but it’s dubious as to whether the shift will restore the IPA to relevance.
Australia is not America, says Quiggin, where “all the energy right now is all Trumpism, nationalism and so forth, which really doesn’t have much in the nature of ideas at all”.
Without the ability to rationally formulate policy and without influence over economic questions, the IPA is less and less likely to gain significant traction among serious people, even with the support of Rinehart’s riches and Murdoch’s megaphone.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
October 1, 2022 as “Exclusive: IPA has lost all funding from ASX 100”.
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