On July 2 the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) had at least two of its members elected to parliament in the Double Dissolution, James Pattison and Tim Wilson and that Senators Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm, at times members of the IPA, also were reelected, albeit on small quotas. LNP politicians like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi, both assumed to be thorns in the side of Malcolm Turnbull, have received the praises of the IPA because of speeches they have given, echoing broad IPA doctrines such as small government, abolition of the nanny state and individual self-reliance. But the propitious environment for the likely direct influence of the IPA on the formation of policy has changed, though not as in clear cut a manner as one might think.
The IPA has traditionally been a think tank enjoying a special entrée into the Liberal Party, and also other prominent institutions such as the Catholic church. It can and will still function as the intellectual background of the Liberal Party, bringing with it a sense of libertarianism in every area, most notably freedom of speech and minimum control for the private sector. Here it differs from other groups such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute which do not have the larger “civilizational” vision of the IPA, focusing more on specific aspects of government and the “free market,” but still being pervasive in their influence.
An initial sign that the powerful influence of the IPA on LNP strategies, as opposed to broad policies, might be wavering can be seen in Scott Morrison’s refusal to allow the sale of the 99 year lease of Ausgrid by the NSW state government to two Chinese companies. This kind of decision seems to be an indication of deference to electoral populism. Under a much more favourable electoral outcome such a decision may not have been taken, although this whole scenario is complicated by the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.
And there are now some establishment voices (Rod Sims, Glenn Stevens) questioning the wisdom of privatization, and calling for increased government infrastructure expenditure through borrowings and a more stringent approach to tax collection from large corporations. This means the IPA’s buttressing of neoliberal policies in the press and through parliamentary submissions will have to be ramped up several notches. However, this contrasts sharply with the populist right’s preference for more regulations protecting Australian interests in the economy and resisting the selling off of the farm, as it were. Controls on capital flows and especially how this capital is used would be unacceptable to the IPA, but lie at the heart of what these emergent populists groups want.
Three related factors are coming into play in a manner that will measurably effect the influence of the IPA on the LNP government. Firstly, right wing populism–for want of a better term–has allowed at least four members of One Nation to re-emerge. In conjunction with figures like Bob Katter and Jacqui Lambi, this ‘anti-elite’ force will offer some kind of combination of agrarian socialism and deep social conservatism, of a kind quite different from the libertarianism of the IPA. In this connection we might also mention Derryn Hinch, who, though seemingly a single issue senator, has the experience to be able to harness the populist opinion that is currently revolting against neoliberal governments and out-of-touch politicians. In this connection the IPA’s behind the scene influence fits perfectly with the stance of the anti-politician politicians.
Secondly, a different kind of right wing media player has entered the scenario with both Hinch and Hanson. Both bring with them very strong pre-existing media profiles that places them within the realm of the ordinary person rather than the elite, and guarantees mass media coverage. They may be ridiculed by the intelligentsia but they will receive considerable coverage from the tabloid Murdoch press and many of the commercial electronic media, in part because they will make outrageous statements not backed up by any evidence. In that sense their presence constitutes a ratings bonanza, in part because it is another manifestation of class war, with the anti-intellectual populists coming out for the ordinary people against the intellectuals. In contrast, IPA spokespeople have always presented themselves as intellectuals whose ideas are evidenced based and derive from careful reading of (largely) neoliberal literature. Their chosen media outlets, the Age, The Australian, the AFR, The Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC will be considered by the Hansonites as part of the elite. And their ideas will be regarded as too abstract. To boot, most of the populists will never have heard of the IPA, but that by itself does not stop them being influential.
A third element is the increasing right wing factionalization in the LNP, now that Turnbull’s authority–if it ever really existed–has been so eroded, along with his connection with the remnant “small-L’ liberal element of the Liberal Party. Cory Bernardi has already begun to exploit this by setting up a group designed to oppose Get Up and is receiving considerable media publicity for this. But Bernardi and the other right wing populist star George Christensen will find the IPA too intellectually inclined for them and will not want to tolerate their kind of Think Tank mentality, which they will see as elitist and highbrow. They will require the LNP to be susceptible to the demands of the “anti-Muslim”, anti-gay marriage and economically protectionist populists, anathema to the IPA. To these demand the LNP will have to respond favourably, even if they want to resist even more fragmentation.
It is an irrelevancy to the new populist groups, many of them racist as well as economically illiterate, that they do not understand that the economic decay they see around them has come about following thirty years of neoliberal policies at all levels of government. Rather than analyzing historical and ideological forces, it is much easier to focus on excess immigration reducing the available jobs and forcing up house prices. For them the decay is manifestly potent in the reduced government services they have, the collapse of big manufacturing, the complexity of the family law system, the exponential increase in house prices, and the flow of Chinese money into the country. That this has been building up for three decades was largely lost on them, but it is now too obvious to ignore especially when many are being directly affected by it.
The Hansonites and the other extreme right parties, have emerged phoenix-like again, but this time with seemingly more parliamentary clout. And it is here that a several weakened LNP government in the lower house will need to take note of them, if only because of the number of votes they have harvested. As such this will inevitably put a halt on further neoliberal advances of the kind so beloved of the IPA. Whilst, at the moment, this is initially taking place in regard to the free speech provisions associated with 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act, Scott Morrison’s decision about Ausgrid must be an ominous sign for the IPA for whom it is holy writ that the market should control such matters.
Inspite of what they would see as the intrinsic logic and conceptual beauty of the pure free market and of the rational individual within it, the IPA advocates are now more than ever going to be confronted by the cold reality of politics, and by the naked opportunism of the LNP driven by the desire to keep power at all cost. Even with the IPA having two of its own in parliament, political imperatives will definitely work to limit the influence they can exercise. And this imperative will only become more strident as the sloganeering of the Hansonites threatens to sweep up more people in its path. In this scenario the IPA is simply another set of elites who are seen as betraying the interests of the ordinary Australian.
Dr Greg Bailey is Associate Professor, Program Coordinator (Asian Studies), College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.