Readers of Pearls and Irritations will be fully appreciative of the considerable influence exercised by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) on the commentariat and political decision-making through its representatives in various parliaments and its presence in the media. And given its discernible influence or occasional lack of it – witness James Paterson’s aborted attempt to neuter the outcome of the marriage equality survey – on shaping political opinion, we might ask whether it too will be required to open the books relating to its financial sources as part of an investigation of foreign influence on Australian lobby groups. If it is good enough for Get Up and various environmental groups to be targeted in this way, why not the so-called libertarian groups which are all really public relations fronts for the corporatization of government and the private sector.
The secrecy of the financing of the IPA – all of its last three annual reports claim that the great percentage of its funding (ranging between $3.23 million and $3.94 million) comes from individual donations (60% in 2012-13, 52% in 2013-14, 60% in 2014-15; 91% in 2015-16) – has been highlighted several times, most effectively by Clive Hamilton (“The shadowy world of IPA finances”, The Drum, posted 24 Feb 2012).
The other main source of donations is attributed to “business” which contributed 29% in 2012-13, down to 3% in 2015-16. Whilst these amounts are not huge in any sense, it would be useful to know which businesses are donating. In addition, for the last three annual reports the individual donors have been broken down into specific categories of how much they donated. Again exact figures cannot be gleaned, but rough estimates would suggest that those donating between $5,000 and $50,000 seem to amount to about thirty percent of the entire budget of the IPA. In 2014-15 there were 15 people donating over $50,000, and 13 in 2015-16. One might ask whether these people are donating on their own behalf or on behalf of particular companies?
Is there a quid pro quo between the requirements of its largest donors and the much more general ideological message it presents, one centred above all on the freedom of the individual? The obvious contradiction is this: if a small group of corporations – technically not individuals – have a disproportionate influence on the running of the country, how relevant is it to speak of individual freedom, whatever the latter might mean? This becomes even more striking when it is realized that apart from their three representatives in federal parliament and a few in state governments, at least 13 out of its 38 employees and associates have worked in ministerial offices and as political advisers.
This contradiction could become highly significant in light of a recent initiative the IPA has taken to extend its influence even further than it has already done most successfully. This initiative is Generation Liberty, involving a Facebook site and a campus program designed to evangelize – I use this word deliberately – young people into their libertarian/individualistic ideology, the latter being a word the IPA seems to disdain in application to its own ideas. For some years (since December 2015) they have had organizers on three university campuses whose task is to hold meetings and forums promoting free markets, individualism, free speech and personal initiative. In this they are mimicking what is done by the major political parties, all of whom use campuses as a means of finding new recruits.
What however is interesting about Liberty Generation is its apparent missionary zeal, almost a conversion process if you will. It describes itself thus: “Generation Liberty is dedicated to advancing the ideas of liberty and freedom on Australian university campuses.” And it is “a non-partisan group which has no affiliation with any political party, Generation Liberty aims to provide students with a better understanding of how free markets and individual liberty can create social change by enabling human flourishing”. It has a sophisticated and well-organized web site, including “Liberty 101. The Freedom Resource Bank” and “Must Watch Freedom Movies”, informing its readers about the giants of neoliberal economic theory, of the absolute centrality of individual initiative, of the dead hand of government, of taxation as theft and of the threat to free speech in the form of political correctness. It also contains a section on student contributions and contains a number of short spicy articles attacking what it sees as the dominance of the left on campuses. We can perhaps forgive such youthful exuberances as the following, contributed by an anonymous writer pontificating about the evils of people who promote political correctness (Generation Liberty 06, 2016): “People on the internet often call them social justice warriors (SJWs), I call them turds. These turds believe that the established progressive orthodoxy on the political left has been chiselled into place like the Ten Commandments. That’s wrong. Worse than wrong, it’s damaging.” Whether this will attract young people to its cause, I cannot say.
All of this begs the question of why an organization that proclaims individual freedom above all else should allow itself to be dominated by large corporations, if this is what it is, and to be associated so closely with a political party that represents the interests of the corporations. In a democratic society the IPA has as much right to function as a lobby group as any other, but it should come clean on what it means by “individual liberty” and how this could remain logically consistent with its support of large corporations. If Get Up is required, on the basis of mooted legislation, to declare itself an affiliate of the ALP or the Greens, then so should the IPA have to declare itself a branch of the Liberal Party.
Dr Greg Bailey is Associate Professor, Program Coordinator (Asian Studies), College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.