Arguably the most influential think tank in Australia over the last decade, the Melbourne based Institute of Public Affairs, serves good beer at its functions, so I have been told. Whilst it has always been significant in pushing right wing, neo-liberal agendas, it is only in the last decade, and really during the last period of Liberal government, since October 2013, that it has emerged from the dim shadows into the brightness of political life. Previously it functioned mainly as a pressure group that would provide some kind of ‘intellectual’ substance to the economic and lobbying interests of the large mining companies and banks that provided most of its financial support. Yet already it had honed its lobbying skills with high success when Jeff Kennett privatised the electricity industry in Victoria in 1993. Now in 2016 whilst it continues to make many submissions to parliamentary inquiries, its influence on the political functioning of the country has become more direct.
Two main reasons can be adduced for this success. Firstly, is the IPA’s skill in insinuating itself into the media at all levels. In their 2015 annual report they boast of 81 mentions in federal parliament, 762 appearances in the print media, 411 appearances on radio and 184 appearances on TV. My untested feeling is that only the Grattan Institute, The Sydney Institute, the Australia Institute and the Lowy Institute would have comparable numbers. The IPA’s executive director John Roskam appears almost every Wednesday at 10am on the John Faine program, Chris Berg is a regular columnist for the Sunday Age, and the IPA is, not unexpectedly, well represented in the Murdoch Press. Others have appeared on the Drum and Q&A. Occasional media appearances might be understandable but their continuing presence, especially on the ABC, suggests they have successfully mainstreamed themselves. This insinuates a sleight-of-hand away from the extreme free-market thrust of many of their policies– such as the seventy-five item manifesto published in March 2013 that provided a radical platform of very detailed proposals that if fully implemented would have laid the foundation for an Australia of the likes we have never seen before–towards a more general acceptance by a relatively large audience of informed listeners on the ABC, readers of the Age, and a more popular audience of radio 3 AW. On these appearances their extreme views are usually toned down, to the extent that one could mistakenly consider the IPA a group of modest free marketeers.
The second reason is the very strong historical connection of the IPA with the Liberal Party both in and out of government. Whereas most other think tanks operate by canvassing ideas and putting in submissions to parliamentary inquiries, the IPA have their own members in parliament, and most of their board members are either members of, or closely associated, with the Liberal Party. What this means is that there is a direct interaction between both groups, with the IPA arguably developing policy and the Liberal government implementing it. In the Senate Family First member Bob Day is a member of the IPA, as is David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal democrats. Several IPA members also hold seats in different state parliaments. No other think tank has this level of direct representation in parliament, and nor should they.
Only in the last few weeks two prominent members of the IPA have been placed into positions where they will be members of parliament. James Paterson, former deputy executive director, has been elevated to fill a casual senate vacancy and Tim Wilson, former Human Rights Commissioner and Policy Director at the IPA, has won pre-selection for the safe Victorian Liberal seat of Goldstein. Both men are young and will likely be in parliament for a long time, thus providing extra pressure long term from IPA sources. On his elevation to the senate Paterson emailed a letter to all IPA members in which he said, “I want you to know that I’m going to the Senate to fight for exactly the same things I have in my time at the IPA. I know if I ever fail to do so that IPA members will be the first to let me know where I have gone wrong!” I mistakenly thought he would be representing his state of Victoria, not the IPA.
A second telling example concerns the response to the refusal in August 2014 to repeal race hate laws. As reported by Latika Burke in the Age (6/8/14) John Roskam said the IPA had “been contacted by many IPA members who are also Liberal Party members who have said they will resign their membership from the Liberal Party over this broken promise from the government,…” It was also reported that Tony Abbott had phoned Andrew Bolt and John Roskam to inform them of the government’s decision. So Liberal party members apparently go to the IPA before protesting to their own MPs.
The IPA exerts much more influence on the present government than any other think tank or pressure group. Their interests do coincide with those of the large business and consultancy groups, yet their concerns are more pragmatic and short-term whereas those of the IPA are long term and strongly ideological. For about six months before the Abbott government was elected there was considerable speculation in the press about whether the 75 items requested by the IPA would be implemented. It was assumed that because of the extreme neo-liberal tenor of these items and the close connexions of most members of the IPA with the Liberal Party, many having membership of both, that the influence on the government would be intense. This has proven to be true. However when Malcolm Turnbull became PM in October 2015 many people expected the government would begin to veer to the centre from the right. This would suggest the influence of groups like the IPA would diminish. In fact, the opposite has occurred. And whilst their existence is scarcely known by the broader electorate, their influence far outweighs what it should in a purportedly democratic country.
Dr Greg Bailey is Associate Professor, Program Coordinator (Asian Studies), College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.