MARK BUCKLEY. Meet John Roskam the real PM

I confess that I feel like a complete fool. I had heard bits and pieces about the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) for years, but I had always associated them with tired old culture warriors, like Gerard Henderson, maybe Bob Santamaria.

What were the 75 ideas about?

But then I came across a couple of quotes, “Be like Gough”, and “75 ideas”, which seemed associated with both the IPA, and Tony Abbott. After a little research, I discovered that three members of the IPA had written a ‘manifesto’ or wish list, which they had addressed to Tony Abbott, on the eve of his elevation to Prime Minister. It was ‘delivered’ online, in 2012.Read it here

It invoked Whitlam as the most transformative leader the country had seen, but not in any admiring sense. Its message was that, for Abbott to be remembered well, he needed to be the antidote to the ‘poison’ that Whitlam had put into Australia’s political system. He needed to emulate Whitlam, by acting with speed, and they had a program, one which they had prepared earlier.

What was Abbott’s response?

One would expect that the leader of one of Australia’s major political parties, the Liberal Party, would have thanked them politely for their advice, and then proceeded to do exactly as his party wanted. That presumably included governing for all Australians, and sticking to his, and the party’s, policies and the expectations which they had aroused. Australians have always voted for the ‘sensible centre’, and they were certainly not voting for any sort of ‘radical’ party.

Abbott’s response was both shocking, and surprisingly open. He responded during a speech, delivered at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria, which included the immortal line, “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big fat yes to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me.” Of course, he became Australia’s Prime Minister the next year.

But thank God for the IPA – here they were with a shopping list of neo-liberal ideas, and, being unelected, their ideas were in many cases, if not sociopathic, at least lacking in care for ‘the people’. Abbott appears to have taken their ‘manifesto’ more seriously than the writers had. They had presented it as a wish list, and the tone suggests their expectations were not high. They even outlined the ‘softer’ option, which consisted of a ‘steady as she goes, probably win another term,’. That was included in the paper, should he find their suggestions too radical.

Why did he accept their plan?

Many commentators, and most of the public, were dubious about Abbott’s abilities in the area of formulating policy. He was more of an attack dog, very able in the area of creating slogans, and engendering fear in the community, but policy – not so much.

It is difficult to explain why Abbott was so accepting of such a radical makeover of Australia’s political paradigm. I have always thought of Tony Abbott as something of a time-server, a careerist, and being on the right side was enough for him. He was never a reformist, or really a zealot, except when his religion clashed with his political duties.

I have tried many theories: Did they have a series of compromising photos? Did he receive money from them? Had they knowledge of something criminal in his background? No, all too improbable. So why did he acquiesce so whole-heartedly?

The best guess I can come up with is that he woke up one day, and discovered that he was the Leader of the Opposition. Remember the ridicule and the outrage when he won that particular vote? It was typically shambolic of most of what Abbott has done – he ascended to the leadership by tricking Joe Hockey into believing that he would not run, and then he did. [Something of a playbook for a later run by
Scott Morrison.]

Part of the outrage was that he had defeated Malcolm Turnbull, who was seen as a gentleman, an urbane and distinguished lawyer, who had decided to provide, pro bono, some adult supervision for the country. So Abbott had climbed the greasy pole, almost by accident, and then we saw him at his instinctive best – a wrecker, by three word slogan.

So, watching the Labor Party self-destruct, Abbott, over time, firmed as favourite to succeed to the top job. Notwithstanding his quiver full of degrees from Sydney, and even Oxford, he was given very little respect, or credibility, for his abilities, other than as a political brawler. The only work qualification he had was as an unremarkable journalist, and then a long term [19 years &
counting, in 2012] as a parliamentarian.

My answer to the question is that he may be really lazy. He had a stellar education, but all he had really achieved was to be, at the time, known as the world’s worst health minister, called out by Julia Gillard for his misogyny, a series of really embarrassing public gaffes, and a penchant for punishing physical exercise. He had a reputation as a Catholic warrior, and he was a climate science denier. Why not go along with a ready-made basket of policies, something put together by boffins, from a respectable conservative outfit. He could claim them as his own, and proceed into power.

How did that go?

It was disastrous. The list, translated into an actual budget, caused chaos. It was never anything but a ‘boys’ own fantasy’, put together by three young men whose work histories consisted mainly of working for think tanks, or for politicians.

James Paterson was 24 years old in 2012, which suggests that he was a little inexperienced to be writing a grown-up country’s political plan. Chris Berg is an academic, I think, of unknown age, who is an ‘expert’ in Block Chain Innovation. He is also a think tank veteran. John Roskam was 44 years of age when the plan was written, and he has worked for several politicians, and two think tanks. He also did PR for a mining company.

He has tried for Liberal Party pre-selection, but he has failed to win. One wonders why he would bother, considering he has an entire Government at his disposal. One thing he does well: He is very good at getting on the radio and television, and considering his seeming fear and loathing for the ABC, he has managed to obtain lots of exposure on the national broadcaster. Is that known as biting the hand that feeds you?

What are some of the things they succeeded in?

It is eerie to work one’s way through this simple, simplistic shopping list, because so many of the items can be ticked off, as having been completed, or at least attempted. I would describe most, if not all of them, as reactionary, elitist and nasty. I can’t say if that nastiness is intentional, or just not thought through.

Repeal the carbon tax, and don’t replace it

Abolish the Dept of Climate Change

Cease subsidising the car industry

Repeal the mining tax

Devolve environmental approvals for major projects to the states

Cease funding the Australia Network

Privatise Medibank.

It seems like the sort of list that very young, privileged brats would produce, before they actually encountered some real life. Let us just say it is a work of stupendous lightness, and the Liberal Party has been captured by it for nearly eight years now. I have sometimes idly wondered where Abbott got such a witches’ brew of pettiness for his 2013 Budget.

I do not see one thing that would materially improve the life of a single citizen. All I see is self-aggrandisement writ large, with not a thought for the weak or the helpless. We have been blaming Abbott, Hockey, Cormann, Morrison and Dutton for a long time, but they are just dupes of three would-be intellectuals, who wouldn’t know what the words mutual obligation meant.

So the IPA gave Abbott a plan for Australia. And he bought it!

Mark Buckley is a Melbourne writer with an interest in politics, history and ethics in public life. His work can be found at



Mark Buckley is a writer based in regional Victoria. He has a particular interest in politics, history and ethics in public life.

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13 Responses to MARK BUCKLEY. Meet John Roskam the real PM

  1. Raymond Brindal says:

    The list of 75 from the Institute for Personal Avarice came as manna for Tony Abbott.

    Ever the empty vessel just waiting for a passing conservative ideological cargo, Abbott seized on the list of 75 as it gave him something to do beyond merely opposing Labor.

    Conservative leaders in Australia are often duped into a belief that opposition to Labor is all that is needed to carry the day. Witness the policy vacuum after the election of the Morrison government.

    The list from the Institute of Personal Avarice gave Abbott something to do when before there was nothing.

    Quality control wasn’t part of it.

  2. Jerry Roberts says:

    You are missing the point, Fernando and others. The influence of the neoliberal thought collective including the IPA on the Liberals is not the problem. It is the way neoliberalism took over the Labor Party, of which I am a member. There was no opposition to government by privatisation. Roskam, Abbot and Paterson are minor players in the drama who have entered the stage for the last act.

    Abbot and Hockey were remarkably foolish with their 2014 austerity budget. Labor had gone so far to the right that Abbot merely had to move the Liberals a little to the left and he would still be PM. Now the pragmatic Morrison is taking the Liberals quite a long way to the left out of sheer necessity.

  3. John Power says:

    Would Bill have got a list if he had been elected or did he already have one?

  4. Jerry Roberts says:

    Gents, you all need to go back further to understand where this comes from. The origins are often traced to the Colloque Walter Lippmann in Paris in 1938. F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom during the war and the neoliberals got together at Mont Pelerin in Switzerland in 1947 and spawned the family of think tanks designed to educate young talent like Roskam.

    Philip Mirowski of Notre Dame edited a collection of essays called “The Road from Mont Pelerin” which you should all read. I liked Australian economist Craig Freedman’s fair-minded “Chicago Fundamentalists.” More recently, Canadian Quinn Slobidian’s “Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism” is excellent
    Australian sociologist Michael Pusey saw the trend early and wrote “Economic Rationalism in Canberra.”

    Evan Jones (Pearls and Irritations 8 April) provides a neat summary of the tragedy. The Department of Political Economy at Sydney University has maintained a long battle against the teaching of dumbed-down “fresh-water” economics and publishes an excellent journal known as JAPE (Journal of Australian Political Economy).

    I wrote about this stuff in my first piece for Pearls and Irritations and would give a link if I was not such a Luddite. John posted it on 4 October 2017. I could never understand why the neoliberal axioms were accepted unquestioningly by the ALP, of all people, the media and even the universities. They were always going to lead to where we are now — back to the 1930s Depression, fascism and war.

  5. Fernando Longo says:

    All very good. Just one thing – Tony Abbott was the Leader of this great country. His RESPONSIBILITY was to LEAD for all Australians. It was never going to happen. Ever. It was clear. His lies before the election were very evident – for those willing to see So, when his “mates” came up with a list he probably thought “Great” a manifesto for progressing a shared ideology. There is a wonderful journalistic opportunity here to uncover the full relationship between the IPA and the Liberal Government but, suffice to say, there is a strong relationship and they are both strongly ideologically driven – not for the benefit of all Australians, but for a select few “in the club” wealthy types. It was, and still is, in their intent and their actions. They, and the Murdoch Press, are traitors to a HEALTHY and WEALTHY Australian society.

  6. Scott MacWilliam says:

    Nice try at sarcasm, Paul Parks. The problem is that trying to make Tony Abbott a man of principles, including those that `underpin’ the Insititute for Privatizing All things, doesn’t quite work. Like his fellow ideologue, BA Santamaria, Tony Abbott doesn’t consistently stand for anything except for … Elected to parliament for a sinecure but an enthusiast for competition, against factions in the Liberal Party once his lost power, apoplectic when a woman became PM before him but not, of course, a misogynist, with no loyalty to the man who replaced him despite all manner of protestations of how he wouldn’t undermine …and so on.
    As for the IPA, now intellectually bereft. Even the leader of the right wing of the British Conservative Party belatedly acknowledges what Michael Oakeshot among others pointed out years ago, there is no `spontaneous social order’ per von Hayek and there is such a thing as society, denied by Thatcher. Roskam the advocate for Gina (what is wrong with African wage levels) Rinehart? That is a certainly a case of principled flexibility.

  7. Philip Ludington says:

    An interesting fact is that Bill Shorten was best man at Roskam’s wedding. I presume that they got to be buddies while at Xavier. Roskam and his organisation has badly damaged our politics and society and the IPA is a continuing toxic threat. I didn’t appreciate his ongoing tie in with the Catholic Church and its relentless efforts to shape our society to its liking.

  8. Richard Ure says:

    Hasn’t the IPA been mulesed by Centrelink 2.0? Are the closing of News Corps suburban mastheads which have been struggling for some time and Foxtel’s difficulties a harbinger of a loss of influence? What is the future of the Daily Telegraph without football news to anaesthetise the remaining masses inclined behind its paywall? John Roskam’s ABC appearances give us a chance to critique his ideas for ourselves. Do his type of people watch these performances? Is he a regular on 2GB or Sky where he would be unlikely to change anyone’s mind anyway?

  9. Jim KABLE says:

    A timely essay – though I think I have read something very like this a year or two back (or is it merely a true déjà vu moment). The IPA is a danger to the nation – and any of its associates (its pseudo academic thugs) should be investigated more fully – and its funding sources and its “friends” named and shamed – and made transparently public. With sincere thanks to Mark Buckley!

  10. Mark Skinner says:

    I think you hit it on the head when you identified laziness.

    Development of policy is hard work. Getting a list like this and calling it policy is easy.

    Another example of this laziness was the attack on Gillian Triggs. Her report, with a little effort in crafting a response could have been turned into a weapon against the former government whose performance was poor. However, Abbott took the lazy and mysogynistic way out by attacking Ms Triggs.

  11. Sue Caldwell says:

    It is also interesting to note that Roskam is also the executive director of the right wing Catholic publishing company Connor Court which publishes books by the culture wars warriors associated with the IPA/Quadrant/Spectator/Australian “news”-paper nexus.
    And as far as I know Connor Court is either owned by, or closely associated with Opus Dei.
    It also published the book by George Pell titled Test Everything. George Pell has of course given key-note presentations at gab-fests put on by right-wing USA “free”-market think tanks such as The Heritage (lies, lies and more lies) Foundation.

    • Paul Parks says:

      Thanks for trying so hard to understand Tony Abbott’s decision to back a freedom focused series of recommendations and aspirations. You went through a number of hoops to try and square this for us. Why did you miss, so seemingly intentionally, the obvious answer… that Tony Abbott agrees with the principles that underpin the IPA and so agreed with their policy recommendations? Perhaps he agrees that the government should be shrunk and decentralized to encourage personal liberty and free institutions to grow? Wow, what a thought! Or maybe you are right and the PM of Australia was lazy and without opinions and just reached for a series of extremely difficult to implement ideas… yeh that’s a way better explanation. 😀

    • Richard Ure says:

      While thinking of nothing else, I had a troublesome vision I felt required to share. It was of John Roskam doing the Australia Day lamb commercial. “You know it makes sense, I’m John Roskam.”

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