No, the IPA is not secretly running Australia
Thursday 5 June 2014
Last weekend, The Saturday Paper ran an “exposé” by Mike Seccombe on the influence of the Institute of Public Affairs, the notorious libertarian thinktank, over the Abbott government. It was an odd story. It painted the IPA as the government’s puppet masters, but offered little that hasn’t been raked over in other news outlets, on blogs, and in social media.
The IPA’s caginess about their corporate donors, their astroturfing, and their links with the Liberal party are all common knowledge. The relationship between the IPA and the prime minister is no secret either. If either Tony Abbott or John Roskam were trying to keep their bromance quiet, presumably the prime minister wouldn’t be invited to speak at the institute’s events.
Perhaps the main attraction in an IPA hatchet-job like this is that it’s great clickbait. Lefties love to hate them, and not just because they disagree. IPA commentators are ubiquitous, and radiate a smugness that not even the most expensive media training can completely eradicate.
A more vibrant and confident left might actually welcome the IPA's prominence, for this really is the best that Australia's intellectual right can do. IPA commentators (along with their colleagues in the Centre for Independent Studies) mostly incant the same old prescriptions for deregulation, marketisation and small government that have circulated through what Philip Mirowski calls the “neoliberal thought collective” for decades. Whenever they stray from this familiar territory, their limitations quickly become apparent. Chris Berg’s foray into art criticism is my favourite example.
Even if they had the sway their critics claim they do, lately it hasn’t helped them get much of what they want. Their pet project since 2010 — the repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act — seems to have been shelved by George Brandis, the attorney-general, in the face of opposition from state premiers and practically every ethnic community group in the country. Polling shows that the Australian people are far less concerned about restricting the freedom of bigots than Brandis is.
The budget measures that would please the IPA most — attacks on public education, health and welfare — are the same ones that have eroded the government’s standing and fired up the senate. The institute might help to embolden the government in following its fundamental political instincts, but the limited popular purchase of their ideas ought to be another source of comfort.
Instead, in the Saturday Paper’s story, and much else that is written about the IPA, it is insinuated not only that they have untold power, but that there is something improper in their tactics. Yet the IPA make their arguments very publicly, work hard to mobilise supporters around heavily-promoted campaigns, and are, after all, a membership organisation. Seccombe himself discusses how, they have come to rely more on the support of members as corporate sponsors have backed away from their more hardline positions.
To obsess over the "covert" activities and corporate sponsorship of thinktanks is to misunderstand the role they play in contemporary politics. On both the left and the right, they exist largely because of the hollowness at the heart of the major parties.
Long since dead as mass organisations, and focused throughout the political cycle on electoral competition, big parties lack much capacity for meaningful internal debate or the generation of new ideas. In the age of permanent campaigning, politicians are more focussed on perfecting risk-averse, targeted messaging than on values or vision. Thinktanks have more space to try to reframe political debate, and to mobilise issue publics in a way that the parties no longer can.
Perhaps the IPA stands out in this context because they are unapologetically ideological. On the centre-left, thinktanks like The Australia Institute and The Centre for Policy Development tend to try to work on the basis of putatively apolitical data. They put faith in the policy process and public reason. The IPA has a bit more mongrel. Its impact has been in making its stand on its values, and also by combining campaigning and policy work. They’re not afraid of confronting ideological antagonists and they understand that no political fight is ever over.
In short, they at once see the role of political passions more clearly than left thinktanks, and the power of ideas better than left campaigning organisations like GetUp!. While writing books and making submissions, they evade the trap of wonky proceduralism and always claim to be acting in the name of something they misdescribe as “freedom”. Their successes have been qualified and perhaps they never sway convinced opponents, but in the 18C debate, they touched on an issue that put together a broad coalition on the right, open to libertarians, conservatives, and plain old racists.
Rather than keeping up the pretence that expertise is post-political, some left thinktanks might think about how they too can combine policy nous with consistent appeals to the kind of values that activate political passions. There is a willing audience right now for the message that inequality hobbles democracy and that everyone benefits when we limit the power of wealth. In insisting on the values of equality and democracy, they could focus less on informing the ALP, and find ways instead to twist its arm. They could also pick some more messy fights. The much-overrated IPA could be an interesting opening bout.