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There is one group to which Tony Abbott has kept his promises since becoming prime minister: the Institute of Public Affairs. By Mike Seccombe.

Abbott's faceless men of the IPA

The data is in, and it shows Australia now overwhelmingly thinks Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a man whose word cannot be trusted. Depending on which poll you look at, and the exact nature of the questions asked of respondents, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of voters think the first budget of the Abbott government was nasty, unfair and littered with broken promises. They consider the man himself to be a liar.

But Abbott didn’t lie about everything, and there are some people who can trust him to keep his promises. They are his people, the ones who moulded him and his party, who shape its policies, who helped him to power.

We are talking about the members and generous benefactors of the Institute of Public Affairs, Australia’s – and, it claims, the world’s – oldest right-wing think tank.

So old is the IPA that when his father helped establish it, Rupert Murdoch was but a callow youth of 12. Gina Rinehart, another of its most prominent members, was not then even a gleam in the eye of Lang Hancock. But age has not wearied it. The IPA has never been more powerful than it is right now.

Before he won the prime ministership, in April last year, at a dinner celebrating the IPA’s 70th anniversary, Abbott took the opportunity to commit to a whole raft of big promises, with Rinehart, Murdoch and Cardinal George Pell as his witnesses.

He noted the IPA had given him “a great deal of advice” on the policy front, and, offering “a big ‘yes’”, promised them he would act on it.

“I want to assure you,” he said, “that the Coalition will indeed repeal the carbon tax, abolish the department of climate change, abolish the Clean Energy Fund. We will repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, at least in its current form. We will abolish new health and environmental bureaucracies. We will deliver $1 billion in red-tape savings every year. We will develop northern Australia. We will repeal the mining tax. We will create a one-stop shop for environmental approvals. We will privatise Medibank Private. We will trim the public service and we will stop throwing good money after bad on the NBN.”

Abbott has been good to his word. It may well be that not all of these measures will get through the parliament, but there is no doubting Abbott and his government are absolutely serious in their intent.

In fact, one might argue that Abbott under-promised at that dinner and has over-delivered since. Other major items on the IPA’s published wish list included stopping subsidies for the car industry (done), eliminating Family Tax Benefits (part-done), the cessation of funding for the ABC’s Australia Network (done), abandonment of poker machine reforms (done), the introduction of fee competition for Australian universities (done), and negotiating free trade deals with Japan, South Korea, China and India (more than half done).

There is a bunch of others, too, where the government has made significant moves. It might not have abolished the Human Rights Commission, but it has cut $1.65 million from its budget, refused to renew the position of its disability commissioner and appointed – absent the usual due process – one of the IPA’s own, Tim Wilson, as one of the remaining six commissioners. Attorney-General George Brandis has flagged an intention to “further reform” the HRC.

As the Melbourne Age’s economics editor, Peter Martin, noted in a piece of post-budget analysis: “Big food, big tobacco and big alcohol have been thrown the carcass of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.”

The abolition of that agency was also on the IPA’s policy wish list, as was the demand to put the kybosh on food and alcohol labelling, and end “all government-funded Nanny State advertising” against unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking and junk food consumption.

And so in February we saw the health department ordered to take down its new healthy food ratings website.

Alastair Furnival, chief of staff to Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, eventually fell on his sword over that one, although not for the act itself, but because of the subsequent revelation that he had not declared his connection to a lobbying company that worked for junk-food makers.

The IPA, via its “FreedomWatch” site, cited one of the many right-wing commentators of the Murdoch press, Nick Cater, in defence of Furnival on the basis that: “It was clear that Furnival was acting on the minister’s orders, while the bureaucrats were not.”

The bigger question is: on whose behalf was Nash acting? Clearly not on behalf of those bureaucrats derided in FreedomWatch’s apologia as the “Nanny State activists that dominate Australia’s health department”.

There are numerous other policy suggestions on the IPA’s wish list – or more properly lists, plural, as the original 75 item list was later supplemented by another 25 items – on which the government is still working, and on which the IPA can expect at least partial success. The institute wants all media ownership laws eliminated, for example, along with the relevant regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and requirements put in place that radio and TV broadcasts be “balanced”.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is duly considering changes to Australia’s regime of cross-media ownership. The likely outcome: more concentration in Australia’s media, already the most concentrated and least diverse in the developed world. More influence for the IPA and Rupert Murdoch.

We could go on with examples of the extraordinary influence of the institute, but perhaps more interesting is who these people are.

IPA's corporate supporters

The IPA and the Liberal Party share DNA. The institute came first, formed in 1943 by a group of Melbourne businessmen concerned by the decline of the Liberals’ predecessor, the United Australia Party, and by the increased role of government during World War II. It was in turn one of the groups that helped found the Liberal Party. Initially, it served as a vehicle for fundraising as much as for policy formulation.

Its core concerns were those of big business: it was for smaller government and less regulation, and against labour unions and the Labor Party. In the 1980s and early ’90s, particularly under the leadership of John Hyde, the prototypical Liberal “dry”, it adopted more rationalist economics, and pushed privatisation, deregulation and internationalisation of the economy.

More recently still, the IPA has moved increasingly into other issues not directly related to business or economics. It became a major combatant in the so called “culture wars”, in some ways to its cost.

Notably, the institute was a strident supporter of those who would deny the ugly reality of Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals. It fostered the likes of revisionist historian Keith Windschuttle.

Melbourne city councillor and former Liberal staffer Stephen Mayne, himself an economic dry, was once close to the IPA inner circle. He says they lost him over their social policies, particularly their denialist positions on Aboriginal issues, climate change and their “cosying up to the hateful Bolt”.

Mayne is not alone. “They lost a lot of funding when they ran a lot of that Aboriginal denialist stuff,” he says. “I was told that a number of big corporates, like the ANZ, cancelled their funding, because they found it just too nasty.”

The current IPA executive director, John Roskam, will not talk about the institute’s donors, and certainly not ex-donors. Back in 2003, though, Roskam’s predecessor Mike Nahan was more forthcoming, revealing the names of some big corporate donors: Caltex, Esso, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco. He admitted the institute had “lost” Rio Tinto because the company wanted to maintain good relations with the Aboriginal community.

Roskam won’t confirm any of this, or that Shell went the same way. He does acknowledge, though, that corporate donations have sharply declined over the past decade or so, from more than two-thirds of the institute’s income to well under one-third. He concedes, too, that “culture war” issues might have had something to do with it, and that the IPA was “perhaps unduly negative”.

Instead of speaking against Aboriginal land rights, he says, the institute might better have framed its argument as support for “real private property rights for Aboriginal communities”.

The implication is that the problem was not with the institute’s position, but with the way it sold its message.

Getting their message out

And that brings us to one characteristic that has come, over the past decade or so, to most distinguish the IPA from other conservative think tanks in Australia.

It is not its ideology, which is basically cookie-cutter rationalist/libertarian right, which closely reflects that of similar think tanks elsewhere, particularly those associated with the Tea Party right of the US Republicans. No, the IPA’s distinguishing characteristic is the way it does propaganda.

In the year to June 2013, according to the IPA’s annual report, it clocked up 878 mentions in print and online. Its staff had 164 articles published in national media. They managed 540 radio appearances and mentions, and 210 appearances and mentions on TV. No prizes for guessing in which publications most of the print media references were to be found. Did we mention Rupert Murdoch was a long-time IPA director?

The surprise is that the national public broadcaster, the ABC, which the IPA would break up and sell off, features heavily. One count, by the left-leaning Independent Australia, clocked 39 appearances by IPA staff in the year 2011-12 on just one ABC TV program, The Drum. That’s almost as many Drum appearances as the combined total of all other think tanks, left, right and centre.

Roskam attributes this media success to the fact that the IPA takes firm positions on subjects that “other people haven’t been able or prepared to talk about”.

“In the US you’ll have the Tea Party saying it, Cato Institute saying it, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute saying it,” he says. “You have a plethora of Republican and right-of-centre voices saying it. In Australia, if you don’t have the IPA saying it, you don’t really have anyone saying it.”

And indeed that’s true. Ask yourself: where was the public concern about the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act before Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, the IPA’s “good friend”, as Roskam calls him, fell foul of it?

There was none. But in defence of Bolt’s incredibly sloppy, error-ridden journalism, the IPA took up this case.

On October 5, 2011, the IPA ran a full-page advertisement in The Australian supporting Bolt, paid for and signed by more than 1200 people. The signatory names give a clue as to why an organisation with a staff fewer than 30 and a membership of only a few thousand wields such influence.

It was like a who’s who of the Liberal Party right wing: current federal politicians including Mathias Cormann, Jamie Briggs, Michaelia Cash, Mitch Fifield and Andrew Robb, to name a few, and literally dozens of other ex-pollies, staffers, advisers and influential fellow travellers.

The repeal of section 18C of the RDA became number four on the IPA’s policy wish list, and before you knew it, Attorney-General George Brandis had personally drafted changes to protect, as he memorably put it, the right to be a bigot. Alas, the public debate has run overwhelmingly against them. Roskam fears “we’ll lose that one”.

Front organisations

The other way the IPA gets its message out is through front organisations, such as the Australian Environment Foundation. It was publicly launched on World Environment Day, June 5, 2005, as a “membership-based environmental organisation having no political affiliation”. One which would take an “evidence-based”, “practical” approach to green issues.

In fact, two of its directors were IPA staff, including executive director Mike Nahan, now the treasurer in Western Australia’s Liberal government. For its first two years, the AEF shared the IPA’s postal address.

It was actually an anti-environment group. It opposed new marine parks and plans to increase environmental water flows in the Murray-Darling Basin, and supported Tasmanian woodchipping, genetically modified foods. Above all, it promoted the work of climate change deniers.

Currently the AEF is engaged in lobbying the World Heritage Committee in support of the Abbott government’s plan to de-list parts of the Tasmanian forests.

These days, the IPA denies any formal ongoing relationship, but IPA members regularly speak at AEF events and the AEF’s head, Max Rheese, remains an IPA stalwart.

There are other examples, such as the Owner Drivers’ Association, which purports to represent the interests of independent contractors in the transport industry. In reality, says Tony Sheldon, National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, the ODA has consistently campaigned against laws improving working conditions and safety for drivers.

A driving force behind the ODA was Bob Day, an alumnus of both the IPA and another right-wing think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies. He is particularly interesting for he is now a senator. Not for the Liberals, but for the Family First Party.

Day and David Leyonhjelm, who was elected as a Liberal Democrat, are both “long-term IPA members” who Roskam expects to be “a breath of fresh air” in the parliament.

Which is to say, they represent the right-wing, libertarian views of the institute even more faithfully than the Liberal Party itself.

Not only have the IPA’s front organisations now penetrated the federal parliament, they will be crucial to the passage of the Abbott government’s legislation through the senate.

Notwithstanding all this government has done towards implementing its agenda, the IPA is still not satisfied. There are more items on its lists of aims and, as Roskam says, they’re continuing to “hold Abbott’s feet to the fire”.

For the IPA, the concern is that this government is not tough enough.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Abbott's faceless men". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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