No longer a pressure group operating on the sidelines, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has moved out of the dim shadows into the political spotlight intent on seizing control of the levers of power in Canberra. Dr Greg Bailey looks at how the IPA influences Liberal Party policy.

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 Jon 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 [see actual list below] that provided a radical platform of very detailed proposals. If these were fully implemented, it 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 3AW.

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 (7/8/14) 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 (see Editor's Note below). I

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.

Stuart Littlemore's spotlight on the front group propagandist is still the best on record. Unmissable!  

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.

This article was published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' on 1 April 2016. It is republished with permission.

[Editor’s note: See report by Crikey back in September 2013 (‘Institute of Liberal Party policy? What the IPA will get from Abbott’) which shows how the LNP’s policy is written — simply by adopting the 75 thought bubbles by IPA!  Check how many were implemented by Abbott. Now Turnbull is following suit with his failed bid to transfer income taxing powers to the States (Thought Bubble #7). See full list below to get an idea of what Australia might look like under an LNP government:

1 Repeal the carbon tax, and don't replace it. It will be one thing to remove the burden of the carbon tax from the Australian economy. But if it is just replaced by another costly scheme, most of the benefits will be undone.

2 Abolish the Department of Climate Change

3 Abolish the Clean Energy Fund

4 Repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

5 Abandon Australia's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council

6 Repeal the renewable energy target

7 Return income taxing powers to the states

8 Abolish the Commonwealth Grants Commission

9 Abolish the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission

10 Withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol

11 Introduce fee competition to Australian universities

12 Repeal the National Curriculum

13 Introduce competing private secondary school curriculums

14 Abolish the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

15 Eliminate laws that require radio and television broadcasters to be 'balanced'

16 Abolish television spectrum licensing and devolve spectrum management to the common law

17 End local content requirements for Australian television stations

18 Eliminate family tax benefits

19 Abandon the paid parental leave scheme

20 Means-test Medicare

21 End all corporate welfare and subsidies by closing the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education

22 Introduce voluntary voting

23 End mandatory disclosures on political donations

24 End media blackout in final days of election campaigns

25 End public funding to political parties

26 Remove anti-dumping laws

27 Eliminate media ownership restrictions

28 Abolish the Foreign Investment Review Board

29 Eliminate the National Preventative Health Agency

30 Cease subsidising the car industry

31 Formalise a one-in, one-out approach to regulatory reduction

32 Rule out federal funding for 2018 Commonwealth Games

33 Deregulate the parallel importation of books

34 End preferences for Industry Super Funds in workplace relations laws

35 Legislate a cap on government spending and tax as a percentage of GDP

36 Legislate a balanced budget amendment which strictly limits the size of budget deficits and the period the federal government can be in deficit

37 Force government agencies to put all of their spending online in a searchable database

38 Repeal plain packaging for cigarettes and rule it out for all other products, including alcohol and fast food

39 Reintroduce voluntary student unionism at universities

40 Introduce a voucher scheme for secondary schools

41 Repeal the alcopops tax

42 Introduce a special economic zone in the north of Australia including: 
a) Lower personal income tax for residents 
b) Significantly expanded 457 Visa programs for workers 
c) Encourage the construction of dams

43 Repeal the mining tax

44 Devolve environmental approvals for major projects to the states

45 Introduce a single rate of income tax with a generous tax-free threshold

46 Cut company tax to an internationally competitive rate of 25 per cent

47 Cease funding the Australia Network

48 Privatise Australia Post

49 Privatise Medibank

50 Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function 

51 Privatise SBS 

52 Reduce the size of the public service from current levels of more than 260,000 to at least the 2001 low of 212,784

53 Repeal the Fair Work Act

54 Allow individuals and employers to negotiate directly terms of employment that suit them

55 Encourage independent contracting by overturning new regulations designed to punish contractors

56 Abolish the Baby Bonus

57 Abolish the First Home Owners' Grant

58 Allow the Northern Territory to become a state

59 Halve the size of the Coalition front bench from 32 to 16

60 Remove all remaining tariff and non-tariff barriers to international trade

61 Slash top public servant salaries to much lower international standards, like in the United States

62 End all public subsidies to sport and the arts

63 Privatise the Australian Institute of Sport

64 End all hidden protectionist measures, such as preferences for local manufacturers in government tendering

65 Abolish the Office for Film and Literature Classification

66 Rule out any government-supported or mandated internet censorship

67 Means test tertiary student loans 

68 Allow people to opt out of superannuation in exchange for promising to forgo any government income support in retirement

69 Immediately halt construction of the National Broadband Network and privatise any sections that have already been built

70 End all government funded Nanny State advertising

71 Reject proposals for compulsory food and alcohol labelling

72 Privatise the CSIRO

73 Defund Harmony Day

74 Close the Office for Youth

75 Privatise the Snowy-Hydro Scheme

plus '25 more ideas for Tony Abbott' (now Turnbull) added later, here.] 

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