One of the curiosities of the Saturday Paper’s first two and a half years in print is Mike Seccombe’s fixation on the political activities of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). It seems that in Seccombe’s mind there is no middle ground for the IPA: it’s either controlling the government’s agenda, or completely on the outer. The banal reality is that it remains just one of many organisations trying to influence public policy. Its political influence is certainly worthy of study, but the IPA has never wielded the sort of power that its critics on the left believe.
Seccombe kicked off his coverage with ‘Abbott’s faceless men of the IPA’ in May 2014. The first thing to say here is that the headline is absurd. Any Australian media consumer with a passing interest in politics would be familiar with prominent IPA figures such as John Roskam, Tim Wilson, James Paterson and Chris Berg. As Jason Wilson wrote in an excellent response to Seccombe’s piece, “IPA commentators are ubiquitous, and radiate a smugness that not even the most expensive media training can completely eradicate.”
Seccombe himself acknowledges the IPA’s media omnipresence later in the article:
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.
So much for faceless men. No wonder the article’s suggestion of secret, hidden influence was subject to deserved ridicule from Paterson:
Seccombe also argued that the IPA “has never been more powerful than it is right now.” His evidence for this claim was Tony Abbott’s address at the organisation’s 70th anniversary dinner in April 2013, in which he gave “a big fat yes” to a number of its policy proposals. I wrote sceptically of the prospects for successful implementation of such policies at the time, and questioned the sincerity of Abbott’s apparent embrace of IPA values.
Anyone familiar with his speeches should have been aware that this was classic Tony: suck up to the audience and pretend you’re their best friend. The obvious broader reality was that much of the IPA agenda is deeply unpopular with the public. Throw in Abbott’s complete inability to win political debates that extend beyond sloganeering, and the suggestion of an Abbott/IPA nexus of power looks rather silly.
Seccombe seemed to have accepted this when he returned to the subject following Malcolm Turnbull’s ousting of Abbott the following year. “Abbott failed them on many counts,” he wrote in October 2015, before predicting that the IPA would be completely sidelined by Turnbull. He was again dismissive during this year’s election campaign, describing the IPA as a “smaller outfit … which these days is generally viewed more as a lobby group.” Quite the dramatic change in fortunes, from the peak of its powers to an insignificant fringe group in the space of two short years.
The premise for Seccombe’s latest piece, published yesterday, is his contact with Roger Neave, who briefly ran the IPA during a transitional period in the late 1970s. The organisation was already looking rather moribund when its founder, C.D. ‘Ref’ Kemp, retired in 1976 after more than 30 years in charge. Neave, an admirer of Kemp, took over in 1978, but a younger generation of neoliberals believed that the IPA was going nowhere under his leadership, and he and other moderates were ousted the following year.
Following in the footsteps of similar “new right” organisations in Britain and the United States, the IPA was then transformed into a passionately free market think tank that promoted small government, deregulation and privatisation. As Seccombe acknowledges, on this front “the IPA and other think tanks of the new right were in tune with the times.”
Now, almost 40 years later, a minor casualty of the process has decided to speak out about the neoliberal “hijacking” of the IPA. Neave “is embarrassed about his previous associations,” we are told. The fact that almost no one was aware of these associations seems to have escaped both he and Seccombe.
Beyond providing some useful history of the Australian new right, the broader point of the article is not entirely clear. Seccombe and Neave are nostalgic for an imagined golden age of Australian politics. If only the IPA had remained true to moderate liberalism, they seem to suggest, the course of Australian history would have been different. This of course attributes far too much political and cultural influence to the IPA, and ignores the much larger transformations that were inevitably taking place.
Finally, we are left with the question of the present political power of the IPA. Are they running the show or not? Those looking for answers in Seccombe’s latest article are left none the wiser. One suspects, judging on previous form, that Seccombe has little idea either.