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?
Three members of the IPA had written a ‘manifesto’ or wish list, which they had addressed to Tony Abbott, a year out from his elevation to Prime Minister. It was ‘delivered’ online, in 2012. Read it here https://ipa.org.au/ipa-review-articles/be-like-gough-75-radical-ideas-to-transform-australia
It invoked Whitlam as our most transformative leader, 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 injected into Australia’s political system. He needed to emulate Whitlam’s prompt actions, if elected. He would need to act with speed, as they had a program, ready to go.
What was Abbott’s response?
One would expect that he would thank them politely for their advice, and then proceed to do exactly as his party wanted. That would include 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, borderline sociopathic.
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, then act’. That was included in the paper, should he find their suggestions too radical.
Why did he accept their plan?
Abbott was never known for his abilities in the policy area. He was more of an attack dog, very able in the area of creating slogans, and engendering fear in the community, but policy – not really.
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 reformer. He was for, or against, things. His religion often set his priorities for him.
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, like 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.
Maybe he was just 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. Tick
Abolish the Dept of Climate Change. Tick
Cease subsidising the car industry. Tick
Repeal the mining tax. Tick
Devolve environmental approvals for major projects to the states. Tick
Cease funding the Australia Network. Tick
Privatise Medibank. Tick
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 2014 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 vulnerable. 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!