A prominent figure in Australian politics in the first half of last century, Billy Hughes, ‘the Little Digger’, was famous for his flexibility, having successively led the Labor Party, National Labor, the Nationalists and then the United Australia Party, before serving in Labor’s Advisory War Council and then joining the Liberal Party. According to legend, he was once asked why he had never joined the Country Party (now the National Party) and replied ‘You have to draw the line somewhere’.
Starting about the time Hughes retired, the Institute of Public Affairs has been similarly flexible, serving first as a Liberal Party slush fund, and then combining a high-minded line in free-market ideology with hackish advocacy on the part of all kinds of vested interests. But, unlike Hughes, the IPA has decided not to draw a line anywhere.
The IPA has been a consistent servant of the tobacco lobby, from denying the science on passive smoking (a dress rehearsal for its role in the climate change debate) to promotion of absurd claims about intellectual property in relation to plain packaging laws. As well as promoting absurd science denial on climate change, the IPA engaged in some pretty stunning hypocrisy, supporting front groups that have engaged in the worst kind of NIMBYism regarding wind farms.
But, as with Hughes, the IPA maintained one bright line: it consistently condemned infrastructure boondoggles like the pseudo-private Alice Springs to Darwin railway (a rare point on which I’ve agreed with them). That’s why I was a little shocked to read Mark Latham in today’s Fin, pointing out that the IPA is promoting Gina Rinehart’s Northern Australia and then some. Worse, it’s calling for special tax concessions for dams in Northern Australia.
If there is one type of project that epitomises infrastructure boondoggles in Australia it is irrigation dams, and if there is one region where the boondoggle aspect is worse than anywhere else, it is Northern Australia. The disastrous Ord River project spelled the end of dam mania for a generation or more, but now the IPA, along with the Murdoch press, is helping to revive it.
Given our friendly relations, I can’t refrain from pointing out the close relationship between the IPA and Australia’s leading centre-right blog. I’ll be fascinated to read their defence of this exercise in rent-seeking or, more likely, amused by their embarrassed silence.