The IPA: Less scruples than Billy Hughes

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.

95 thoughts on “The IPA: Less scruples than Billy Hughes

  1. Horrible. Anyone who has spent time walking in Northern Australia knows how special it really is. So much true wilderness; it’s one of the last places left on Earth where humans are not in control. To think that it’s all about to be brought under cultivation and tamed is just too dreadful.

  2. Yes, the last scrap of intellectual consistency is gone. But the IPA has long been mainly about serving conservative interests & aligning with the right wing of the Liberal Party.

    What worries me more is the ridiculous number of times the ABC puts them on their shows, giving them a legitimacy & mainstreamness that is completely unwarranted. How many hundred associations, groups & think tanks are out there doing wonderful things but getting a fraction of the airtime the IPA gets?

    Can one person tell me what the IPA has done to deserve this inflated media profile?

  3. @Martin Spalding
    The IPA have stacks of cash and they seem to do a very good job at training up their people to work with the media.

    Unfortunately it seems with the ABC, (and Sky for that matter) the demands of servicing a 24hr news cycle and the constant hectoring to be “fair and balanced” for more than 10 years have meant that they are very open to put media savvy points of view from one side of politics to air.

  4. All the think tanks are a bit wacky. But I quite like the IPA and much of their work. I agree they are at times a bit soft on the Liberals but when they do attack the Liberals on a point of policy the media doesn’t report it anyway. I threw some money their way for one of their campaigns on free speech. And I’ve met Tim Wilson briefly in passing during drinks in an evil libertarian lair. In terms of their media engagement they are a breath of fresh air compared to the usual idiots. QandA is heaps better when one of the figures from the IPA is there. All up they are generally tops. Oh and I hope Gina gives them a mountain of money. That would be superb.

  5. Good point, this guy Bert Kelly is an old anti protectionist and hero of the HR Nichols society CIS and others…… in this column he completely bags the ‘put more dams in Northern Australia’ argument in this column. This is I suppose what real free marketers think about that stuff, and mentions the Ord and Northern Territory etc. But then again, I don’t think anyone really believes in free markets in a genuine sense…including…it appears….the IPA

  6. Gina and Singo share a common political wackiness and Singos growing influence in the media is disturbing.

  7. ” … the close relationship between the IPA and Australia’s leading centre-right blog.”

    The quality of Catallaxy has certainly declined since Jason Soon handed over the reigns to the South Africa’s least impressive export, Sinclair Davidson. Jason Soon may have had an ego the size of a small planet but at least he was, on the whole, intellectually honest and intelligent; Davidson on the other hand has reduced Catallaxy to a clownish imitation of Andrew Bolt’s blog.

    As to the IPA stooges and Catallaxy wallflowers, Alan Moron, Judith Sloan Ranger, Julie Novacaine and Chris Iceberg-Lettuce, the less said the better.

  8. I posted some dissenting opinion on Australia’s leading centre-right blog and found that the contribution was respected and recognised, in the finest tradition of western intellectual debate.

    Kidding LOL. The admins banned me when they realised “shut up, statist” isn’t an effective rebuttal to anything.

  9. @Mel
    We’re over the euphemisms, then.

    Okay. Here’s the summary of my experiment:

    And here’s where I easily eviscerate one of Judith Sloan’s arguments:

    I don’t make claims to evisceration lightly. I’m well aware of when an opinion is merely an opinion, but Sloan’s statements in that post are so far removed from reality that they could only be pitched to an audience guaranteed not do any fact-checking.

  10. How similar is the northern concession to the Brisbane Line of WWII. Instead of ceding the northern land to invasion we dig up the land and ship it to them.

  11. Sancho, did you forgot to read Joe Cambria’s Book of Sensible Netiquette for the Modern Man? I believe it was published by the IPA last year.

  12. Pedant that I am, I’d prefer that the title were: Fewer scruples {…) It jars each time I read it.

    ‘Scruples’ are countable, though admittedly, perhaps not in the IPA’s case, 😉

  13. Actually you’re wrong on this one, Fran. “Less” has always been acceptable for countable objects. You can see literary examples of this going back continuously to King Alfred a thousand years ago. Some silly Oxford Dons in the 18th century made up an arbitrary rule condemning it, but this injunction was gaily ignored by the vast majority of English speakers and writers. See Steven Pinker “The Language Instinct” for more.

  14. Thanks for that, Sam.

    The less/fewer bugaboo is where the pedant becomes indistinguishable from the pissant.

  15. In arguments over grammar it’s hard to tell the language realists from the fumblers covering for their ignorance.

    I’m with Fran on this one. Using “less” or “fewer” correctly gives a writer a certain zing that indicates they care about quality of communication, even though it’s not a crucial distinction.

    In my experience the people who complain about grammar fascism usually go on to substitute “your” for “you’re”, “loose” for “lose”, “than” for “then”, and so on and so forth.

    I stand to be corrected, but my impression is that critics of grammar critics usually don’t know how to write well.

  16. @Sancho
    I’m not making an anti grammar- fascist point here. I’m saying the particular meme Fran is hostage to here happens to be based on an error. Surely as someone who cares about grammar, you should be on the side of those who are actually right, rather than self-proclaimed “pedants”?

    If it’s all just team loyalty, and the facts don’t matter to you, there might be a spot opening up on “The Drum” panel tomorrow next to Mr Wilson…

  17. @Sam
    Given the content of the OP, I don’t want to bog down in an argument about grammar, even though I started it and should have known that my comment wouldn’t pass without notice.

    By all means pin me down about this stuff in an open thread, but for now let’s take the opportunity to point out the differences between centre-right and fascism that the IPA seems curiously blind to.

  18. If ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ are interchangeable, why have both? What am I saying, this is the English language we’re talking about!

    “Davidson on the other hand has reduced Catallaxy to a clownish imitation of Andrew Bolt’s blog.”

    It’s not his fault, mainly. What’s happened is that a large number of Blairites have migrated after Tim was forced to accept moderation.

    My biggest problem with the post-Soon era is that the laissez-faire attitude has gone (despite appearances). Soon never censored or banned, except for one crazy person. Davidson, in contrast, is trigger happy. Worse, his decisions are inconsistent and opaque.

  19. Just on their history, I had the idea that IPA was started up around 1946 by Charles Kemp, father of the two Howard ministers, with funding from the banks and with the original purpose to oppose talk by Chifley of bank nationalisation. Does anyone know if that’s correct? Don’t really know what they did during the Menzies/Playford/Bolte nation-building period of the 50s/60s when big govt was the theme of their side of politics.

  20. @kevin1

    That’s about right. To complicate matters, there were two separate bodies, one in Sydney (now defunct, I think) and the Melbourne one, run by Kemp. The IPA was part of the discussions that led to the formation of the Liberal Party out of the ruins of the UAP. As I mentioned in the OP, it’s main (or at least reputed) role in the 50s and 60s was as a conduit for business donations to the Libs.

  21. On less/fewer, I’ll happily defend myself in a sandpit, to which future comments on that point should be directed.

    Also, while I’m happy enough to bag Catallaxy, the IPA is a bigger problem. As several commenters have noted, they seem to have an inside line to the ABC.

  22. Reading the synopsis for Rinehart’s book (the best I can do as I will not pad her pockets) the thesis seems to be (and it always is!) to remove government so that she can institute her own little fiefdom. The line about earning money and others being jealous of success is an extraordinary howler given her privileged upbringing and inheritance of the world’s largest iron ore resource. Rinehart has made her position very clear with support of domestic think tanks and the purchase of stakes in various mass media – Australia will once again follow the US and overtly have large amounts of conservative money thrown into elections to smear the opposition and muddy the waters.

  23. I would assume the IPA support for her “plan” indicates the Gina has already become a donor. I think they do publish figures indicating income, so if the next set contains a substantial increase, I would take that as a fair indication.

  24. John Quiggin :
    @TerjeP Glad to see you sticking to the tribe, Terje

    It’s a bit rich of you to bag me for tribalism. Given you lead a cheer squad for the left.

    As I said the IPA ain’t perfect but when one of it’s members shows up in the media it is usually a breath of fresh air. Rather than spew leftist crap all over the airways at least they offer something different. Perhaps you don’t like them because they are generally well informed, insightful and they give leftist ideology a solid kicking.

  25. Has Abbott named one of the hundreds of catchments that would allegedly benefit from one his hundreds of dams?

  26. My biggest criticism of Catallaxy is that it is so damn popular that you can’t have a peaceful little intellectual conversation with others. The comment threads are a million miles long.

    My secondary criticism is JC who dwells in the comments thread. He is a sad little man who is determined to hunt down anybody that deviates from his world view and spray them with vitriol and abuse. I was briefly a joint author with him at ALS because our world views actually overlap quite a bit. But in the end I gave an ultimatum that one of us must leave. I can’t work with JC.

    Steve Kate’s is generally brilliant on the economics but far too partisan for my liking. I’ve followed his writing since the 1990’s when nobody else in Australia was defending Says law.

    Sinclair Davidson writes well and has a terrific intellect. In person he is an absolute gem with a brilliant wit.

  27. The IPA did indeed have a separate Sydney office during the 1990s, but it was closed down afterwards on the dubious grounds that it was costing too much money.

    C. D. Kemp seemed to me a decent soul, in other words, he genuinely believed in what he said and had intellectual standards. I shudder to think of what he would say if he were to come back to life and to see what the IPA has become now.

  28. There has been 2 online petitions recently regarding the ABC’s enthusiasm for inviting IPA input into opinionated discussions which I’ve equally enthusiastically participated in, although they’re still there, alas.

  29. I did not put Mel or Jarrah up to say what they said!


    Kates is mad.He thinks Europe’s problems are due to Keynesianism when he simply cannot admit the utter failure of classical economics.

    Yes I agree on the IPA. I think Ron Brunton was the only decent persosn they ever had.

    and yes this is on Around the Traps!!

  30. @Sam
    Too right! There’s nothing like a short walk to provide all the insight anyone needs.

  31. Steve Kate’s is generally brilliant on the economics but far too partisan for my liking. I’ve followed his writing since the 1990?s when nobody else in Australia was defending Says law.
    Sinclair Davidson writes well and has a terrific intellect. In person he is an absolute gem with a brilliant wit.

    Kates is an Austrian, hence he is wrong. For the past few years it has been amusing to see Krugman run rings around the Austrian school with a simple IS-LM model while the Austrians double down on their foolishness and grow louder in their baying for the imminent financial armageddon.

  32. ‘Dams will facilitate northern development’. Yes, but where? Where exactly? Where are the proposed dam sites?

    CSIRO: “Capturing and keeping streamflow in northern Australia is difficult. Most of the rainfall occurs near the coast where it is mostly too flat to build dams.

    Capturing water in valleys doesn’t overcome the problem of evaporation unless the dams are very deep – very few sites are suitable or near locations where there is likely to be significant demand for water. Consequently, large scale dams (like Lake Argyle) that can provide year-round water are not likely to be feasible for most of the north.”

  33. @TerjeP

    Have you checked your dopamine levels lately?

    You seem to suffer from this superiority illusion/delusion and believe that your personal responses to, and evaluations of a person’s character and abilities is useful for understanding the ‘reality’.

    That JC person is a doozy eh? But he called it correctly, a while ago saying that ‘the collectivists have won’. I don’t often go to Catalaxy but I was lucky enough to come across this comment and ever since I have been quite positive about the future; Pollyannaish in fact about the fact that the tide is turning and the IPA can only react, and try to save face. They have nothing to offer anyone interested in ideas.

    What about CL though? He is an awesome example of the quality of Catalaxy contributors.

  34. So all we need for Abbott’s policy to make sense are some crustal folding and/or the appearance of some rift valleys.

  35. Is Cubbie Station a workable model for water storage anywhere in Northern Australia?

  36. It doesn’t work that way, Old Sport. It’s up to him to give it his best shot.

    Abbott has made the proposal. Presumably he has some specific locations in mind among the hundreds that are flapping about his belfry.

    Unless, of course, Abbott is philosophising about Platonic dams…

  37. You asked the question. If the answer was genuinely important to you, you would take the time to find out yourself.

    As Abbott is not a member of the Ian Macdonald school of development, I doubt he has specific locations in mind.

  38. The austerity in Europe in so far as it entails increases in taxation, and cuts to spending is neither Keynsian nor classical.

    A classical solution would be to cuts taxes and remove red tape. That may or may not require government spending cuts but probably would given the debt problem. The Keynesian solution would be to cut taxes and / or increase government spending. Given the debt situation the Keynesian solution can’t really fly.

    Either solution would be more possible if the countries in question simply defaulted on their debts. Whether such a default is a good idea is a somewhat separate issue. However even if it did make both the classical and Keynesian option more possible it does mean that the two solutions are equal in effectiveness.

    My view is that the core of the problems in Europe were cause by the Keynesian mentality and won’t be solved by it.

    I agree far more with Kate’s than Krugman.

  39. The problem in EU is one of transfers and sovereignty – something that cant be peacefully solved overnight.

  40. Terge,

    you are being fed mad pills.

    classical economics has governments always having a balanced budget. this causes a dramatic shift in business confidence and produced economic growth.

    That is what austerity was all about.
    It failed utterly.
    Europe went backwards as any half educated economist would have told you.
    the IMF has now recanted on this. the EU hasn’t.

    Keynes only recommended austerity in boom times as it is then and only then when it assists the economy.

    As for Keynesian policy being responsible no less an author than Master Quiggin (and Henry Farrell) has shown that to be utterly false.

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