What is the Preston Institute? Why is it, after these three years, is it in total obscurity when compared to those august boutique Institutes such as Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute, Kevin Donnelly’s Education Standards Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs?
I am now asking, having published nearly 200 posts from the auspices of this Institute, what’s next? Where is my funding / regular column / media exposure / Research Fellows working to achieve my dreams / expensive dinners featuring long speeches from Important People?
In order to achieve that El Dorado of Power, Influence and Alcohol, I’ve decided that I need to make the Preston Institute be more like the IPA.
How can I do this? As far as I can tell, there’s a number of steps I can take.
1. Attracting Donors. I would need to fit the P.I. into a particular set of ideological beliefs that would attract funding from a particular set of anonymous donors. It wouldn’t take all that much. The idea of anonymity for backers is important to think tanks – because they need to appear objective on some level or another. It is somewhat ironic and audacious that a think tank like the IPA, being as focused on “freedom” as much as they are, doesn’t allow the freedom of the public seeing their supporters – but it leaves the door open to anyone trying the same thing. This is where progressive organisations can drop the whole transparent thing in terms of funding – it leads to hypocritical attacks – for example, Gerard Henderson frequently attacks the fact that Morry Schwartz, backer of the Monthly, is a property developer.
In the case of the P.I., there’s room for an ideological line that already exists to be rewarded with funding. The P.I. has long talked up the benefits of renewable energy, so perhaps if it talked more about public private partnerships for the construction of solar thermal power stations, it could therefore be funded by companies that support such activities. Or maybe the cause of Western Sydney and its potential for growth as a new hub for smart, Green businesses. Really, it’s not that much of a stretch to make more emphasis on business opportunities created by progressive political policy in order to attract more funding for research fellows. In that way, the P.I. could then use that money and resources to support things that mostly have no relationship to the corporate money supporting it – the uneconomic issues where no corporate money is to be made. In the case of the P.I., those would be things like disability support, assistance for Indigenous communities, support for asylum seekers, special needs departments in schools, help for the homeless.
In this regard, Consider the IPA, around since 1943, spruiking freedom, asking us to consider that perhaps there isn’t enough of it about. They have managed in 70 years to get considerable funding and support for an abstract noun. The IPA do produce some work that has little to do with the work of the companies that support them – most of Chris Berg’s output, for example, is related to the abstract noun, rather than towards the advocacy of specific causes. Surely it can’t be that hard to gather support for other abstract nouns. Equity. Safety. Future. Care. Fairness. The money, however, will still never be as great as that afforded to the IPA, due to the sheer number of companies that embrace the Freedom necessary to make more money. So, the progressive answer would need to be happy with a beer budget. It can be done, however.
2. Find Articulate, Savvy, Media Ready Research Fellows and Assistants. One of the more recent successes of the IPA has been to employ people who present well on media outlets – TV, newspapers, radio, Twitter as well as produce reams of material that is, at times, reasonable and well researched. I know to a considerable of people who listen to everything said and written, there are a number of leaps of logic that seem breathtaking in their audacity and flawed chutzpah. Whenever Tim Wilson appears on the Drum, for example, watch the tweets fly. The IPA talking heads, however, are always available to present a view, argue it and act as “balance” against progressive voices on media outlets who wish to present as an objective voice. I have found myself agreeing with people like Berg and Sabine Wolff, for example, because there are things they say that are reasonable and well thought out.
On the issue of IPA members appearing on the ABC and Fairfax, it doesn’t matter how much Fairfax and the ABC feature the research fellows for some people – they are always being accused of bias, no matter what. Henderson may call The Age “The Guardian by the Yarra”, but you can’t imagine the Guardian publishing Chris Berg. He can also whine about the “no conservative presenters” at the ABC and Chris Kenny can label the ABC “their ABC”, no matter how many IPA fellows appear on their programs. It seems to make no difference to the bloviating of these lazy reactionaries. It is for this reason that I think the ABC News 24 channel should bite the bullet and ask the IPA to produce the Freedom Hour – an hour of stories each week about Freedom. Plus, the Nancy Show, where Gerard Henderson presents vignettes about the Communists in the ABC Corridors. See what kind of response they get. The shows would probably get viewer numbers that would make the Bolt program viewer numbers seem like those for the Big Brother finale, but it would address the charges that are made. But then the ABC could put on the Preston Institute Hour. Actually, perhaps not – first of all, no-one want to watch a wooden head for an hour. Plus, it would more likely branch off into all sorts of politically irrelevant stuff – like beer, wine, classical music, AFL and shopping centre commentary. Maybe the Independent Australia hour, the No Fibs hour – get the intense people to produce a fiery, focused show.
3. Be closely aligned with one major party. One of the charges laid at the feet of the IPA is that a number of them are Liberal Party members (with the notable exception of Berg) and that the IPA is a stepping stone to long term work within the party. It’s a charge the organisation can’t really rebut, because it’s true the case of John Roskam and Tim Wilson. That is also an outstanding recruiting tool for the IPA – to get paid and then noticed by Liberal Party hierarchy. It is such a platform, because the IPA’s principles do have a lot in common with the libertarian wing of the Liberals. There was a post made in March by Wendy Harmer in the Hoopla, looking at the IPA and its links to Liberal Party policy – making the point that this shadowy organisation is something to be feared -
Watch out instead for the IPA and their like – the white pointers in the shallows. Their bite can be fatal.
Maybe, however, the situation is that the IPA aren’t necessarily influencing the Liberal Party to do things they weren’t going to do anyway. Many of the IPA’s values are shared by a considerable amount of the Liberal Party and have been for some time. Many Liberals from the Fraser era (of which my parents were examples) have been fighting this libertarian wing for some time, to less and less avail. Harmer (and many others) have produced an IPA wishlist for changes in Government policy in order to prove that the IPA is having success in lobbying the Liberals to have the changes made. I would suggest instead that the wishlist was just a handy predictor of how the Liberal Government was going to act.
The fellows and research assistants of the IPA seem to be a small group of young, enthusiastic and hard working advocates for the cause of Freedom. It has been argued that they, due to their age and lack of qualifications, don’t deserve the level of influence and access they have been afforded. To that end, two of its members, Berg and Simon Breheny, were made to look rather foolish and underqualified by Doug Cameron in this exchange at a Senate committee related to the Finkelstein review. This may well be right, but the fact remains that the IPA have managed a remarkable amount with the small numbers of people who work for them and their 4,000+ membership. The money paid to the IPA hasn’t led directly to the advocacy in the media like Fairfax and the ABC – there’s no-one suggesting that there is someone in management forcing them to have IPA people on. What has happened, however, is that these enthusiastic kids have been provided with access because they do present the presentable face of the views of a considerable number of people who vote Liberal and/or support libertarian values. A far cry from the out of touch cranks that were shown in this Stuart Littlemore piece for the ABC from 2001, which demonstrates how far the IPA has come in terms of advocacy:
The door is open, therefore, for a similarly enthusiastic group of Labor aligned 20 something students to stop retweeting Tony Abbott budgie smuggler memes and get together into a think tank and produce material in the name of Equity and/or Care. To rally around the cause. Present a face to the arguments for a society that needs to be more than an economy. Maybe this same think tank could embrace the enthusiastic 20 something Greens whose beliefs in equity and care are shared – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between the younger members of both parties – the differences are fuelled by much older shibboleths and grudges.
4. Be Ruthless and Single Minded. The IPAs success at changing from a rabble of people like Paddy McGuinness and Michael Warby appearing at forums and pumping out columns for News Limited to having thousands of Twitter followers, ABC panel show appearances and the like should be studied, rather than pointed at as some kind of horrific conspiracy. It’s not been a conspiracy – it’s been done in plain daylight. The IPA have become very good at remaining single minded in its role as advocate for libertarian, economy focused policy and ignoring the need for social justice and welfare. It’s also very good at keeping hypocritical positions such as supporting Andrew Bolt’s freedom to type whatever he likes while remaining silent on Gina Rinehart’s legal actions against Fairfax journalists. It’s clear that this approach works in terms of advocacy and media presence of ideas. So, just emulate it. Forget the self doubt that often infects the progressive cause and be smooth advocates.
So, there it is. The Preston Institute awaits the call from those willing to use its auspices for the fight for Equity, Care, Fairness, whatever Abstract Nouns will work best. And then perhaps can commission a brewer to make an IPA related to whatever abstract noun we choose.