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IPA and the shortsightedness of Australian business

Having avoided my mailbox yesterday, this morning I picked up the latest issue of “Institute of Public Affairs Review”. Attached to it was a letter to all the IPA members regarding the think-tank’s membership and finances in the financial year just passed.

I don’t think I will break any confidences in sharing with you that the IPA has had the most successful year yet in its 74-year history, with membership climbing to over 4,500 and revenue to over $6 million.

So far so good, and congratulations to the IPA director John Roskam, under whose leadership the institution has been going from strength to strength (though as Tony Abbott remarked recently in Brisbane, it is a somewhat bittersweet success, since one of the main reasons the IPA is doing so well is because the centre-right political parties are doing so badly).

What did surprise me though is the breakdown of revenue sources. Not the fact that the IPA receives 0 dollars from the government – which is to be expected – but that only 1 per cent of its funding comes from businesses.

Don’t take me wrong – I think it’s a sign of a wonderful grass-roots vitality that 86 per cent of the IPA’s $6.12 million revenue last financial year came from individual contributions. And I know that businesses prefer donating to political parties for the sake of generating direct goodwill, if not exactly to sway any policy decisions their way.

But in the world of today, where business, particularly big business, spends so much money either on trendy bullshit causes that have nothing to do with their core business but in the minds of the management translate into positive press, or on advertising, marketing, promotion, and community relations in general, it’s staggering that Australia’s immensely successful private sector will only donate a measly $60,000 to the main intellectual powerhouse that fights for free market, free trade, lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation.

Actually, forget “staggering” and make it “outrageous”.

The more I learn about big business the less respect I have for it and more firm my belief becomes that free market, when and where it thrives, thrives despite and not because of big companies. I guess Adam Smith would not have found this insight particularly original or surprising, but the decades and more when the private sector by and large could be classified as friendly to the centre-right ideas and political parties (the way that trade unions, for example, are to the centre-left) have lulled my side of politics into thinking that business is and will always be an active and valuable ally in the great battle of ideas. Not so; we cannot afford the knee-jerk equation of business with free market or freedom for that matter. This is not an argument in favour of the state either – governments are even less so. But it’s an argument for political realism.

The IPA’s financial returns are just another sad reminder. A long time ago, Lenin famously said that “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”. This was an exaggeration and it has not come to pass, but increasingly the capitalist will neither donate the rope to those trying to protect them from their ideological enemies.

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