Paper presented to the Now We The People Conference, 23.8.03, University of Technology, Sydney

The Australian radical neo-liberal movement
and US global strategy

Damien Cahill

Most of you probably have at least a passing familiarity with organisations such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, and I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the tirades of their fellow-travelling polemicists, columnists such as Paddy McGuinness, Piers Ackerman, Andrew Bolte and Miranda Divine.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with these people and groups, here are a few examples of what they have to say, which should give you an idea of where they are coming from:

Windshuttle on Chomsky and anti-war movement:

'This kind of two-faced morality provided a model for the worldwide protests by left-wing opponents of the American-led coalition's war against Iraq. The left was willing to tolerate the most hideous acts of state terrorism by the Saddam Hussein regime, but was implacable in its hostility to intervention by Western democratic governments in the interests of both their own security and the emancipation of the Iraqi people. This is hypocrisy writ large.'

- Keith Windshuttle, 'Unmasking Noam Chomsky', Policy Winter 2003.

Nahan on biotechnology:

'Few technologies have offered so much and at the same time been demonised by so many as genetically modified crops.….
Unfortunately the success of the technology has had no impact on its opponents. They have continued their campaign to stop the technology and its benefits. That they call themselves environmentalist or humanitarian is a Monty Pythonish joke. Let's hope science and sense rule over propaganda and greed'

- Mike Nahan, 'Biotech is Revolutionising Agriculture', Herald Sun, 8 February 2003

What I want to do today is talk briefly about role of these individuals and institutions in providing a justificatory framework for neo-liberalism and the latest manifestation of US imperialism - the so-called 'war on terrorism'.

Much has been written on think tanks, in Australia and elsewhere. In particular there have been numerous articles in Australian newspapers looking at the 'think tank phenomenon'. Some of you may have seen the recent series along these lines by Brad Norrington in the Sydney Morning Herald. Such investigations are usually either inconclusive regarding think tank influence or they ascribe huge amounts of influence to the think tanks, particularly to right-wing think tanks.

If we want to understand the role of right-wing think tanks, and therefore if we want a better understanding of our opponents, then we need to think about them in a different way.

In order to understand the 'think tank phenomenon' we need to go beyond the think tanks themselves. Firstly, Australia's right-wing think tanks are part of a broader radical neo-liberal movement. That is, they are part of a movement that is committed dismantling the welfare state and believes that the 'free market' is the best way of distributing most goods and services in society - including education, health care and welfare. The think tanks provide an organisational backbone for this movement. A place to meet other movement activists and a way of disseminating the movement's ideology. Secondly, crucial to the success of this movement has been corporate support. And I don't just mean funding, although funding has been essential. In fact, if it was up to the free market, then think tanks would have had difficulty supporting themselves simply through the sale of their services. Corporations provide other support though - they sit on the Boards of think tanks ands thus offer legitimacy, they help to broker a flow of funds from other corporations to the think tanks.

This has implications for how we understand the movement and its think tanks because we need to ask the question why have corporations funded the think tanks and what effects has this funding had? It also has implications for the possibility of setting up left-wing think tanks and what form they might take.

History of think tanks

There are actually only a handful of think tanks in Australia that are ideologically committed to the radical neo-liberal agenda. The main ones are the Centre for Independent Studies, the IPA and the Tasman Institute. Although the IPA was founded in the 1940s and at that time supported a conservative Keynesian economic position radical neo-liberal think tanks really got their kick start in the 1980s with a large injection of corporate funding. It was because of this and the fact that they were articulating the interests of powerful sections of business that they were able to emerge from relative obscurity in a short space of time.

Australian right-wing think tanks have traditionally had good relationships with their overseas counter-parts, particularly US and British think tanks. Such links have been crucial in providing not only the organisational structures if Australian think tanks, but also many of the ideological frameworks, arguments and language used by the Australians. Indeed it has been remarked that they are best understood as 'second hand dealers' in ideas - very little original knowledge comes out of the Australian think tanks. Most often they are simply mobilising ideas developed elsewhere for the Australian context.

Impact and influence

Well, that's the context, what about their impact and influence?

Its often assumed that the radical neo-liberal movement - the think tanks and their supporters - have been the ones who have driven Australia's support for neo-liberalism, the dismantling of the welfare state and support for the US imperialism. There's not much evidence to support this view however. Clearly they have a much closer relationship with the Liberal Party than they do with Labor, particularly at the federal level.

However, ideology alone doesn't determine pubic policy.

So, if the think tanks and the radical neo-liberal movement haven't driven these changes, then what has been their role, their impact?

Attacking and undermining the Left

Well, the radical neo-liberals see themselves as engaged in an ideological struggle. They are ideological warriors. Ideological shock troops. An insight into this mentality in provided by recalling the words of Friederich Hayek at the founding conference of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. He exhorted his fellow neo-liberals to 'train an army of fighters for freedom'. The Left, in their view, is a threat to the very basis of a free society.

The radical neo-liberals have therefore been relentless in their assault upon the Australian Left and upon notions of social justice in general. In the eighties the Left was labelled the 'new class'; self-interested, publicly employed and using their privileged positions the foist a radical ideological agenda on ordinary Australians. In the 1990s the Left were 'politically correct special interests'. We were portrayed as privileged and contemptuous of the values of the mainstream, of ordinary Australians, and appeals to social justice no more than the product of the latest intellectual fad. In the 21st century, we are either globaphobes - nationalistic and scared of the benefits of competition and free markets - or we are 'Blaming Ourselves' for the terrorist attacks upon the twin towers. The corollary of this is that the Left is more sympathetic to Bin Laden and his mates than to those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. For the radical neo-liberals this is evident in the anti-war movement, as is a parochial anti-Americanism.

The latest from IPA is a concerted campaign against NGO's who oppose neo-liberalism, in fact NGO's who advocate on behalf of social justice.

Such arguments have been put relentlessly by the radical neo-liberals and their fellow-travelling polemicists in the major dailies for the last twenty years. More recently we've heard them regularly on the ABC's Insiders program every Sunday morning - so much for the ABC's Left-wing bias.

Now one might reply that these are simply labels - but they are labels that have stuck. They've flung a lot of mud and it has stuck. And those labels that have stuck are labels that have resonance and which are evocative. They are labels that demonise the Left. That denigrate social justice. That reduce social justice to intellectual fashion or to the self-interested pleading of special interests. The anti-war movement becomes anti-American, or pro Saddam, much like the attempts by conservatives during the Cold War to reduce the peace movement to the work of agents of Moscow.

Importantly, in demonising the Left the radical neo-liberals have offered their own ideological vision of the world as the one that best represents the interests and aspirations of ordinary Australians.

The radical neo-liberal think tanks haven't been the only cause of this, but they have been an important one.

A framework for neo-liberalism

Through their publications and seminars the radical neo-liberals have provided a framework and language for converting what are essentially the sectional interests of wealthy elites and corporations into a universal interest. They have provided a framework for policy, a framework of language, and a justificatory framework for neo-liberalism.

The policy framework has been important particularly in traditionally non-economic areas that corporations, in the past at least, have had less direct experience of - education health care, welfare and the environment. Notions of 'vouchers' for education and 'private welfare' have been popularised by the radical neo-liberals. These provide a mechanism for deregulating the public sector and creating markets - commodifying - what were previously public goods. Relevant to this discussion is the framework provided by the radical neo-liberals with respect to the environment. 'A Green Thumb for the Invisible Hand' was the name of one publication from the Tasman Institute, and it gives a sense of what the radicals neo-liberals have attempted to do on the issue of environmental protection. Environmental protection is best achieved, they argue, when markets are created for environmental goods. This would mean that businesses would then be able to make rational decisions about the allocation of those goods and this would lead to environmental protection.

The radical neo-liberals have typically posed this as the solution to the Greenhouse effect. On the one hand they (and the IPA and Lavoisier Institute have been particularly important here) have cast doubts upon the scientific validity of claims about the existence of the Greenhouse effect and portrayed environmentalists as ideologically motivated and committed to the destruction of western civilisation. On the other they have put forward free-market environmentalism as the solution - such as the use of carbon credits and emission trading. All of these have been disseminated at high profile conferences for politicians, scientists and business leaders.

In terms of language, the radical neo-liberals have attempted to create a new common sense that supports their ideology. For example, 'vouchers' are not about the transfer of public funds to private universities or schools, they are about extending freedom of choice for students and parents. Dissenting intellectuals are not an essential part of a vibrant democracy, they are politically correct elites or part of the guilt industry. Deregulation of biotechnology doesn't raise serious ethical or environmental questions, it is about maximising consumer choice. Attacking the unemployed is about creating a culture for work. If you look at the language used by the Coalition, particularly the likes of Tony Abbott, the imprint of the radical neo-liberals is obvious.

The justificatory framework provided by the radical neo-liberals is that free markets work. Inequalities in Australian society are either unimportant or blown out of proportion by politicised charities Where people are suffering it is not because of two decades of economic rationalism or neo-liberalism, not because of unregulated corporations, but because of government interference in the market. If only government got out of the way and let the market run its course, then things would be fine. If only employers had fewer restrictions, such as Awards, things would be dandy. Robert Manne has remarked that the radical neo-liberals are ideological because it is virtually impossible to think of any amount of evidence convincing them that their theories are wrong. For them, it is always a case of incorrect or insufficient application.

A favourable climate for neo-liberalism

Over the last two decades the radical neo-liberals have helped to create a favourable climate for neo-liberalism in the realm of public debate. In the 1980s and early nineties by making radical statements such as that Australia's industrial relations system, the system of Arbitration, should be completely abolished and replaced with individual contracts between employers and employees the radical neo-liberals created allowed other neo-liberal agendas, such as that of enterprise bargaining, to seem but a moderate reform. They thus carved out a space for neo-liberal policies. Since the election of their views dominate the print media via fellow-travelling polemicists and they have provided the hard edge of the right-wing assault upon social justice. They make explicit what john Howard only hints at. So when John Howard says 'The peace movement should support our troops' the polemicists and think tanks say 'The anti-war movement support Saddam.'

So, how does all of this relate to US imperialism? US unilateralism? US global economic agendas?

The radical neo-liberals and their think tanks provide the ideological support for these agendas. They offer a justificatory framework for free trade agendas. They provide an apology for privilege and prejudice. They take up the ideological assault upon the Left. Upon defenders of social justice. Upon the anti-war movement. Upon those who think that the international economic system should be structured to advance global justice rather than to further the interests of the already powerful. They offer mechanisms whereby the neo-liberal dream of the commodification of everything can become a reality.


Damien Cahill lectures in Politics at the University of Wollongong and is completing a PhD on the New Right in Australia

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