The Institute of Pubic Affairs is Australia’s oldets and most venerable
business backed right wing think tank but has been rocked by a
plagiarism scandal. Crikey’s Think tank expert delves deep into the
IPA’s past and uncovers one of the biggest bunfights on the
intellectual right for years.
Those prim ex-accountants, who have
since ascended the corporate greasy pole to become Melbourne’s business
elite, must surely be wondering how things could have got so bad at
their once most-favoured think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.
Now increasingly referred to as the “stink tank”, the odour of scandal
which is currently waffling down Collins Street could well consume
Australia’s oldest home for policy wonks, according to some close
observers.

Founded in the 1940s by that old charmer and intellectual heavyweight,
CD Kemp, father of Howard cabinet ministers David and Rod, the Cheery
Owl suspects he must now be turning in his grave. It would, no doubt,
be particularly galling to that traditional gentleman that the man at
the centre of the IPA’s current scandal, Michael Warby, the editor of
the IPA Review, is quite possibly doing his own form of turning at this
weekend’s very public bacchanalian romp for homosexuals in Sydney.
Recently “outed” across the nation by the ABC’s Media Watch ( 28 February 2000) as a plagiarist, he was subsequently sacked by the IPA.

Kirby had previously “outed” himself as someone who was “three times a
marshal in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras” and, possibly more
difficult for the ghost of CD Kemp to take in, someone who has “no
problem with same-sex marriage or adoption” or the legalisation of
narcotics for adults (The Age, 30 September 1999).

In a talk last year to the upper-crust Carlton Branch of the Victorian
Liberal Party, Warby told them that the “IPA is a think tank which
stands for classical liberal values – the tradition of thinkers such as
Locke, Hume, Smith, Burke, Mill, Hayek and many others”. He went even
further and proclaimed “the role of the IPA is to be a public
conscience about liberal values”. Somewhat embarrassingly in the
context, he also favourably accepted the description of think tanks as
“retailers of second-hand ideas”. The trouble with the IPA at the
moment is that while it proclaims an affinity to the ideas of such
traditional luminaries as John Locke, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke and
Hayek – all strong adherents to pluralism, intellectual freedom and the
virtues of family and the time-honoured civilities – its contemporary
ethos would seem, if my informants are to be believed, to owe more to
the darker visions of Thomas Hobbes and Nicolai Machiavelli.

As for Michael Warby’s present predicament, it has to be conceded that
it was all his own work (except for the words) and that other line
comes to mind “he who lives by the sword”. Here is a chap who has been
blasting the ABC in particular for the last couple years with every
righteous curse and accusation imaginable – much of it, no doubt,
thoroughly justified – but then he goes and does something even more
outrageous than he accuses others in the media of doing.

Even worse than that is that when he’s found out, and it should be remembered that it was an Age reader who blew the whistle with a letter to the editor (Age,
22 November 1999), he doesn’t own up properly. The ghastliness of his
own admission, more an obfuscation than apology, is compounded by the
press release the IPA put out (dated 29 February, 2000) after the Media Watch
program – composed presumably by the name at the foot of the release,
IPA’s executive director Mike Nahan – which rates as one of the more
convoluted excuses for the truth since Goebbels was in his stride.

Its an interesting exercise to examine these two efforts, which the Owl
invites readers to do seeing as they were both on the IPA website site
when this article went to press. The Warby “apology”, also carried in The Age
of 24 November 1999, is coyly titled “So sorry, my mythtake”. The
original piece in question was titled “Why Hanoi Jane’s a traitor, not
a hero”, and it told a story of Jane Fonda dobbing-in to their jailers
a number of American POWs in Hanoi during the war. While it is
well-known that Fonda did go to Vietnam during the war and behaved
disgracefully, she didn’t do the terrible things attributed to her in
the story. In his rationalisation for taking a story almost word for
word from the original on the web, and not checking its veracity, he
cites “reputable sources” and, for good measure, assures us the story
was “being circulated very widely amongst US military personnel”. So
what! If anything, it’s a qualified apology for getting a serious
defamation wrong but it says nothing about plagiarism. Come to think of
it, the fact that it is still on their website says a lot about their
knowledge of the libel laws.

The press release it a masterpiece of chutzpah. It gives Warby credit
for acknowledging “the significant errors of fact in the article on
Jane Fonda”, even though he hardly had much choice as he had already
been rumbled by an Age
reader. The precious part is the one dealing with plagiarism: “Beyond
this (that the story was fantasy), once he re-appraised the original
article, he realised much of it represented ‘cutting and pasting’ of
allegedly factual material. This failure to check adequately the source
of the material and cutting and pasting of allegedly factual material
failed to meet the standards of the IPA, the standards Mr Warby sets
for himself (he) has, therefore, decided to stand down as Editor of the
IPA Review. Mr Warby remains an employee of the Institute of Public
Affairs”. In other words, the cavalier verbatim reproduction of 80% of
an article under one’s name without attribution carrying the most
damning calumnies against a prominent celebrity, for which presumably
the Age paid the IPA or Warby, is merely a oversight due to careless
“cutting and pasting”.

What the release wants us to believe is that Warby independently
decided to “stand down” and the IPA finds this acceptable. Presumably,
when the dust settles he will “decide” to “stand up” again as IPA
Review Editor. And in the meantime, everything just rocks along as if
nothing happened, and one presumes he still holds the title of Director
of the IPA Media Monitoring Unit.

The IPA’s basic problem, which this scandal spectacularly highlights,
is one of institutional sclerosis. Historically it has been little more
than a pretentious PR firm for the mining industry and job creation
scheme/vanity vehicle for a small group of individuals for whom “ideas”
are used as truncheons against anyone who might be perceived as one of
the many “house enemies”. And over the years the “enemy list” has
grown, taking in it seems any conservative voice that doesn’t give top
priority to the self-aggrandising corporatism of the few individuals
who fund and hence believe they own the place, which of course they do.
While you might own the IPA, many of its critics respond, you don’t own
the ideas and ideals which you proclaim as your guiding lights. If the
Owl is not mistaken, the attempt to monopolise ideas, trying to
dominate by a “party line” those institutions supposedly committed to
the celebration of the “marketplace of ideas”, is hardly consistent
with “classical liberalism”.

Prominent on that list of enemies is Des Moore, a distinguished
28-year-veteran of the Commonwealth Treasury with five years as Deputy
Secretary. He spent nine years as a Senior Fellow at the IPA from 1987
before he was pushed out by the powers that be. As the old saying goes,
success is the best revenge, and Moore has had success with the
Institute for Private Enterprise which he founded on leaving the IPA.
So much so, in fact, that it is, in the opinion of some observers,
out-shining the IPA in the quality of its economic commentary. On the
social conservative side, BA Santamaria was for a long time up on the
enemies list, as was anyone associated with him.

More recently, a veritable war of words has broken out with other
conservatives who, while upholding the values of the free market, find
the behaviour of some of those behind the IPA (and its allied groups)
intolerable, with its seeming blindness towards, or even contempt for,
traditional values, not least the value called civility.

The most passionate broadside in the public domain, excluding the
private resentments which the Owl has heard much of, has come of late
from The New Australian, easily the most professionally-produced free
market and conservative online magazine in Australia. In its latest
edition, 21-27 February 2000, it carries an article titled “The HR
Nicholls Society’s free-market Leninism” (not the first time the
methods of Melbourne’s self-appointed “free market missionaries” have
been compared with a totalitarian model).

The article asks why the Nicholls Society (HRNS), named after a
civilised 19th century Tasmanian journalist who challenged the labour
market system of his day, and allegedly run behind the scenes by much
the same group that calls the shots at the IPA, has had so little
influence on today’s labour market, especially given that there is a
Liberal government in Canberra. The article goes on to ask why it is
that the right, “intellectually powerful throughout the world”, so
lacks “punch and dynamism in Australia?”.

It believes “the answer is obvious”. “The HRNS is run autocratically by
a clique with N.R. – Ray – Evans at the centre. It is run by a board
which appoints (co-opts) members to it. There are no elections. Members
are not told of plans or policy statements in advance. There is no
input from the membership except by way of correspondence, which
sometimes seems to be ignored, or at annual conferences – which appear
more and more like annual rituals – for which members must pay a
substantial fee in addition to their subscriptions.

The articles continues: “President ( for life?) Evans, executive
officer at Western Mining, directs HRNS business from there. By
profession he is an engineer (and) when it comes to refuting
Keynesianism he is not up to it intellectually. Furthermore, he seems
to lack humility.” The article proceeds to inform us the many ways
Evans’ alleged lack of humility manifests itself – rudeness, arrogance
and contempt for others. There is never, the author informs us, a kind
word from Evans for any organisation that he doesn’t control, even
though they are supposedly fighting for the same things. Rather than
carrying the fight for reform to the wider society, the free-market
establishment types, the author believes, have exhibited a “lust for
respectability” which is demonstrated by “glib superficiality and
social climbing”.

In reporting the bitter accusations of conservatives against the IPA,
the HRNS and two of its more prominent personalities, the Owl, eager to
maintain a certain degree of objectivity, finds the outbreak of open
warfare on the right in Melbourne a matter of little significance in
the wider scheme of things, but nonetheless regrettable in terms of the
prospects of fostering pluralism and quality in the public policy
debate. Pieties aside, one has to admit it is richly absorbing as a
little widow on human nature.

While it is obvious that there is no love lost between the author of the piece in The New Australian
and his subject, and the Owl is not close enough to events to know
where hard reality and exaggeration part company, it is notable that
the issue which has clearly sparked the diatribe in the first place
involves the very same person at the centre of the IPA’s current
scandal – Michael Warby. Although written prior to Warby’s exposure on Media Watch, it tells us that his standing in the eyes of many conservatives was not very high to start with. The article continues:

Cliquishness and lack of candour were evident in the HRNS’s
secret manoeuvres to install Michal Warby (an HRNS board member) as
President of the Adam Smith Club. In keeping with the Leninist
principle of ‘centralised democracy’, Warby’s appointment was summarily
announced to club members; there was no election or consultation, thus
denying loyal members the opportunity to nominate for the position.
Evans may fancy himself as some sort of backroom operator, but this is
unseemly activity for an intellectual reformer, especially one who
affects to be outraged by such behaviour when perpetrated by
trade-unionists.

It should be noted that after this article was published, Michael
James, a leading member and immediate past President of the Adam Smith
Club, wrote a reply claiming that the accusations against Evans in
regard to Warby’s appointment were “nonsense” and that the club’s
committee, which Evans is not on, “charged me (James) with inviting
Michael Warby to become the next President.” The author of the original
piece responded, also online, in typically rip-roaring fashion, saying
that “To appoint Warby in secret and then present his presidency to the
membership as a fait accompli is an affront to common decency.” For
good measure, he adds, “That this is exactly how corrupt unions conduct
their affairs is something else that eluded you.”

Laying down the gauntlet, the New Australian sets out its position bluntly:

“If committee members have any integrity they will dismiss Warby as
president, apologise for their conduct to the membership and then
resign. Of course, if Warby had any integrity he would have immediately
resigned once the manner of his appointment came under attack.”

There you have it, the biggest stinkpoo and dog fight on the
“intellectual right”, or any intellectual front for that matter, in
Melbourne for years. The Cheery Owl, as an outsider who has painfully
tried to follow the logic of these bizarre events, believes that the
New Australian’s case has much merit, as they say in the labour
tribunals. The Cheery Owl also believes that Warby should come clean
with the members of the Adam Smith Club and, with all the humility
attributed to the Ray Evans’ of this little world, that the IPA should
do the honourable thing and sack Warby. As an organisation which
affects to care about propriety and accountability from the highest
possible pedestal, maybe the executive director and the high-powered
IPA board should also have a look at themselves. And then, having done
all the necessary house cleaning consistent with its own high
standards, the IPA might just consider calling it a day.

Peter Fray

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