John Roskam is the whip smart and media savvy executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, the loudest — and most right-wing — think tank in the country.
As libertarian-in-chief, it’s Roskam’s job to marshal the IPA’s platoon of conservative culture warriors as they spread their free market agenda. And according to his bosses, he’s making a good fist of it.
“I think the IPA has had a tremendous year and I think John Roskam’s done an outstanding job as the head of it,” Liberal Party grandee and IPA board member Michael Kroger tells The Power Index. “I think their views are certainly making a difference.”
Whether they’re making a difference or not, the IPA is at least getting heard. Under conductor Roskam, the think tank has become the go-to source of conservative commentary for the media. Last year, the IPA and its main spokespeople scored 19,641 press mentions, according to Media Monitors.
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On nearly any given day you can hear Roskam’s lassaiz-faire legion preaching polemic against the mining tax, the carbon tax “nanny state” issues like tobacco reform. Over at the ABC, where journalists and producers are constantly harangued by critics for left-wing bias, they’re as much a part of the furniture as beige cardigans and Dr Who.
Even ideological opponent GetUp! boss Simon Sheikh, himself a pretty handy self-promoter, has a grudging respect for the IPA’s media work, although he thinks they’re campaigning at the expense of more in-depth research.
“Where they are impressive is they seem to be very talented at finding new spokespeople from all across the young libertarian space and giving them a platform,” Sheikh tells The Power Index.
With his close-cropped hair, conservative suit and rakishly-thin physique, Roskam looks more like a smooth used car salesman than an ideologue. And he talks a bit like one too, rarely letting a word in edgeways when The Power Index interviews him over coffee in a Melbourne café.
“We have to be able to communicate our research and communicate our ideas,” Roskam tells The Power Index. “There is huge gap in right-of-centre thinking in Australia; the reality is the IPA doesn’t have many competitors.”
But they do have their enemies. Critics such as the Greens accuse the IPA of being a “pressure group for hire”, an Astroturf front for the Liberal Party and shills for big business.
“The Institute of Public Affairs is not public, it is a cash for comment organisation,” Greens deputy leader Christine Milne tells The Power Index. Milne says that until Roskam releases a full supporter list detailing who funds the IPA, a promise once made by his predecessor, the charges won’t go away.
“Anyone who gives us money can say they give us money, but the reason we don’t reveal who our donors are is because they have been intimidated,” says Roskam, before trying to assuage any suggestions the IPA can be bought: “There is nothing that we have ever done that we have done because someone has paid us to change our opinion.”
Inside Roskam’s Collins Street office pre-interview, it’s not difficult to predict which way our discussion is going to turn. On one wall hangs a framed copy of The Australian (“State taxes strangle small business,” screams the headline); in an adjoining room a staffer ridicules ABC Radio National’s Book Show.
Both topics, taxation reform and state-funded enterprise, give a taste of the flavour of polemic at the IPA: it’s all Tory, all the time.
But there are two ingredients in particular which float to the top of Roskam’s conservative casserole. One is climate change, where the IPA loudly pushes the sceptic line. The other is last year’s cause célèbre: freedom of speech, which came out of the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case.
“On both of those issues John has played a very prominent role; he drove those agendas at the IPA,” Spectator Australia editor Tom Switzer tells The Power Index. “He was front and centre of the debate and I think he deserves brownie points for that. It takes guts to question the conventional wisdom.”
Switzer says Roskam was integral in helping fuel the fire that led to Malcolm Turnbull’s demise as Liberal leader in 2009 and ultimately the scrapping of the original ETS by both major parties. It was the most visible display yet of the IPA’s role in influencing Coalition policy.