I confess that I feel like a complete fool. I had heard bits and pieces about the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) for years, but I had always associated them with tired old culture warriors, like Gerard Henderson, maybe Bob Santamaria.
What were the 75 ideas about?
But then I came across a couple of quotes, "Be like Gough", and "75 ideas", which seemed associated with both the IPA, and Tony Abbott. After a little research, I discovered that three members of the IPA had written a 'manifesto' or wish list, which they had addressed to Tony Abbott, on the eve of his elevation to Prime Minister. It was 'delivered' online, in 2012. Read it here.
It invoked Whitlam as the most transformative leader the country had seen, but not in any admiring sense. Its message was that, for Abbott to be remembered well, he needed to be the antidote to the 'poison' that Whitlam had put into Australia's political system. He needed to emulate Whitlam, by acting with speed, and they had a program, one which they had prepared earlier.
What was Abbott's response?
One would expect that the leader of one of Australia's major political parties, the Liberal Party, would have thanked them politely for their advice, and then proceeded to do exactly as his party wanted. That presumably included governing for all Australians, and sticking to his, and the party's, policies and the expectations which they had aroused. Australians have always voted for the 'sensible centre', and they were certainly not voting for any sort of 'radical' party.
Abbott's response was both shocking, and surprisingly open. He responded during a speech, delivered at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria, which included the immortal line, “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big fat yes to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me.”Of course, he became Australia's Prime Minister the next year.
But thank God for the IPA - here they were with a shopping list of neo-liberal ideas, and, being unelected, their ideas were in many cases, if not sociopathic, at least lacking in care for 'the people'. Abbott appears to have taken their 'manifesto' more seriously than the writers had. They had presented it as a wish list, and the tone suggests their expectations were not high. They even outlined the 'softer' option, which consisted of a 'steady as she goes, probably win another term,'. That was included in the paper, should he find their suggestions too radical.
Why did he accept their plan?
Many commentators, and most of the public, were dubious about Abbott's abilities in the area of formulating policy. He was more of an attack dog, very able in the area of creating slogans, and engendering fear in the community, but policy - not so much.
It is difficult to explain why Abbott was so accepting of such a radical makeover of Australia's political paradigm. I have always thought of Tony Abbott as something of a time-server, a careerist, and being on the right side was enough for him. He was never a reformist, or really a zealot, except when his religion clashed with his political duties.
I have tried many theories: Did they have a series of compromising photos? Did he receive money from them? Had they knowledge of something criminal in his background? No, all too improbable. So why did he acquiesce so whole-heartedly?
The best guess I can come up with is that he woke up one day, and discovered that he was the Leader of the Opposition. Remember the ridicule and the outrage when he won that particular vote? It was typically shambolic of most of what Abbott has done - he ascended to the leadership by tricking Joe Hockey into believing that he would not run, and then he did. [Something of a playbook for a later run by Scott Morrison.]
Part of the outrage was that he had defeated Malcolm Turnbull, who was seen as a gentleman, an urbane and distinguished lawyer, who had decided to provide, pro bono, some adult supervision for the country. So Abbott had climbed the greasy pole, almost by accident, and then we saw him at his instinctive best - a wrecker, by three word slogan.
So, watching the Labor Party self-destruct, Abbott, over time, firmed as favourite to succeed to the top job. Notwithstanding his quiver full of degrees from Sydney, and even Oxford, he was given very little respect, or credibility, for his abilities, other than as a political brawler. The only work qualification he had was as an unremarkable journalist, and then a long term [19 years & counting, in 2012] as a parliamentarian.