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Friday, 20 June 2014

Thinkers - John Roskam

Thinkers - John Roskam

The man running the country's loudest -- and most right wing -- think tank

Executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs


Born in: He grew up in North Dandenong.

Friends: Bill Shorten | Andrew Bolt | Michael Kroger

Foes: The Greens | GetUp!

Home Town: Melbourne



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 (in contrast their rivals at the Centre for Independent
Studies were well under 10,000).


On nearly any given day you can hear Roskam's lassaiz-faire legion
preaching polemic against the mining tax, the carbon tax and "nanny
state" issues like tobacco reform. Over at the ABC, where journalists
and producers are constantly harangued by critics for supposed 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.


So does the man himself think he's powerful? Well, 'no' seems to be the resounding answer:


"I hope the IPA is influential but it's not me, it's the ideas and
it's the people," Roskam says, before throwing a shout-out to his cashed
up members. "We can have all the ideas in the world, but if it's not
funded we can't do it."


Indeed. Most of the IPA's $2.5 million annual budget comes from its
highly-engaged individual and corporate membership. When the government
sought to legislate a carbon tax last year, the IPA put together a
fundraising drive fronted by climate sceptic Ian Plimer which raised
$70,000 from members in four days. That's valuable money set to funnel
into sceptic research.


Then last year, when Andrew Bolt was found guilty of offending nine
fair-skinned aborigines, it was the IPA who stepped in with prominent
newspaper ads supporting the right-wing columnist's right to free
speech. Again, the money came from members, with $100,000 pouring in
over the first two days.


A thankful Bolt is effusive in his praise for friend Roskam (who denies it was a favour for a mate):


"John is very thoughtful, both in the intellectual and compassionate
sense. He is also courageous and true to his convictions," the News Ltd
firebrand tells The Power Index.


Roskam grew up in working-class North Dandenong, the product of Dutch
and Polish immigrants. He attended the prestigious Xavier College in
Melbourne's inner east, which is where he became friends with Labor
stalwart Bill Shorten. The odd couple remain friends, with Shorten
ending up as Roskam's best man.


"John is a great guy. That the Liberal Party haven't picked him is
another reason not to vote for them," Shorten once quipped at a Xavier
function.


"Bill and I were pretty much mates from my first day in Grade Six at
Kostka Hall [Xavier College's prep school] and we've been on the
opposite sides of nearly every issue since," Roskam explains.


Roskam has long links with the Liberal Party. Active since his uni
days, he's run for Senate preselection twice (he denies another tilt any
time soon) and worked as a federal and Victorian state ministerial
adviser.


He's also been a university lecturer, Rio Tinto spinner and head of
the Menzies Research Centre (a Liberal Party think tank). He rates
George Orwell's Animal Farm as one of his biggest influences.


But it was his time working behind-the-scenes in Canberra and Spring
Street which steeled his belief that "government is more likely to stuff
it up".


"The best quote that's been said to me by a lot of people is: 'would
you eat at a government-run restaurant?" Roskam says in his best
Orwellian tone.


"If you wouldn't eat at a government-run restaurant, then why would
you want to be treated in a government-run hospital or let your children
go to a government-run school?"


It's a provocative point worthy of its own dystopian novel. Or even better, a piece of privately-funded IPA research.



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