Murdoch and the IPA Politicise Freedom in Battlelines for Next Year’s Elections

Ongoing protests over Victorian state government lockdowns and vaccine mandates are emerging as fodder for ‘moral panic’ feeding into the 2022 Australian election cycle. A strategy as old as the hills, moral panics create an atmosphere of polarisation that offers cover for political blame-shifting and victim-blaming, allowing corrupt and bought candidates to reinvent themselves as heroes for solving problems that they are responsible for.

In addition to lording over a media empire known for making an art out of demonising enemies and panic-driven scapegoating, Rupert Murdoch has long been recognised as the kingmaker in federal elections. When a party leader visits Rupert Murdoch in the months before an election is announced, it is a predictable sign that he has bestowed his favour on the candidate. So when it emerged that Scott Morrison had dined with News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson in New York during his September trip to the US, political commentators took note.

Election or not, Murdoch thrives on political instability. As Democrat Rahm Emanuel so infamously observed, one can never let a serious crisis go to waste. From the Tampa to terrorism, Murdoch’s process of turning ‘unwinnable elections’ into great victories follows the all-too-familiar pattern of the Scare Cycle, stirring up moral panic and overwhelming the public with fears of imminent existential threats.

‘Freedom protests’ against lockdowns are a relatively recent development in the long saga of the coronavirus pandemic. Accompanying Trump flags and other paraphernalia of the far-right suggest a variety of political agendas that extend beyond lockdowns and vaccinations—an impression only deepened as the end of lockdown sees ‘freedom protesters’ shifting gears to oppose vaccine mandates and the Victorian Pandemic Bill.

Whatever the personal agendas that drive the highly privileged freedom these protestors demand, the shared but unspoken assumption that freedom and privilege are the same thing reflects a militant ignorance of, and contempt for, the health of the immunocompromised. This contempt betrays a conspicuous failure to consider the social responsibilities that have always attended meaningful freedom; the resulting tendency to hide behind freedom, instead of standing in front of it and defending it for all, suggests a concern not with social justice so much as despair at the wheels falling off the bandwagon of capitalist individualism—hardly a disinterested concern.

In the context of a forthcoming federal election, this situation is particularly concerning if we examine the relationship of the anti-lockdown movement with right-wing corporate media and international corporate dark money networks, whose affiliates such as the Institute for Public Affairs in Australia (IPA), are staunch anti-lockdown advocates.

Heavily funded by Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart—Australia’s richest person—the IPA is a partner of the Atlas Network, an international network of extreme-right think tanks funded by the Koch Bothers—paragons of the global dark money network. The Atlas Network has been linked to DonorsTrust, a clearinghouse that Mother Jones has described as the ‘Dark-Money ATM of the Conservative Movement’, which has donated more than US$1.5 billion to conservative charities since 1999.

The IPA exercises great influence in the far right of Australian conservatism, as do its fellow travellers in the Murdoch press. Several IPA members are MPs or Senators, including Tony Abbot, George Christensen, Josh Frydenberg, Tim Wilson, Amanda Stoker and our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.

Despite its political allies, the IPA has a deep hostility to democracy limiting corporate power. The influence of the IPA over political nuisances like George Christenson and Tim Canavan and independent Craig Kelly flies under the radar, though all share the populist pretence of being political mavericks, habitually conflating militant ignorance with outspokenness.

The ideological narratives of the anti-lockdown movement and those of the IPA are the same: opening up the economy is good for business, whatever the social cost. Similarly, any check on corporate or individual power is a threat to freedom. For lockdown protesters, this concept of liberty gives them freedom without responsibility. For DonorsTrust and the Atlas Network-linked IPA, it equates the extreme power and privilege of corporate interests with democratic freedoms and human rights.

It does not come as a great surprise then to learn that the now-gagged organiser of the ‘freedom’ rallies in Melbourne is a self-identified libertarian. In avoiding conventional politics, Harrison McLean’s incitement of the anti-lockdown protests follows the same broad thrust as corporate libertarian sponsorship of the culture war over Critical Race Theory in the US, and its sponsorship of climate denial in Australia and elsewhere. As Nancy Maclean has revealed, the point is not to win the debate, but hijack it. This has and will include the election cycle.

We only need to look to how the Murdoch media empire dominates Australian news online, to see how the right are using these narratives to push ideology further to the right, freely conflating the continued exercise of class and social privilege with individual freedom and human rights in a manner familiar to US corporate libertarians. The powerful allyship between the Murdoch media empire and the corporate libertarian movement, both with their heavily vested interests, results in what Herman and Chomsky famously called the ‘manufacture of consent.’

This internalised propaganda is how the anti-vaxxer and anti-lockdown protests can take their ideological cues from the mainstream media while crowing about its evils when faced with contradictory facts—anything associated with epidemiology being not the least of which.

Lachlan Murdoch has positioned Fox’s Sky News as the antithesis of mainstream media and the true arbiter of both vaccine information and unbiased protest coverage, with concerning results. Their Facebook posts were shared more than 2.3 million times in the last half of 2020 – more than any other Australian news outlet. Division makes all-too-easy clickbait.

With Victoria the staging ground for state and federal elections in 2022, the Murdoch narrative has a clear agenda—to weaken Dan Andrews and divide the state. Figureheads like Peta Credlin and Andrew Bolt provoke protestors into chaos, which the press presents as the inability of the Labour Premier to govern effectively. Police brutality and vaccine mandates only added fuel to the fire. Meanwhile, the performance of Liberal state ministers goes without comment.

Protests against mandatory vaccinations, lockdown restrictions and vaccine mandates look set to continue to shape debate into the next year. As experts in manipulating crises for the advancement of their own vested interests, this manufactured political instability puts the IPA, the Murdoch Press and the Liberal Party in good stead on all counts. The demographic so apparently hypervigilant about agendas in government displays utter obliviousness to their manipulation by political and corporate interests. With elections looming it is clear that the latter will use any argument to polarise and divide the populace and retain power.

Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in history at Western Sydney University, Bankstown. He is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Rebekah Hayden is a writer and researcher who specialises in writing on social justice issues, human rights and the environment. She also investigates the actions of Australian mining companies operating in Ecuador with the Rainforest Action Group.