More featuring Greg Lindsay»

Diana Bignall, The Bulletin, September 28, 2004, pp. 22-25.

It’s a rare kind of night that sucks Sydneysiders off the streets. But on this August evening, a spiteful wind and a full moon menace the city’s equilibrium, speeding the exodus to the suburbs. Despite the promise of more cheer elsewhere, a good enough crowd gathers in the downstairs auditorium at Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Suits and op-shop, tweed and denim. Former federal Treasury secretary and senator John Stone sits along from an animated posse of young unionists; Liberal Party candidate Malcolm Turnbull moves between bankers and lawyers; Paris-based welfare bureaucrat Peter Whiteford is down the front; sex discrimination commissioner Pru Goward slips in late at the back.

The star billing of an event promoted boldly by its backer, the Centre for Independent Studies, as The Big Ideas Forum is shared between a patrician-looking New York professor, Lawrence Mead, and Britain’s fearless Labour parliamentarian, Frank Field. Introducing them, and the forum’s topic, namely welfare reform, is the CIS social program director, the “bad” Peter Saunders (to distinguish him from the “good” Peter Saunders, a rival sociologist who enjoys much higher approval ratings from their left-leaning profession).

As Saunders mounts his case for Australia’s welfare habit, and his celebrity guests follow through with evidence and anecdote from abroad, a tall watchful man hovers near the back. His pale blue eyes follow the microphone as it picks up random questions and fans debate. Greg Lindsay won’t be introduced to the audience that evening and few will register his presence. Saunders, as a matter of form, will invite his boss to wrap up but, without missing a beat, anticipates his refusal. Lindsay doesn’t perform. It won’t be the founder and executive director of the CIS whom the radio producers badger for early morning interviews. He will send out his proxies.

Lindsay’s name rarely reaches the papers, and those who get their news from television bulletins probably will not even register his organisation’s name. Yet its fingerprints are all over this country’s political agenda, on both sides. The ideas it propagates have seeped out into talk shows and letter pages without too much bother about their source. The people who matter know. The wonks fishing for new policies, the opinion page editors hunting for a different point of view. Lindsay couldn’t be happier. That’s influence, stupid.

Admirers describe him as a shrewd intellectual entrepreneur and a formidable networker. Detractors call him an extremist and a zealot whose organisation operates in the intellectual and academic shadows. “They are disingenuous,” says Monash University sociologist Philip Mendes of the CIS. “They should call themselves the Centre for the Promotion of Free Market Ideology.” Australia’s leading neoconservative think-tank (as Mark Latham calls it) is Lindsay’s show. He decides on its program, he draws the talent — the mavericks, the giant-slayers, the contrarians who generate the buzz. He’s been doing it for nearly 30 years. The CIS is his creation, a custom-made vehicle for evangelism. Everything that goes out under its brand advances his core intellectual position, namely the promotion of a free and open society.

That’s libertarian speak for winding back state intervention. Some people call its the death of social equity, or the freedom of capital to run amok. But love it or hate it, these days the CIS can’t be ignored. In sheer column inches, they eat their competitors. “You always have to take notice of their books and papers, even if you don’t agree with them,” says Peter Botsman, an erstwhile competitor who ran the left-wing Evatt Foundation and these days edits the online magazine Australian Prospect. And for a think-tank director, that’s like winning the trifecta.

Lindsay’s worked hard for it, but then again, as he sees it, right is on his side. “The things we have been arguing for, and pursuing, are the sorts of things that most people in the country want to see pursued, even if they don’t think about it,” he says. “We would not be successful as an organisation if no one was listening to us. People are listening to us, clearly.”

They weren’t always. For the first 20 years of the CIS’ existence, it was marginalised at best and at worst ridiculed. The intellectuals of Lindsay’s generation gravitated overwhelmingly towards the left. Their issues were Vietnam and the agenda of the Whitlam government. When Lindsay began building up contacts for the think-tank he would launch out of his garden shed in 1976, he says he was seen as a weirdo by his teaching colleagues. It didn’t bother him. “I’m not the sort of guy who hangs around other people’s things,” he says.

These days, the weirdo chairs the membership committee of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international club for free-thinkers of which he’s been vice-president (several Nobel Prize winners have been President), and runs Consilium, reputedly the most significant intellectual gathering in the country.

Consilium is an invitation-only event, which happens over a few days each July in Coolum on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. It doesn’t get reported. But that only accentuates its cachet. “Every time I have asked a politician, they have always come, no matter which side they’re on,” he says. Cabinet (and shadow cabinet) ministers rub shoulders with historians, bankers with demographers, journalists with bishops, accountants with Aboriginal leaders. Debate is measured, opinion varied. It is, as Lindsay’s friend Rob Forsyth, the Anglican bishop of South Sydney, remarks, “very civil”. And through it all roams this nervy, affable man with a comfortable, suburban manner, a man who barely scraped through university and yet directs the intellectual traffic flows with singular success. “I have a gut intelligence that has worked,” he explains. “I have never had any trouble dealing with people with better formal qualifications.” A man who can draw a Francis Fukuyama or a Vaclav Klaus, a Charles Murray or a Milton Friedman to Australia to further the free-marketeers’ cause, his cause. In short, a man of surprising, and overlooked influence.

At 54, Lindsay is well-built, with a ruddy round face, an unfashionably full beard and prematurely white hair. His dress is conventional, his office standard-issue executive suite. Lindsay may be spruiking an intemperate set of principles derived from 17th-century Scotland, but his personal style is that of the cordial school principal.

Self-reliance and accepting responsibility — cornerstones of neoliberal thinking — were seeded early in Lindsay’s life. He effectively grew up in a single-parent family in Turramurra, on Sydney’s upper North Shore. His father Jack, a war veteran who came home to sell furnishing fabrics and nylon stockings, died when Lindsay was 13. His mother Betty, whom he still phones each night on his way home, worked part-time in a department store to supplement her widow’s pension. Greg and his younger siblings all had after-school jobs. In one of the few pieces of published writing bearing his name, an abridged version of a speech he gave to New Zealand’s right-wing ACT party conference in late 2001, Lindsay talks of how as welfare dependency grows, people lose their zest for freedom. “I can think of few other developments so degrading for a human being,” he writes.

Neither of his parents stayed at school past intermediate level, but Lindsay went to the University of Sydney to study agriculture on a teacher’s scholarship. He failed his first two years but because he was bonded, he was sent to teacher’s college to study maths. He passed the first two years, then didn’t finish the third. “I wasn’t particularly interested in what I was doing,” he explains.

His interests were also off-campus — bush-walking, cross-country skiing and caving. He remembers being appalled when student demonstrators threw tomatoes and fruit at war hero and vice-regal representative Sir Roden Cutler, who was reviewing the Sydney University regiment.

In late 1974, the reaction against the Whitlam government started to grow. Lindsay started to seek out people who were peddling liberal economic ideas. Something was “brewing” in his head, he says. He joined the short-lived libertarian Workers Party, his first and only political affiliation. “If you look up its manifesto, which people thought was lunatic, it is now totally mainstream,” he says. Gary Sturgess, a long-time friend who now runs the corporate think-tank The Serco Institute in London, says: “There was a significant counter trend that’s been little documented of people who were challenged by the Whitlam experience, who became thought leaders in politics on the right.”

Lindsay’s introduction to neoliberalism had come through the unlikely channel of film critic Bill Collins, who lectured at teachers’ college. He showed students a film version of Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead, starring Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper. He picked up the trail of libertarian thinkers and organisations through Rand and began ordering books by mail from the United States.

By 1975, he was teaching at Richmond High School in outer Sydney. That same year he went to the US, where he sought out right-wing think tanks. When he finally quit teaching four years later, he had already laid the foundations of his organisation. He doesn’t claim originality — he used a known and credible format and applied it to local conditions — but still, it was a brave call. “I was absolutely convinced I was right.” At one level, he says, he was “trying to light a candle for the moths to gather around during the Fraser years”. But the bigger picture was always to influence the thinking of the “second-hand dealers in ideas,” the media, and thereby shift public opinion.

To begin with, he knew nobody and nobody knew him. But he was dogged. In 1979, he managed to persuade a group of business leaders, who wanted to replicate the London-based Institute for Economic Affairs (Margaret Thatcher’s preferred source of advice) in Australia to redirect their attention towards his fledgling venture. Melbourne businessman Hugh Morgan went into bat for him, and nine companies committed $5000 each a year over five years. “They bought the idea, and that was it,” Lindsay says. He is adamant that big business doesn’t, and never has, owned the joint. “We have never in the history of the CIS made an undertaking of any sort to our contributors. There are no strings, there’s no implicit contract.”

In 2003-04, the CIS budget was $1.55m. It has a small cluster of in-house staff, a mix of young researchers and retired academics in the main (“because that’s all we can afford”). University-backed academics, who did the bulk of the CIS work in the beginning, are less involved now.

“We find it harder to get them to focus, and write, and when they do it’s inaccessible,” he says. “Interacting with the public about important issues of the day doesn’t rate as highly as writing for peer-reviewed journals.” In fact, the early contributors were mainly economists, and the reforms they advocated were brought in during the ’80s by Labor governments.

It’s hard to tease out the CIS’ influence during that period. A lot of people were marching in the same direction, reinforcing the impact of the CIS. But there are a few direct hits Lindsay can claim. In 1983, the CIS published Free to Shop, by Melbourne academic Geoff Hogbin. “That had a huge influence on me and what I was writing for the Coalition,” says Sturgess, who ran NSW premier Nick Greiner’s cabinet office in that state. Lindsay also believes Wolfgang Kasper’s 1986 paper, Capital Xenophobia, arguing for liberalising investment, influenced federal government policy.

Although it has lately added foreign policy to its line-up, with international security scholar Owen Harries in the vanguard, these days the CIS brand is most strongly linked with its conservative views on education, family, marriage and welfare. Lindsay adjusted his agenda to include social policy and many people have remarked on his prescience. This is one area in which the Howard government has wanted to make an impact.

Academic critics say that the CIS has provided Howard’s government with a rhetorical framework for the kinds of social policies it wanted to implement, and also captured parts of the Labor Party. Clive Hamilton, of the left-leaning Australia Institute, says he has no doubt that the work of the CIS has influenced the thinking of government, particularly on welfare reform. Labor’s Mark Latham, when he attacked the CIS under parliamentary privilege two years ago, was more caustic. When the CIS focussed on an issue, it was a sign that the Howard government would soon follow, he said. Lindsay will concede only that “if we have been able to get some of the things we think are important onto the policy agenda, it’s a huge plus, and I think we have”. His strategy has never been on today’s policy though. “We always saw ourselves as the artillery, namely, firing shells into the distance, trying to soften up the ground,” he says. “It’s a long slow process of persuasion.”

In that respect, he’s characteristic of his generation, the generation that spawned the feminist, environmental and consumer movements, remarks Ian Marsh, a political scientist at the Australian National University. It’s just he chose the right rather than the left. “Under that dour surface there beats a ’60s ideologue, a revolutionary,” he comments. Lindsay’s wife Jenny considers him almost an anarchist. “I think he thinks people are as good and moral as he is, and therefore if everyone is like he is, why do we need to have government running our lives … We should be able to make our own decisions.”

These have been glory days for the libertarian cause. A chunk of Berlin Wall in Lindsay’s office testifies to the free world’s triumph. “But things can come unstuck terribly quickly,” he remarks. In Australia, there’s a federal election pending. A cloud scuttles across his otherwise sunny face when the leader of the opposition’s name is mentioned. Latham used to give lectures at the CIS and published under its imprint. He and Lindsay played golf together, their families socialised. The CIS provided Latham with an alternative intellectual network when he was cast out from his own. But Latham turned on Lindsay, calling him a “born-again wowser and a user”, then a liar. The trigger for the tiff revolved around what Lindsay did or didn’t say about his old friend Paddy McGuinness’s drinking habits. Latham then distanced himself from the CIS, leaving Lindsay terribly hurt, according to Bishop Forsyth. “I thought it was a destructive act, and so unfair,” he adds. Jenny Lindsay says bluntly: “Greg doesn’t make enemies. It was a political decision on Mark’s part.” Lindsay says cryptically: “We’ll be around long past Mark Latham.”

Not that estrangement from Latham has damaged Lindsay’s standing. His board is blue chip, its quality reflecting corporate Australia’s belief that “Greg’s heart is in the right place”, says board member Ross Grant, of the Grant Samuel investment bank. The CIS’ list of academic advisers is 100% professorial (though Hamilton says “you could hardly fit a sheet of paper between the political views of all of them”). Moreover several key figures are regular faces at CIS events — McGuinness, The Australian’s Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan, and Michael Duffy, the conservative columnist and broadcaster. Duffy attributes his conversion from centre-left to right directly to his contact with the CIS. He was invited to one of the regular Balmain pub lunches that Lindsay and McGuinness have organised for years and which have drawn the likes of Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, Latham, Christopher Pearson, Frank Devine. Duffy lapped up the ideas, most of which, pre-internet days, were not given oxygen in the media. That’s changed in the intervening 10 years. “I think society has come to meet [Lindsay],” he says. “I think he has accelerated the process.”

Lindsay describes what he does in business terms — “in the classic sense of bringing together capital and labour, whether you’re starting a cheese factory or a think-tank, the process is not different.” But the end game for the CIS is not to satisfy your palate but to change your mind. Lindsay is already deciding what the critical issues for next year’s Consilium will be water, self-reliance and complex warfighting. And this man isn’t even standing for office.