In recent times, corporate influence on university curricula has galvanised the left on campus. Demonstrations against the Ramsay Centre’s proposed ‘Bachelor of Western Civilisation’, and the National Union of Students’ ‘Books Not Bombs’ campaign have taken aim at the dissolution of academic independence resulting from increased corporate influence.
However, not enough attention has been paid to the growing sway of corporations over students themselves. Enter Generation Liberty: a student organisation run by right-wing thinktank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). Renee Gorman, the organisation’s campus co-ordinator at USyd, describes their purpose as “advancing the ideas of liberty and freedom among young Australians with a particular focus on university campuses”.
In most cases, it would seem that Generation Liberty’s preoccupation with freedom extends only to economic freedom: number two on their list of ‘Seven Political Leaders You Need to Know’ is Lee Kuan Yew—by Generation Liberty’s own admission, a “soft authoritarian”—otherwise known to have jailed political opponents and restricted media. Indeed, talk of liberty often belies a very staunch social conservatism.
On economic policy at least, the organisation has a consistent stance—one explicitly pro-free market. This is unsurprising considering the influence of their parent organisation, the IPA. Founded in 1943, the IPA describes itself as a “voice for freedom”. In practice, it blends fervid laissez-faire economic policy with reactionary social conservatism.
While pushing for smaller government and greater personal liberty, the IPA simultaneously calls for more stringent policing of minor crimes such as fare evasion and jaywalking—to preemptively curb the risk of more violent crimes from the perceived threat of African gangs. The IPA’s strong ties to the Liberal Party explain its social bent, yet its economic ideology can be traced directly back to its patrons. Of the IPA’s $4.96 million income in 2015-16, almost half came from Gina Rinehart. The IPA’s free-market, anti-government message has appealed to a long list of companies seeking to push their agenda on the political stage, and it has often been successful.
Examining the IPA’s policy record, the prospect of them having a foothold on university campuses is concerning. Beyond the racist fearmongering around African gangs, the preoccupation with the decline of Christian ethics in society, and their opposition to the continued existence of public broadcasting, the IPA have some truly worrying ideas about climate change.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the proportion of their funding that they owe to mining giants, the IPA believe man-made climate change to be exaggerated at best, and a myth at worst. On this issue, as with all, Generation Liberty marches in lockstep with their parent organisation. Their opposition towards environmental activism borders on bizarre: a list of the “Top 7 Leftie Films” on the Generation Liberty website includes the 2012 film The Lorax, claiming that the film’s portrayal of logging and free enterprise is “inaccurate, given that businesses do not advocate charging for oxygen and the fact that loggers plant more trees than they cut down.”
It is easy to dismiss the activities of Generation Liberty as harmless ideological debate—and, of course, students can hold these views and are free to express them. But it’s important to investigate what lies beneath the surface. Generation Liberty proudly calls themselves non-partisan; as Renee says, they are “not interested in partaking in the hustle and bustle of campus politics or even day-to-day national politics”. In 2018 so far, Generation Liberty have been relatively inactive, hosting only a talk with historian Robert Tombs, and a debate with the Socialist Alternative. A planned debate on the name of the Wentworth Building did not eventuate.
For a group with an agenda to push, this level of inactivity appears somewhat unusual. However, Generation Liberty saves its presence for the wider culture wars that play out on campus and in society; adding a student voice to conservative arguments, and working to build social license for the IPA’s agenda.
It’s a war they take seriously: Generation Liberty runs a tip-line to “catalogue threats to intellectual freedom on campus, and support students who have experienced mistreatment or persecution for their views”.
This is remarkably similar to the Professor Watchlist run by the American conservative youth organisation, Turning Point USA, which has been widely criticised as an attempt to stifle liberal ideas in higher education. This surveillance poses a very dangerous threat to academic independence.
Generation Liberty represents the student arm of a powerful right-wing campaign to stomp out the left-leaning tendencies of university campuses and build a public consensus for a corporate agenda. While the on-campus presence of this organisation flies sufficiently under the radar and may seem innocuous enough, it is important to remember where Generation Liberty’s ideas come from: places of wealth and power that seek to influence the future of our universities