Shrugging-Off The Atlas Network

THE ATLAS NETWORK has been trending lately – in the minds of the New Zealand Left. Devastated by the election result, and further demoralised by recent polling showing the Right […]

THE ATLAS NETWORK has been trending lately – in the minds of the New Zealand Left. Devastated by the election result, and further demoralised by recent polling showing the Right increasing its grip on New Zealanders’ political imagination, the Atlas Network has provided the Left with what it most needs – an explanation for its failure.

It is important to state at the very start that the Atlas Network is not the Left’s equivalent of Q-Anon. It is a real organisation, founded in 1981, by Antony Fisher (1915-1988) devotee of the fanatical anti-collectivist, F.A. Hayek (1899-1992) and a tireless proponent of the monetarist and free-market ideas that ultimately found practical political expression in the government of Margaret Thatcher and the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Fisher’s objective in forming the Atlas Network was to encourage like-minded individuals and groups to do as he had done nearly thirty years earlier: set up “think tanks” dedicated to advancing free-market ideology. His own creation, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was founded in 1955 and played an important role in formulating what would become Thatcher’s economic programme. But, just as Che Guevara wanted “one, two, many Vietnams”, Fisher wanted one, two, many right-wing think tanks. He had witnessed at first-hand what could be achieved by a handful of people “thinking the unthinkable”. The more there were of these ideological handfuls, the faster the “New Right’s” ideas would spread.

None of this information is new, Fisher’s exploits are documented comprehensively in Richard Cockett’s book, “Thinking The Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83”, published in 1995.

Paying close attention to who is influencing whom behind the scenes is, however, something activists on the New Zealand Left engage in only intermittently. There was a brief flurry of left-wing journalists twitching back the curtains in the late-1980s. They were motivated, mainly, by the dramatic emergence of the Business Roundtable as the New Zealand free marketeers’ ideological powerhouse.

The fact that Roger Douglas, father of New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution, was a member of Hayek’s high-altitude think tank, the “Mont Pelerin Society”, prompted even more left-wing interest in the influence of think tanks on New Zealand’s political life.

With the election of the Labour-Alliance coalition government in 1999, however, the power of the Business Roundtable began to wane, leading to a corresponding falling-off of interest in venturing behind-the-scenes by left-wing journalists. This decline was compounded by the death of the Left’s principal keeper-of-tabs on the machinations of the business-backed Right, the editor, author and journalist, Bruce Jesson (1944-1999).

The death of the Business Roundtable’s indefatigable Executive Director, Roger Kerr (1945-2011) was similarly demoralising for the Right. In 2012, having already merged with the New Zealand Institute, the Business Roundtable became a new, much sunnier, think tank, the New Zealand Initiative. Led by the ebullient Oliver Hartwich, the New Zealand Initiative has carefully avoided acquiring the sinister reputation of its big-business-backed predecessor.

Growing alongside the Business Roundtable for most of the 1990s was what began as the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (ACT). Founded in 1993 by Roger Douglas, the former National cabinet minister, Derek Quigley, and multi-millionaire, Craig Heatley, ACT was to serve as a vehicle for those classical liberal ideas no longer deemed acceptable by either Labour or National. In 1994, a year after New Zealand’s adoption of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, ACT became the Act Party. In the first MMP general election (1996) Act (now led by Douglas’ former henchman, Richard Prebble) secured 6.1 percent of the Party Vote.

The question being asked by left-wing journalists in 2024 is whether or not the Act Party has always been associated with right-wing organisations like the Atlas Network. Or, is the Network’s sole link with Act its present leader, David Seymour, who, prior to entering Parliament, was employed by two conservative Canadian think tanks, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the Manning Foundation, both of which were, at one time or another, members of the Atlas Network.

Neither of these questions make much sense.

To begin with, the Atlas Network has never made any secret of its existence (even if, after years of left-wing attention, it now keeps its membership list secret). It was not illegal to set up such an organisation in 1981, and it is not illegal now. Think tanks, and organisations dedicated to facilitating the establishment of think tanks, have been a feature of the global political landscape for decades – and that is as true of the Left as it is of the Right.

Indeed, the rise of right-wing think tanks in the 1970s and 80s was a direct response to what their big-business backers (including, entirely unsurprisingly, big oil and big tobacco) saw as the near conquest of their capitalist societies by left-wing ideas and left-leaning institutions.

The free-market fightback, pioneered by think tanks like Fisher’s Institute of Economic Affairs, represented UK and US capitalists’ last-ditch defence of their profits and power. They had witnessed the trade unions bring down a British government in 1973, and the liberal press force the resignation of an American president in 1974. These unprecedented defeats had struck them as harbingers of doom – their doom.

That the Right was smart enough to realise that the battle for the hearts and minds of voters living in democratic states would be a battle of ideas – ideas that those same voters could believe in and be inspired by – and against which the Left, still mired in the demonstrably inadequate economic doctrines of the past, could offer nothing remotely competitive, was hardly the Right’s fault.

Nor is it fair to blame a young man, inspired by the libertarian and free-market doctrines of the right-wing counter-revolution of the 1980s and 90s, for accepting offers of employment from conservative Canadian think tanks. Where else was he supposed to go looking for a “political” job – the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions? Greenpeace?

It is highly instructive that left-wing politicians with CVs that show them working for “progressive” organisations, NGOs and yes, even left-wing think tanks with links to billionaire donors, are not portrayed as evil-doers by the mainstream media. Having a background in the trade unions, student organisations, environmental groups, etc, is seen as perfectly natural. Where else are left-wingers going to learn their trade? Exxon? British & American Tobacco? Pfizer?

David Seymour’s links to the Atlas Network do not make him a villain. Working for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy is not the same as working for Hamas. Morally speaking, is taking money from oil companies really all that distinguishable from giving money to oil companies every time we fill up our petrol tank? Getting from A to B; winning the battle of ideas; the Devil clips our tickets either way.

The Left’s election defeat is not the work of the Atlas Network. It is not even the work of David Seymour and Act. It is the work of ordinary citizens who liked the Right’s stories better than they liked the Left’s. If the Right’s stories were made more convincing by a sympathetic think tank, then the Left should not be getting mad at their opponent’s effective apparatus, it should be getting mad at itself for not having one of its own.


Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s leading leftwing political commentator, with 30 years of experience writing professionally about New Zealand politics. He now writes regularly for the Democracy Project, producing his column “From the Left”.

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