Advancing Australian Liberalism

6 June 2023
Advancing Australian Liberalism - Featured image

David Kemp’s magnum opus imparts hope that Australian liberal democracy can adapt to tackle this century’s many challenges, writes IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop.

David Kemp’s now complete multi-volume masterpiece is the perfect antidote to any sense of despair readers with a liberal disposition might be feeling at the state of politics and society in Australia in the 2020s. The first four volumes of Kemp’s work took the story up to the retirement of Robert Menzies as Prime Minister in January 1966 (see reviews in IPA Review of Spring 2019 and Autumn 2022). Kemp’s original intention had been to stop in 1966, because he doubted his own capacity “to see the years of my personal involvement in political life in a useful perspective”. However, after some prodding from the publisher, and his own innate interest in the topic, Kemp decided to cover another 55 years of history, incidentally a longer timespan than any of the previous volumes, bar the first.

Consent of the People: Human Dignity Through Freedom and Equality 1966-2022
David Kemp
The Miegunyah Press, 2022,
640pp

In the mid-1960s, Kemp was president of the Melbourne University Liberal Club and one of the driving forces behind establishing an Alfred Deakin Lecture, designed to encourage Liberal leaders to speak broadly about the tension between liberal philosophy in principle and the policies of Liberal Governments in practice. Kemp’s career through its mixture of academic work and practical politics has continued to grapple with that issue. In the period this volume covers, Kemp was inter alia a senior adviser to one Prime Minister, a Cabinet Minister for another, and had the unusual distinction of having been both a State Director and State President of a division of the Liberal Party.

However, Kemp’s study is much broader than being just a history of the Liberal Party. It is not just Liberal leaders who get judged against liberal principles, but Labor ones as well. For instance, Kemp argues Gough Whitlam was very much committed to the Enlightenment tradition, but had a misplaced optimism about how government action might progress it. Seeking to find a historical parallel for Whitlam’s world view and trying to place “this optimism within the history of liberal thought”, Kemp concludes “it might be called Benthamite … but without Bentham’s caution about the limits of government”. Kemp also places a more recent Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, within the broad liberal church arguing that, while her maiden speech attacked individualism, it was “firmly within the traditional expressions of the values underlying Australia’s liberal project” and was therefore “another indication of how far Labor had travelled from its socialist era”.

Gough Whitlam visiting China in 1973.
Photo: NAA

Kemp is critical of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s designation of a ‘national cabinet’.

In volume four, Jack Lang is shown to have been one of the worst representatives of that socialist era in the Labor movement. Thus one of the most fascinating studies in volume five considers how Paul Keating followed Lang’s style, but pursued a policy direction “as far from Lang’s anti-capitalism as it was possible to be”. Kemp concludes Keating should have ditched the method as well as the matter because, while Lang’s belligerent approach may have delivered some short-term wins, “they were an incomplete set of tactics required for long-term political success”.

New threats to liberalism have emerged this century.

Kemp makes the important point that Treasurer Keating and Prime Minister Bob Hawke did not come to Government in 1983 promising to open up the economy, but the push towards deregulation from a number of sources provided enough weight to drive policy in that direction. One of those sources was the Dries in the Liberal Party, who had made little progress with advancing their free-market agenda under Prime Minister Fraser, but whose ideas were to prosper on both sides of politics during the balance of the 1980s. The Dries had become more prominent in the latter years of the Fraser Government, participating in the Crossroads Group, the name derived from the title of a 1980 book, Australia at the Crossroads, written by a group of economists and social scientists.

Kemp, who worked for Fraser at the time, but had obvious sympathy for the Dries, provided a willing link between the two, attending meetings of the Crossroads Group with Fraser’s blessing and welcomed by the Dries, due to his “own support for liberal economic and social policies”. Kemp captures the drive of the group when he writes that “a romantic camaraderie and ethos bound the parliamentary dries and the Crossroads Group members together”. They were left “frustrated and angered” by Fraser’s refusal to lower protection or alter restrictive practices, such as the two-airline policy, but their influence on policy over the next two decades was profound.

Kemp is clearly disappointed when the Liberal Party strays from being the exemplar of the liberal project.

As well as liberalising economics in the 1980s and 1990s, Australian governments in this period had the opportunity to build on the liberal project in other ways. The absence of Indigenous Australians from this project had been constantly noted by Kemp in earlier volumes. The 1967 referendum provided important recognition and the 1992 High Court Mabo Judgement provided another important opportunity for extending the spread of Australian liberalism. Kemp is critical of the John Hewson-led Liberal Party, of which he was a member, for opposing the Keating Government’s legislation following the Mabo decision. He argues that the Liberal Party failed to appreciate what Keating, and some Liberals, had recognised, that native title provided “the best opportunity for bringing the descendants of the first peoples fully into the nation of Australia and embracing them in a new and evolving national identity”.

Kemp is clearly disappointed when the Liberal Party strays from being the exemplar of the liberal project. He is sceptical of John Howard and Tony Abbott’s use of the term ‘conservative’ in relation to the Liberal Party, arguing that ‘conservative’ was “a description never used by Menzies” to describe the party he formed and in addition was “one that had little resonance historically in Australian politics”. However, Kemp acknowledges that one of the factors which drove Howard to use the term in the 1990s was that the country had advanced so far in a liberal direction that “conservative anxieties were high”. As with the other two post-Federation volumes in the series, federal politics understandably takes a dominant position compared to the States, but Kemp provides important insights about State politics. For instance, he perfectly captures the outlook of 1970s Victorian Premier Dick Hamer as “a product of the Melbourne moral middle class”.

Kemp provides succinct descriptions of the reforms undertaken by the Greiner Government in NSW and the Kennett Government in Victoria, noting the support Kennett received from his Treasurer, Alan Stockdale, who combined the benefits of having “a developed liberal philosophy based on his reading of Hayek” and being an experienced industrial lawyer. In the past decade, a NSW Liberal Government with a less well-developed liberal philosophy attempted to ban greyhound racing and oversaw a “truncation of traditional rights” of a whole class of people on the basis that “the morality of members of parliament was too weak to resist corruption”.

Sydney, mid-1960s. Still from Life in Australia: Sydney made by The Commonwealth Film Unit, 1966.
Source: NFSA Films/YouTube

The pandemic of 2020-21 raised State politicians to a prominence they had not held for a considerable time. Kemp is critical of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s designation of a ‘national cabinet’ on the grounds it had none of a cabinet’s proper features. In broader terms, he links decisions made about the handling of the pandemic back to the term ‘utopian’ which he used to describe much 19th century anti-liberal action. As elements of the body politic sought the utopian goal of the complete elimination of the virus, “the fundamental liberal moral principle of the supremacy of the individual was discarded in acts of cruelty and subordinated to the supremacy and arbitrary rule-making of officialdom”.

Kemp sees similar strands of utopian thinking in demands for action on climate change at the expense of all other issues, and in calls for “relief from racial and gender oppression” which would require “radical social and cultural reconstruction”. Kemp is concerned about the current trend “to tilt the balance between collective identities and the interests of individuals in their freedom in favour of the former”. He draws a link between support for identity politics and the advent of social media, arguing Twitter “quickly became the electronic version of the mob … instead of persuasion and deliberation—core democratic values—the pursuit of righteous ideological rigidity favours shamings, takedowns, and outright abuse”.

Across his work’s five volumes, Kemp has related how “the liberal project has flourished in Australia” but — just as importantly—demonstrated this has not been an unchallenged triumph.

Progress has occurred, despite the ongoing presence of “illiberal prejudice and ideology”, and of events including wars, depressions, and pandemics which have provided fertile ground for liberalism’s enemies to counterattack.

The three decades between the 1960s and 1990s were, in Kemp’s view, a period when “Australian culture and its economic and social life had been liberalised to a remarkable extent”. Given that fact, perhaps it is not surprising this century has seen a stagnation in that progress, as new threats to liberalism have emerged.

Yet, despite current concerns, Kemp concludes by reminding his readers that Australian liberal democracy has constantly demonstrated “great adaptability in challenging circumstances”.

Kemp’s magnum opus has provided the testament that Australian liberal democracy so richly deserves.

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