Liberal Speaks Volumes

21 October 2019
Liberal Speaks Volumes - Featured image

This article from the October 2019 IPA Review is by IPA Senior Fellow, Richard Allsop.

At a March 1901 banquet in London celebrating the Federation of the Australian colonies, British Liberal Party leader Sir Henry Campbell- Bannerman described Australia as “a picture of true Liberalism”.

In many ways, Campbell-Bannerman was correct. From unlikely beginnings in 1788, the British Settlement of Australia had delivered a free, tolerant, democratic and economically prosperous society. It had done so largely by following the principles of liberalism.

However, the picture of a truly liberal Australia was also blurred in several ways. From the start in 1788, the application of liberal principles to the rights of the Indigenous population had been a conspicuous failure. More recently, the closing decades of the 19th century had witnessed a growing illiberalism with nationalism, imperialism and protectionism all on the rise.

The concept of telling the Australian story through the prism of liberalism, whether in the ascendant or under threat, is an inspired one. It is probably fair to say that only David Kemp—with his lifetime of focus on liberal causes as an academic, adviser and member of parliament—could have seen the potential of such a work and had the knowledge, understanding and writing ability to bring it to fruition. There will be five volumes in total, with the first two published to date telling the tale from 1788 to 1901. Both are outstanding.

Across these first two volumes, Kemp not only provides a refreshingly different telling of the Australian historical narrative, but also places everything that happens in Australia in the broader context of the intellectual environment of the times. He seamlessly combines both political and intellectual history, recognising “the role of knowledge and ideas is … a central aspect of the story of liberalism”. Political developments in Australia were heavily influenced by colonial activists, many recent immigrants, who read the new books of ideas and devoured the newspaper reports of political events taking place in Britain, Europe and the United States. Kemp explains the influence of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Henry George and many others. The widely divergent proscriptions of these writers were reflected in the debates of “real substance” between 19th century Australian liberals, debates which had “major implications for the building of a society that expressed liberal values”. In turn, developments and writing from Australia contributed to political debates in Britain and elsewhere.

The British Settlement of New South Wales had taken place at a time when there were two competing visions of how government should operate. A strong conservative view still saw the role of the state as protecting existing interests. This was under challenge from those who believed a lot more needed to be done to promote a concept of the public interest, most radically by drawing more and more citizens into the political realm and making the structures of governance more democratic.

For the first seven decades after 1788, there was little democracy in the governance of the Australian colonies. Executive power resided in a governor appointed in London, power which was only slightly moderated by the gradual development of local legislative councils. However, Kemp argues that crucially most governors “were men who tended to support the more reformist and liberal, rather than the more conservative and aristocratic, ideas of their age”. The tone was set early by the first governor, Arthur Phillip, whose values reflected Enlightenment thought. He received permission to grant land to freed convicts, thus creating an incentive for good behaviour and a way forward to economic growth. In the 1830s, Governor Richard Bourke took important steps towards securing religious toleration. Kemp describes Bourke as “not only a political and an economic liberal” but also “liberal in religious matters”. He passed a Church Act which did not establish the Church of England, but provided support for all dominations.

As the colonies developed, more and more liberals became determined to end transportation, seeing it as inherently
inconsistent with the sort of free society they hoped would develop in the antipodes. The anti-transportation agitation led to increasing demands for self-government for the colonies. The British political environment of the 1840s—which began receiving requests for self-government from the Australian colonies—was very different to the one American colonies had come up against when they sought self-government in the 1770s. At that time, the British establishment had refused to countenance any degree of independence. In contrast, Kemp argues:

… the constitutional achievement of the British and Australian liberals in the mid-19th century was to secure for Australia ‘independence within the empire’, which meant, in practice, complete independence in relation to the domestic policies of the colonies, with external polices subject to imperial interests.

Furthermore, the liberal project not only delivered self-government, but also the most advanced democratic institutions in the world at the time.

Having achieved self-government, a major issue for colonial liberal politicians was land reform, striving to fulfil “the dream of the liberal reformers … that the land should be in the possession of the many rather than the few”. Battles between squatters and selectors over the right to occupy land became a staple of the political contest.Later in the century, liberals debated whether there should be a continuation of state aid to denominational schools once a system of free and secular government schools had been established. When Victoria became the first state to provide such schools after the passing of the 1872 Education Act the answer was a definitive no, as was to be the case in New South Wales eight years later. However, part of the reason why it took New South Wales those extra years to move in that direction was that multiple- time Premier Henry Parkes, despite being a dedicated secularist, feared such a system of government schools might create a sense of grievance among Catholics. This proved to be the case until the issue of State Aid was revisited in the 1960s.

The ability to settle on their own domestic polices led one colony, Victoria, to deviate from what had been regarded as a central premise of liberalism, free trade. Somehow, the Victorian Protectionists managed to paint this deviation as an example of true liberalism and to brand their pro-free-trade opponents as conservatives.

The rise of Protectionism in Victoria was very much the work of one individual, David Syme, the proprietor of the Melbourne Age and author of an influential book, Outlines of an Industrial Science. Since the days of Adam Smith, the majority of those studying political economy had accepted that enlightened self-interest could produce the twin goods of prosperity and a free society. However, this belief was “repugnant to Syme’s Calvinist morality” and he developed his own Protectionist and nationalist ideology which he “expressed with dogmatic certainty and moralistic fervour”.

If Protectionism was one obvious threat to previous liberal norms, others began to emerge in the final decades of the 19th century. Kemp cleverly packages these threats together under the broad term ‘utopianism’, an umbrella which covers the ideas of “socialists … the Marxists and other romantics”, all of whom “promoted ideal worlds whose realisation was beyond reach”. One particularly influential utopian writer was the American Edward Bellamy, whose 1888 novel, Looking Backward 2000-1887 sold more than one million copies, was translated into 20 languages and, in Kemp’s words, was “one of those remarkable phenomena that occur from time to time in the history of the influence of ideas on current politics”. As the utopian ideas of Bellamy and others became more prevalent in Australian political debates, “fundamental features of the liberal framework would be distorted and sacrificed and the nation wounded by the imagery of an industrial class war”.

That liberalism was under attack could be considered strange given the success achieved in Australia. As Kemp argues, adherence to key liberal values created in Australasia “possibly the wealthiest and the most materially and culturally egalitarian and moral societies the world had ever seen”. Paradoxically, perhaps, the very prosperity of Australia gave the new trade unions the capacity to become “the most highly coordinated union movement in the world to that time”.

Kemp details the big industrial disputes of the 1890s, which seemed to end in victory for the employers. However, victory was pyrrhic. The actual growth in union power was reflected in the passing in New South Wales in 1901 of an Industrial Arbitration Bill which entrenched the status of unionism above the rights of employers and employees to forge individual contracts. The wide range of support for this bill, even from within elements of the Free Trade Party, demonstrated what a “public relations disaster for the employers that their victory in the maritime and shearers’ strikes” had been. Kemp argues the time of the great strikes of 1890-91 was when “the principles and concepts of the classical liberals sought to defend … lost support”.

Those classical liberal principles and concepts had delivered many positives to the Australian continent, but the great failure of the liberal project in Australia had been its inability to defend the rights of Indigenous Australia. As Kemp writes, the early settlers faced “one inescapable human challenge to their liberalism” which was the fact the land had “already been settled before the British arrived”. Across the Tasman Sea, the Treaty of Waitangi provided an example of an “attempt by the liberals … to protect the rights of the Indigenous people”, something “the British Government had equally failed to do in mainland New South Wales”.

From the start, many of the more enlightened Governors and their officials had tried to mitigate the damage being done to the Indigenous population. Even when speared by a local Aboriginal, Governor Phillip “had not deviated from what he saw as his humane mission to treat the natives with dignity”. Similarly, later Governors such as Bourke and George Gipps attempted to protect Indigenous communities by giving Crown Land commissioners the role of protectors. However, this system failed due to many settlers on the frontier refusing to accept that the Indigenous population had any rights. To underline this point, Kemp details recent research which has identified more than 200 massacres of groups of five or more Indigenous people.

Later in the 19th century, liberal thought became infected with more collectivist ideas and nowhere was this more damaging than in attitudes to race. This happened around the world, but there were influential Australian examples such as the writer Charles Pearson, who promoted ideas of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. Modern science has proved these ideas to be nonsense, but the fact they were for many years considered credible “distorted Australian political debate” and did enormous harm to prospects of respectful treatment of Indigenous Australians. At Federation, the failure of two states, Queensland and Western Australia, to allow votes to the Indigenous population was, in Kemp’s words, “a significant erosion of the Enlightenment commitment to the proposition ‘all men are created equal’.”

The great laissez-faire thinker Herbert Spencer pointed out how unjust British justice could be as “native tribes who retaliate on Englishman by whom they have been injured, are punished, not on their own savage principle of a life for a life, but on the improved civilised principle of wholesale massacre in return for a single murder”. Spencer, and other British liberals, opposed the growth of imperialism, which went together with growing notions of racial superiority. These notions also affected immigration policy as the Australian colonies restriced Chinese and other non-white immigrants. There were honourable exceptions to this growing racist consensus, such as Free Trade politician and writer, Bruce Smith. As Kemp comments:

Bruce Smith’s Spencerian moral individualism was to lead him to oppose strongly the White Australia policy and the policies of immigration restriction. He did so not only out of his contempt for the racial prejudice that he believed lay behind some of the support but also his rejection of the narrowly nationalist, protectionist economic assumptions that attracted many.

The support for immigration restriction and Protection were part of a growing move towards an unattractive form of new Australian nationalism: not a nationalism of quiet pride in Australian achievement, but rather a “parochial and inward-looking” nationalism which “focused on the restriction of interaction with the rest of the world”.

By the time of Federation in 1901, the broad liberal consensus which had driven Australia’s remarkable progress in the 19th century was breaking down. Where volume one of Kemp’s work describes how liberal principles created a prosperous and successful society, much of the task of volume two lies in explaining how the country lurched away from those principles, showing “an almost careless disregard of philosophical ideas that had underpinned the development of Australia to that point”. Yet liberalism was still strong enough in the 1890s to produce a process for working towards Federation and an outcome which reflected many of the best elements of a liberal society. Achieving Federation took a full decade for—although there was general acceptance the colonies were “already model liberal societies”—reflecting that liberal creed in a new federal constitution was no easy task.

While “all assumed the validity” of what Kemp calls the “liberal project”, within that label there were broad enough differences for delegates to the constitutional conventions to label other delegates with descriptions ranging from conservatives and reactionaries at one end, to radicals and extreme democrats at the other. Even within the ranks of the Free Trade liberals, the likes of Parkes and George Reid, NSW premier from 1894 to 1899, disagreed what priority be given to Federation. Parkes saw Federation as the main priority and hoped if it were led by NSW, this would produce a pro-free trade outcome. Reid wanted “to convert the protectionists colonies to the free trade cause” before embarking on Federation.

Kemp quotes the view of contemporary British Liberal and constitutional expert James Bryce, whose 1888 work American Commonwealth already was considered a classic, that the Australian constitution was an outstanding representation of liberal values. However, Kemp notes this was something of a last hurrah as “the Constitution was the product of almost the last moments of the liberal consensus, when the founders still had the capacity to fight off parochial and conservative special interests, and a rising but still relatively weak Labour Party with its emerging yet vibrant illiberalism”.

The politicians of the 1890s still may have had enough liberalism to produce a sound constitution but Kemp notes “a significant part of the social capital of liberal Australia, accumulated over many decades, was about to be expended”. For Kemp, the death of the great British Liberal leader William Gladstone in May 1898 symbolised the end of an era. The scourges of imperialism and nationalism which Gladstone had fought against were on the rise and Australia’s post-Federation response was “an amalgam of restrictions against the world that hastened the erosion of the liberal society and Australians’ freedom”.

By the 19th century’s end, liberalism had made Australia a country subject to the rule of law and with arguably the world’s most advanced democracy. It had also produced an economy that delivered prosperity on an unprecedented scale, shared in a more egalitarian manner than anywhere else. However, as Kemp argues, these successes were threatened by a “new morality”, one “which gave precedence to collective success at the expense of the ability of individuals to define their own missions in life”.

Readers of these first two magnificent volumes will eagerly await Kemp’s analysis of just how much damage this ‘new morality’ did to Australia, and indeed the world, in the early decades of the 20th century.

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