Dries founder John Hyde deserves honour and still shows the best path forward for our nation, writes former IPA executive director Mike Nahan.
John Hyde—former executive director of the IPA and leader of ‘the Dries’—received an Order of Australia (general division) in the 2023 Honours List –a timely and deserved honour. John received the honour for services to the community under a range of roles, but primarily for a life dedicated to the pursuit of good government and freedom. John is a modest man. When congratulated for his gong he replied others deserve it more. I disagree.
John played an incredibly important role in promoting the policies that have transformed our nation over the last four decades and upon which our current prosperity rests. Other politicians—in particular prime ministers Hawke, Keating, and Howard—have been given the lion’s share of the credit, and while they deserve the accolades their success was built upon ground laid by John and his Dries.
By the early 1980s, John and fellow Dries were winning the battle of ideas within the Liberal Party.
John began life as a successful wheat and sheep farmer in Western Australia’s wheatbelt, but his farming career came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s when he lost an arm in a tussle with a header. He had to literally retool as he had lost his writing hand and needed to learn to write with his left, which was not very successful—luckily, laptop computers became available. He decided to do something completely different: change the nation for the better!
John always had a fascination for ideas, philosophy, and politics. Those long hours driving the flat expanse of WA’s wheatbelt gave him plenty of time to think. His introduction to politics was through local government. As a successful Western Australian farmer, he also had first-hand experience of the debilitating impact of current government policies including agricultural marketing boards, high tariffs, and inefficient port and rail systems.
John became greatly attracted to the thoughts, writing, and approach of Bert Kelly: the Liberal Member for Wakefield in South Australia who wrote a newspaper column titled ‘The Modest Member’, and was a persistent and often solitary voice against protectionism. John decided to follow in Bert’s footsteps. In 1974 he was elected to the Seat of Moore in Western Australia. Like Bert, John did not follow the usual path of budding politicians. He made no attempt to climb the grease poll in Canberra. Indeed, he became a persistent internal critic of the illiberal policies of his party and government. Like Bert, John’s criticisms were well argued, evidence based, made fairly, and within the rules and done with humour and no rancour. He also refused to join in distributing ‘pork’, even to his own electorate. When constituents complained about being poorly represented, John would quote Edmund Burke:
Parliament is not a Congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests … parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole … not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good …
John also walked the talk on policy. A favourite story relates to a levy on wheelchairs. The government decided to introduce a broad-based sales tax, including on wheelchairs. The surgeon who had amputated John’s arm led a demonstration by people in wheelchairs in front of parliament house. John decided it was his job to defend the decision. While he was addressing the crowd, the government reversed its decision. John was not for changing, he stuck to his position and publicly criticised the government for backing down.
Somehow, and thankfully, John was re-elected trice.
In many ways, John’s greatest skill was networking. He pulled together a group of what he called fellow Dries within the party room to help strengthen his and Bert’s efforts. He sought out people of like mind in the bureaucracy, academia, business associations, media, think tanks, the private sector, and other political parties. He developed contacts with overseas groups pursuing a similar path. He picked their brains, sought their assistance, and pulled them into his cause. He helped make it a movement, rather than the shouting of a couple of lonely men.
Under John Hyde’s watch the IPA played a major role in keeping the focus on reform.
JM Keynes famously said “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves to some defunct economist”. John acted as an agent and filter for these influences. John also greatly widened the scope of his and Bert’s interest from industry protection to a comprehensive remake of what journalist Paul Kelly labelled the ‘Australian Settlement’.
John helped organise a seminal document in 1980, Australia at the Crossroads, co-authored by Wolfgang Kasper, John Freebairn, Doug Hocking, Richard Blandy, and Robert O’Neill. Crossroads articulated the need for and an agenda of reform and presented the Dries’ game plan. It made the case for free trade, deregulation of the financial system, sound money, an independent reserve bank, balanced budget and fiscal restraint, privatisation, competition policy, tax reform, targeted welfare, health insurance, competitive federalism, and freeing up the labour market. In short, John and the Dries argued for a velvet or peaceful revolution.
The need for change was increasingly apparent. The old settlement was crumbling. Despite Australia’s huge resource endowment, innovative people, and being in the fastest-growing region in the world, its economy and the opportunities that come with it were in relative decline. Australia’s GDP per capita had shrunk from 132 per cent of the OECD average in 1950 to 125 per cent in 1980 (reaching a low of 89 per cent in 1992); it had a chronic current account deficit and rising unemployment .
Despite the decline, resistance to change was profound, coming from the many powerful interests vested in the status quo: protected industries, unions, owners of quota rights, slackers in government business, populist politicians, and regulation agencies. It greatly helped that other countries with similar societies to ours including the UK and New Zealand were similarly in decline and edging towards a similar agenda of reform. We were hardly alone in the need for a large dose of economic freedom.
By the early 1980s, John and fellow Dries were winning the battle of ideas within the Liberal Party—in particular, with John Howard. Indeed, Howard had in government begun a process of reform—restrained by Fraser and his fellow wets. In 1983—not surprising, given the swing against the Liberal Party and John’s unique approach to local politics—John lost his seat. Six other Dries also lost their seats and commentators were predicting the demise of reform. But in came the Hawke Government, who by its end implemented every one of the reforms recommended by the Crossroads Group and the Dries.
I do not wish to take anything away from Hawke and Keating. Real leadership involves changing the mindset of supporters and the nation, and they did that brilliantly. However, their task was helped greatly by the Liberal opposition’s principled support. The Liberals took the right lesson from their situation. They had had their chance in Government and blew it, and when in government next were committed to taking back the mantle of reform.
Hawke’s reform task was aided and abetted by reformist think tanks, media commentators, academics, and industry groups. After losing his seat, John joined their ranks. He became a columnist, penning more than 750 articles. He established a new think tank—the Australian Institute of Public Policy (AIPP). He continued to badger his former colleagues in the Liberal Party to stay the course, and was fulsome in his praise of Hawke’s reforms. He continued networking with fellow travellers here and abroad.
In the early 1990s, the AIPP combined with the IPA and John became the executive director. Under his watch the IPA played a major role in keeping the focus on reform after the demise of the Fightback reforms; the decline of reformist zeal of the Keating Governments; and importantly at the State level—in particular, the Kennett revolution in Victoria.
He retired back to the farm in 1996, but not from the fight. John continued as a trusted advisor to me when I replaced him at the IPA. He continued to be a vocal advocate for reform. He wrote a brilliant book, Dry: In Defence of Economic Freedom, published in 2002 by the IPA and still available via the IPA website as a downloadable PDF. In keeping with the man, he did not write about himself but the history and the process of reform, giving credit fairly and criticism pointedly but pleasantly.
John’s legacy is not just in the adoption of the reforms he championed, but their success. Unique among OECD countries, Australia has avoided a recession for 30 years and our GDP per capita recovered to exceed 1950 levels. Australia has reached full employment. We have been able to take advantage of the China-driven commodity booms, and become a more open and competitive nation.
Regrettably, this success has bred a prevailing sense of complacency and entitlement which is eroding Australia’s future potential. Real reform has been off the agenda for decades. What is worse, the core belief of the old settlement—that government knows best—is back in vogue.
Maybe John’s greatest legacy will be to show the path that others may follow.