Small ‘l’ Liberals

1 August 2015
Small ‘l’ Liberals - Featured image

Victoria was once ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Liberal Party. As well as providing six of the first seven Federal leaders of the party, the Victorian Liberal Party held power in its own right at state level for 27 years, from 1955 to 1982.

Just as federally Robert Menzies’ successors are often treated as footnotes to the era which bears his name, so in Victoria there is a tendency to associate the era of state Liberal dominance with Henry Bolte, and overlook the significance of what followed. That is a serious oversight.

The fact that this biography by veteran Age journalist Tim Colebatch is the first on Bolte’s successor, Dick Hamer, emphasises the neglect. Not only was Hamer premier in his own right for nine years, but the break between this period and the earlier Bolte era was stark. As Colebatch writes, when Hamer assumed the premiership in August 1972, it was ‘as if he were leading a new government’.

It must be remembered that Bolte’s electoral success was as much the product of the split in the Labor Party as of any particular genius on behalf of the Victorian Liberals. The fact that the DLP vote in Victoria reached almost 17 per cent in 1961 was due to a massive transference of previous Labor support, by way of preferences, to the Liberals. Moreover, the removal of the majority of the Catholic Right from the ALP, left the ALP in the hands of an unelectable left-wing rump for a couple of decades.

The effects of the split were wearing off when Hamer took over as leader of the opposition. Not only was the DLP vote declining rapidly, but federal intervention in the Victorian ALP contributed at the 1972 federal election to Labor winning a majority of the two-party preferred (2PP) vote in the state for the first time since 1954. Yet, just five months later at the May 1973 state election, Hamer’s Liberals managed to rack up over 55 per cent of the 2PP vote, a feat he repeated three years later.

The superficial paradox of a significant slice of voters supporting Whitlam Labor federally and Hamer Liberals at state level is explained by the fact that much of Hamer’s agenda—with its focus on issues like conservation and the arts —was in fact a milder form of Whitlam’s agenda.

Hamer epitomised the concept of what was called ‘small “l” liberalism’—a phrase which has been more confusing than enlightening. Certainly, the Hamer government delivered some reforms which were truly liberal. It overturned restrictions on margarine and bingo, ended the death penalty, and initiated homosexual law reform.

But while increasing freedom in certain ways, Hamer curtailed it in others, going down the illiberal path of creating a bigger and more assertive government. Public sector spending, which had started to increase in Bolte’s final two years, exploded under Hamer. Victorian government outlays as a share of national GDP went from 2.12 per cent in 1969-70 to

Just like Whitlam, Hamer’s program hit the wall of economic reality when the economy tanked in 1974. Hamer became a particularly strong critic of the post-1975 attempts of the Fraser federal government to rein in spending, regularly complaining about the Fraser’s ‘fight inflation first strategy’ and arguing for a more Keynesian approach.

Hamer remained determined to focus on ‘quality of life’, rather than just economic prosperity, but there was the inherent risk that his conception of quality of life might be different from that of many citizens. In an era of significant industrial unrest, the key determinants of quality of life for Victorians were often whether the electricity workers, or train drivers, were on strike or not.

Colebatch is astute enough to recognise the failings of the more difficult later years of Hamer’s premiership, which were beset with scandals over land deals and maverick behaviour from his own MPs.

However, at other times, the author’s personal sympathy for the Hamer agenda is a little too obvious. For Colebatch, the people pushing the ‘small “l” liberal agenda’ in the 1970s were ‘young idealists’. Actually, they tended to be political pragmatists wanting the Liberal Party to always perpetually chase the political centre to achieve electoral success. The true idealists were those pushing political agendas which were not so popular at the time, the sort of people whom Colebatch badges as ‘free-market ideologues’.

Colebatch also draws a very odd comparison between historic and contemporary needs to be seen to ‘do something’. Citing an example from Hamer’s years in the army in the Second World War, he observes that in the military, the need to be seen to be taking some sort of positive action often resulted in men being sent to futile deaths for no strategic advantage. He then compares this with modern executives in government and business cutting jobs to save money. Particularly in the case of government, this would seem the reverse of a more common reality. More often than they cut, governments spend more money on programs, not because they genuinely believe they will fix problems, but just to be seen to ‘do something’.

In fact, Colebatch himself provides a good example of how once governments become committed to big projects they find it hard to walk away and prevent the financial bleeding. Hamer’s signature project was building the second stage of the Arts Centre on the south bank of the Yarra River. The Builders Labourers’ Federation saw that his commitment to the project made him a soft touch for excessive demands for both increased pay and ludicrously generous conditions. Rather than taking on the unions, Hamer acquiesced and cost Victorian taxpayers millions of dollars.

The author has personal connections with the Hamer family, which must have made his task as a biographer difficult at times. Early in the book, some of Colebatch’s descriptions border on hagiography. Hamer is described glowingly in almost every regard, not just for his undoubted successes as student, lawyer and soldier, but also for things he could have done, such as the comment ‘he would have made a superb diplomat’. Yet, Colebatch does not shirk the responsibility of recording some difficult personal details in the concluding chapters, which helps reestablish a greater sense of objectivity.

On the dust jacket, there is a quote from John Cain saying that this political biography is ‘arguably the best produced in Australia in the last 40 years’. While that claim may be hyperbole, this book does have significant merits. For starters, it is an all too rare serious work about state politics. Secondly, Colebatch has lived through and reported on many of the events he describes and thus avoids the sort of egregious factual errors that have bedeviled several recent Australian political biographies.

Colebatch’s work deserves to be read, not just by Victorians but by a national audience, because there is much in this book which helps the reader to understand the trajectory of political ideas in Australia from the 1970s to the present.

Hamer, like many 1970s modernisers, spent much of his retirement criticising the direction of politics and society. As well as showcasing the irony of modernisers disliking modernity, this book reminds us all what a mixed bag of contradictory ideas 1970s ‘small “l” liberalism’ really was. Obviously, that was not Colebatch’s intention, but it is a tribute to the overall quality of his work that he has presented enough of the requisite raw material to allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

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