The ‘teal’ phenomenon highlights the contest of values within Australia’s liberal tradition, argues IPA Research Fellow Andrew Kemp.
On the election night of May 21, 2022, I like to think that a ghostly chuckle quivered down the upper hallway of the Auburn Hotel, above the euphoric roars of Monique Ryan’s victory party as the independent candidate claimed the federal electorate of Kooyong. Hovering above the dark swirl carpeting of The Boardroom floats the spirit of Alfred Deakin, three times prime minister of Australia as leader of the Liberal Protectionists, his finely trimmed beard and sensitive eyes unmistakable. He is quite satisfied by the results. In fact, more than satisfied. The ‘teal’ independents are Alfred Deakin’s revenge.
After COVID-19 upended our society, the ascendency of the teals to the Federal Parliament has upended the Liberal Party. In important ways they are linked, revealing the tension of two liberal traditions in the Australian story: the Victorian Deakinite tradition, and the free trade liberalism historically associated with New South Wales. Arguments over community welfare and individual rights during the pandemic echo the clash of principles of bygone debates that have shaped our nation, but which remain relevant to today.
Kooyong has long been a hotspot for liberal activity and debate. Not far from the Auburn Hotel, Deakin spoke to the Hawthorn Liberal Association at St Columb’s Church in 1895 on a topic of continuing importance: ‘What is Liberalism?’
Throughout the 19th century, Deakin argued, the Liberal party in Britain had opposed class privileges and were committed to their removal. By design, liberalism was destructive, tearing down the coercive forces of State-sponsored privilege. It wanted “equality of political rights without reference to creed, and equality of legal rights without consideration of wealth or quality”.
As new social problems emerged, a different kind of liberalism was required, a “reconstructive element” as Deakin called it. Minimum wage laws, factory legislation—these were the new frontiers of a modern, progressive community, and the Victorian parliament was debating these very issues as he spoke.
Tied to Deakin’s social program was a conviction that politics had to be conducted the right way. In November 1900, as Australia prepared for federation, Deakin addressed a meeting of the Australian Natives Association and bestowed upon his audience the responsibility of ensuring “that the path to the Federal Parliament was made easy for the right man, and steep and difficult for the unfit and unsuitable”.
The right man was the representative whose outlook was national in scope, “men with large, liberal and enlightened ideas”, who put the public interest before political or personal interests. Deakin was an idealist, and he wanted a parliament of idealists.
So too did the teal independents run, and win, on a platform of idealism and state activism. According to one volunteer they are founded on “a different philosophy” from the major parties and “we want to look after long-term interests rather than party interests”. They present as a grassroots movement, explicitly representing local communities, but communities whose values appear to be national in spirit and aim, supported in the background by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200.
Alfred Deakin believed in a reconstructive liberalism.
Much has been written about a global trend that has seen inner-city localities shift towards the progressive-left, and the pandemic appears to have accelerated this trend. In Kooyong, disaffected citizens on Facebook groups were activated into political advocacy by late 2021, pushed along by the claustrophobic solitariness of six Victorian lockdowns.
The draconian measures enforced by the State government required a unity of purpose and compliance for their success. What emerged was the idea that the individual’s interest to stay safe was also the community’s interest. If that unity was questioned, reactions were aggressive and visceral, particularly on social media. The apparent risk to the greater good from individuals became magnified, shifting the language of our politics to something more absolute, as it tried to recapture some abstract sense of a general will (in the Rousseau-ean sense of the term). Indeed, the election and the pandemic reveal a curiosity about Australian political culture: we don’t trust political parties, but we very much trust the institutions to look after us.
This supports the often-put idea that Australia is fundamentally a ‘Benthamite’ society. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of Utilitarianism—the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’—and a mentor of John Stuart Mill. The Utilitarian philosophy flowered just as Australian culture was forming, with lasting effects. In this mould the Victorian Premier said in defending his government’s pandemic laws, “It is not about human rights. It is about human life.”
Not everyone agreed. The then-premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, promised “a different way forward”, and her successor Dominic Perrottet, memorably declared “we can’t live here in a hermit kingdom. We’ve got to open up”. This use of ‘hermit’ echoed that by the liberal academic Edward Shann in his 1930 book Economic History of Australia, in which he castigated the policies of protection and self-reliance of the 1920s as “seemingly designed to make our economy a hermit one”.
Shann’s was a lonely voice of another liberal tradition once distinguished by its geographical affinity to NSW and its free trade liberalism. This is the liberal tradition historically in contest with the Deakinite tradition. In the final quarter of the 19th century, the division of free trade and protection—Victorian liberals typically championing the latter—was a high stakes contest over Australia’s future. More than a disagreement over import duties, these two traditions were vying for the very soul of Australian liberalism.
What I call the Victorian liberal tradition has contributed to a supremely democratic culture to Australian politics, progressive in its policies, majoritarian in its ethos. It is Bentham on steroids, and it is a tradition that came to the fore during the pandemic, and perhaps also among the starry-eyed teal activists. The NSW tradition represents an older liberalism, more identifiably British, democratic but not aggressively so, and a little more attuned to the notion of rights.
THE VICTORIAN LIBERAL TRADITION
As Alfred Deakin was preaching a ‘reconstructive’ liberalism in 1895, to walk through the streets of Melbourne that year was to see its constructive nature first-hand.
Tariff protection, the foundation stone of colonial liberalism, was said to have delivered a manufacturing prowess to Victoria previously unimaginable: the “foundries, engineering works, rope works, factories, breweries, timber yards, saw-mills” of South Melbourne, as the visitor Josiah Hughes marvelled at in 1891, but also the clothing and boot-making factories of Collingwood, and the chemical works, metal industries and tanneries to the west. The visiting British Liberal Charles Dilke observed in the late 1860s that there was an ambition and energy to the Victorians, but also “a defiant way of taking care of themselves and ignoring their neighbours”.
There was an urgency to the cause of protection, borne out of the social conflict and economic tumult arising from the gold rush. The boom had delivered people and prosperity, but left a sea of idle workers. Local industries struggled to compete against the rising tide of foreign imports, and were powerless to contain rising domestic costs. The reality of ‘naked competition’ was failing, argued a young David Syme, editor of The Age, in 1860: “Our manufacturers or mechanics are prevented from even making a beginning in the work of opening up new sources of industry among us.”
Victoria grew an assertive majoritarian tradition.
Tariff Reform Leagues and Associations began to grow, and within several years parliamentary conflict erupted. A deadlock arose in 1865 between the Legislative Assembly, founded on manhood suffrage, and the Legislative Council, protected by a heavily restricted franchise, after the governing party in the Assembly ‘tacked’ a tariff revision to the Appropriation Bill, preventing the Upper House from amending it. The premier James McCulloch dared the Council to reject it along with the ordinary expenditure of government; to do so would initiate an effective government shutdown.
The Council held its ground and the Assembly backed down—an extraordinary episode that radicalised a generation and transformed the colony’s political life. “Class animosity and political feud runs much higher, and drives its roots far deeper into private life in Victoria than in any other English-speaking country I have seen,” wrote Dilke. Old friends were shunned. Social groups segregated along political lines. Alfred Deakin, then a student, later recalled “engaging in school conflicts upon the Free Trade versus Protection issue which was then dividing the country”. It was his earliest political memory.
Out of these eruptions grew an assertive and majoritarian democratic tradition. The failure of the Assembly to carry out its mandate was regarded by its supporters as a systemic failure of the British mixed-government model, and persuaded the liberal radicals to conceive of a new system in which popular sovereignty was paramount. “The tariff assumes far more importance than would belong to it as a simple measure of fiscal reform,” The Age editorialised in 1865, as it was now about “the right of the people to tax themselves through their representatives”.
The public interest became synonymous with the supposed majority interest. The effect was to induce new methods of political mobilisation and a more modern, party-oriented democratic politics. The exemplar of this new era was Graham Berry, the lean cockney immigrant who developed a reputation as a fiery platform orator. Several years before the British prime minister William Gladstone pioneered new methods of mass politics with his Midlothian stumping tour, Berry was stumping on his own and for other candidates. He also organised Australia’s first mass political party in the National Reform and Protection League, which from its birth was labelled the (Victorian) Liberal Party.
To the dismay of the old laissez-faire liberals, a new kind of democratic despotism appeared to take hold. As Premier, Berry initiated a second deadlock in 1877, sacking public servants, judges, and police magistrates—many of whom were his opponents. “Stop Anarchy”, a Crown prosecutor cabled to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The radical politician Charles Pearson later remarked that “we were in the midst of such bitter party strife as to be almost on the verge of a civil war”. A mandate by the people—by the majority—could seemingly justify extraordinary acts.
David Syme would formalise his ideal of democracy in Representative Government in England (1881), which viewed the politician as little more than a delegate to his constituents, rejecting the ‘trustee’ role of the politician championed by Edmund Burke. For Syme, the great policy battles of the day went beyond the empirics of what worked and what did not, but struck at the very legitimacy of the system: would the will of the people, through the Legislative Assembly, control their own destiny without the obstinacy of the Legislative Council blocking the way?
NSW fought to remain open to the world.
By osmosis the intellectual fallout from these debates coloured the next generation of leaders, foremost of whom was Alfred Deakin, sponsored and supported by Syme. Deakin would define a ‘Colonial Liberal’ to be “one who favours State interference with liberty and industry at the pleasure and in the interest of the majority”.
Another political tradition was inclined to disagree.
THE NSW TRADITION
In 1900 the NSW businessman and Free Trade politician William McMillan wrote:
I might say to Mr Deakin, who evidently fears the inroad into the Federal Parliament of a large body of illiberal statesmen from New South Wales, brought up under the degenerate system of freedom, that he need have no fears.
What was the “degenerate system of freedom” that had developed north of the Murray? The roster call of free traders at the turn of the century brought together laissez-faire liberals, merchants and businessmen, pragmatists, moderates and socialist liberals—sometimes just plain socialists. Can we find a political tradition in this crowd?
A brief history of the colony offers a starting point. The impact of the gold rush on NSW, though significant, was less intense than in Victoria, and the resulting political radicalism less vocal. Though William Wentworth spoke of the “Americans, Chartists, Socialists, and all manner of undesirable people” pouring into the colony, these elements were mostly absorbed into a middle-class moderation by the 1860s.
The Legislative Council lacked the bite of its Victorian counterpart. Composed entirely of nominated members, Liberal governments were capable of ‘swamping’ it with supporters. Ironically, its non-existent franchise made it more representative than in Victoria, not less, so the intensity of political conflict was more subdued.
NSW also had what its southern neighbour had not: vast grazing land, that when alienated and sold off provided a revenue source that kept a lid on the demand for more and higher tariffs. In November 1873, when the parliament had agreed to abolish a range of import duties introduced two years earlier, the Legislative Council was congratulating the Assembly, not attacking it.
Observers began to identify a more traditional liberal political culture in NSW. The former Victorian premier Gavin Duffy spoke of “a second generation, with a larger experience, more cultivated taste, and more settled opinions” occupying the public stage. To another visitor, “they go about their work more quietly”.
Insulated from the political crises enveloping Victoria in the 1860s and 1870s, and less affected by the economic depression of the 1890s, a more accommodating environment of traditional British liberalism survived into the new century. As Victoria surrendered itself to a nationalist policy idealism, NSW fought to remain open to the world. The two high-priests of free trade were Henry Parkes and George Reid, both serving as premiers of the colony. Like Deakin, Parkes had changed his mind on the tariff issue, but the other way around. Touring England in 1861, he would recall staying up half the night at the home of Richard Cobden, the English radical and spiritual leader of the Free Trade cause, “talking of the future of England and Australia”. What stuck with him was the discussion of “the big idea”, as he called it; “though I had been bitten by the doctrine of fostering infant industries, I never afterwards wavered from the cause of free trade”.
George Reid’s devotion was cemented from the beginning. He made his start as a junior clerk in a merchant’s office at 13 and was sermonising over free trade in debating clubs by 15. No conversion was necessary. At the age of 30 he authored Five Free Trade Essays, published in 1875, earning him an honorary membership of the Cobden Club and a letter of approval from William Gladstone. As premier, he oversaw a significant decline in the average tariff rate, making NSW one of the freest trading jurisdictions in the world.
A clash of political cultures between the two future states was inevitable.
Parkes linked his belief in free trade to domestic policies in which individual freedom was held to be almost an absolute right. Reid did not subscribe to the gospel of laissez faire but fused together a democratic ethos with the more classical liberalism of Victorian Britain, combining the strict dictates of its economics and its openness to the world, with the preparedness to regulate to prevent harm.
This tradition was transmitted through the factions and parties that they led, visible by federation at the launch of the NSW Free Trade and Liberal Association— the organising body for the Free Trade party in the federal parliament, in which the “banner of free trade”, as one speaker declared, was “not merely a principle of freedom of trade” but “the undying principle of human liberty itself”.
Similarly, in one of Reid’s first addresses during the 1901 federal campaign, he asked his audience to follow “the path of freedom”. “Australia had a free constitution,” he said, “and there was only one thing more wanted—that being free in their political rights they should be free in all the other relations of human life”.
This tradition held that human liberty was the source of progress, and that individual interests and national interests could emerge harmoniously.
The great destiny of humanity lies in allowing the genius for competition, for striving, for excelling, for acquiring, to reach its uttermost latitude consistent with the right of others.
THE FEDERAL CLASH
On the eve of federation, Alfred Deakin received a concerned note from Edmund Barton, the great champion of the federal cause in NSW. Barton had read the proposed policy program of Deakin and was worried. Barton wrote:
We have here some good friends who will adopt all that is Liberal, but who may not bring their forces to our aid if what they consider to be socialism is involved for them in the doing.
As moderate protectionists, both men would be sitting on the same side of the new federal parliament, but a clash of political cultures between the two future states was inevitable. Barton wrote again, saying: “Don’t inscribe on our flag ‘the maintenance of existing tariffs with the Victorian as the chief model subject to Australian interests and considerations’. That would go far to wreck us over here …”
The pitch of George Reid and the Free Traders was to be “Victoria against the rest of Australia”. In turn, the Protectionists sought to isolate the NSW free trade cause. They recognised the biggest obstacle facing Reid was the reality that a high revenue tariff was inevitable, that the transfer of import duties to the Commonwealth guaranteed that the federal government would be collecting more revenue than it needed. The Braddon clause of the new constitution ensured that for every pound of revenue required for federal purposes, four would have to be raised in total, three-fourths being distributed to the States.
The rhetoric of the two sides was crucial, for in substance the difference between a revenue tariff and a moderately protectionist tariff was subtle. What emerged therefore was an interesting argument over principles, about what the tariff question really meant, and what philosophies of government were at play.
Deakin asked his audiences, as always, to consider the national interest; “so used were they to the fulfilment of their municipal and social wants, that they could hardly realise that there were other and national needs,” as he told a Ballarat crowd in March 1901.
White Australia was the primary plank of the Protectionist government and was almost universally accepted by the parliament, despite its obvious hostility to the principles of free trade liberalism. Those few that did express hostility were, however, found on the Free Trade benches, able to draw out the philosophical logic of their faith. Deakin, effusive in his praise for the Japanese, and wary of the racial prejudice bubbling beneath the surface, nonetheless saw in the Immigration Restriction Act the prerequisite for any democracy, that its citizens should be unified in ideas and character if the popular will is to be expressed harmoniously and without social conflict. It is hard not to see certain elements of the Victorian majoritarian tradition nudging this argument along.
Internal liberal conflicts bubble along and occasionally resurface.
Reid could tell when Deakin’s aspirations for national unity got the better of his liberal instincts. He decried the “hysterical fear or craze for militarism” when attacking Deakin’s proposal for compulsory military service. He would lift the veil from the rhetoric of popular will to reveal the interest group politics at play in all matters of policy, but particularly on the issue of tariff protection. Did not protection embed a new class of privileges that are antithetical to the liberal ethos?
The fusion of the two liberal sides in 1909 re-oriented the intellectual debate of the parliament and re-directed the course of Australian politics. But these internal liberal conflicts have never gone away. They bubble along and occasionally resurface.
If liberalism is again at risk of fracturing, we should bear in mind these contests of traditions, for they touch on monumental questions: How is the public interest to be determined? Is it to be driven by human liberty or broader utilitarian considerations? If the latter, how can we best ensure it does not inexorably drive us towards the populism of the day?
Liberals will continue to reckon with these issues.