For forty years, libertarianism has been an important voice in public debate, explains Richard Allsop
A lot happened in Australia in the summer of 1974- 75. Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin, Hobart’s Tasman Bridge collapsed, Lillee and Thommo terrorised English batsmen, homegrown pop star William Shakespeare went to number one with ‘My Little Angel’, and Australia’s first-ever avowedly libertarian political party was formed. Known as the Workers Party, it was launched at the Sydney Opera House on the Australia Day weekend.
Prime Minister Gough Whitlam famously missed a large chunk of that fateful summer. He had to be dragged back from a multi-country tour of Europe to visit post-cyclone Darwin, but soon set off on his travels again. It was little wonder that he was keen to get away as, apart from the cricket, there was little good news around.
Economic conditions had deteriorated rapidly in the second half of 1974. Inflation had spiralled into double figures, unemployment was rising, and day-by-day it was becoming more apparent that the rapidly expanding government spending under Whitlam was the cause of—rather than the solution to—the country’s problems.
Many still thought that the answer lay simply in returning the Coalition to power. Others felt that this would only be effective if there was a change of Liberal leadership from the errorprone Billy Snedden to the more aggressive Malcolm Fraser. But a growing number believed that a more radical alternative was required.
The seeds of the Workers Party had been sown a couple of years earlier when a Sydney-based Ayn Rand discussion group evolved into the ‘Alliance for Individual Rights’. In October 1973 some members of this group published the first edition of a magazine called Free Enterprise, which they sold on street corners and in select bookshops.
During 1974, one of the members of the group, Maureen Nathan, decided it might be worth contacting leading advertising executive John Singleton, who had publicly attacked the socialist tendencies of the Whitlam Government. Nathan rang his office and set up a meeting.
One of the editors of Free Enterprise, mechanical engineer Bob Howard, went to the meeting with copies of the magazine and a proposal that Singleton might like to support the group in setting up a bookshop to disseminate libertarian ideas. Singleton responded with characteristic colour, ‘A bookshop be buggered, let’s start a political party’.
The group involved with Free Enterprise formed the core members of a working group to establish the party. This Sydney group was subsequently joined by individuals from other states, including Dr John
Whiting from South Australia, Viv Forbes from Queensland, and Ron Manners from Western Australia. Whiting, a former chairman of the General Practitioners’ Society in South Australia, had caused a stir in 1973 when he said he was ready to be jailed in defiance of a South Australian Government prices control order limiting his fee increase to 15 per cent. Whiting became the inaugural president of the party, with the other four directors being Sydneysiders—Dr Duncan Yuille, economist Mark Tier, lawyer Ramon Barros and Bob Howard.
One obvious source of advice was the recently-formed Libertarian Party in the United States.
The Australians approached leading American libertarian Murray Rothbard for advice and he wrote back expressing his delight that the first libertarian party outside the United States was being formed, although not offering much in the way of practical support.
A key decision for the founders was what name the new party should adopt. An early favourite was the Free Enterprise Party, followed for a time by the Independence Party. However, an article in The Australian in early January 1975 reported that the party’s name was being kept secret ahead of the Opera House launch.
When the name was revealed Whiting explained that the term ‘workers’ had been chosen, as it was referring to ‘the productive worker, the fellow who wants to get off his backside’. Nathan claims credit for suggesting the name, but has since disassociated herself from the way it was launched without proper explanation to the public. She had proposed a series of teaser ads asking people whether they were workers before revealing that the ads related to a political party.
Prominent miner Lang Hancock was the guest of honour at the inaugural dinner at the Opera House, but he declined to join, as he felt the fact that he had lots of enemies would be ‘lead in the saddlebag’ for the new party. Still his presence helped with generating publicity.
The launch made the front page of The Australian and was generally on page three of the other major dailies. The articles were riddled with pure libertarian comments from Whiting such as that taxation is ‘theft that lets parasites live off the earnings of productive workers’.
The Sydney Morning Herald also explained that the party was strong on personal freedoms, ‘supporting the abolition of all laws against drug use, censorship, gambling and any sexual activity’.
The new party’s profile was given a further boost when Singleton and Howard were guests on the first edition for 1975 of ABC TV’s Monday Conference (the Q&A of its time). Unsurprisingly, the audience —which included Liberal wets, trade unionists and other assorted critics—found little that appealed in the party’s manifesto.
However, viewers would not have found the ideas completely novel. On an episode of Monday Conference the previous November, Nathan (described as ‘a frequent spokeswoman of the Alliance for Individual Rights’) had crossed swords with a more typical Monday Conference guest, notorious prophet of environmental doom, Dr Paul Ehrlich. She had pointed out to him that ‘all over the world people are much more rational and much more aware of their daily lives than you and the governments choose to make us sound’.
The publicity the new party received, and the political excitement of the times, meant that by May 1975 the party had an Australia-wide membership of 600. One high-profile recruit was newspaper editor Maxwell Newton. This proved a mixed blessing.
Newton made a number of excellent speeches, but irretrievably spoilt one of them by making an anti-Semitic remark about Jim Spigelman, the ex-Whitlam adviser appointed Secretary of the Department of the Media while still in his twenties.
Newton was not a racist, but this was a period when alcoholism had made his behaviour and public pronouncements increasingly erratic. Newton explained in a newspaper interview a couple of years later that he had only got involved in the Workers Party as a favour to Singleton and recalled ‘it was a real pain; journalists should be outside the whole political thing’.
One of the most interesting articles about the new party was penned by the young Malcolm Turnbull in Nation Review. It combined a mix of interesting insight into Turnbull’s own views at the time, such as support for compulsory unionism, and perceptive commentary.
Noting that previous Liberal administrations had often promised to cut the public service but never delivered, Turnbull wondered if signs of electoral support for the Workers Party might embolden the next Liberal government. He also wondered if the Workers Party’s ideas might discourage the ALP from continuing to create ‘an enormous middle class public service’ and instead realise that things like childcare centres might best be delivered by local community activism.
The first electoral test for the Workers Party was in a state byelection in Western Australia. In the safe Liberal seat of Greenough, the party’s candidate, Geoffrey McNeil, polled 841 votes—a very creditable 13 per cent of the primary vote, only just behind the Labor candidate.
The real test came a few weeks later in the 1975 federal election, probably the worst possible starting point for a new minor party as, in the polarised post-Dismissal environment, the L-NP and ALP between them recorded 95.8 per cent of the national primary vote, the highest share they have secured in any election between the early 1950s and the present day.
Compared to other minor parties, the Workers Party performed modestly well, generally outpolling both the DLP and Australia Party in electorates which all were contesting.
Another problem was that many people—who might otherwise have been inclined to support the Workers Party—believed that Malcolm Fraser was a fellow-traveller, a view contributed to by his professed admiration for Ayn Rand.
As Ron Manners explained in his memoir, Heroic Misadventures, ‘his [Fraser’s] election speeches were indeed refreshing and gave many of us the feeling that we could “pull up our political tent and go back to work” as the country would be in safe hands’.
In his thoughtful 1987 work, Libertarianism in Australia’s New Enlightenment, Bill Stacey argued that the failure to achieve a stronger vote was something the party ‘never fully recovered from’. In his well-argued conclusion Stacey makes the point that, as well as the usual minor party gripes about issues like a lack of media coverage, the Workers Party had a uniquely libertarian dilemma.
He pointed out that there are ‘two rather contradictory characteristics common in libertarian movements’, as libertarians tend to be supporters of efficiency in business activity, but opposed to coercion in the political arena. Participatory democracy and efficiency are sometimes difficult to reconcile.
In 1976-77, a series of disputes over the constitution and platform, concerns about doctrinal purity and ongoing argument about whether the party’s name was appropriate eventually led to a split. Some members remained active in a successor party, which was named the Progress Party.
The Progress Party continued to spasmodically contest elections for a number of years. In Western Australia, re-badged as the Westralian Progress Party, it contested a number of seats at the 1977 state election, with McNeil again polling well in Greenough and the party also doing well in Kalgoorlie and Geraldton.
Later in the year, the Westralian Progress Party pulled off a coup when it recruited Liberal defector, Peter Richardson, the Federal MHR for Tangney. However, Richardson did not recontest Tangney at the December election; instead the ubiquitous McNeil contested the seat. He scored 3.6 per cent of the vote, above the party’s state-wide average of just under 3 per cent. Also in 1977, the Progress Party polled very well in the last Northern Territory Assembly elections prior to self-government.
One of the last spurts of Progress Party action came in Victoria in 1983, where the party contested federal seats at the general election, a subsequent by-election and a state upper house by-election, where the candidate, Isaac Lahav, put in a most energetic campaign. Lahav and a number of his supporters went on to be among the founding committee members of the Melbourne branch of the Adam Smith Club, replicating a pattern around the country where those who had been activists for the Workers and Progress Parties continued to be involved through means other than party politics.
Clearly, in electoral terms, the Workers Party was not a success. However, the history of the Workers Party is not about votes won. It is an important aspect of the history of ideas in Australia.
In his reflections on his intellectual journey, businessman Neville Kennard described discovering libertarian writing in the early 1970s. He felt alone in his appreciation of it until he read an advertisement for the Workers Party, went along to a meeting and found some like-minded people. In Kennard’s view, the success of the party was that it brought together ‘some lonely fellow-travellers and was the beginning of the libertarian movement in Australia’.
One other fondly remembered by-product of the Workers Party was the book Rip Van Australia authored by Singleton and Howard, which provided a highly entertaining introduction to libertarian ideas.
While many in the libertarian ranks ended up believing that Singleton was not really one of them, he probably deserves the last word on the party he suggested forming.
Reflecting on it years later, he said: ‘I knew we wouldn’t win an election or probably even a seat, (I was dead right), but the prime objective of the party was to make people think; to become a tool of education and I believe to that degree at least the party was successful.’
So mark the birth of the Workers Party down as one of the successes from the mixed bag that was the summer of 1974/75.