This is the story of how Australians became a free people, gaining the liberties they desired to take control of their own lives, the freedom and right to govern themselves and the capacity to address their own political problems through democratic institutions. It is therefore the story of how the Australians laid the foundations for one of the world’s most successful countries, which has achieved unprecedented levels of personal freedom and social equality.
This book attempts to give an account of the “liberal project” and, in telling the story, seek to be part of a conversation about the meaning of the Australian political experience. I describe the history of liberalism in Australia as a “project” to signal that this is not simply an account of abstract or philosophical ideas but of ideas expressed through the actions of real people, as they attempted to apply the intellectual and cultural thought of their time to the task of solving the political problems they faced.
The term 'project' is intended to emphasise the purposes and actions of people as they seek to give effect to the ideas that guide them. One might a validly discuss a "Christian" project, an "Islamic" project, a socialist" or perhaps a 'green' project.
Australia provides an especially compelling and important example of the attempt to establish a liberal society because liberals in Australia have had a remarkable opportunity to realise their ideals in practice. First, the settlement of Australia by the British and by later waves of immigrants occurred in the age when liberal ideas were reaching the height of their influence on politics and society in the West. Liberalism has been the source of the dominant political ideals in Australian politics for most of the country’s history, and of the guiding ideas that have motivated the policies of the men and women and of the political parties that have most frequently governed Australia and its states (and, before them, the colonies).
Second, the European settlement of Australia occurred relatively recently in a historical sense — in 1788, the year before the United States adopted its constitution and before the French Revolution broke out — and liberals in Australia have had an opportunity to pursue their ideals relatively free from the constraints of the entrenched social structures and pre-modern cultures of the Old World (and even of their surviving remnants in the New World of North America). With some of the impediments of history removed one might therefore expect Australian liberals to have been more successful in pushing towards the achievement of a society based on liberal ideals than other nations.
Third, Australian liberals have had a whole continent on which to construct the new society and its institutions. They were not, with limited exceptions, engaged in conflicts for possession with other occupying powers. They did, however, face one inescapable human challenge to their liberalism.
As with North America, the Australian continent had already been settled before the British arrived. When the British First Fleet arrived and hoisted the Union Jack on January 26, 1788, at Sydney Cove, the estimated 300,000 to 750,000 Aboriginal people (the exact number is not certain) constituted the oldest continuous human society in the world — a settlement made by some of the first modern humans to emerge from Africa, by way of India and the Indonesian archipelago, some 60,000 years before. Indeed, Australia’s occupancy by modern humans possibly pre-dates that of Europe and almost certainly that of the Americas.
Coming to terms with this fact has been a tormenting experience for Australian liberals, as it has been in all the major immigrant nations of the modern era in relation to the people who were there before: the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia in the English-speaking world. One important cultural context for the Australian settlement preserved it at least from one great humanitarian crime measured against liberal values. Britain was already turning against slavery when Australia was first settled and, unlike the US, Australia never experienced slavery (although it came close on occasion), and therefore does not have the legacy of social division and prejudice that slavery left in North America.
Fourth, Australia, since the original British settlement, has not been invaded (although it has been attacked), and the later arrivals among the Australian people have never known in their new homeland the distrust and division experienced by many European nations that have been invaded and conquered or the pain of collaboration with, and resistance to, the conquerors.
Consequently, with perhaps the exception of the ideologically riven interwar period of 1919 to 1939, social trust in Australia has generally remained high, and social capital has been available to support the effort to build a society founded on liberal principles.
Fifth, Australia was founded at a moment in time when rapid communication across the world — by steam and later coal and oil-powered ships, by telegraph and telephone, by air travel and through the internet — became possible for the first time. Australia’s foundation and growth has coincided with the industrial and post-industrial revolutions and has been able to take advantage of multiple new technologies that have permitted the rapid development of industries and trade, both domestically and internationally.
One of the promises of liberalism was that individual freedom would enable for the first time a whole people to break out of poverty and the opportunity to seek on earth a pathway to personal fulfilment. Delivering on this promise meant establishing a more productive economy than had ever previously been achieved. In the later 19th century a small but rapidly expanding immigrant population found itself with access to some of the richest goldfields in the world, and with more fertile agricultural land per head than the more numerous settlers in the United States. With its predominantly male population and its trading capacity as technology developed, Australians developed on the basis of wool and wheat production (in particular), the then most highly productive agricultural sector in the world.
The combination of natural and demographic advantages with an enterprising population under conditions of economic freedom secured for its inhabitants the highest per capita income of any people. This in turn provided an historically unique opportunity for a well-educated national community to attain unprecedented leisure and a standard of living up to World War I that was higher than that of Britain, America or Europe. How the Australians used this opportunity — and inadvertently wasted it — is part of our story.
Apart from its highly productive agricultural industries, the elements of society that have taken greatest advantage of these developments towards a truly worldwide culture have been the participants in the world of ideas: those with higher education who were newspaper editors and journalists, campaigners for humanitarian causes, philosophers and social theorists, scientists, economists and professionals. Australian liberals have been well placed to take advantage of developments in liberal thought and in the understanding of how societies work that have occurred elsewhere, supplementing conclusions formed from their own experiences.
From 1788 liberal campaigners in Britain for legal reform, for the abolition of slavery, the protection of native peoples, the alleviation of poverty, for civil freedoms and democracy, took a close interest in Australian developments.
As the most British of all the major settlement colonies, the “Australias” before Federation became the focus of economic and social experimentation on an unprecedented scale, as British reformers attempted to realise ideals that were still impractical in Britain itself.
William Wilberforce, the Christian evangelical whose anti-slavery campaigns helped to entrench humanitarian and moral concepts in the British elite, along with other members of his Clapham Circle, took a keen interest in Australia. Philosopher and institutional reformer Jeremy Bentham and his circle of philosophical radicals were intimately involved in the politics of Australia in London, and conceived the idea of their own ideal colony in South Australia.
Australia did not just “borrow” liberal ideas being developed on the other side of the world; in a very real sense it was at the cutting edge for the implementation of these ideas, and an important part of the process by which the proponents of these ideas sought to convert them into reality. Among the ideas that were integral to Australian liberalism were the ideas of the political economists, from Adam Smith, through John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall to John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The understandings of how society and the economy worked developed by these men transformed Australian public policy, and ultimately enabled the avoidance of circumstances that had seemed endemic in the liberal system: periods of mass unemployment and prolonged periods of minimal economic growth.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Australia for a variety of reasons — notably its early convict experience, the influence of religious dissenters, and particularly the Scots with their intense personal morality and work ethic, the huge expanse of its frontier and the effect of the gold rushes in rapidly increasing the population — has taken the idea of democracy and public morality to its heart, and developed a generally high level of integrity in its government and a profoundly egalitarian culture that takes as a given the idea that one person is as good as another.
In Australia this went well beyond the philosophical notion that all men were naturally equal in rights, to the strong cultural belief that everyone is entitled to respect, even if it has also fuelled Australia’s famous “tall poppy syndrome”, which tends to diminish regard for achievement. If any society was to be based on the recognition of the equality of each individual person, Australia’s historical circumstances and culture gave it the best opportunity to achieve such equality. The attempt to establish and secure democracy in Australia, and to discover the policies that would build the liberal society, was therefore much more straightforward than in other countries. As a result, Australia’s democratic institutions were established very early in an international context, often before similar institutions were inaugurated in the US, Britain and Europe. In mandating votes for all men, and later for all women, in the establishment of the secret ballot, and in its faith in democracy and the equality of all people, and in its use of government to equalise conditions and open the doors of opportunity, Australia (with New Zealand) was the cutting edge of the English-speaking world.
But liberal ideas were one thing. Getting to the point where Australians could govern themselves, and decide what their own policies would be, was quite another. This book places the development of Australia in the context of the ideas that gave it meaning to the Britons and Australians of the time.
Seeing Australia only through the lens of the convict system, as in The Fatal Shore, risks omitting much that is needed to understand Australian development. As one writer has put it, “The Fatal Shore says many true things about early Australia, but it leaves many true things unsaid.” In particular, what is omitted is a much larger and important cultural and intellectual context within which emancipists and immigrants, governors, legislators and political activists understood their world and its prospects, and through which the future of Australia was to be defined.
In telling this story the book therefore becomes an account of the liberal (and Liberal) political tradition in Australia, and its clashes with conservatism and utopian socialism. Liberalism’s achievements were the establishment of liberal democratic institutions of government, a humanitarian and reformist culture, and a nation that, alone in the world, spans a whole continent. The most important outcome of this history is a country in which people could find opportunities to realise their dreams.
Much Australian history writing since World War II has been focused not on the main story within which all others have meaning but on selective aspects of our national story. It is significant that the liberal project and liberalism, despite its vast significance for the Australian story, received almost no mention in the Australian National Curriculum initiated by the Rudd government. If such a curriculum is implemented, there will continue to be a substantial loss of national memory about some of the most significant ideas, debates, people, organisations, events and developments that have produced our liberal democracy.
The “liberal project” is not a program, nor is it the exclusive possession of the side of politics that for some 180 years has called itself “Liberal”. Involvement in the project extends across the major political parties, because the demand to control one’s own life and realise one’s own goals is deeply embedded in the Australian culture, and probably in the human psyche itself.
This book is in a sense a biography of liberalism in Australia, and if one accepts that politics is a battle of ideas, the question arises: where do the ideas in the main political debates come from? Political debate in Australia has never been isolated from debates elsewhere in the English-speaking world, and beyond. The principal thinkers, philosophers or theorists (including economists, lawyers, political scientists and historians) whose ideas have been influential in political debates in Australia have lived in England, America or Europe, as well as in Australia. Consequently, it is not possible to give an account of Australian liberalism without treating it as one expression of a tradition of thought that exists throughout the West. An Australian history that is not set in its international context is incomprehensible, and in no case is this truer than in a history of ideas and their influence.
David Kemp is a former cabinet minister in the Howard government and a professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at the University of Melbourne.