The Consent of the People: Human dignity through freedom and equality 1966-2022 concludes David Kemp’s epic five volume 2,504 page political history of Australia with particular reference to liberalism.
The full set takes us from the pre-liberalism of the late 18th century, when ‘liberal’ ideas and institutions were yet to be linked into the ideology of liberalism; through liberalism’s highpoint in the 19th century (volumes one and two); the twentieth century’s dismal first half when racism, protectionism, war, economic depression and utopian socialism broke liberalism but not democracy (volumes three and four); to the defeat of socialism after World War II covered in the later parts of volume four; to the story of volume five, which covers the revival of the liberal project in the 20th century’s final decades followed by stall and setback in the early 21st century.
The 40 years after Sir Robert Menzies retired as prime minister in 1966, having been in office since 1949, saw a liberalisation in which liberals were one influence among many. Kemp’s idea of ‘liberal project’, a policy agenda, is useful in understanding how Australia became a more liberal society despite ideological liberals not being numerous or always highly influential. Many people had reasons for overturning the ‘Australian settlement’ of the 1900s: white Australia, high tariffs, and a highly-regulated labour market.
In Australia’s division of political labour for the most part the people outside government calling for more liberal social policies and more liberal economic policies were different.
Liberal social policies were often promoted by single issue movements, at their core people trying to improve their own lives and not advance general philosophical ideals, although sometimes attracting support by appealing to broader principles (see Jon Piccini’s book on human rights in Australia).
Liberal economic policies were promoted by a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, economists, business interests and think-tanks. In the think-tanks especially classical liberal philosophy was explicit, but in the other groups support for market mechanisms owed more to utilitarianism than freedom. The aim was greater and more efficient economic growth.
As in the immediate post-World War II period the Liberal and Labor parties provided the alternative governments. But ideologically party competition changed in the 1960s. Declining support for socialism within Labor and its increasingly university-educated and socially-liberal MPs and voters meant that attitudes to ‘liberalism’ were less of a divide between the two main parties. The Liberal Party often struggled to find a clear direction. Labor governments took the lead in ‘liberal’ reforms.Continue reading “Liberal project successes, followed by stall and setback (on David Kemp’s Consent of the People, 1966-2022)”