The rise of liberalism in colonial Australia (a review of the first volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)

(A shorter version of this review, omitting discussion of how the American experience influenced Australian politics to the mid-19th century, is cross-posted at Goodreads.)

This book is the first in David Kemp’s five-volume history of liberalism in Australia. The series, three volumes out to date, will cover 1788 to 2019. This first book takes us from European settlement in 1788 to 1860, when the colonies had achieved a substantial level of democratic self-government. It is principally a political history with special reference to liberalism; it focuses on major players and their involvement in big debates and events, not on the philosophical views of long-forgotten writers and activists.

To disclose my biases, I have known David Kemp for decades, including working for and with him, and share his interest in and concern for the Australian liberal tradition, with its ups and downs over 200 or so years in Australia. Some years ago I read a manuscript that turned into the first two volumes of this series.

In 1788, when British settlers arrived in the place that became Sydney, there was not yet such a thing as liberalism. The period covered by this first volume is the early decades of both Australia (that name is post-1788 too, but for convenience I’ll use it for the colonies collectively) and liberalism.

Although 1788 was before liberalism, many of the institutions and ideas that were later joined under the label ‘liberal’ were forming. Liberalism came in part from the creative linking between and expansion of existing ideas, institutions and issues.


Early white settlement Australia coincided with a lively period in British intellectual and political history, which significantly influenced people in the colonies. Adam Smith (1723-1790) offered ideas about how economies and morality worked; his ideas became foundational aspects of the emerging liberal ideology. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the most prominent utilitarian, the idea that we should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, an idea that is not inherently liberal but which many liberals, most importantly for this history John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), tried to incorporate into their thinking. Kemp considers Bentham the ‘father of policy analysis’, injecting scientific inquiry into government decision making.

Mill is the most important intellectual figure in 19th century liberalism and was widely read in the Australian colonies (Mill never visited Australia, but Arthur Hardy, who later become Mill’s brother-in-law, migrated to Australia in 1836). Kemp interestingly suggests that Mill was significant in bringing together the different streams of thought that ‘created the liberal tide’: Bentham’s approach to policy, William Wilberforce’s humanitarianism (Wilberforce was a key figure in ending slavery), Smith and David Ricardo’s political economy (Ricardo’s key idea was comparative advantage, an argument against trade protectionism), and individual self-realisation.

By the 1830s in Britain and Australia people were organising clusters of philosophical and policy ideas under the term ‘liberalism’, and self-described liberals were active in politics. Kemp credits Governor Richard Bourke, in office 1831-1837, as heading Australia’s first self-consciously liberal regime (in another personal connection between Australia and leading British thinkers, Bourke was a relative of the conservative intellectual Edmund Burke).

What made the beliefs of self-described liberals justify the term ‘liberal’? Early in his book Kemp suggests that the liberal idea is the inherent worth of the individual, and the belief that this entitles each person to the liberty to pursue their own course in life. The latter part is the liberal take on inherent individual worth, a belief that many non-liberals share. Liberty to pursue one’s own course in life can be the thread used to sew together into liberalism the rule of law, limited government, the separation of powers, private property, the market economy, tolerance, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and other ideas in the liberal tradition. In various ways, they all protect individuals from arbitrary interference or promote institutions that help individuals achieve their personal goals.

While a liberal unity to these political, economic and social goals can be found, they also each have their own logics and histories. Supporting one or more of them does not necessarily require a strong foundational belief in the inherent worth of the individual or signing up to liberalism as a package of beliefs. A strong liberal political movement helps achieve these goals and increase policy coherence. But as self-identified liberals are usually a minority, even in broadly liberal societies, the ‘liberal project’ (as Kemp describes the broader liberal policy and political agenda) has a bigger, more multi-dimensional story than liberalism the ideology.

As Kemp says, liberal ideas can be found across the Australian political spectrum. His history regularly shows how agreements and compromises between different ideological groupings, and the interests of various players in colonial Australian politics, were part of how policy moved in a broadly liberal direction through the first part of the 19th century.

Although many ideas and institutions that were later associated with liberalism existed in some form by 1788, Australia’s first European settlement was initially far from an experiment in liberal ideas – it was a penal colony run by a military man, albeit in Governor Arthur Phillip one influenced by 18th century Enlightenment thinking.

Compared to Britain at the time, Kemp’s history shows, there was much more work to do in establishing local checks and balances on the ruler, including independent courts. For decades the colony lacked an adequate system of currency and clear property rights over unsurveyed land. Institutions needed for limited government and an efficient market economy were not immediately in place. And, in an issue that was prominent in colonial politics, a free society could not also be a penal colony, leading to a long campaign, described in Kemp’s book, to abolish transportation of convicts.

In other respects, though, Kemp argues that Australia was a suitable place for an experiment in liberalism. In its political, economic and social structures Australia was much more of a blank slate than Britain, and so by a mix of choice and necessity could create a society influenced by, but not the same as, its parent society. That liberalism as an ideology rose as Australia’s early institutions were being formed was a coincidence of timing with important consequences for Australian history.

Despite efforts by some to create a ‘bunyip aristocracy’, the more feudal aspects of the British class system were not in place and were unlikely to be replicated. Whether they came as convicts or free settlers, the people who arrived in colonial Australia had little reason to support a system that gave them second-class status.

A main source of wealth at the time, land ownership, could be spread much more widely in Australia than in Britain. In the early years both free settlers and freed convicts could receive land for free. In later years land was sold rather than granted, but remained more widely available than in Britain at the time. The 1850s gold discoveries lured many migrants and generated huge wealth, in ways that reflected effort and luck, not a person’s prior status in society.

The colonial population included large numbers of people making their own way through agriculture, mining and other small businesses – the self-reliant individuals that liberalism, on various accounts, assumes, creates and admires. For many it was, as Kemp’s title suggests, a ‘land of dreams’. Although transportation of convicts was headed to abolition for many reasons, one factor was that as the Australian colonies prospered transportation lost deterrent value. After serving their sentences convicts became emancipists, with better life chances than they would usually have had in Britain.

While easy access to land made Australia relatively egalitarian and open-to-opportunity for the settlers, it also contributed significantly to the greatest failing of the time, the treatment of the Aboriginal population. On top of the government-authorised taking of land there was also much illegal violence against Aborigines. Settlers pushing out into new territory were often beyond the scrutiny or control of government. Although liberals have mostly advocated putting restraints on existing states, early Australian experience shows that establishing a state capable of enforcing the law is also critical to the liberal project.

Much of this first volume of Kemp’s history of liberalism is about the rise of democracy in Australia, raising questions (then new, but now old) about the relationship between liberalism and democracy. They can be in tension, with liberals fearing that rights and freedoms they value could be voted away if they exist and blocked if they do not. These and other concerns about democracy were evident in mid-19th century colonial Australia, with Kemp distinguishing the ‘conservative liberals’, led by William Wentworth, from the ‘democratic liberals’ who were more optimistic about an expanded franchise and elected rather than nominated upper houses of parliament.

Although liberalism and democracy should be conceptually distinguished, the mid-19th century is nevertheless the start of what has generally been a successful symbiotic relationship between the two political beliefs, what we now know as ‘liberal democracy’. Liberalism and democracy have overlapping clusters of ideas: they share assumptions about the inherent worth of the individual, and freedom of speech and association are important to both. It is not surprising that in colonial Australia the same people were often advocates for both liberalism and democracy.

The nature of Australian society, with no established aristocracy, meant that conservative scepticism about democracy was unlikely to prevail in the long run. As Kemp explains, migrants brought with them the democratic ideas then circulating in Britain, including Chartism, which included demands for universal male suffrage, voting by secret ballot, equal electoral districts, and payment of MPs. The 1850s gold rush brought more radical democrats to Australia.

While the ‘democratic liberals’ wanted to give more power to elected assemblies and extend the franchise, like the conservatives they had concerns about what kinds of electoral choices the uneducated masses might make. This was a common worry about democracy in the 19th century. For democratic liberals, universal and compulsory education was part of their policy response. It would help create an informed electorate. Universal public education arrives in the 1870s, after the end of this book, but in this volume we see the start of conflicts and disputes about education that are still with us today.

In the mid-19th century education was mainly provided by denominational schools. In 1844 60 per cent of school age children were estimated not to be at school, but the churches lacked the capacity to scale up their school systems to meet their educational needs. The churches wanted to keep their control over education, making it more difficult to introduce a public education system. The churches, Kemp says, thought literacy was desirable but not at the expense of religion and morality.

The relationship between liberalism and religion is complex. Religious tolerance has a long history within liberalism, and this was also a feature of colonial Australia. People could freely practise their religion and there was no established church. On that colonial Australian society was a consistent with a thread of liberal thinking going back to John Locke (1632-1704), the earliest major thinker subsequently incorporated into the liberal tradition. For Locke, religious freedom and toleration helped keep the peace, and separation between church and state helped spare the state from the society’s broader religious conflicts.

But liberals have often also seen churches as sources of unscientific beliefs and social oppression. In turn the Catholic Church has often denounced liberalism (Kemp notes the paradox of the Catholic Church calling on the idea of freedom of religion to defend its interests, but this is also an example of how the various liberal goals have different constituencies). The mostly Protestant liberals were not free of the religious rivalries, suspicions and antagonisms that were then common in Australian society.

When it comes to public support for expanding education, or indeed state subsidies for any other social service in which the churches have traditionally played a role, the worldviews present in liberalism do not provide a clear direction. A ‘keeping the peace’ option is to subsidise church institutions in some neutral way. There was something like that under Governor Bourke, with state support for all major religions, based on population numbers, on the assumption that religion was generally desirable as a source of morality. But that breaks a strict separation between church and state and sustains illiberal institutions. In this volume of Kemp’s series, we can start to see important colonial liberals coming down against state aid for religious schools, in ways that would end up exacerbating Catholic grievances for the next century.

On the issue of race, we also see tensions in mid-19th century liberal ideas starting to settle in ways that would cause major controversies in the future. The idea of the inherent moral worth of the individual is not consistent with racism, something realised in the humanitarian thinking that had led to the abolition of slavery. But ‘keeping the peace’ arguments were used to reach racist conclusions. In the gold rush era anti-Chinese sentiment was strong.  Many colonists took from the American experience that adding race to the existing religious and class societal fault lines was unwise. Here we can see ideas that would eventually lead to the White Australia Policy.

How little the American experience, as a radical contemporary political experiment with liberal and democratic ideas, seems to feature as a positive model for the Australian colonies is one thing that surprised me reading this book. The idea of natural rights, so prominent in the US Constitution, seems to have had little influence. Mill, along with other major intellectuals guiding 19th century Australian thinking, found other foundations for their liberalism.

Kemp reports on those supporting a wider franchise looking to the United States. But in other respects American democracy was less attractive. In the 1830s, Kemp writes, America was portrayed in the Australian press as ‘democracy descending into frequent crowd rioting’. As with racial mixing, America provided lessons in problems to be avoided rather than examples to be followed.

In this more negative sense of not repeating mistakes the American experience was very helpful for Australia aspirations. Britain as a colonial power learned from its errors that led to the American revolution. It used successive concessions to the Australian colonists to avoid violent uprisings against British rule. The Eureka Stockade in 1854, like key triggers of the American revolution a tax protest, was the main exception to otherwise generally peaceful colonial politics. Sensibly the government responded with democratic and economic reforms, not further violent conflict.

Kemp’s book is invaluable for students of Australian liberalism, but for the more general reader there is a lot to get through. It runs to nearly 450 pages of text and is just the first of five volumes. Long quotations help substantiate the argument and give us the voice of the past but add to the page count.  As an Australian with a strong interest in liberalism I plan on reading all five volumes, but a short book at the end summarising all five would help bring the important story of Australia liberalism to a broader audience.

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