The first volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism told the surprising story of how, between 1788 and 1860, a penal colony became an early liberal democracy. In the second volume, covering 1861 to 1901, the new national constitution federating the six colonies gave Australian democracy deep legal foundations.
While democracy was strengthened, by 1901 liberalism was weakened. Liberal political movements were divided between protectionist and free trade versions. Both were challenged by utopian socialist ideas and a militant union movement. The unions acquired direct political influence as Labour MPs won seats in parliament (Labor does not drop the ‘u’ until 1912). Kemp’s third volume, A Democratic Nation: Identity, Freedom and Equality in Australia 1901-1925, chronicles further liberal troubles in the first quarter century of federation.
David Kemp’s The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, 1788–1860, his first volume of an Australian political history seen from a liberal perspective, told a surprisingly positive story. The British settlers who arrived in 1788 established a penal colony; an inauspicious start for a liberal society. But by the book’s conclusion in 1860 Australia had, for its European residents, transformed itself into a largely free society. The Australian colonies were also early experiments in democracy. Self-described liberals, drawing on intellectual debates in England and elsewhere, played key roles in this transition.
In 1901, when this second volume in Kemp’s five-part series finishes, the liberals had enjoyed a recent triumph. The newly federated Commonwealth of Australia, which began that year, gave Australian democracy deep legal foundations. It was a limited government, with the national parliament restricted to legislating on a specific list of topics. Free trade between the states was guaranteed. Private property could be taken by government only on ‘just terms’. A national established church was a legal impossibility.
But in many other respects things had gone badly wrong. The new Constitution prohibited tariffs and other restrictions on interstate commerce, but protectionism lived on at the national level. The new Constitution included a power for the conciliation and arbitration of industrial disputes, the basis of non-market wage setting. The flow of people into Australia was more restricted, with racist ideas central to migration policy. Sectarian disputes within Australian society, especially between Catholics and Protestants, were entrenched. Class divisions, although less sharp than in Britain, were a serious problem.