Federation under a liberal-democratic constitution the last victory of 19th century Australian liberalism (a review of the second volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)

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.

Kemp’s second volume explores the social, economic and political trends and events that led to Australia becoming in many ways less liberal in 1901 than 1860.

One reason liberalism fell from influence, alluded to in Kemp’s sub-title “Australians’ search for utopia”, is the rise of alternative ideologies that promised a better future. This included socialist ideas of various kinds, perhaps most prominently those promoted by Edward Bellamy in his book Looking Backward 2000-1887. Bellamy is largely forgotten now, but his 1888 novel was hugely influential in the English-speaking world and beyond well into the 20th century.

Kemp describes Looking Backward as promoting a society that ended social class, recognised the equal dignity of all people, ceased exploitation, and was marked by a universal preparedness to contribute to the well-being of all. Bellamy saw social problems arising from private property and competition in the market; each were to be abolished in his utopia. Union leaders promoted Bellamy’s book, which was also widely discussed in newspapers and journals. Two future Labor prime ministers, Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes, were among the book’s readers.

To a liberal, Bellamy’s ideas are fanciful. He makes naïve assumptions about human nature. He overlooks the incentives and coordination mechanisms of the market. His utopia requires an all-powerful state that cannot be trusted with such power. But Bellamy’s book resonated with many people. Understanding why is important to comprehending late 19th century Australian politics.

Although Bellamy was no liberal, the underlying reasons for his book’s appeal were not entirely divorced from the way liberalism itself evolved in the 19th century’s second half. As Kemp’s first volume argued, humanitarianism was one of the streams of thought that converged to form mid-19th century liberalism. It sometimes conflicted with the laissez-faire stream of free-trade liberalism.

As Kemp notes in comparing John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, with the latter taking a stricter line against government intervention than the former, markets can have painful consequences for people who have committed no moral wrong. And although exploitation was not new to European societies, industrialisation created a large working class labouring in often harsh conditions. The classical liberal focus on state, rather than private, power seemed too narrow.

To rebalance power in the workplace, many Australian liberals supported regulating factory conditions and permitting unions to operate. The protectionism favoured by Victorian liberals – NSW liberals generally supported free trade – lessened the competition local workers faced from producers overseas and in other colonies. These policies won colonial liberals working-class support.

Australian unions were not initially highly political; they focused on conditions in their trade rather than broader issues. But by the 1880s unions coordinated their activities across trades and industries. Union leaders pushed for greater control over workplaces, including compulsory union membership to monopolise the labour supply. Class conflict with the owners and managers of industry followed. The 1890 shearers strike spilled over into violence.

Samuel Griffith, the Queensland Premier, and a later drafter of the Constitution and High Court chief justice, helped break the shearers strike. But he sympathised with the concept of a ‘fair wage’. The idea that wages should reflect social policy concerns rather than economic conditions proved to be very influential in Australia. Kemp documents how economics developed as a discipline in the late 19th century, providing a deeper understanding of how economies operate, but its findings did not necessarily affect policy. Australian politicians are more likely to be lawyers than economists.

The radical unionists of 1890-91 did not achieve their aims through strikes, but their failure prompted unionists to pursue influence through direct parliamentary representation. By 1894, union-backed MPs sat in several colonial parliaments. Given the historical working-class support of liberal candidates, union candidates competed for the same voters. Labor as a governing party comes after this volume concludes (except for a brief minority government in Queensland in 1899), but the rise of organised labour had profound consequences for liberal politics.

Kemp’s second volume continues the story of two other issues, religion and race, which 19th century liberals were struggling with when his first volume ended in 1860.

Although freedom of religion was well established in 19th century Australia, the divide between Catholics and Protestants was a major fault line in colonial society. With church schools the major providers of education, education and religion intertwined to create a significant political problem.

In the mid-19th century state aid for religious schools was common. But many liberals wanted to replace this with a government school system. They believed that children of different faiths mixing at school would ease social tensions. But the Catholic Church saw ending state aid for schools as an attack on them, an attempt to lure their young people away. After state aid for denominational schools was abolished, gone in all colonies by 1895, the Catholics continued building their own schools.

Catholic resistance to the public education system enjoyed significant success, with their new schools drawing students back from government schools. Whatever personal friendships developed between Protestants and the Catholics remaining at government schools, overall the policy against state aid exacerbated religious conflict. Catholics resented what they saw as a double standard, with Protestant-influenced government schools being taxpayer funded while they had to finance their own school system.

Catholic and Protestant populations were large and established, and so their conflicts had to be managed internally. But except for the Indigenous population, who continued to suffer from both official policy and the inability of colonial governments to police the frontiers of European expansion, race raised issues that could be handled externally. Racial cultural differences could be stopped at the border.

In the 19th century race was a source of social conflict. During the gold rush, Chinese miners had been controversial, as were Pacific Island workers in northern Queensland through the second half of the 19th century. American racial divisions were taken as something to avoid. Some liberals advanced the view that racial differences were inherent, rather than just cultural. Race connected to labour politics, as unions wanted to keep out of Australia people willing to work for low wages.

These ideas led to controls on migration in the late 19th century, which turned into the White Australia policy of the new national government.

Not everyone supported racist policies. Kemp cites the liberal Edward Foxall who argued that America’s problems were due to slavery, not skin colour. Bruce Smith, a free-trade liberal MP, opposed the White Australia policy on moral individualist grounds. But they did not represent the dominant opinion.

In his first volume, Kemp argued that a belief in the inherent moral worth of the individual was a key liberal idea. In the imperfect way of political actors, who don’t necessarily take their ideas to that level of principle, and whose focus is the practical problems of their time, moral individualism became more significant over the first half of the 19th century.

But in this second volume collectivities come to the fore. Race, religion, and class became more prominent parts of Australian politics, with strong organisational foundations in government policy, churches and unions. Collectivist ideas were reflected in protectionism, restricted migration and labour market regulation.

The new Constitution was, as Kemp says, ‘the product of almost the last moments of the liberal consensus’. If it had been delayed even a few years, to when Labor was more powerful, the federal process could easily have been derailed, or ended up with a very different, less liberal, founding legal document.

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