The Progressive Liberal Strand in Victorian Politics

Victoria voted strongly ALP at the last federal election, but this was historically unusual—the ALP has been electorally unsuccessful in Victoria, being in office for only ten years out of eighty-three before John Cain Jnr’s government in 1983. This is in contrast to the New South Wales ALP which has been mostly in power.

The Left or Labor forces in Victoria have been an uneasy amalgam of two groups: the working classes and trade unions on the one hand, and ideological progressives on the other. In the past the prominence of the latter group damaged the Labor image, but over the last few decades the trendy vote has flourished as the traditional Labor one has declined. The long tradition of moralising in a superior tone on issues, inaugurated by Melbourne’s early liberals such as George Higinbotham, Charles Pearson, David Syme and Henry Bournes Higgins, now pays electoral dividends.

To begin at 1850. In New South Wales, authority was gradually devolved over seven decades from rule by the Governor through appointed members to self-government; compromise and gradualism were the natural way of conducting affairs. Victoria, in contrast, had only a very short period of fifteen years from its founding before experiencing the shocks of the 1850s, when it had to cope simultaneously with four developments: separation, self-government, the finding of gold, and a massive population influx. Authority did not have a chance to establish itself—the rules of the game had not been worked out. This was seen at Eureka, a relatively minor everyday grievance that was not handled well by either side, because no tradition of negotiation existed. Both sides quickly went to extremes, thus setting the Victorian pattern of heightening tension and seeking conflict.

Victoria had got off to a bad start. What can be called the Melbourne mentality (and this applies to all sides of politics) converts issues into overtly political ones and ideologises them; people hunt in packs, behave aggressively, and conduct gang warfare. Vincent Buckley once wrote that if you have an idea and want to spread it, in Sydney you throw a party, in Melbourne you found a journal.

At this early stage the clearest marker people brought with them was their religion. Power in Victoria is best analysed through four roughly equal religiously based groups: 

• Anglicans, over 30 per cent, but not as strong as in Sydney

• Scots Presbyterians, over 20 per cent, influential in business, farming and politics, and with an extreme Orange wing

• Irish Catholics, also over 20 per cent, moving from radical to middle-of-the-road politics, and repudiating the secular liberals after State Aid was ended in the 1870s

• Non-Conformists, including Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and others, 16 per cent and rising, strong in the gold towns, and more wealthy, numerous and fashionable than in England 

These four groups were roughly equal in influence. There was no one dominant group, there was no established church, indeed no establishment to corral them, as in the old world, so they all threw their weight around. As a result visitors to Victoria were amazed by the depth of sectarian animosity.

The Victorian high liberals came from the fourth group. We have to imagine a non-conformist spectrum running from believers to non-believers, starting with the Evangelicals and moving across to the Unitarians and other vague deists, and further on to agnostics, liberals, atheists, secularists, and so on. The non-believing end of this spectrum gained recruits and became more influential as some people suffered the loss of faith common in the later nineteenth century. Along this spectrum, those who remained religious argued for the “social gospel”, social justice in today’s terms; those who discarded religion often used politics as a religion substitute, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Charles Pearson’s biographer noted: “Like many another reared in the Evangelical tradition Pearson found fulfilment in fighting for a cause.” Higgins’s biographer wrote: “Higgins had rejected his father’s religion (though not religion entirely), but the moral zeal inherited from his father, which had been directed to personal salvation, was now being channelled, if in a confused way, towards broader social and political concerns.” In summary: the liberals came, not from those who remained religious, nor from those with no religious interests, but from those moving away from a previously strong religious belief. Very often you find a clergyman in the family background. 

Five dominant liberals (Higinbotham, Pearson, Syme, Deakin and Higgins) set the tone of Victorian politics and public life. They held power by positioning themselves between the radicals and conservatives. Higinbotham, Pearson and Syme comprised the first group, coming to prominence from the 1860s, and they mentored their proteges of the next generation, Deakin, Higgins and others, who came to prominence from the 1880s onwards.

George Higinbotham was of Irish Protestant and Trinity College background. After a goldfields stint, he became a journalist, precocious editor of the Argus at thirty, a barrister, then a politician, Attorney-General, Chair of a Royal Commission on Education in 1866 encouraging a secular education system, then a Supreme Court judge, and finally Chief Justice of Victoria. Like Dr Evatt, who admired him, he was a champion of civil liberties; like Justice Michael Kirby he loved to give dissenting judgments. He was very subjective and self-regarding, so ideologically pure that he was ineffective in politics, and he transferred this trait—principles before votes—to the incipient Victorian ALP which he supported and was a hero of. He had a particular bug about an alleged conflict-of-interest in the Governor’s position. This was a factor in Victoria’s two constitutional crises, but he caused chaos by subsequently intruding this irrelevant obsession into many of the political and legal cases he was involved in.

Charles Pearson was a paler version of Higinbotham. His father was a clergyman of English Evangelical Anglican background, the Clapham Sect. Pearson was in England an academic historian, here a headmaster, founder of Presbyterian Ladies College, an educationalist, Age journalist, politician, Education Minister and Chair of another Royal Commission on Education in 1877. A dry scholarly speaker and reserved in personality, he was only marginally more practical than Higinbotham.

David Syme’s early interests were in religion: he studied for two years at a dissenting liberal Presbyterian theological academy in Scotland, and late in life wrote a book on the soul. With his brother he founded the Age, and made it famous for promoting protection, and for its political and public influence. The Age, the creator and carrier of the liberal tradition in Victoria, was supported by miners, radicals and urban manufacturers, and in turn supported them. Syme was dour and dry like the other two, even more so. He was an impossible person—there was no give-and-take in his personality. The lawyer Sir Frederick Eggleston wrote of him: “Syme was largely responsible for the heresy-chasing and head-hunting that are a feature of Victorian politics.” In other words, the Melbourne mentality.

Henry Bournes Higgins’s father was a Church of Ireland clergyman who had moved to Methodism—not a good career move, as Methodists were thin on the ground in Ireland—so the family decamped to Victoria, where Methodists were almost flavour of the month. Higgins became a barrister, Home Ruler, state and federal politician, and eventually a High Court judge in charge of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, famous (or infamous) for his Harvester judgment. A contemporary, Wise, wrote of him as one “whose preference for being in a minority, to his own disadvantage, was so pronounced”.

Alfred Deakin is well known: barrister, Age journalist, politician and minister, state and federally, and finally Prime Minister. His main personal interests were literature and religion, rather than law and politics. Like the others he eschewed formal or organised Christianity, but remained a deist. In his twenties he was the head of Melbourne’s spiritualists, believing in seances. All his life he wrote diary entries of self-admonishment; his was a troubled puritan conscience, worried if he was fulfilling his true vocation in life.

Overall these five were a very successful group, reasonably wealthy, who became influential politicians, journalists and lawyers and received massive public attention; they largely set the tone of public life in Victoria down to the present. They were in favour of tolerance, equality and of liberation of all kinds, including women’s rights, in favour of the separation of church and state, extending the franchise, freedom of individual conscience, and non-ostracism of dissenting opinions. They strove to redress inequalities and poverty. They opposed class domination and inherited privilege, and supported factory legislation, trade union rights, and the founding of universities and higher techs. All this was admirable, but some aspects of their particular liberal program in Victoria were more tendentious. They favoured state intervention and state utilities, state control of education and urban housing. The state school system they introduced was highly centralised, and was the carrier of state-sponsored secular liberal ideas. They vigorously opposed the conservative establishment, arguing for reform of the Legislative Council, and a land tax to break squatter dominance.

Like any influential group, the liberals operated a closely interlinked network (their five biographies read almost like one). For example Pearson chaired debates at the Athenaeum which the young Higgins and Deakin participated in. As a judge Higinbotham sponsored the young Higgins’s admission to the bar. Reciprocally the proteges returned the favours: Deakin in the Gillies Victorian government appointed Higinbotham as Chief Justice and Pearson as a minister. Deakin in his federal cabinet appointed Higgins to his High Court position. Pearson and Deakin wrote articles for Syme’s Age as cabinet ministers. All were close (if you could get close) to Syme, who converted them from free trade to protectionism. Four of the five were journalists, three barristers, four politicians (but the non-politician Syme was perhaps the most politically influential), and two had clergymen fathers. They remained vaguely religious, Deakin and Higgins supporting the Unitarians and the heretical liberal breakaway Presbyterian Australian Church of the Rev. Charles Strong. Higinbotham, Pearson and Higgins were too highly principled to be successful as politicians—Deakin was a sensible compromiser, and a more complex and impressive figure than the other four.

Reviewing their careers, we can draw certain conclusions which go against received opinion. They claimed to be victims and radical dissenters against the colonial and British administrations, against the squatters and the wealthy old establishment, but they formed a new establishment themselves. They invented as their target the straw man of an all-powerful establishment on British lines, which did not exist in Victoria. They were the establishment. Positioned in the centre between conservatives and radicals, they had great influence in politics and in forming public opinion in this period. To get support and credibility they performed the trick—which Left-liberals still do today—of presenting themselves as courageous dissenters against the powerful.

They set up a tone of superior high-mindedness, seen most noticeably in the Age. They spoke in favour of liberty and freedom and tolerance, yet their yearning for moral purity meant they were prone to impose their views on others in a quasi-coercive way. They lectured audiences on their failings in a parsonical tone learnt from their fathers. They never opened their own views up to scrutiny. Higinbotham and Pearson were early exponents of political correctness. They arranged to have removed from school texts certain Christian passages which they thought might offend agnostics, Jews, Hindus and infidels. (The true motivation for this was, I think, their dislike of formal Christianity.) They were dogmatic imposers as much as liberals. A contemporary, Professor Herbert Strong, said of them: “I always hated all liberals, and disbelieved in their honesty. They would certainly crucify the Saviour.” This tendency to moral dictatorship increased under later pressures, and many of their successors ultimately dropped liberal values. We should note that Melbourne has produced the world’s leading contemporary moraliser, Peter Singer, inventor of infanticide ethics, hardly a liberal position. 

Melbourne’s radicals were not scruffy marginalised outsiders who suffered for their courageous views. They were an elite, establishment dissenters playing both sides; this tradition of ruling-class radicalism has continued down to the present. They did not advocate civil liberties for individuals so much as for categories of people (workers, women, the oppressed), and to achieve this they supported state intervention to solve social problems. A final contradiction: they were against British and Colonial Office rules when they interfered with their pet designs, but were pro-British Empire in foreign policy—they were first to demand Britain act to secure Papua and the New Hebrides. They were not Australian nationalists. These anomalies, which arose in the formative period of Victoria’s development, got into the DNA of the system and gave rise to the “moral vanity” that still bedevils public life in Melbourne—commentators taking themselves too seriously. (I leave readers to provide their own contemporary examples.)

Some years ago Ray Evans undertook a revisionist critique of arbitration and industrial relations history via Higgins’s Harvester “family wage” judgment. A similar and broader critique on the whole Melbourne progressive liberal phenomenon is needed for the following reason. The Victorian liberals carefully protected their legacy. Relatives and descendants controlled their biographies. Nettie Higgins, niece of Higgins, wrote his memoir; Edward Morris, the son-in-law, wrote a memoir of Higinbotham; Pearson’s wife organised his memorial volume. They passed their ideology down to their disciples. The Melbourne school of history grew up learning Left-liberal ideas from them as their worldview, and they have returned the compliment by writing up a very favourable version of their predecessors. It’s a closed circle—they are all in the same bubble. But a new biography of Higinbothan, by the legal historian J.M. Bennett, shows that the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on him is often inaccurate and quite biased in his favour. So the revisionist critique has begun.

Syme’s promotion of protectionism is a familiar story. But Victoria was also protectionist in a more elevated sense. By the 1880s it was the economically dominant colony, with much more money and a more diversified economy than the so-called “premier” colony, New South Wales. Considering itself now the real premier colony, it developed a superiority complex. It set itself up as better and opposite to New South Wales, which was considered traditionalist and set in its ways, even dowdy compared with progressive Victoria. Victoria was self-sufficient, it could go it alone (as Western Australia contemplates today), it didn’t need the other colonies, it could metaphysically quarantine itself from the rest. And not just in the Australian context. Victoria’s hubris went further—it was, it believed, leading the world in social organisation. The British Liberal reformist politician Sir Charles Dilke was often quoted when he wrote in his book Problems of Great Britain: “Victoria has been the leader in the democratic and State-socialistic movements which render Australia a pioneer for England’s good.” It was the world’s exciting and innovative liberal socialist laboratory. Victoria led the world in wages boards, old-age pensions, the eight-hour day, factory legislation and so on. The collapse of the boom meant Victoria surrendered economic dominance, and it extinguished some but not all of this arrogance. Victoria prides itself that it has produced most political leaders and prime ministers since Federation; Hawke and Gillard had to come to Victoria to get to the top. 

Where did the liberal lineage go to? The short answer is—it split. In the later nineteenth century there were two broadly contending camps—conservatives and liberals—but the increasing vote for Labor changed this. The conservatives and liberals had to merge to survive the new challenge. This split the liberals, as some like Higinbotham and Pearson and Isaac Isaacs moved to Labor rather than to the Right. Deakin was crucial. In Victorian politics he had joined with Gillies in a centre-Right ministry. In federal politics he finally formed a Fusion one with conservative support—unlike the other four men, he was a sensible pragmatist. Deakin’s liberal lineage (I think the truer liberal heritage) went through his son-in-law Herbert Brookes to Menzies’s Liberal Party, whereas the Liberal Party in New South Wales is arguably more a conservative party.

The other part of the liberal tradition went to the Left and the Labor Party. But did it remain liberal? Higinbotham and Higgins supported Labor while serving as judges (no reprimand from their earlier biographers for this) and became Labor heroes—a portrait of Higinbotham was given pride of place at Melbourne’s Trades Hall. This tradition was passed on to Higgins’s niece Nettie Higgins, who married the left-wing novelist Vance Palmer. The Victorian ALP was a mixture of workers and trade unions, plus the progressive liberal tradition (the middle-class thinkers, ideologists, lawyers, and later intellectuals and academics). This progressive group influenced the ALP via the magazine Tocsin and the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP), the main ginger group, the Left but dominant third of the party, like the later Socialist Left.

Members of the VSP included the utopian poet Bernard O’Dowd, the politicians Dr William Maloney, Frank Anstey and Maurice Blackburn, the young John Curtin then leaving religion, John Cain Snr, the Rev. Frederick Sinclaire, a radical Unitarian minister, and others. The VSP was like a small religious cult or sect—it ran Sunday schools where it promulgated a socialist ten commandments. The VSP charged that the ALP was selling out to the capitalist system. The two groups (Laborites and liberals) did not fit well together, and the VSP influence helped keep the party out of power, as its radical agenda put off Labor voters. The Catholic Tribune of May 20, 1912, wrote: “We want an annual conference [of Labor] that is a true representation of Labor, not merely the extreme section of it … The Labor Party in Victoria has for many years been on the rocks.” This was a reference to the Left secularist clique, more interested in doctrinal purity than electoral success, which ran the Victorian party, as it did with Bill Hartley decades later in the 1960s.

The Victorian Labor Party was therefore very different from the New South Wales one. The Australian Labor Party was founded in Sydney. Cardinal Moran supported the London dock strikers and the Australian strikers in the 1890s and helped form a respectable, right-wing ALP which was very successful electorally compared with its Victorian counterpart. This Labor–Catholic alliance lasted for a century, and is only now crumbling before our eyes. In Victoria the two groups, the socialist Left and the Catholics, rejoined forces during the conscription campaigns and remained uneasily together until they fell out totally in 1955, but not in Sydney. Moreover Australian nationalism was stronger in Sydney, home of its main promoter the Bulletin, than in Melbourne, which had, strangely, both a more Anglo-Australian and a more radical atmosphere.

It’s difficult to trace the precise trajectory of liberals discarding their liberal values. Obviously the First World War, which made many people disillusioned and cynical, and the Bolshevik revolution, which made many people pseudo-idealistic, had a great influence. The co-existence of cynicism and idealism is a dangerous mixture. Authoritarianism, always latent in nineteenth-century liberalism with its superior moral tone, came to the fore. By the 1920s and 1930s Left-liberals involved in domestic politics favoured socialism, nationalisation and state intervention, in other words widespread schemes of social engineering to impose their views on the community. Those involved in world politics often supported regimes that got to power by killing and kept in power by killing, like the Bolsheviks, hardly exponents of liberal beliefs. 

Between the wars the fellow travellers Brian Fitzpatrick and Maurice Blackburn (the latter went to school at Melbourne Grammar) kept the civil liberties tradition alive, but they were radicals now on the margins of society, not at the centre like the nineteenth-century liberals. Their bona fides as genuine liberals were severely compromised by their support of the Soviet Union. Continued emphasis on individual infringements of civil liberties in our society carried with it the implication that we were victims of a tyrannical society; there was no mention of the British civic virtues which make us basically a free society. Encouraging an individual’s autonomous economic progress (the Deakin–Brookes–Menzies line) is a broader and truer form of liberalism than the civil liberties concern with occasional victims of injustice.

For these reasons the Victorian ALP, identified in the public mind with extremists, continued to be in the wilderness. Nettie Higgins’s family despaired of liberalism. Her brother Esmonde Higgins became an early communist, and Melbourne radicals now made trips to Moscow or the Spanish Civil War as fellow travellers of communism. In contrast in Sydney the influential philosopher John Anderson as a true libertarian turned anti-communist and inoculated Sydney thinkers against the Stalinist virus. In addition under his influence the liberal impulse was diverted away from the political realm into the libertarian push and its penumbra. By this stage both major parties in Victoria were to the left of their Sydney counterparts—a Left Victorian ALP and a right-wing New South Wales ALP, and Menzies more classically liberal than his New South Wales counterparts. Melbourne’s long history of progressivism meant that under the pressure of events these ideas morphed into extreme, non-liberal ones. It became the home and repository of the hard Left in Australia, and remains so to this day.

It is therefore no coincidence that when the antipodean Kim Philby, the Soviet agent Ian Milner, came to Australia from New Zealand he chose Melbourne, where he felt quite at home. He helped set up the Melbourne University Politics Department, and in 1944 arranged a position for Manning Clark, whose father was an Anglican clergyman and who swung between admiration for Christ and Lenin. When Milner left in 1945, he was replaced by the hard-line communist Lloyd Churchward, whose family has been described as “saturated with Methodist parsons and missionaries”. The Politics Department was soon headed by William MacMahon Ball, whose father was an Anglican clergyman—the young MacMahon Ball contemplated joining the ministry but became a rationalist. Norman Richmond, an New Zealand crypto-communist like Milner, was also appointed. Milner moved to External Affairs in Canberra, where the head under Dr Evatt had been Dr John Burton, whose father was a Methodist clergyman. James Jupp has written that there were “many idealistic Stalinists at Melbourne University in the 1940s”. The Communist Party was founded in Sydney but the dominant Aarons family was from Melbourne, and its extreme wing, Jim Hill, a Soviet agent, and his brother Ted Hill, a Maoist agent, came from Melbourne. The Monash Maoists under Albert Langer were the most extreme of the Australian student demonstrators, thus continuing Melbourne’s reputation for ideological fanaticism. On the other side of politics only Melbourne had the ideological fervour to produce a Santamaria.

Liberation movements began in nineteenth-century England as small middle-class and marginalised elites (sexual liberation, homosexual liberation, socialists, agnostics, anarchists, bohemians, Marxists, nudists, nature lovers, vegetarians), and after a long hibernation caused by two world wars and two depressions, they emerged in the 1960s onwards as the counterculture, a mass movement, not a small elite. The bearded sandal wearers and fruit juice drinkers Orwell noticed as off-beat people at Fabian summer schools in the 1930s were now everywhere. Melbourne became the centre for political campaigns such as opposing the White Australia policy, supporting nuclear disarmament, the moratorium marches and so on. The progressive strand inherited from the nineteenth century grew as the traditional working-class vote and trade unions diminished. The Age turned Left-liberal. Now wealthier university-educated people read it and voted Labor, and Herald and Sun readers began to look to the non-Labor parties. This first showed up in voting patterns in the 1974 election under Whitlam: Melbourne, Canberra (known ideologically as a suburb of Melbourne), Sydney and the eastern states began to move to Labor, as did university seats. The Left-liberal ideological tradition began at last to have electoral success. Melbourne Labor voters don’t emote when they see Simon Crean, but they do when they see Julian Burnside.

Patrick Morgan’s latest book is Foothill Farmers: The Literature of Gippsland (Ngarak Press).

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