Liberalism: Australia’s Dominant Political Tradition

A conservative historian David Kemp is not, as his treatment of Eureka, to cite but one example, makes abundantly clear. His approach both rescues the rebellion from Marxist historians and shows it for what it really was: the triumph of a democratic, individualist and revolutionary liberalism

The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, 1788–1860
by David Kemp
Miegunyah, 2018, 501 pages, $59.99

This book, the first of five projected volumes on the impact of liberal thought on Australian life from 1788 to the present, is a game changer in Australian historiography. It changes the game not by attacking other readings (the pessimism of Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore, or the class-focused histories) but by briefly acknowledging their contributions and then surpassing them in significance by recounting the dominant political discourse in this country’s history, which is neither conservatism nor socialism but liberalism—Whig liberalism, J.S. Mill’s brand of liberalism, and radical-individualist liberalism.

Because the book is a history of the nation as moulded by ideas across the period from 1788 to 1860, it gives considerable space to the history and development of those ideas. This inevitably means that the narrative flow you tend to get in any popularising history, the sense of things happening one-after-the-other, the on-rush of history, the kinetics of the narrative, is serial in a book like this, with the relevant background of ideas interspersed or interwoven where required. Any book on the history of ideas is like that, and this study is above all a history of ideas. If you’re seriously interested in the subject you need the book to be like that.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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For example, Cook’s expedition of 1770—scientific in focus, liberal in spirit—is given its necessary Enlightenment contexts. The earliest governors of New South Wales, appointed and authorised in London, whose executive and legislative powers were progressively shared with advisory councils at first nominated and then elected on the basis of education and property, are described within their intellectual contexts. Kemp points out:

A significant characteristic of these governors was that, for the most part, they were men who tended to support the more reformist and liberal, rather than the more conservative and aristocratic, ideas of their age. This was because those who appointed them were influenced by the intellectual bearers of these ideas in England, and were agreeable to attempts to apply what were then considered advanced ideas in the new world that was opening up.

And Kemp proves this. The ideas included humanitarian reform, legal equality for all classes and religions, a higher degree of social equality, and the affirmation of the social and economic value of individual freedom. The settlement and development of Australia were seen as:

a vast social experiment in which, since it was a new venture, the most modern policy ideas should be applied: ideas about the separation of public and private interest; about the encouragement of enterprise; the natural equality of all people; freedom of the press; penal reform.

And all this before the Australian colonies were self-governed, after which the process accelerated.

The tradition began with Arthur Phillip himself, who was personally interviewed by George III before the announcement of the eleven-ship expedition, an unprecedented venture for the Royal Navy in conception and scope. Phillip had executive and legislative power over half a continent and its adjacent islands, and exercised it with a sense of justice and fairness to both convicts and native people. He saw the convicts not as people defined by their past but as people with a future to be made or marred according to choice. Most, he knew, would become free, many would marry and have families, many would have land of their own, undreamed of at home. He thought New South Wales would turn out to be one of Britain’s proudest achievements. Phillip aimed to prevent his crews, and most certainly the convicts, from mixing with the natives, and he declared that “there can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves”. Sadly, his enthusiasm for the arrival of free settlers would be disappointed during his relatively brief term.

Even as convicts, those with skills could work as architects, accountants, artists, even as administrators. Convicts in New South Wales could hold property, despite an English law forbidding it. Pardons could be gained relatively easily compared with the situation back home and, once pardoned, former convicts could own land on the same terms as free immigrants. Convicts could be assigned to ex-convicts as servants. Ex-convicts could be officers of the law. At the time of Macquarie’s arrival, all the lawyers in the colony were ex-convicts. Macquarie was criticised by the moralising preacher, flogger and enemy of all things Papist, Samuel Marsden, for employing emancipated convicts at Government House. When word got back to Wilberforce and the conservative Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, they sided with Macquarie. There was resistance to liberalising tendencies from John Macarthur and the “conservative” interests in the colony. As Kemp points out, men like Macarthur might more properly be termed individualist liberals rather than conservatives, quite different in spirit from the idealistic and reforming liberals who might be seen as prototypes of what American Republicans today think of as liberals: virtuous types keen on social engineering, “bleeding-heart liberals”. Kemp acknowledges the difficulty in nomenclature, which requires far more distinctions than “small-l” and “capital-L”. In navigating the soup of liberal ideas, distinctions are important and labels unavoidable.

Signal achievements of liberalism in Britain such as the 1832 Reform Act, and movements for more radical reforms, particularly the Chartist movement, were not only conversational currency in New South Wales from early on, they were amplified and used as weaponry in the struggle for representative government. In support of that, massive public meetings in Sydney took on a populist cast at times. “This, Mr Sheriff, is a Meeting of the People,” one spokesman at a big demonstration declared, threatening to oust the sheriff from his office.

Among liberal ideas Kemp clearly shares is free trade, and Adam Smith is generally endorsed. One could enter a couple of caveats. Smith himself, as Kemp acknowledges, observed that “The wealth of a neighbouring nation” is “dangerous in war and politics”, however advantageous it may be in trade. Generally, Smith had a benign view of human nature, typical of the Enlightenment of which he was a part. However, there’s massive evidence in every generation since the siege of Troy that the natural state between nations, particularly neighbouring nations, is one of war—direct, or by diplomacy. For that adequate reason, the shuffling-off of defence-related industries like steel and aluminium, military hardware, hard and soft technology of all kinds, to wherever it can be produced most cheaply is not very clever. It’s like transferring your money from your insurance policy to your savings account. However, lessons are learned and forgotten, so the trade argument is never-ending. I suspect Kemp realises that.

Among the forces for change that had relatively little impact on Australia through the years covered by this volume was Marxism. The Communist Manifesto (1847) was first translated into English in 1850, though of course communist ideas stretched back to antiquity and were represented during the English Civil War by the Levellers. The Manifesto’s opening words were “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. As Kemp points out:

The concept that society was engaged in a perpetual struggle between classes directly challenged Smith’s idea that there was a natural harmony of interests in a society that recognised economic liberty, and that this would lead to growing prosperity.

All that was needed for this harmony to occur was a system of just laws. “Sound institutions made all the difference. In Smith’s view—given just laws—conflicts such as strikes were temporary breakdowns of the normal order of things.”

Marx’s concept of perpetual struggle between classes would have a profound influence on industrial relations, including in Australia beyond the period covered by this volume, but that influence would then gradually reduce as Marx’s prediction of a continuing grinding-down of the working class was belied over time by its opposite, an amelioration of working conditions and wages, rising standards of living and an increasing amount of leisure-time in which to enjoy them. These advances were a product, Kemp points out, “of political democracy of the kind advocated by the Chartists”, and they changed “the whole set of assumptions that underlay Marx’s strategy”.

Another way of putting this is that the concept of rigid classes was belied by their increasing fluidity. Kemp traces as far back as the 1860s the advocacy in Australia of Marxism as strictly understood, pointing out that, even then, the problem for its Australian advocates was that reality was betraying the seductive theory. As Kemp puts it:

The idea that the liberal economy was in the process of polarising society between two classes was not supported by either British or Australian reality, nor by the experience of any other “capitalist” society. On the contrary, the tendency of the liberal economy based on private property proved to be to encourage the growth of a large property-owning middle class, and for the working class to be slowly absorbed into this middle class. The obvious failure of Marx’s prediction in this matter in industrial societies meant that his “revolution” was never to be more than the aspiration of relatively small groups of largely middle-class radicals, who remained inspired by the hope, despite the experience.

We live in the aftermath of its peaceful demise, though its ghost still haunts academe.

Far more prescient were the ideas John Stuart Mill advanced in his Principles of Political Economy (1848). The Principles was an updating of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, taking account of what had been learned in the intervening years about the functioning of societies and economies. It would have enormous influence not only on British liberalism but on British democratic socialism. Mill laid out a radical reform program to eliminate social injustices and usher in a more egalitarian society with dignity for all, achievable, he thought, by the application of liberal principles. Decrying a laissez-faire attitude to the growth of industry, he increasingly advocated a stronger government role to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth. He acknowledged a polarising class division in his contemporary society but believed it could be ameliorated via an educated democracy, legal reform and voluntary action.

Mill was especially interested in Australia, where just laws, he saw, were providing access to the land and a fairer distribution of wealth. Settler societies had advantages over old societies: no overpopulation, no entrenched aristocracy, labour in short supply and hence well rewarded, a future unburdened by the past. In Australia labourers could actually save money, buy land and establish economic independence for themselves and their families. It was worthwhile to work hard, unlike in Britain with its oversupply of cheap labour, its grimy factories, its shocking mal-distribution of riches—and no exit, aside from emigrating. Even there, however, legislative reform might achieve a fairer society.

Mill was in a sense a liberal socialist, and Australia’s Liberal Party as conceived by Menzies, particularly in terms of its focus on education and health, is liberal in that tradition. Even radical liberals of a minimalist-government persuasion accept the need for a degree of socialism, though they are disinclined to call it that. By the early twentieth century, Kemp points out, not only the most significant of the Australian Labor Party’s founders, William Morris Hughes, would be acknowledging Mill’s influence on his thinking, but also the Liberal Alfred Deakin and his followers (such as Frederick Eggleston), all of them recognising “that in some respects they were socialists”, an important point.

The economic sympathies of this volume are generally of the radical-liberal and individualist kind, the tradition of liberalism revitalised by Margaret Thatcher, not the tradition represented, for instance, by Britain’s Liberal Democrats. Though there is not much ideological space between the two men, it would be fair to say that David Kemp is less of a conservative Liberal than John Howard, the outstanding exemplar of the conservative strain of Australian Liberalism in this generation. In any case, Kemp’s sympathies engage the reader on the side of the dominant forces being described, which for the period covered, and particularly from the 1840s on, were increasingly radical-liberal in the individualist sense.

Nowhere is this radical strain of the book clearer than in the chapters on the period from 1846 to 1856, the decade that saw the Anti-Transportation League achieve victory, most of the colonies win self-government, the inception of the Victorian gold rush and the Eureka rebellion. All are considered within the history of ideas. Rather than attempting to synthesise what Kemp has to say on each of them, it may be more instructive to focus on one in particular, for reasons that will become clear.

The Eureka rebellion is placed historically where it was, not within the socialist-collectivist tradition to which it is too frequently assigned, but within the radical-individualist tradition: a fight for individual rights including the right to grow rich without being robbed by government in the process, for the right to resist unrepresentative power, for the right to remain free of government interference in a self-rewarding enterprise. This is not to negate the influence on some of the rebels at Ballarat of the European revolutions of 1848, largely socialist in spirit, or the miners’ self-conscious sense of solidarity and collective determination that marked their armed resistance to a perceived tyranny. The undeniable fact, however, is that every last one of them came here to strike it rich. Kemp’s vocabulary in this key section of the book merits close attention and reveals his own radicalism. In a sense it’s a condensation of the tone of the entire volume, so it’s justifiable to give disproportionate space to the way he presents Eureka.

As he correctly points out, it was “a massacre carried out by British-controlled troops more serious than that in Boston in 1770”. It occurred contemporaneously with the campaign to stop transportation of convicts to Australia, an “overt campaigning by some citizens for an independent republic on the American model, and the final establishment of popularly elected governments that alone had the right to tax Australians”. Kemp adds that “some influential Australians even drafted a declaration of independence in the American style”. At the Colonial Office in London there was a sense of resignation through the late 1840s and early 1850s, with Herman Merivale, Permanent Under-Secretary for the colonies, referring to the “great Australian Republic which probably is to be”.

Seen within those contexts, the massacre at Eureka was “the moment at which a popular democratic movement organised an armed revolt, seized control of the agenda, acquired martyrs and asserted its rights”. A conservative historian does not write like that. A conservative historian would tend to minimise, not maximise the significance of Eureka. Kemp recognises that this historical moment of justified and violent resistance in the cause of “no taxation without representation” coloured irreversibly the character of Australian and especially Victorian democracy. By the end of that decade Victoria would have an electoral system and parliamentary chambers far more democratic than those in Britain or for that matter almost anywhere else in the world. Within a few years the leader of the Eureka revolt would be a member and subsequently the Speaker in Victoria’s popular chamber of government.

The Victorian goldfields would have constituted a huge challenge to the wisest of governors, let alone Sir Charles Hotham—tens of thousands of wildly ambitious, self-seeking individuals, most of them well educated, with minimal capital they weren’t sharing with anyone, flooding in from all over the world: independent-minded Young Irelanders contemptuous of British authority; Englishmen fed up with their class-ridden society; adventurers and desperadoes from California, from the Lone Star State and even wilder parts of America, bringing their Colt revolvers with them; young and spirited Germans frustrated by counter-revolution at home, seeking their fortunes; radicals from France skilled in the construction of barricades, wanting to be rich; unificationists and anti-clericalists from Italy uncaring if they never sighted a priest again; burly Russians, tough Swedes, and thousands from southern China speaking little English, guided across country from Robe in South Australia. Women too, gold-diggers of 1854 one way or another. They were libertarian by the very nature of the quest. Lola Montez would soon arrive: “I’m not a machine for scandal—I always do as I please, that’s all.” She was in her element visiting those fields. In always doing as she pleased she was just like them. In some ways Australia has never been so free and libertarian.

There was an equalising element in the fact of everyone being an immigrant. The Governor was a temporary immigrant! The key questions were “Why obey him? Who among us elected him? And who does he represent when he legislates a damnable tax upon us?” On September 13, 1854, Governor Hotham ordered the police to make inspections of miners’ licences (a tax) twice weekly. At Ballarat they were having to dig deeper for their nuggets, and tempers were fraying. The ex-convict owner of the Eureka Hotel had violently assaulted some miners but had not been committed to trial, so diggers burned his hotel to the ground, and Hotham reinforced the garrison. There’s never any moralising from Kemp, and his narrative around Eureka is cool and objective. A conservative might write something like “In a fit of fury the mob torched his hotel”. A socialist would justify it. But it was not a fit, they were not a mob, and there’s nothing to justify. A crowd of miners retaliated by burning down his hotel, that’s all.

In an atmosphere of increasing tension the Ballarat Reform League was formed in October 1854 to defend miners against officialdom. Ten thousand assembled at Bakery Hill and endorsed the League’s principles and aims, which Kemp quotes:

  • That it is the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey.
  • That taxation without representation is tyranny.
  • That if Queen Victoria continues to act upon the ill advice of dishonest ministers … the Reform League will endeavour to supersede such Royal prerogative by asserting that of the people … [as] the people are the only legitimate source of political power.

All good radical-liberal principles.

On November 16, Hotham sent all the soldiers he could muster to Ballarat and rebuffed approaches for a peaceful resolution of grievances. In response the League decided to recommend the burning of licences. On November 29, under the flag of the Southern Cross, a vast crowd supported the motion to burn licences and called for “the united people” to protect and defend anyone subject to attempted arrest. With a hot wind blowing, scores of individuals took out their strike-anywhere matches and set their licences ablaze. Defences were set up at Eureka and Peter Lalor enrolled volunteers in companies: a people’s militia, in effect. They created a stockade and organised its defence. Four hundred police and troops assaulted it in the middle of the night and killed around thirty miners for the loss of five soldiers. A Royal Commission subsequently recommended a general amnesty, but treason trials began. Juries then proceeded to acquit all thirteen accused. Armed resistance against state force had in this key instance been vindicated. “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

A conservative historian would describe all of this in a quite different tone and opt for “balance”. Kemp adopts into his radical-liberal narrative the pro-rebel point of view without demurrer. He endorses the popular account and reveals Eureka’s radical-liberal nature. Eureka is the climax of the volume, rescued in all its violence and revolutionary force from the Marxist historians and shown for what it really was: the triumph not just of a democratic but of an individualist and aspirational will-to-power, revolutionary liberalism, “Leave us alone to strike it rich!” and “Go to hell with your tax!”

Because this volume (like four more soon to appear) is both a profound and challenging treatment of its subject and not a popularising account, it cannot be ignored by Australian historians of the Left, who will have to deal with it at length. It will be a headache-and-a-half for them, which won’t go away. It bypasses their narratives and describes the dominant stream of ideas behind this country’s development, the stream of liberalism. Because the volume is so carefully illustrative of the history, influence and adoption of the dominant ideas animating that development, good luck to anyone who plans to refute it.

Philip Ayres is a biographer and literary historian, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He has taught in universities here and in the United States, and lives in Victoria.


1 comment
  • Stephen Due

    If anyone reads an overview of the history of Australia by a socialist historian, they will soon find that in fact socialism was the dominant factor in Australia’s political development. Unionism, state education and all that. If you read an overview by a Christian historian, you will magically discover that in fact it was Christianity that decisively shaped Australia, with its churches and its stabilising, civilising influence..
    I personally have no interest in reading yet another 500 pages of guff trying to prove that yet another author’s favourite ideology was shaping Australia’s history all the time and leading inexorably to the wonderful paradise of multicultural love and harmony we all enjoy today.
    Personally I find liberalism and all the ridiculous rhetoric about the brave revolutionary spirit of Eureka utterly unconvincing. If you read the colonial newspapers, as I do constantly, you will find hardly a shred of this liberalism business in them. What you find predominantly is Christian and anti-Christian rhetoric, and the reason for that is (presumably) pretty obvious.
    The Australian colonists were convicts, the military, capitalists and an aspirational working class. None of them were interested in “liberalism” or the ideas of J. S. Mill.

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