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Oxford Companion to Australian Politics

Marian Sawer


Liberalism is a protean political tradition whose major defining element has been its concern for individual liberty. British settlement in Australia coincided with the utilitarian turn in liberalism and the debunking of notions of natural Rights and the social contract. Hence liberalism in Australia never looked as it did in the US colonies, where ideas of natural rights and limited government were institutionalised by the founding fathers.

The liberal tradition in Australia was not, however, restricted to Utilitarianism, as is sometimes suggested. The idealist social liberalism of T. H. Green, an Oxford academic, was a strong influence in the nation-building period of the 1890s. In addition there was always a strand of classical laissez-faire liberalism, and this enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The ambiguous relationship between liberalism and the political parties that have operated in its name presents yet another complexity.

A utilitarian strain of liberalism was prominent from the late eighteenth century under the influence of Jeremy Bentham and his utilitarian circle, including James Mill and John Stuart Mill. Policy was to be directed to achieving the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This was a materialist philosophy in which no moral judgments were to be made of preferences; in principle everyone was to count as one, and no one for more than one—although John Stuart Mill tended to believe there should be weighting in favour of the educated.

The founding of the Australian colonies provided opportunities for putting into practice the utilitarian approach to administrative and electoral reform. Most importantly, ‘responsibility’ was to be substituted for ‘irresponsibility’ at all points of the political system, particularly through manhood suffrage. Aggregation of individual preferences was both the best measure of policy and the best defence against the interests that had corrupted government in Britain. Freedom of the press was another important defence against corrupt and inefficient government.

The influence of the middle-class philosophic radicals was reinforced by the Chartists, who arrived at the Victorian goldfields and pursued a democratic agenda of representation of the people, not of property (see Chartism). It was seen in inventions such as the secret ballot—a government-issued ballot paper, intended to remove corrupt influence from elections, introduced in Victoria by the philosophic radical H. S. Chapman.

John Stuart Mill's influence in Australia was perhaps most evident in the areas of women's suffrage and proportional representation, where his authority was frequently invoked. His case for women's suffrage was a mixture of utilitarian arguments (the protection of interests) and developmental themes concerning the positive effects of engagement with issues of the public good. In many respects J. S. Mill was a transitional figure between utilitarianism and the concerns of social liberalism. He was also an influential advocate of Hare's system of proportional representation: representation of minority opinion within parliamentary debate, he believed, was more likely to lead to good policy than simple rule of the majority. It would both enhance deliberation and ensure more effective scrutiny of administration.

Influenced by Mill, South Australian reformer Catherine Helen Spence promoted the cause of proportional representation from the 1860s. She improved on Hare by substituting multi-member electorates for a nationwide constituency. Thanks to Andrew Inglis Clark, the single transferable vote was first introduced for parliamentary elections in Tasmania in the 1890s. The Hare–Clark (or Hare–Spence–Clark) system became an enduring part of Australian electoral innovation in the twentieth century.

The interpretation of the Australian political tradition as essentially utilitarian was popularised by W. K. Hancock in his landmark book Australia (1930). It became an essential ingredient of more recent accounts, such as Paul Kelly's End of Certainty (1992). Kelly suggested that the ‘protection all round’ of the Australian Settlement reflected a utilitarian urge to promote individual happiness through government intervention.

As Tim Rowse has observed, Hancock was influenced by the view of the new professional economists that conflation of ethics and economics was dangerous and paved the way for rent-seeking in the name of justice. This view—that state intervention to promote social justice inevitably leads to securing special advantage from the state by special interests—has become central to the market liberalism of the late twentieth century.

Following Hancock, utilitarianism—particularly the use of the state to provide material happiness for citizens—has generally been regarded the dominant ingredient of the Australian political tradition. Although utilitarianism was the ascendant form of liberalism at the time of British settlement in Australia and influenced electoral and administrative innovation, by the time of nation building in the 1890s Green's social liberalism was in the ascendant. This was an idealist strand of liberalism quite distinct from the materialism of Benthamite utilitarianism, and it drew on the well-springs of evangelical fervour. Liberty was not merely atomistic pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, but active citizenship and pursuit of the common good. The felicific calculus was replaced by a moral calculus.

This gospel of social reform was brought to Australia by Oxford and Glasgow graduates and propounded from pulpit and lectern. It was most influential in the period between the 1880s and the end of World War I. Social liberal texts such as David Ritchie's Principles of State Interference helped frame the thinking both of Liberal and of Labor politicians.

The state was not just a vast public utility at the service of material happiness, or an organ of syndical satisfaction; rather it had an ethical purpose: to provide equal opportunity for development of human capabilities (see Equality). First, this meant a comprehensive system of public education to enable every child to ‘fulfil his mission as a citizen of a free state’, as George Higinbotham said in the Victorian Parliament in 1867. The public education system was to provide a common education for common purposes, in place of the Class distinctions created by separate systems. Second, equal opportunity required regulation of labour market contracts to ensure individuals had means and leisure to participate in the life of the community. It was only through such active Citizenship that individuals would realise their full potential and their distinctively human capacities. In turn, existence of the ethical state depended on citizens holding it to its purpose and putting the common good before private interests.

Social liberalism was not only critical of utilitarianism but also of the idea of the sanctity of contract. T. H. Green counterposed the idea of positive liberty for human development with the negative liberty of laissez-faire. In conditions of social and economic inequality, contracts could easily become instruments of oppression rather than security for freedom. Positive liberty required interference with contracts that were harmful to development of human capacity.

Social liberalism inspired politicians such as Prime Minister Deakin to believe the state could and should become the vehicle of social justice. It also inspired the politicians and judges who created the system of compulsory conciliation and Arbitration. H. B. Higgins, for example, echoed the social liberal critique of contract in laying down the need for state intervention to ensure wages and conditions adequate for participation in a civilised community. Reduction in hours of labour was among the early achievements of compulsory arbitration and was viewed as part of the active citizenship project. H. V. Evatt, in Liberalism in Australia (1918), claimed that the ideals and principles of the new liberalism—still largely at the conceptual stage elsewhere—had found embodiment in the legislation of the young Commonwealth.

Social liberalism, with its operational concepts of equal opportunity and citizenship as service, was a variant of liberalism particularly sympathetic to the claims of women. Social liberal discourse articulated interdependence of citizen and community, rather than the atomistic individuals described by Bentham or the autonomous rights–bearing individuals of early liberalism. The idea of the autonomy of individuals had ignored the primacy of connection in most women's lives, as well as the web of relationships that fostered individual development. Suffragists found much scope in social liberal discourse for pursuit of women's political equality and for projects such as old age pensions and child endowment. Social liberal campaigners for pensions emphasised the claims of women whose non-market work precluded savings. For most women the old-age pension was the first time they received equal pay.

Social liberalism was also critical of the public–private distinctions of classical liberalism, instead emphasising the rights of women and children within families and the need for state intervention to protect those rights. These themes linked to suffragist concerns regarding temperance, sexual abuse, and domestic violence and led to initiatives such as the disenfranchising of those convicted of wife beating in New South Wales. Suffragists also utilised social liberal discourse in campaigning for parks, playgrounds, kindergartens and adequate teacher training.

Male social liberals articulated the rights of women to equal opportunity but clung to the belief that women would make their greatest contribution through their family roles. Thus the Harvester decision enshrined the family wage—rather than equal pay—as the heart of the Australian Industrial relations system.

The operational concepts of equal opportunity and active citizenship flowed together in the Civics curriculum prepared for the new system of public schools. Australia's first civics textbook, The Laws we Live Under, was written by Catherine Helen Spence and published in 1880. In it she explained how in a new country the public good required many things to be undertaken by government rather than being left to private enterprise or paid for out of local rates. The role of the citizens was to watch and check that the multifarious functions of government were indeed undertaken in the public interest and to bring this judgment to bear when voting. As part of her own active citizenship Spence played a major role in the de-institutionalisation and boarding-out of destitute children. She was proud of the fact that in Australia it was the state rather than private philanthropy that took responsibility for child welfare.

Walter Murdoch, the author of the best-selling civics text, The Australian Citizen (1912), also stressed the role of the state in development of its citizens and wrote that ‘the measure of man's liberties is the measure of his opportunities’. The state, through its rules and regulations, was in fact enhancing individual liberty; the state was removing obstacles and securing the means whereby individuals could realise their potential. Again, the corollary of what the state did for citizens was the responsibility of citizens to pursue the common good and to cast informed votes.

As in the United Kingdom, one offshoot of social liberalism was the creation of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). The secular evangelists of the WEA pioneered democratic delivery of Adult Education and linking of Trade unions to universities. One of its early directors summed up the WEA's aims as not only to develop latent capacities of the individual but to educate for active citizenship, so that society might be modified where necessary to secure proper development of the individuals who lived in it.

Until the global revival of laissez-faire liberalism in the mid-1970s this strand of liberalism had been particularly weak in Australia—a fact noted by countless international visitors. The idea that market contracts were a template for a society based on voluntary rather than coercive relationships had little purchase in the nineteenth-century colonies.

Nonetheless, the ‘Manchester’ school of Liberalism associated with John Bright and Richard Cobden influenced free-trade leaders such as George Reid in New South Wales and found a more systematic exponent in Bruce Smith, later member for Parkes in the federal parliament. His book, published in London and Melbourne in 1887, was entitled Liberty and Liberalism and subtitled A protest against the growing tendency toward undue interference by the state, with individual liberty, private enterprise and the rights of property. Smith believed that both in Britain and in Australia the term ‘liberalism’ had come to mean state interference rather than freedom from such interference; liberalism had become the instrument of class legislation favouring the working classes and ignoring the laws of political economy. Smith was an opponent even of public education, and was widely regarded by his contemporaries as a political relic. But he was consistent in his laissez-faire principles and, unlike the social liberals, opposed the White Australia Policy and immigration restriction as well as opposing welfare legislation and compulsory arbitration.

The character of liberal parties in Australia adds another dimension to the complexity of liberalism. For example, the 1909 fusion of federal protectionists and free traders created a Liberal Party comprising seemingly incompatible elements: Deakinite social liberals who believed in the state as the vehicle of social justice, and free traders who combined a laissez-faire approach in economic matters with interventionist social conservatism.

The only thing bringing these liberal and conservative elements together was the threat posed by the rise of the Australian Labor Party (—see ALP). The disparate elements making up the first federal Liberal Party, and then its successors the Nationalists and the United Australia Party, were united only in their opposition to Labor's ‘socialism’ and in upholding organisational principles such as Federalism and the independence of parliamentary representatives from extra-parliamentary control.

The Liberal Party founded by Sir Robert Menzies in 1945 also contained disparate elements, but under his leadership combined an embrace of Keynesian economics with a social Conservatism that upheld White Australia, traditional family structures, the Monarchy, and other aspects of British heritage. Nonetheless, there were also so-called ‘small l’ liberal elements in the party concerned with civil liberties and human Rights—elements that became more evident after the retirement of Menzies. His retirement signalled an end to repressive policies such as the ‘marriage bar’ in public service employment and led to the gradual dismantling of the White Australia policy and of assimilationist policies in the areas of Aboriginal and ethnic affairs (see Assimilation).

In the 1970s some of the ‘small l’ reformers in the party moved over to the Australia Party and its successor, the Australian Democrats; these parties became a new home for social liberalism. Within the Liberal Party ‘small l’ liberal elements became increasingly marginalised in the late 1980s. Under the leadership of John Howard from 1995 the party emphasised its social conservatism while distancing itself from regulation of the economy and the labour market characteristic of the Menzies period.

The Liberal Party of Australia, unlike the British or Canadian Liberals, does not belong to Liberal International. Instead, like the British and Canadian Conservatives (and US Republicans), it belongs to the International Democrat Union. Like these conservative parties it articulated market populist themes in the 1990s, denigrating elites who favoured big government. In particular, it advocated the need for all citizens to be treated ‘the same’, rolling back policies which recognised that equality of opportunity required the recognition and accommodation of group differences.

The last quarter of the twentieth century saw a revival of earlier forms of liberalism and increasing attacks on the social liberal philosophy that had underpinned the Welfare state. New Think tanks were created—starting with the Centre for Independent Studies in 1976—to promote neo-liberalism based upon the ideas of ‘classical’ liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek. The latter's critique of the welfare state, Law, Legislation and Liberty, depicted the idea of Social justice as a mirage. Market outcomes should not be the subject of moral disapprobation or material reparation; they were the result of an impersonal but beneficent process rather than being consciously willed. ‘Social justice’ was simply an excuse to intrude on the liberty expressed by individuals through market choices.

In denying the legitimacy of redistribution, Hayek attacked the rationale of the welfare state at its heart. He denied the social origins of wealth and the corresponding claims of society to resources needed to redress the effects of inequality. Liberty was to be found only in market exchanges, not in the social provision required for equal opportunity. Or, as Milton Friedman and his Australian followers expressed it, the currency of the market was freedom; that of the state power and coercion.

This view of the world became increasingly familiar in the Australia of the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the new think tanks and their access to the mass media, in particular the Murdoch press. It was buttressed by the ideas of US public choice theorists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, who applied axioms from economic theory to analysis of social and political life. According to their ‘rational actor’ premises, individual as well as collective action was motivated by the desire to maximise returns. So-called ‘public interest’ groups were in fact ‘special interests’ seeking advantages through the state that could not be obtained in the open market.

Freedom of choice and the sanctity of contract regained a centrality in liberal thinking that justified dismantling the labour market regulation created by social liberalism a hundred years before. Liberalism had shifted markedly from Deakin's view of the state as the vehicle of social justice to a view that the state was responsible for welfare dependency and lack of economic competitiveness.

Liberal ideology was as important as ever—but in forms that rejected both the interpersonal comparisons of utility found in utilitarianism and the concept of the ethical state found in Australia's nation building period. In their most influential manifestations, laissez-faire views on the economy had become strongly allied with conservative positions on social values and prioritising of family and nation over liberal individualism. In this most recent version of liberalism—best called market liberalism—it was almost as if the new Social movements of the 1960s and 1970s had never happened, so little impact had they made on some very old frames of reference.

Marian Sawer

Further reading

Brett, Judith (2003), Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle ClassFind this resource:

    Melleuish, Gregory (1995), Cultural Liberalism in AustraliaFind this resource:

      Nethercote, John R. (ed.) (2001), Liberalism and the Australian FederationFind this resource:

        Rowse, Tim (1978), Australian Liberalism and National CharacterFind this resource:

          Sawer, Marian (2003), The Ethical State? Social Liberalism in AustraliaFind this resource: