Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
How does a penal colony become a bastion of liberal thought? With its autocratic governors appointed by Britain, military control and exploitative monopolies, colonial Australia could well have decomposed to dictatorship and poverty.
David Kemp is preparing “a biography of liberalism in Australia” in five volumes. By any measure, this is a major undertaking. Preparing multiple volumes with the evident research and analysis is something that few could contemplate. The set promises to be a seminal resource for readers now and in the future. The first volume covers the longest period – from European settlement in 1788 up to 1860.
“This volume tells the story of how Australians became a free people, gaining the liberties they desired to take control of their own lives, the freedom and right to govern themselves and the capacity to address their own political problems through democratic institutions.” In doing so they “…laid the foundations for one of the world’s most successful countries, which has achieved unprecedented levels of personal freedom and social equality”.
It is very much a book about political processes and who better to write it than one who has been a politician as well as a learned student and teacher of politics. He was member of the federal parliament for 14 years, including eight years as a minister in the Howard (Liberal) government. Prior to that, he was a Professor of Politics, and has since returned to academia. He is a Fellow of the Australia & New Zealand School of Government and board member of the Grattan Institute for Public Policy. He has an extensive publishing record on political liberalism, political ideas and Liberal Party prime ministers.
He asserts that liberalism “has been the source of the dominant political ideals in Australian politics” and he forensically analyses liberal ideas. The title is largely a reference to the enlightenment philosophies of how a society should operate.
But what exactly is liberalism? Despite 40 pages of introduction and a foundation-laying opening chapter, David Kemp steadfastly avoids the facile. On occasion, he comes tantalisingly close to certitude: “Liberalism, in a practical sense, then, is the product of the determination of people, who have influence enough to get their way, to be free to live their own lives, and to pursue their own interests, while recognising the legitimate interests of others, establishing appropriate rules of government to entrench their claim.”
But he is all too aware of the complexities and avoids the trap for young players: “…liberalism with its multiple values, beliefs and understandings is a remarkably rich vein of thinking that defies simple definition, and is characterised by its own internal controversies and debates, and indeed by its capacity to evolve over time in the face of increasing learning about human nature and the social world.”
Beyond Chapter One is a largely chronological account from first settlement to land reform. Chapter themes include elections, freedom and radical democracy. This volume ends as the yet-to-be-federated colonies start the transition from colonial rule to representative government.
Virtually all of the liberal ideas originated outside the colony. David Kemp draws on an extensive list that includes philosophers and politicians, with Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Henry Parkes and John West and many others, given considered recognition.
Some of the colonists and Australian-born, notably John and James MacArthur, argued against liberalism, preferring to mimic an increasingly threatened English system of land owning elites. William Charles Wentworth, born in Australia of a convict mother, was a passionate advocate of self- government and civil liberties. By and large, the Australian voices are more about application than philosophy, but they were influential to the outcomes. Many of the speeches, writings and debates are presented in detail and the reader is privy to the day to day machinations, swaying political fortunes and most of all, the intricate complexities.
These were turbulent times for the British Empire and the scale and impacts of the reforms still resonate – slavery, suffrage, juries, emancipation and land rights to name a few.
The balance inherent in liberalism is a constant theme. Individuals, political parties and even institutions – whether liberal or not – are forced to come to terms with balancing individual freedoms with state order. What we see today in our debates on, for example, immigration, asylum and terrorism are versions of early Australia’s deliberations on the rights of prisoners and ex-convicts.
David Kemp makes a compelling case that the formative years of settlement were critical to Australian values. And that most of the governors – despite their powers – were actually promoters of liberalism, even while most inhabitants were prisoners or their guards.
The author rightly points out that viewing our history “only through the lens of the convict system, as in The Fatal Shore, risks omitting much that is needed to understand Australian development”. It could be said that his particular lens of liberalist politics also risks narrowing the focus, but the breadth of his scholarship and meticulously referenced sources, presents a case difficult to refute.
It would be a tragedy if this book comes to be seen as promoting a partisan agenda. The Menzies Research Centre – a think tank associated with the Liberal party – supported the publication and argues: “Up to now, the resources on Australian history have been limited. Much of what appears to be bias in our educational institutions is simple expediency.” This seems reasonable, but when the same writer asserts, without citation, that “Kemp’s work provides the antidote to decades of grievous misrepresentation”, alarm bells ring.
If this book is to take its place as a major contributor to Australian history, then it should be judged by exhaustive and objective critique. To merely brand it as an attempt to redress perceived bias is to do it a disservice. Few people would have the credentials to evaluate the veracity of content and analysis. This reviewer is certainly not one of them and a credible academic verdict is eagerly awaited.
For the general reader interested in Australian history, this volume is a treasure trove, but the detail can be daunting. Fortunately, the index, plates, notes and mini-biographies help unravel the intricacies. The rewards are new information, new insights and, for this reviewer, a new respect for the way this country has evolved. For some, it may highlight the poverty of current political debate, but liberalism is one reason that we can still have that debate.
by David Kemp
The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Press)