A Free Country: Australians' Search for Utopia 1861-1901 by David Kemp

A Free Country

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

A Free Country: Australians’ Search for Utopia 1861 – 1901 is the second volume in a five part series that “describes the dominant stream of ideas behind this country’s development, the stream of liberalism…the volume is…carefully illustrative of the history, influence and adoption of the dominant ideas animating that development” (Philip Ayres in Quadrant, 5th February 2019).

Ayres’s conclusion is a useful place to begin my own review of the subsequent volume. Ayres provides an impartial look at Kemp’s statement that “as the prospective founders of the new nation reflected…they were all of the view that liberal democracy in Australia had worked well, and had produced policies and social outcomes that justified the extension of the system to the continent as a whole” (Kemp, 2).

As early as 1850 there had been concerns expressed that democracy could be plagued by special interest groups which would erode the abilities of democratic government to rule wisely and meet the needs of all people under its jurisdiction. In his introductory chapter Kemp reveals that this issue was not lost on early nation builders. He goes on to state that nineteenth century liberal democracy in Australia had large and memorable victories related to education, land ownership, and the opportunities to earn the highest real incomes in the world without the imbalances found in other locations. On the negative side, parochialism, religious demands, and the distorted parochial ideas that decimated the aboriginal people, were strong movements to the contrary. There grew in tandem the idea that Australians could build a land free of foreign goods, and shut the gates by means of high tariffs.

Wentworth had written that the Australian electorate was swept by ideas that promised simple solutions to complex problems. And so it proved. New populations wanted a new kind of society where there was no social inequality and the conflicts, prejudices and immorality were swept away. Utopianism became an unhappy influence on society. However, it was only one influence, and Kemp’s book now begins to devote a chapter to each of many of these throughout the book. The political tradition that the liberals (small ‘l’) chose to adopt was one of reasoned debate and reform exemplified in the person of J.S. Mill. However, adjustments had to be made to meet the challenges of industrialism and the growth of cities and to mesh with the ideas of humanitarians, romantics, idealists and utopians.

Stemming respectively from the established liberal and populist appeals, alternative visions for the development of the new nation were advanced: one of an Australia of individual liberty and free markets, competitive, innovative and open to trading with the world, the other based around a state-protected industrial base and the restriction of trade and immigration, but arguing their validity as expressions of humanitarian values, patriotism and true liberalism. (Kemp 10)

The book has an extensive introduction (the reason I spent so much time over it). The remainder of the book is broken into fifteen chapters, each of which deals with an opposition that the new ‘liberal’ governments were forced to face. These consist of alternative views spread by groups such as religions, unionism, Utopianism and the market, and a lack of unity among the various states.  The book is a master-piece of diligent detail. In a short review I cannot hope to cover all aspects of the book. Diligent as the author has been, and comprehensive as the text is, one is inclined to be chary of commenting on the work of someone who has such high level of expertise. Having said that I must qualify it immediately because to read the text is engrossing, and I found hours going by while I was rapt. (Oh, to be able to afford all five volumes!).

One area of interest is the chapter entitled Education and Religion. Having described the sectarian nature of the debates leading up to the passing of the 1872 Act, Kemp turns, as he usually does, at the end of a chapter to summarise his conclusions. This is a very useful device. It allows busy scholars to make judgments about how well they have absorbed the arguments put forward by Kemp, but the practice also works for the author by giving him a degree of connectedness between what he wanted to say and how it all worked out. It was an interesting idea that nineteenth century liberals were content to let the issue of education and social harmony sort itself out in the arrangements that had been put in place. The issue of morality in the liberal world remained unresolved. Kemp is aware that reform might be necessary but when there is too much reform too soon, the results may not be as the reformers wished. The idea is to leave well alone.

Chapter Five, called Law and Morality on the Frontier, contains a report into the way the classical liberal thinkers differed from the views of their more recent liberal colleagues. Kemp finds that the essential differences related to the proper use of the law, or of the authority of the state, to advance liberal values, “and what the consequences would be if government began to extend the claimed scope of its authority to regulate people’s lives” (158), something that became very much an issue in Victoria under Reid.

Chapter Eight investigates Class War, essentially a review of the intensified war between unionists and pastoralists following the end of the maritime and related strikes in the nineties. There was intense anger and frustration with the union leadership. Liberals such as Sir Samuel Griffith had some sympathy with what the unionists were trying to achieve. He saw a place for grey between the black and white of the opposing parties. In his view “the industrial conflict had been made worse by the lack of communication between the contending parties and by the unwillingness to sit down and work out a reasonable solution” (Kemp, 345). Kemp instances the influence of the Reeves’ Act in New Zealand which “was a turning point in the history of the liberal economy in Australasia, establishing the precedent of a State-administered labour market” (368). He provides a lawyer-like scholarly analysis of the Act and concludes that Australasia was plunged into “a virtual carnival of well-meaning, if intellectually incoherent, legislative reform in an attempt to equalise the interplay of interests in the pursuit of happiness” (369).  In Kemp’s view such dabblings left the liberal system impaired and its capacity to maintain the standard of living reduced, while the distribution of power between unions and employers, and unions and their members changed, all in the interests of social improvement and increased peace.

Statesmen like Alfred Deakin drew the line against the seemingly uncontrollable spread of socialism. Deakin’s view that the causes of industrial unrest and social problems were human greed and selfishness is well canvassed in Chapter 12 where Kemp considers Democracy and National Character. There is a great deal of material structured in the book under the names of various leading thinkers of the day: Higgins, Syme and particularly Charles Pearson in his book National Life and Character: a Forecast in which Pearson argued that democracy was heading for socialism of the Victorian kind. The chapter concludes with Kemp raising a number of very important questions apropos the liberal-socialist dichotomy.

Although I have, in this review, only scratched the surface of the material in Kemp’s book, it should be obvious that I am enthusiastic about it. The book could well become a classic in times to come. It is that good. Steady and confident, Kemp wields his pen and few would challenge him on this terrific piece of Australian history.

A Free Country: Australians’ Search for Utopia 1861 – 1901


By David Kemp

The Miegunyah Press (Melbourne University Press)

ISBN: 9780522873481

$59.99; 595pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top