Books Australia

Australian liberalisms

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

David Kemp’s first of five volumes in the history of Australian liberalism, The Land of Dreams, How Australians Won Their Freedom 1788-1860, confidently assesses interactions between Australian and British debates, personalities and writings, as well as the shifts of moods associated with political change. Thereby he provides vital context for explaining particular positions and outlooks in the development of Australia from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th.

Only a scholar of vast erudition, who has thought about the issues for many decades, including the messy aspects of the development of ideas, could have contemplated the task of assessing liberalism’s evolution in Australia. Kemp concludes: ‘The Australian colonists noted the developments in Britain and engaged in a great debate of their own’.

The book’s title alludes to Aboriginal song-line traditions as well as the aspirations of the more recent settlers. ‘Dreaming and Australia have been linked from time immemorial.’ Most of the book covers post-European settlement, including engagement with the continent’s original inhabitants. It is logically and creatively presented, dealing deftly with the interaction of history and ideas.

Kemp’s first chapter on ‘the liberal project’ sets out the ambition for this and the series to follow. He sees the advancement – social and economic – of the Australian colonies as ‘The Liberal colonial reform project’, another chapter heading. He deals with the debates and ideas shaping local controversies, unafraid to link these to the wider world. Thus ‘Chartists and free traders’ and ‘Radical reform agendas: Marx and Mill’ constitute other chapters.  This is mostly confidently discussed. If one were to make a mildly negative comment, presumptuous in the face of such learning, it is for reference points or at least footnotes suggesting further reading. Part of the problem is that so much could be written on many of the different strands of ideas discussed. Understanding Australians in the relevant period would be impossible without, for example, some appreciation of the UK Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, an ‘Act for the Relief of His Majesty’s Roman Catholic Subjects’, and the UK Representation of the People Act 1832 (known informally as the ‘Great Reform Act’), which applied to England and Wales and extended the voting franchise. What happened in the United Kingdom echoed in Australia, though not only that. There were original voices and dynamics also at play in Australia. Porous and complicated ideologies can be misrepresented. Hair-splitting clarifies. From Kemp’s account, from fatal shore to parliamentary laws, it is clear that Australian liberalism, broadly defined, was one of the most effective philosophies of state building ever conceived.


In 1918, G. Arnold Wood, Challis Professor of History at the University of Sydney, claimed that the development of Australian liberalism is ‘not so much a story of battles against tyranny as a story of evolution on lines determined by the sentiments of a people… the faith, with Australian interpretations, of liberty, equality and fraternity.’

In similar vein, Kemp says: ‘This volume tells the story of how Australians became a free people, gaining the liberties they desired to take control of their own lives…’. Although Kemp recognises the complexity of his subject, there is a tendency to sunny optimism about liberalism’s local progress. His last chapters are on ‘A Whig Constitution’ and ‘Radical Democracy’. Kemp’s account could be described as Whiggish, an approach to historiography that presents the past as a gradual, inevitable progression towards enlightenment culminating in forms of liberal democracy.

Not that this was a linear, uninterrupted process, or to overlook gross injustices or to dismiss the fact that certain members of society were left behind. In understanding the creation of the largest middle class of any Western society, Kemp’s analysis is a useful tool.

Also worth noting, alas, is that liberalism is a pliant term capable of being kneaded into various shapes; the liberal tradition is not homogenous. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1689) formulated several foundational liberal ideas: economic liberty (the right to have and use property) and intellectual liberty (including freedom of conscience). His natural rights theory (life, liberty, and property) articulated a position that stands to this day. Ideas have consequences in the actions of real people.

Modern liberalism considers individual liberty as the most important political goal, emphasising individual rights; sometimes this is married to a generous conception of opportunity. Classical liberalism proposes that freedom from coercion is paramount, such that state interventions that restrict the economic freedom of individuals should be avoided or minimised. In contrast, social liberalism proposes that governments ought to take an active role in promoting the freedom of citizens, and that real freedom can only exist when citizens are healthy, educated and free from dire poverty.  Already the grave tensions between these two castings of liberalism can be easily detected.  As with most political philosophies, liberalism fractures into a range of related, sometimes competing, visions such as conservative liberalism, libertarianism, economic liberalism, neo-liberalism and national liberalism, and the rest.

Without explicitly addressing finer points of political theory, though richly explicating what key actors thought and did, Kemp’s account of the first 72 years of European settlement covers diverse ideas. These include influences such as Adam Smith’s economic liberalism, the impact of the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, debates on evangelical and Christian humanism and its secular cousins. He illustrates local debates in the wider fermament.

Kemp is at his best in discussing real people and the issues they grappled with, the actions they undertook. His account, for example, of the liberal Governor Richard Bourke, Governor of NSW (1831-1837), and relative of Edmund Burke, and his Tory opponents domestically and in the Colonial Office, is outstanding.  Kemp sometimes conflates good ideas with liberalism. Thus: ‘… liberalism [sees] that the public interest can be identified by the use of reason and that reason can replace prejudice as the driving force of policy.’ This is not much more than saying thinking helps.  Certainly it does in this volume. That whets the appetite for ‘more!’

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