It seems with each passing year strong, principled, and individually held positions on issues economic, social, and political are being usurped by self-interest and moral righteousness. This concerning trend is not confined to Australia, nor to any one political or social class.
Not all of Australia’s political class have abandoned their principles. News Limited columnist and Institute of Public Affairs chairperson Janet Albrechtsen recently documented the emerging influence of four young modern liberals whom she has dubbed the “Aussie Squad” — an ironic reference to the US “Squad”. Unlike their US counterparts, Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson, Andrew Bragg, and James Paterson are not driven by what is trendy or marketable. Instead, the backbench quartet has taken an uncompromising, principled stance on economic issues. To them, what is right supersedes what is popular.
This is not the first time an informal association of backbenchers have pushed for sound economic reform in the face of resistance. The Dries of the 1970s and 1980s, informally led by John Hyde, took a similar approach. Their advocacy against the economic orthodoxy of the time incurred opposition both within their party and externally, as well as fierce criticism from seemingly all angles. Despite this, much of their free-market agenda was adopted by the subsequent Hawke and Keating Labor governments, as well as the Howard Liberal government.
The Dries’ agenda included pushing for widespread deregulation and privatisation; specifically, they argued for ending the airline duopoly, floating the Australian dollar, and reducing subsidies to manufacturing industries. Today’s widespread support of free trade and its associated benefits was not present in the 1980s.
At a recent event in Perth, Hyde reflected on the dynamics of the Dries. He noted each member had their own unique strengths which the group frequently leveraged. Hyde describes Peter Shack as, “the easiest man I ever worked with, a man of integrity and effectiveness”. Jim Carlton was largely the team’s “ideas man”; Hyde and Shack worked to implement them. National Party MP Stephen Lusher and Liberal Party MP-turned-senator Grant Chapman also drew praise from Hyde. It was an effective division of labour.
University lecture halls, newspaper columns and radio slots were steadily populated with Dries’ content. Hyde alone wrote 745 articles throughout his career, believing that print publications were the most effective way to shift public opinion at the time. “I could say something in parliament on Monday, and it would be forgotten by Thursday. A published article is forever.” Those 745 articles played no small role in the Dries’ success, and have subsequently been collated, digitised, and made available online by the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.
Such public promotion of economic reform shifted the parliamentary debate and general opinions. This was so apparent that in the space of ten years the Dries’ policies had transformed from radical ideas resisted by their own party in government to laws enacted by a centre-left party. No longer were their ideas scorned as radical and farfetched, instead, they were accepted into the mainstream.
Fast forward four decades and a new incarnation of the Dries has ascended to Australia’s parliament. This so-called “Aussie Squad” largely resembles their reformist predecessors. Like the Dries, they prioritise economic deregulation and limited government at the expense of their own political progression.
Each has strong economic credentials and has been rewarded with political responsibility: Falinski chairs the tax committee, Wilson the standing committee on economics, Bragg the select committee on financial technology, and Paterson oversees both the administration of finances within government agencies and private sector corporations, and financial services. Between them, they wield considerable influence over framing Australia’s economic debates.
The four have their sights set on superannuation reform. Last year workers lost $32 billion in superannuation fees. Currently, super funds must broadly act in their clients’ best interests. Bragg wants to change this duty to the best financial interests of their client. This would force the funds to demonstrate with evidence how any payments towards advertising, lobbying, third parties, or entertainment are in their members’ best financial interests. Proposed reforms have attracted aggressive criticism from the industry super fund executives.
Wilson argues for superannuation to fund homeownership first and retirement second. At the onset of the Covid lockdowns, the Morrison Government allowed those adversely affected by lockdowns to access up to $20,000 of their super. Over 600,000 Australians applied, indicating popular support for early access to superannuation funds.
Paterson has led calls for reducing government debt and imposing a debt ceiling, and spoken strongly about the importance of work for an individual’s dignity. He is acutely aware that the risk of permanent unemployment increases the longer a person is out of work.
Falinski is pushing for tax laws which will afford Australian firms an increased capability to issue employees shares, increase the availability of affordable financial advice, and increase the availability and liquidity of Australia’s bond market in order to increase the capacity of ‘outsiders’ to build wealth. He will have to push through headwinds from the financial, corporate, and commercial legal sectors should he pursue such reform, navigating through territory all too familiar to the Dries.
Between them, the new Dries have published books, utilised traditional media, and been vocal within parliament. Their persistence appears to be working. In the space of two years political, economic, and public support for proposed increases in super contributions has fallen. Economists have abandoned their support for the increases, with resistance now led by the left-leaning Grattan Institute. It was the chorus of opposition led by Wilson which has driven this change.
Wilson, Bragg, Paterson and Falinski have significantly more means to shift public opinion than were previously available. Should they continue their principled, self-sacrificing approach, more young Australians will enter the property market, retirees will be more secure, outsiders will have more opportunity, and future generations will retain more of their earnings.
The Dries left a legacy of moral decency, prosperity, and free trade. It’s conceivable that today’s Aussie Squad will leave one of equity, merit, and stability. Abraham Lincoln is attributed as saying, “be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm”. Let us hope these backbenchers do exactly that.
Shane Herbst is a Research Analyst at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation.
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