Flat White

Why the NSW Liberals must give the Modern Slavery Act effect

2 November 2021

2:51 PM

2 November 2021

2:51 PM

In June 2018, then-Premier Gladys Berejiklian told parliament there was “an undeniable moral imperative to take action in relation to all forms of modern slavery”. More than three years later, however, the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) is still awaiting proclamation to become law.  

Amid great fanfare, the Act was passed by both Houses of the NSW Parliament with cross-party support. Conceived by Paul Green, a Christian Democrat Member of the Legislative Council, the legislation had its origin in a Select Committee on Human Trafficking established in November 2016. After passing the Legislative Council in May 2018, it proceeded to the Legislative Assembly the next month where the then Berejiklian government agreed to co-sponsor the legislation.  

The NSW government has recently come under pressure to finally bring the Modern Slavery Act into force. In a concerted campaign led by the International Justice Mission, a Christian-based anti-slavery charity, a multi-faith coalition of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu leaders have urged the government to act on its earlier support for the legislation.  

Why then is this legislation still not on the statute books? According to the IJM, “special interests” have “held it at bay for the past three years”. The charity is concerned that the proclamation of the Act may have been “hampered by the attempts of special interest groups to raise the reporting threshold to $100 million, thus limiting the Act’s application to fewer entities”.  

If this has proven to be so, then it is time that the NSW Liberal Party put the interests of human wellbeing first by maintaining the integrity of the original Act and making it law. To be sure, the Liberal Party in NSW, and elsewhere, is proudly the party of private enterprise which has brought great vitality, creativity and prosperity to our nation. This commitment to free and thriving businesses must of course continue, but never to the detriment of human dignity and freedom. 

There is an instructive lesson in this from Lord Shaftesbury, the Victorian British social reformer who helped phase out the misery of child labour. Like modern Australian Liberals, the Tory MP was averse to statism but insisted that legislation was necessary to protect vulnerable workers from slavery in the factories and coal mines. Critics of Shaftesbury’s factory reforms feared these could destroy modern industry, but in the long run, the factories still prospered while workers received new protections. With these changes, Victorian captains of industry proved eminently adaptable to the new moral terrain. The same can be said for many businesses today with the progressive elimination of modern slavery from their supply chains.  

On its face, the etymology of the name “liberal” would suggest that the Liberal Party’s opposition to any form of slavery must be a “no-brainer”, but it is worth just exploring the humane traditions of the Liberals that should inform their unequivocal support for the Modern Slavery Act 

The Australian Liberalism that Robert Menzies revived as the foundation to the modern Liberal Party had humane social reform in its DNA. As heir to both the Federation liberalism of Alfred Deakin and the earlier Whig liberalism of Victorian Britain, it was committed to the liberation of the human mind, body and spirit from oppression and injustice.  

With support from iconic reformers such as William Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, the British Whig Liberals had achieved Catholic and Jewish Emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of child labour through the Factory Acts, and the expansion of education in the 1800s. At the same time, they helped humanise the prisons, hospitals and asylums to give men and women a more dignified life.  

In Australia, this humane mission was supported by late colonial and early Federation Liberals such as Alfred Deakin. Deploring slavery as anathema to Liberal principles, Deakin introduced factory legislation in the 1880s and minimum wages to ensure that “wealth would be prevented from taking unfair advantage of the needy” and that “all should have what was their due”. 

Menzies himself identified with these social reform impulses of liberalism. In a November 1942 speech praising the “Achievements of Democracy”, Menzies invoked the spirit of Deakin and the English Whigs, welcoming the “abolition of slavery”, the “abolition of child labour”, and “the compulsory fixing of wages and industrial conditions on a civilised basis” as some of the great achievements of liberal democracy.  

As prime minister, Menzies presided over further ameliorative measures, the chief of which was perhaps the Aged Persons Homes Act (1954) to improve living conditions for older Australians. In other social reforms, the Menzies government settled immigrants and refugees from war-torn Europe, provided generous foreign aid to South East Asian nations, introduced the Medical Benefits Scheme and established work centres to give people with disabilities the opportunity and dignity of work.  

Since Menzies, the modern Liberal Party has continued to channel these humane ideals, albeit imperfectly at times. From Malcolm Fraser’s campaign against Apartheid in South Africa, to the Howard Government’s support for faith-based charities and Tony Abbott’s creation of 12 000 additional places for Syrian refugees, the Liberal Party, at its best, has understood that it is never enough to be simply a rich country, but also a civilised society.   

With this long history of advancing humane causes, it surely behoves the Liberal Party in NSW to give the Modern Slavery Act its unqualified support to become law. In the words of the Party’s founder, “it must come to understand the importance of the human being, the dignity of the human being, the dignity of labour, the responsibility of riches. These are the tests of civilisation, and our great task is to produce a civilised nation”. By helping to stamp out the scourge of modern slavery, the Liberal Party in NSW will do its part to stay true to Menzies’ “great task”. 

David Furse-Roberts is a research fellow at the Menzies Research Centre.

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