Monday, March 19, 2007

Three liberals

Preoccupied with study leave haven't been posting much but will return to the fray. Three biographies I have read recently shed some light on Australian L(l)iberalism. If the neo-liberal right wants a hero they might look at Robert Lowe, the albino English barrister, who came to Sydney in search of briefs in 1842 and left in 1850 after a stormy career in local politics. His classical Benthamite liberalism made him a foe of authoritarian governors and briefly a popular hero, until his supporters were disillusioned by his laisser-faire politics and hostility to democracy. The book is by Ruth Knight, one of those female historians who never published anything else, an example of how women's opportunities were denied, others in this group include Joy Parnaby, author of a brilliant thesis on the Berry government, and Phyllis Peter, author on an excellent thesis on NSW in the great depression. Lowe seems to have been consistent, not what could be said of George Reid, but perhaps unsurprisingly he has become the hero of the alleged standard-bearers of 'classical liberalism', see Greg Melleuish's chapter in Liberalism and the Australian Federation, there was even a 'Reid Group' formed in 2003 in the name of a liberal liberalism opposed to John Howard. One day I hope to address this myth, but here Gerald O'Collin's biography of his grandfather the South Australian free trader and contemporary of Reid Patrick McMahon Glynn is interesting. It relies largely on his diaries and is somewhat unimaginative; his late marriage to a women he had hardly knew is largely unexplored. But Glynn had been a radical, a supporter of land nationalisation and he was a (sceptical) Catholic. he was unhappy with Reid's negative 'anti-socialism' and with his sectarian anti-Catholic appeal, thus despite his talent it took the Fusion to enable him to enter the ministry, having been passed over by Reid to accommodate conservative protectionists, he was shocked by Reid's promise of a campaign against 'Romanism and revolution' and his opportunist acceptance of protection. Genuine classical liberals would find him a better model than Reid. Glynn was also central to debates about the waters of the Murray-Darling. On the other side of the tariff debate was Isaac Isaacs, Zelman Cowen found time to write his biography as a Vice-Chancellor in the late 1960s when university management was lower pressure than now. Isaac's activist social liberalism land his insistence that courts should be the 'living organs of a progressive community' led him to favour expansive government powers, sometimes at the cost of civil liberties. Contemporary legal liberalism would take a different tack. But I was struck by the Coal Vend case where Isaacs wrote a massive judgement of 270 pages upholding the validity of Commonwealth action against the Vend, a cartel of coal owners, under the Australian Industries protection Act the first Australian anti-monopoly legislation. The fact that the original legislation was passed by a social liberal government with Labor support is rather neglected in some accounts of the history of Australian economic policy. The subsequent overturning of the decision by the court majority in a single judgment delivered by contemporary conservative hero Samuel Griffith gutted competition law in Australia. It is appropriate that contemporary conservatives follow in Griffith’s footsteps in their campaign against National Competition Policy, see here and here.

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