A radical legacy

Selected for Best Australian Political Writing 2009

LIKE ALL GREAT speeches, the Tenterfield Oration delivered on October 24, 1889 – the most significant speech in Australian history – was a call to action, a call to the Australian people to achieve by peace what the Americans had achieved by war. The time had come, Sir Henry Parkes said, for ‘an uprising in this fair land of a goodly fabric of free government' with ‘all great national questions of magnitude affecting the welfare of the colonies' disposed of by ‘a distinct executive and a distinct parliamentary power'.

Parkes was pointing to the need for a national system of government that embodied freedom. He was drawing upon the theories, insights and arguments of the British radical tradition – albeit modified by his experience of hard-edged parliamentary politics. This is the tradition of parliamentary and electoral reform, freedom of association and expression, national self-determination and social equality. From this tradition also emerged the argument for popular sovereignty, democracy and a republic. At a deeper level, the radicals recognised that good political systems weren't just important as means to an end, but were ends in themselves. To put it in contemporary terms, they saw people as ‘citizens' rather than ‘consumers'.

Australian radicalism came from people like Parkes and John Dunmore Lang – two of the most important intellectual founding fathers, who laid the base on which men like Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin and George Reid later built the nation.

When we think of founding fathers, we think of grey-haired, conservative old men who believe that the old ways are always best. Few Australians realise that our founding fathers were followers of, and sometimes proselytisers for, ideas that many of their contemporaries considered positively dangerous.

More than half a century before Federation, Parkes and Lang were calling for an end to transportation and the creation of a free society, federation, responsible parliamentary government with a bicameral legislature, equality of electoral districts and short, fixed parliamentary terms, universal manhood suffrage, a society without a privileged aristocracy or an impoverished working class, public education for all, and – at various times – an Australian republic.

This should sound familiar because, with the addition of votes for women, it is the Australia we gained in 1901 and live in today – enhanced, of course, by innovative social legislation and occasionally radical interpretations of the Constitution by the High Court.

It is important to remember that the time in which the radical social, political and constitutional demands were being formed – the 1840s and early 1850s – was a time of European revolution and political ferment in England. Parkes, Lang and others got their ideas from egalitarian interpretations of the Bible, writings of the American revolutionaries, radical liberals like Jeremy Bentham and British radicals and Chartists – whose ideas conservatives considered seditious and revolutionary; indeed, support for them could lead to transportation.

There were many other important intellectual, social and economic influences on the establishment of Australian democracy, but the founding principles of our democracy were laid in a time of European revolution by men soaked in radical political ideas.

While sharing many constitutional principles, Lang and Parkes were chalk and cheese when it came to their visions of the future. Lang wanted a radical revolution; Parkes – at least in his later years – wanted radical reform to head off even more radical revolution. But the practical effect of their agitation was the same: the establishment of a liberal democracy in the former colony of New South Wales.


IDEAS COME AND go. What seems radical at one time can seem conservative at another, and vice versa. This alerts us to the fact that radicalism is more than a set of ideas: it is a way of thinking that puts the thinker at a critical angle to society.

Many of the people who founded Australian democracy may have been self-taught, but they were good philosophers, unafraid to think in terms of first principles and ideals as they confronted the challenges of creating a nation in a time of change. We, by contrast, have allowed ourselves to become utilitarians and technocrats, dominated to the exclusion of almost all else by economics and accountancy.

These radical ideas and ways of thinking made the country from the 1850s to World War I the most advanced and envied democracy in the world. They gave us nationhood. Now it is true that they did not bequeath a republic in the form in which most now conceive it – with an Australian head of state. But republicanism had other connotations in the nineteenth century. For many – including Mark McKenna, who discussed it in The Traditions of Australian Republicanism – the establishment of an independent democratic nation, free from tyranny and the control of an overbearing aristocracy, constituted a republic – ‘a republic in disguise'. The title Parkes first suggested for the nation – the Commonwealth of Australia – was an early modern translation of the Latin term res publica.

The significance of popular sovereignty isn't always fully appreciated. At the time of Federation, responsible government elected through universal suffrage was far from the norm. Universal manhood suffrage wasn't fully achieved in Britain until 1918 and unrestricted female suffrage was not granted until 1928. In Germany, the government was responsible to the Kaiser until after World War I. Russia was an autocracy. While women were included in the franchise, original inhabitants were not, so the term ‘universal' is highly qualified.

They also added the concept of the referendum. The federation itself had been created through a series of democratic acts drawn up by elected conventions and accepted by a popular referendum. One of the first great national controversies – conscription – was settled by two plebiscites. Try imagining today a national government putting such a contentious issue relating to matters of war, peace and foreign alliances to the people. It is almost inconceivable. Radicals had a significant influence over this remarkable achievement of nationhood, and many chose to work within the contours of the newly established system. This allowed them to achieve many important reforms which have never quite been accepted by conservatives and are still being fought over: conciliation and arbitration; a comprehensive opportunity and welfare state; and recognition of Aborigines, followed by land rights.

This was despite the serious reservations some radicals had about the limitations of the 1901 constitutional settlement. Many radicals had wanted full constitutional independence from Britain – which came later through the Balfour Declaration (1926), the Statute of Westminster (1931) and, much later, the Australia Act(1986).

Those on the left opposed many of the liberal elements designed to prevent ‘the tyranny of the majority'. Some resented the monarchical elements which tied the system together and preserved the reserve powers of the Crown. Within the labour movement, a critique of the federal system itself and those elements which constrained the will of the majority emerged.

Radicalism stayed alive as a critique of the Constitution – and for some as a movement for an Australian republic with a strong and centralised national government. The concept of national development and full employment with social justice featured prominently in the thinking of Labor leaders John Curtin, Ben Chifley and ‘Doc' Evatt. Their attitudes were also influenced by the economic impotence of state governments in the Depression and the need for national economic direction during and after World War II.

As far as state governments were concerned, there were many achievements, but radicals baulked at the lack of one vote one value, gerrymandered electoral boundaries and property franchises for second chambers. For those radicals keen to build a nation in a continent, the states were seen as barren ground. If change was to come, it would have to be led by the Commonwealth.

Add to this the growing belief in radical circles in the 1930s and beyond that the Constitution was being used opportunistically by reactionaries to block mandated reform. The dismissal of the Lang Labor government by New South Wales governor Sir Philip Game in 1932 convinced many that the continued existence of the reserve powers of state and Commonwealth governors and governors-general pointed to the need for a republic. The obstructionism of state upper houses elected with a restrictive property franchise – such as the blocking of supply by the Victorian Legislative Council, which led to the defeat of the government of John Cain Senior in 1947 – convinced radicals that upper houses themselves were the problem and electoral reform was needed.

In some states, it was Labor policy to abolish upper houses altogether. The blocking of attempts to control and nationalise banking in the late 1940s by the High Court and the Privy Council, using sometimes contentious legal reasoning, convinced others that judicial reform was also needed and that new constitutional ways had to be found to facilitate a new era of national development.

The greatest Australian radical of the twentieth century, Gough Whitlam, gave a modern flavour to his mix of democratic socialism and nationalism by adding many of the issues associated with the social and political movements of the 1960s. He took an activist view of the Commonwealth's constitutional and political position. Whitlam's radical constitutional innovation was to find new constitutional means to extend Commonwealth involvement in social and economic development – mainly through the use of tied grants to the states under section 96 of the Constitution and the creation of new bodies like Medibank and the Schools Commission to raise and disperse funds and lead national policy.

It was, however, the circumstances of his dismissal and defeat in 1975 that were most controversial. The combination of state and senate obstruction and the exercise of reserve powers put the focus back on to the constitution and what it meant for those seeking reform. It also raised a question mark about the Whitlam strategy and the assumptions behind it.


IRONICALLY, WHILE WHITLAM'S majoritarium and centralising version of radicalism was stealing the limelight, a new radicalism was being created – slowly and without fanfare – at the state level. Don Dunstan's governments in South Australia demonstrated what could be done by a state government. As the Labor Party's premier historian Ross McMullin wrote in Light on the Hill (Oxford University Press, 1991), ‘after being renowned during the Playford era for its conservatism, South Australia became an enlightened pacesetter under Dunstan in many spheres, including electoral fairness, community welfare, consumer protection, planning and environment, education, equal opportunities, Aboriginal affairs, public administration and the arts'.

Dunstan was a pioneer, and similar changes followed in other states – mainly, though not wholly, from the efforts of modernising Labor administrations. In more recent times, this tradition has been developed further with innovations in democratic engagement and human rights protection coming from state Labor. These governments have proved that significant state-based progress could be made even under federal governments with more conservative priorities.

Perhaps more enduringly, through ambitious democratic experimentation the states set out to solve one of the problems the 1850s radicals and federation hadn't been able to solve: the capacity of state institutions to frustrate radical social reforms. One by one, the state constitutional checks and balances were rid of their conservative biases: gerrymanders were negated; upper houses were given new proportional representation electoral systems; and anti-corruption commissions and monitoring agencies were set up to make state institutions more accountable.

The result is that it is much rarer these days to hear Labor complaints about the in-built conservative bias of the public service and the judiciary. The complaints are more likely to come from conservatives, who see radical elites. The result is that purposeful but practical reform has allowed Labor to dominate the states for the last decade despite one of the most right-wing federal governments the country has ever known.

Proportional representation and the rise of stronger third parties have reduced the likelihood that upper houses can frustrate radical reform. Despite the Coalition control of the Senate after 2004, it is still more likely to defend existing rights and generate pressure for more radical reform than the reverse.

In my view, the idea of a centralised national system as the necessary basis for radical change in Australia only made sense if there was electoral malapportionment and inbuilt conservative constitutional and institutional biases at the state level. Today radical progressives should embrace democratic checks and balances to further their agenda. This means a more positive embrace of the American elements of our Constitution, such as federalism and divided power.


WHILE THESE RADICAL constitutional reforms were transforming the states, other changes were occurring in Australian politics. One of the most remarkable features has been the left's embrace of market economics and economic rationalism, coupled with a more conservative and less populist political disposition. This was clearly demonstrated during the debate over the republic in the 1990s when the left opposed direct election of an Australian head of state. Australia's leading republicans couldn't contemplate sharing power with the people.

This opened Labor's ranks to arguments about choice in politics, diversity in society and innovation in public policy – all liberal values. It was an era of substantial revisionism in respect of the means and ends of power. Increasingly evidence-based public policy, rather than mere ideology, became the basis for thought and action.

At the same time, the right has become radical and regards the checks and balances created at Federation – the Senate, delineated state responsibilities, High Court balance – as impediments to the will of the people expressed through elections to the House of Representatives, and as standing in the way of radical right-wing reforming ambitions. Former prime minister John Howard explained his vision of ‘aspirational nationalism' in his address to the Menzies Research Centre in April 2005: ‘Fears of centralism rest on a complete misunderstanding of the government's thinking and reform direction. Where we seek a change in the federal-state balance, our goal is to expand individual choice, freedom and opportunity, not to expand the reach of central government.' And he told the Millennium Forum in August 2007: ‘I am, first and last, an Australian nationalist. When I think about all this country is and everything it can become, I have little time for state parochialism ... Sometimes [aspirational nationalism] will involve leaving things entirely to the states. Sometimes it will involve cooperative federalism. On other occasions it will require the Commonwealthbypassing the states altogether and dealing directly with local communities.'

Howard was attempting to rewrite the constitution through political fiat. There was no need to read between the lines to get his vibe: that centralisation isn't just the most direct way to maximise the electoral benefit of pork barrelling, but the best way to remove impediments to his version of national values.

The radicals' old dream of centralised national power has been taken over by the right in the interests of electoral pork barrelling, unchecked economic rationalism and populist cultural politics. Radicalism is as much a way of thinking as a program for government. One of the problems for Australian progressives is that they have been too locked into a centralising bureaucratic view, often unable to think in clear and decisive ways when it comes to non-economic issues. Progressive ‘once radicals' have lost the intellectual ascendancy. We need to get it back by noting the space that now exists for a new and more liberal and participatory version of politics that supports social diversity and civil society.

Regaining the ascendancy won't be achieved through a lunge to the left, forgetting economics and responsible government and joining doomed crusades like the anti-globalisation movement. The answer lies in recapturing the radical democratic potential of federation and federalism.

Just as Henry Parkes and John Dunmore Lang faced huge challenges, we do so today. Their challenges were national development, national defence and interstate trade. Today, the challenges are environmental sustainability, development of human capital, and success in a globalised world economy without sacrificing equality. Addressing these issues gives progressives the opportunity to revive a sense of purpose and to reassert ourselves as a major intellectual and practical force for radical change. Pragmatism is a necessary and usually honourable reality of politics, but to regain the ascendancy, movements need more – they must have a sense of purpose and direction.

The dramatic decline in the Howard government's popularity was not a rejection of strong leadership, but a rejection of arrogant, centralised power – a rejection of the trampling of state power, the overriding of checks and balances, and the abuse of the resources of the state. People want continuing economic reform, but not at the price of social progress and environmental irresponsibility. They don't want a swing to the left; they want balance.

Before you object that calling for balance is hardly radical, let me repeat – ideas that at one time seem conservative can at other times seem radical. In the mid-nineteenth century and at Federation, the idea of individual rights, popular sovereignty and a balanced federal constitution were radical democratic beliefs. They can be again today. We need a new radicalism that moves away from majoritarianism and centralism to one that emphasises the balance between individual rights and state and federal power.

To guarantee individual rights, progressives should push to enshrine a national charter of rights to constrain any government from slowly and unnecessarily chipping away at freedoms. We need a more sophisticated and proactive approach to the whole issue of rights protection that requires questions to be asked from the earliest to the last stages in the decision-making process. As Justice Michael Kirby said in the Annual Hawke Lecture in Adelaide in October 2007, ‘In effect, [a charter of rights] provides a stimulus to the democratic process; it encourages us to think in terms respectful of the basic rights of one another. It promotes a culture of mutual respect of basic rights. But it leaves the last word to elected parliaments, whilst rendering them and their processes transparent and promoting vigorous debate on such matters.'

Contemporary Australian society and our rapidly changing economy need a new commitment to federal-state cooperation. Instead of ‘aspirational nationalism', we need ‘cooperative federalism'. The proof of what can be achieved is already available. Over the last few years, Labor state governments led by Victoria have worked together to create a new federal agenda that encompasses economic reform, human capital investment, infrastructure development, improving hospital, health, dental and aged care systems, and addressing sustainability. This agenda is designed to work without undermining the multiple centres of power required to promote innovation. Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks' Third Wave of National Reformblueprint, sent to the prime minister and other state premiers in August 2007, is a worthy successor to past initiatives and will succeed or fail depending on the level and depth of co-operation and cost-sharing.

To symbolise this new era of reform, we need a new movement to establish an Australian republic – one which demonstrates that reformers again trust the people by providing for a head of state to be directly elected, with clearly enumerated powers; one which views Australia not just as a republic, but as a pluralist, federal, progressive republic under popular sovereignty – a system that embodies the highest ideals of our liberal and democratic inheritance. Australia is incredibly fortunate and prosperous for most, but we didn't get there by taking the easy way out, relying on utilitarianism and pragmatism alone, or by focusing on economics and ignoring the insights of political philosophy into the relationship between citizenship, community-building and economic progress.

So my challenge is not to reject involvement in mainstream electoral politics but to recognise the radical reforming potentialities that still exist within our federal system of government. As reformers past and present have found, there are new ways of bringing about quite radical change within the open boundaries set by the founding fathers, who took their political philosophy seriously.

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