2007 Oration

Whatever happened to Australian radicalism?

The 5th Henry Parkes Oration: Professor Geoff Gallop
 20 October 2007, School of Arts, Tenterfield

Dr Geoff Gallop

Dr Geoff Gallop

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Like all great speeches Henry Parkes’ Tenterfield Oration was a call to action. In making the case for a national system of government that embodied the principles of freedom he drew heavily on the theories, insights and arguments of the British radical tradition, albeit modified by his experience of hard-edged parliamentary politics. This was the tradition of parliamentary and electoral reform, freedom of association and expression, national self-determination and social equality. From within its ranks emerged the case for popular sovereignty, democracy and the republic. At a deeper level the radicals recognized that good political systems weren’t just means to an end but ends-in-themselves.

Many of those responsible for political and social reform in the colonies – and the creation of the Australian nation with its new Parliament, Government and High Court – may have been self-taught but they were good philosophers who were unafraid to think in terms of first principles and ideals as they confronted the challenge of constitutional design and implementation.

These radical ideas and ways of thinking helped make the Australian colonies and the new nation from the 1850s to the First World War one of the most advanced and envied democracies in the World. The Commonwealth of Australia may not have been a republic and, as we know only too well, it excluded the indigenous population, but the franchise did include women and the federation itself was created through a series of democratic acts. The requirement for a referendum if the Constitution was to be changed preserved this popular element into the future.

Whilst radicalism had clearly played a role in the reform movement and the creation of the nation, many radicals were disappointed with the final result. Full constitutional independence from Britain was not achieved and concern was expressed at the inclusion of many elements designed to thwart of the “tyranny of the majority”. From within the labour movement there emerged the case for a strong and centralized form of government to facilitate national development and full employment with social justice. These attitudes were reinforced later in the century as the nation faced the twin challenges of the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Even though achievements were made at state level, the lack of one-vote one-value, the gerrymandering of electorates and propertied franchises for the Upper Houses rendered some of the states tough territory for social and economic reformers. Indeed for many radicals keen to build a nation from 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 1930’s and beyond that the Constitution was an obstacle to reform. The Lang Labor Government was sacked in 1932 by a Governor using the reserve powers, the Victorian Legislative Council blocked supply from the Cain Labor government in 1947 and the High Court blocked attempts to nationalise the banks.

It was from this background that we can understand Gough Whitlam’s centralist and majoritarian version of radical politics. His mix of social democracy, nationalism and the new issues from the social and political movements of the 1960’s was backed up by an activist view of the Commonwealth’s political and constitutional position. However, more than anything else it was his dismissal in 1975 that was to prove most controversial. It put the focus back, not only on the Constitution, but on the Whitlam strategy itself.

Ironically, while the Whitlamite majoritarian and centralizing version of radicalism was stealing the limelight, a new radicalism was emerging at the state level. Don Dunstan was the pioneer of reform and his example was followed by other state governments. Malapportionment and gerrymandering were abolished, proportional representation established for Upper Houses and new agencies of accountability introduced to protect the public interest. Dunstan had shown that reform from below was a real possibility and as a result the traditional liberal argument for checks and balances was released from its conservative straitjacket to become an important weapon in the radical armoury.

Whilst all of this was happening the left of Australian politics was moving away from its protectionist past and embracing market economics, particularly at the federal level. This focus on market economies was coupled with a more conservative and less populist political disposition, illustrated by the opposition to a directly elected president in the republic debates in the 1990’s. However, this move did open Labor’s ranks to arguments about choice in politics, diversity in society and innovation in public policy – all small “l” liberal values. Increasingly public policy in its many forms rather than a more narrowly based ideology became the basis for thought and action.

At the same time the right was becoming more aggressive and centralist, regarding the checks and balances created at the federation, even the democratically elected state governments, as impediments to the will of the people. The left’s old dream of centralised national government has been taken over by the right in the interests of electoral pork barreling, unchecked economic rationalism and populist cultural politics. John Howard has called it “aspirational nationalism”.

Too often in this new environment progressives have been locked into a bureaucratic and centralising view of Australia’s future and have been 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.

The concept of “balance” is critical.

We need a new radicalism that moves away from majoritarianism and centralism to one that emphasizes the balance between individual rights and state and federal power.

To guarantee individual rights, I believe progressives should once again push for the enshrining of a national Charter of Rights (along the lines of those established in the A.C.T. and Victoria) to constrain any government from using various pretexts to slowly and unnecessarily chip away at our freedoms. We need a more sophisticated and proactive approach to whole issue of rights protection that requires questions to be asked from the earliest to the later stages in the decision-making process.

To build a modern Australian economy and society, we need a new commitment to federal-state cooperation. Instead of ‘aspirational nationalism’ we need ‘cooperative federalism’. The proof of what can be achieved through cooperative federalism is already before us. Over the last two to three years the Labor state governments led by Victoria have worked together to create a new federal agenda that shares financial and policy responsibilities for economic reform; human capital investment; infrastructure development; sorting out the hospital, health, dental and aged care systems; and addressing sustainability. This agenda is designed to work without undermining the subsidiarity principle and the multiple centres of power required to promote innovation.

And, finally, to symbolize this new era of reform, we need a new movement to establish an Australian republic – one which demonstrates that reformers once again trust the people by providing for our head of state to be directly elected and with clearly enumerated powers. Australia not just as a republic, but as a pluralist, federal, progressive republic under popular sovereignty. In other words we should aspire to a system that embodies the highest ideals of our liberal and democratic inheritance.

The fifth Henry Parkes Oration was delivered in Tenterfield NSW, by Dr Geoff Gallop, BEc W.Aust. MA & DPhil Oxf. MPhil Murd. Hon DLitt Murd. FIPAA Professor and Director, Graduate School of Government, University of Sydney. Premier of Western Australia 2001-06.