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The cry for ‘jobs’, and where it led us

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 21 January 2013

The history of modern Australia has an underlying theme, that of finding jobs for new arrivals. A contrasting theme, also to do with jobs, is the scarcity of skills, and the need to find them from overseas. These two themes are like rope, made from separate strands, and they have affected the shape of our federation, our national politics, and what we see in our daily news, as yet another long-established Australian firm goes under.

When the great gold rushes of the 1850s had come to an end Victoria and New South Wales, both self-governing colonies, had to move the gold-miners into some other form of occupation. New South Wales, which had plenty of land, went down the path of closer settlement, offering the miners land which they could own if they improved it, by making fences, putting on stock, and so on. Victoria, much less equipped with land, went down the path of industrialisation, giving entrepreneurs an opportunity to create factories and employ workers.

These strategies resulted in different forms of political economy. To keep costs low for their farmers, New South Wales became a 'free trade' colony, while Victoria, in order to ensure that the new factories provided goods that could sell, employed 'protection', setting up tariff barriers against equivalent goods coming from overseas or from other colonies. There were customs barriers at Albury and elsewhere on the Murray, and it was to sort out the awkwardness of such arrangements, at least in part, that the colonies agreed to federate.


The first real political division within the new Commonwealth of Australia was between free trade and protection, and the main political parties bore those names. That didn't last, partly because a new arrival, in the shape of the Australian Labor Party, forced a realignment: free trade and protection rolled themselves into the 'Liberal' Party, in which the protectionists were dominant. Before very long they were joined by a new 'Country' Party, for which free trade was the goal. Australia became a protectionist society, in which a high standard of living was protected under what Paul Kelly (in The End of Certainty, a fine book) called 'the Australian Settlement' - a kind of deal in which industries and trade unions were protected, and arbitration by the state was used to solve disagreements about money. The Country Party accepted that, and fought to have rural industries protected as well, and that occurred. Sir John McEwen, its leader and Minister for Trade, became the Great Protector.

All that has gone. The Hawke and Keating governments ended it, in part by floating the dollar, and no successive government has gone back to the Settlement. But Hawke and Keating could not have done it without the previous work of one single Member of Parliament, Charles Robert Kelly, who fought the free-trade fight throughout the twenty years he spent in the House of Representatives, but had left it five years before the arrival of the Hawke Government. I knew Bert Kelly well, but only towards the end of his political career. He now has a biography that appeared five years after his death in 1997 (The Modest Member. The Life and Times of Bert Kelly, by Hal G. P. Colebatch, Connor Court, xiv + 367 pp).

Bert Kelly was one of a kind. He was a great student, as were Ben Chifley and Paul Keating, and like them he did not have the benefit of a sustained education at school and university. He claimed that he could empty the House faster than anyone else, because he spoke on tariffs, with authority, reason and data. But he was, in my experience, a merry man, with a lovely dry sense of humour, a twinkling eye and a ready smile. His sense of self-deprecation concealed a great intelligence and a great memory. He was a formidable opponent, and Sir John McEwen disliked him with a passion. But, bit by bit, speech by speech, Bert Kelly made the free trade argument respectable. He built a small following, in each party, that could sense that we overdid protection, and that, although protection was a sacred cow, it was running dry.

Bert was no less famous as a newspaper columnist, with long-running columns with titles like 'A Modest Member' and 'A Modest Farmer'. He invented characters to people his writings, such as Farmer Fred, his aspiring wife Mavis, and a dour economist called Eccles. They became famous enough that his own wife, Lorna, was sometimes referred to as 'Mavis'. As a fellow columnist I once complained to him that some of the stuff I wanted to write about was so obvious that I couldn't see how to do it. 'Ah,' he said, 'well, you're the academic, so make yourself the spouter of long-winded guff. And have someone cut through the guff with the simple explanation!' I thanked him, and Great-Aunt Winifred, about whom you read the other day, was born. I hope we will see more of her, though she is a bit of a handful.

To read the biography was to be reminded of how much I valued Bert - and how much I wish he were still here, to tell us what a mess we are making of a good society. I asked him once to do the major speech for the year at the Canberra Wine and Food Club, of which I was a member, and he agreed. He did a wonderful job, ranging over politics and society in great style, and came to the conclusion. 'Well, Mr President and members, I am done. And you'll wonder why I haven't talked at all about wine, given that my electorate of Wakefield produces a great amount of it. Well, Mr President, I don't need to. You see, Wakefield is also full of farmers, and they whine about this and they whine about that.' And he sat down, to enthusiastic applause.

A lovely man, and a model for any aspiring parliamentarian.

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This is a review of Bert Kelly and also of his biography The Modest Member. The Life and Times of Bert Kelly, Hal G. P. Colebatch (Connor Court).

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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