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Revitalising liberal thought in the name of a 'national renovation'

By Cameron Andrews - posted Friday, 29 August 2003

The term "liberal" has taken a battering in Australia.

After a century of misappropriation by conservative politicians, the mere utterance of the word "liberal" is now met by scorn and derision from anyone who believes in a progressive vision for Australia.

But it hasn't always been so.


Australia has a fine tradition of genuine liberalism. In the late 1800s it was the dominant paradigm in Australian political life. Our country led the way in introducing liberal reforms like extending suffrage, creating public education and health systems, improving working conditions, and encouraging religious (though, sadly, not racial) tolerance. We were seen as a "laboratory for democracy" to which other liberal-minded nations should aspire.

As NSW Premier (1894-1899), and fourth Prime Minister (1904-1905), George Reid's moderate and pragmatic approach to politics epitomised a true liberal leader. As Minister for Public Instruction in the Stuart Government in 1883, George Reid did the hard work in setting up New South Wales' world-leading public secular education system. When he later succeeded Parkes to become Premier, Reid reformed land laws, introduced a public health act, modernised the public service, and championed a strong and open economy through his passionate belief in free trade. He believed that Government was about creating equality of opportunity, was cautious with finances, and strongly opposed conservatism.

"Yes-No" Reid, as he was known, was also a key player in the Federation debate. His refusal to publicly endorse an early version of the Constitution led to the first Federation referendum being defeated in NSW. Reid later reconvened a meeting of the Premiers and successfully negotiated a substantially improved version of the Constitution, which was then voted on and accepted by the Australian people.

George Reid was destined to become Australia's first Prime Minister but was denied this honour by the prevarications of the newly emergent Labor party. Reid's rejection of the populist position on Federation left him open to attack from opponents and weakened his standing in the electorate. He finally gained the Prime Ministership in 1904, but only held office for eleven months.

The rapid growth of the Labor party proved to be Reid's downfall. While he had worked hard to improve the lives of working people, such as through better mining regulation and the introduction of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act, Reid was vehemently anti-socialist. In 1908, he sacrificed a lifetime commitment to free trade in order to oppose "socialist Labor" by allowing his Free Trade Party to be "fused" with the Protectionists. This new "Liberal Party" moved away from its liberal roots and aligned itself with conservative rural interests in order to counterbalance the fast-growing ALP.

George Reid's liberal legacy is little known. He kept little in the way of diaries or correspondence, and much of the material on Reid has been written by his opponents. The illiberalism of the modern so-called "Liberal Party" means they have shown no interest in maintaining his memory.


The Liberal Party of Australia, its modern incarnation having been reformed by Menzies in the 1940s, has now left any pretence to true liberalism far behind. As a party of social conservatism and market fundamentalism it is more closely aligned with the conservative English Tories and American Republicans, than any true liberal party. Indeed, Prime Minister Howard is the Chairman of the International Democrat Union - a conservative and Christian alliance of which arch-conservatives George Bush snr and Margaret Thatcher were founders.

A century on, there is no party, or group, in Australia occupying the true liberal position.

Today, Australia's true liberals have become a weak and fragmented force dispersed among many political camps. Our once-great liberal public institutions are under attack, support for tolerance and diversity is in decline, and the demands of special interest groups are being allowed to burden the economy. The aspects of liberalism which have from time-to-time been pursued by both sides of politics are now being subsumed by the mean-spirited individualism that much of the current thinking is geared towards.

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This article was first published in Margo Kingston's Webdiary in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

Cameron Andrews, a former state president of the Democrats, is an adviser to the independent state MP David Barr and Chair of the Reid Group.

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