Earlier this week the federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, wrote an opinion piece for The Australian newspaper making the case for the Australian Labor Party to present itself as a political party in the ‘small‑l liberal’ mould of Victorian colonial‑era Solicitor‑General and Federation‑era Prime Minister Alfred Deakin.
Mr Leigh’s argument that modern Labor can find much intellectual, and perhaps even inspirational, affinity in Deakin sparked a discussion on Twitter, in which I participated, concerning the merits of Deakin as a political inspiration. I had this to say on Twitter:
if Andrew Leigh wants Deakin’s racist, protectionist legacy, he can keep it!!!
In all fairness, Leigh said in his opinion piece that ‘surprising as this may sound, there is much in modern Labor that draws on small‑L liberalism (Deakin minus the racism and protectionism).’
So, Leigh understandably doesn’t want to keep Deakin’s racist and protectionist legacy. However his refusal to purchase the full Deakin legacy, lock, stock and barrel, cannot change the fact that Deakin did play an influential role in erecting White Australia and extensive tariff barriers which unquestionably held Australia back for many years.
In addition, picking‑and‑choosing which aspects of a past political legacy a modern politician wishes to assume as a prospective role model runs the risk of tying oneself in the knots of arbitrariness, at least should one not be careful. In an important respect, this comes about because political careers are wrought by severe policy inconsistencies as the limitations of political capabilities are routinely disrespected, where they eschew the principle of conducting very strictly limited, and rule‑guided, interventions into economic and social affairs in favour of worshipping, and carrying out the deeds of, the false policy idol of discretion.
To this end, I would guess that Leigh holds a similar aversion against Arthur Caldwell’s racial attitudes, as one example, or Paul Keating’s attitudes towards homosexuality during his political career, as another, but where exactly does one draw a non‑arbitrary line when it comes to embracing aspects of political legacies?
Leigh praises Deakin’s role as a state politician in supporting ‘the rights of trade unions to organise, and campaigned for better factory conditions,’ but it is well known that the later ‘New Protection’ plan of the Deakin federal government was little more than a sop to the union movement. Here is a short, rather matter‑of‑fact summary of what I said about Deakin’s federal policy in my PhD thesis:
as part of a ‘New Protection’ policy plan, the Deakin government introduced an Excise Tariff (Agricultural Machinery) Act 1906 under which an excise upon Australian manufactured agricultural machinery at half the rate of the customs tariff was to be imposed. The Act outlined that the excise would not be imposed upon manufacturers paying ‘fair and reasonable’ wages.
I grant that Leigh is on the public record of opposing protectionism, but what does he think of the inextricable tying of wage conditions with protectionism under Deakin’s plan?
In fact, what does he really make of the whole labour market regulatory edifice erected during the late nineteenth, and early twentieth, centuries, which contributed to the unemployment of some workers (as mentioned in studies, for example, by economic historian Colin Forster)?
When answering such questions, I trust that Mr Leigh might also be mindful of the fact that modern labour market regulations, descended from the likes of Deakin’s Victorian Factories and Shops Act and subsequent wages boards imposing industry‑award minimum wages, continue to economically imprison the relatively unskilled in the long term unemployment trap.
Deakin did not perceive himself as a Labor Party politician, and nor was he a member of the ALP. That much is abundantly clear. However, in my view Deakin was an early exemplar of the many spineless non‑Labor affiliated politicians, existing then and now, who accept and, in some cases, implement faithfully, the socialistic, expansionary government agenda of the Labor Party.
That a rabid self‑interest group, in the guise of trade unions, had crafted the Australian Labor Party to infiltrate legislatures, and subvert democratic principles in carrying out the unionists’ bidding, is of great historical shame and discredit to Australia, in my personal view.
That elected members of purportedly liberal‑conservative parties refuse to follow their philosophical principles to the letter, expanding the size and scope of government out of fear of offending growing armies of immoral tax‑consumers and rent‑seekers, and continue to ignore their more genuinely principled historical figures such as Bruce Smith, is quite another concerning matter altogether.
I say to Mr Leigh and other Labor politicians who wish to embrace Alfred Deakin as a role model, as far as I’m concerned you can have him all to yourselves!