July 2007


Political courage

By John Hirst
Political courage
Some Australian examples

The study of politics, aspiring to be a science, cannot explain those moments when the universe wobbles and shifts in its course because imagination and daring have taken over. I am not referring to the huge disruptions of revolutions and coups but to deeds of political courage in stable political systems, whose operations look as if they might be reducible to a science. I collect these minor miracles, treasure them indeed, to ward off the bleakness of regularity. It is an occupational hobby because my trade is history, which is a continuous defiance of social science.

There are deeds of political courage that fizz and burn and have no lasting effect - or only a delayed effect. I leave these to other collectors; my collection is made up of deeds performed by those in power and which have a lasting consequence. This is political courage allied to statecraft and not to defiance, prophecy and martyrdom.

My Australian collection begins early, at Sydney Cove in 1789, the second year of the convict settlement. The nature of this anomalous society is still not well understood. Since the population consisted of convicts and military it is assumed that the military controlled the convicts. This is not so. The military had no intention of demeaning themselves with such work. The convicts controlled the convicts. It was convict overseers who had the difficult task of getting their fellow convicts to work. Governor Arthur Phillip had no one else to call on.

In the second year at Sydney Cove food supplies were shrinking and starvation loomed. Desperate to stop robberies, Phillip created a police force and, as with all other offices, staffed it with convicts. These convicted felons were given authority over free men, the sailors and the soldiers; in particular, they were to detain any who were wandering around the camp at night. After several months the head of the military and lieutenant-governor, Robert Ross, raised a furious objection when a soldier was detained. Phillip had trouble eliciting his reasons; he was almost apoplectic with rage and could only repeat that the power given to the convict police was an insult to his corps.

Ross had given Phillip great trouble. He did not want to be in New South Wales and thought a settlement in such a barren, perverse place could end only in disaster. He objected to the military being involved with the convicts and complained that Phillip ignored him. Fortunately for Phillip, Ross did not get on well with his officers, not all of whom shared his views. When the convict-police business blew up, Ross announced that he was coming with two of his officers to complain, to which Phillip countered by asking him to bring them all. Neither of these projected meetings took place; Phillip yielded so far as to alter the rules for the police so that they could detain soldiers only if they were actually committing a robbery. Then he sent Ross to take charge at Norfolk Island and so put an end to the military threat to his rule. There Ross operated three systems of law: one for the soldiers, one for the seamen and one for the convicts.

Ross is the ordinary man who allows us to see how extraordinary was Phillip's faith and vision and how extraordinary was the society that Phillip shaped. Of course by all ordinary standards the convict police-force was a moral absurdity and its instructions an insult to the honour of the military. If Ross had been in charge, the settlement could well have been abandoned, or if it survived it would have been run with attention to distinction between soldiers and convicts. Phillip thought of a single law and was prepared to risk a military backlash to maintain it. He established the pattern of making convict status as unimportant as possible, which was the key to the easy escape Australia had from its convict origins.

Britain faced a dilemma with its convict colony: its people were British and hence entitled to some form of self-government, but it was scarcely prudent to allow a convict colony to be governed by ex-convicts, for it was they who for many years composed the majority of the free population. The settlers who had come free had an easy answer to this problem: give power to them and exclude the ex-convicts, but to men in Whitehall that smacked of oppression, especially as some of the ex-convicts were wealthy and respectable people. The wise, English response to this dilemma was to do nothing and muddle through - and hence keep the power in the governor's hands. There could be a nominated council to guide him, which would include a few free settlers, but the governor and his officials should have a majority.

So matters stood in the time of Governor Richard Bourke, the liberal Irishman who ruled from 1831-37. The reforming Whig government in Britain had appointed him, and being inclined to liberal measures it thought about an elected assembly for New South Wales and then got cold feet. But it did give Bourke permission to replace the military juries in the criminal courts with civilian juries of the English sort. Over this matter Bourke took a great risk and brought upon himself a determined campaign to unseat him.

The governor proposed that so long as they met the property qualifications, ex-convicts should sit on the new juries. The free settlers were outraged, partly because of the dishonour of having to share a jury box with ex-criminals but more for what this presaged; if ex-convicts could sit on juries what could stop them getting the vote and hence controlling the colony when finally it was granted an elected assembly? They sent home to England stories that the governor's favouritism towards convicts and ex-convicts was making the place ungovernable - a good line to run in England, because convicts were thought to have too easy a time of it in Australia and the British government always feared that its convict colony would break out in rebellion.

Bourke pushed on with his jury measure. All the free settlers on the nominated council opposed it. So, secretly, did some of his officials who were councillors, but they had to vote with the governor. The voting was equal; the governor then used his casting vote to pass the measure. This was force majeure; the enlightened despot had rammed the rights of ex-convicts down the throats of the free settlers. He was made to pay. In a symbolic act of defiance, the magistrates - all free settlers - elected as their chair an opponent of the governor's measures, who happened to be the colonial treasurer, one of the governor's own officials. Bourke retaliated by sacking the treasurer from his executive council. The Colonial Office in London told him to reinstate him. Bourke, rather than accept this humiliation, resigned. But his work was done, for the key transition to a free society had been managed. When in 1840 voting rights for an assembly were discussed, the free settlers did not quarrel with ex-convicts having the right to vote. Transportation was being abandoned, so the ex-convict party would no longer have new recruits to draw on.

The new assembly, which operated from 1843, went under the name of the Legislative Council. Britain, still cautious about self-government for New South Wales, allowed for the election of only two-thirds of its members; the rest were nominated by the governor. The council was the lawmaking body but it could not constrain the governor; he and his officials were still the government. And so it happened that in 1851 it fell to British officials, particularly to Colonial Secretary Edward Deas Thomson, to determine how the gold discovery was to be managed, which makes more remarkable the decision to allow anyone to dig for gold.          

Geoffrey Blainey, as in other matters, was the first to highlight the oddity of this arrangement. Goldfields don't have to be opened up to all comers; they have been worked by slaves and serfs. The Australian finds could have been leased or sold to large companies, which is what the large settlers of New South Wales would have preferred. They urged the government to send soldiers to clear out the first diggers. The government may have been able to do this if there had been more soldiers and fewer diggers. The number of the diggers grew because Edward Hargraves, who claimed to have discovered the gold, did not keep the discovery secret, as is usual, so that he could work the find himself; he publicised his find in the hope that there would be a rush and he could claim a reward.

Thomson decided that the diggers would have to remain but they would be controlled by a system of licence. But how to get men who were already winning gold to take out a licence? He gave that job to a John Hardy, an English gentleman, Cambridge educated, and with plenty of colonial experience as a police magistrate. His instructions were to expel diggers who did not take out a licence and to recruit respectable diggers as special constables to control the rest. The courage of John Hardy lies in his refusal to obey his instructions.

The force Hardy had to back his rule was small: ten mounted policemen whom he had handpicked in Sydney. At Bathurst, the nearest town to the gold find, there were more police in reserve and at Sydney the military was on alert. He soon announced that he would have no need of this extra support because his authority was firmly established. He had been firm, genial and flexible. He allowed men who had not struck gold to work on for a week without a licence; if they then did not take out a licence Hardy had his police destroy their cradles (which he had no legal power to do). He was pleased to find that men who had found gold were keen to have a licence as a protection against interlopers. Settling disputes between miners became one of Hardy's chief occupations, something not envisaged when his instructions were drawn up in Sydney and a tribute to the standing his fair-mindedness had brought him.

Though Hardy had established imperial authority over a democratic gold rush, his masters in Sydney noticed that he had not appointed respectable diggers as special constables and insisted that he should do so. He sent back an explanation of why this standard English procedure would be counterproductive: the special constables would be laughed at and defied. Authority worked better in this topsy-turvy community when it was official and bedecked in a uniform. This was the lesson he had drawn from his experience in the bush and he had the fortitude to stick to it. He had divined that odd Australian conjunction: a social democracy willing to accept paternal authority.

Three examples so far, and all indicative of how liberal was the rule of British officialdom in Australia. When the colonies were granted self-government in the mid 1850s there was very little for the local liberals to do, which is why colonial politics soon settled into the mundane business of building roads, ports and railways. There was a struggle to get access to the squatters' lands but here too Britain had given liberals their chance, because it had refused to give squatters freehold to their lands and had granted only a lease. Governor Bourke had suppressed another fruitful source of conflict when in 1836 he granted public money on the same basis to the three great divisions of Christianity: Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic.

One far-sighted British secretary of state, Earl Grey, had feared that with self-government the Australian colonies might treat each other as foreigners and start erecting tariff barriers on their borders. To prevent this he proposed a federation scheme, which the colonies jointly spurned. Grey's fears were amply realised, so that after 30 years the colonies had to work out how to come together and create what Grey had wanted to preserve: an Australian common market.

The great difficulty in federation was that although the benefits of free trade within Australia were widely acknowledged, there was fundamental disagreement over what the policy of the new nation should be towards the world: was it to be free trade, the New South Wales policy, or protection, which was Victoria's? The claim that Henry Parkes was the father of federation has a solid basis, for it was he who proposed that instead of trying to settle this quarrel all sides should agree to create the nation first and let the new national parliament settle the nation's trade policy. This was a bold and dangerous policy for Parkes. In New South Wales he led the free-trade party, now in the 1880s under assault from a new and vigorous protectionist party. In his great federation speeches in 1889-90 - not the first one at Tenterfield, which is a poor thing - he declared that trade policy was a trifle compared to the business of building a nation. The leader of the free-trade party had declared his party's shibboleth to be a trifle! That alarmed many of his followers. Parkes was confident that finally he could carry his party, but he was wily enough to know that he would need allies from the opposition benches. He was successful in enticing Barton, one of the prominent protectionists, to sign up to his federal proposal on the basis he had foreshadowed: Barton would go into a federated Australia with no guarantee that protection would be the policy of the new nation.

This agreement across the party divide in the mother colony was enough to allow Parkes to call a convention and get a constitution written. But then the doubts and hostility of his followers and the need to court the new Labor Party, which was hostile to federation, forced Parkes to drop his scheme. He died before federation was achieved, but it was later achieved on the basis he had established. To leave trade policy to the first parliament became a foundation principle of the later federal movement - so obvious, but unimagined until that old charlatan-cum-visionary conjured it up.

Parkes had declared that the nation in effect already existed, for did not "the crimson thread of kinship" run through them all? He was referring to the British blood of the colonists, and Britishness was and remained a key part of the Australian identity. All the government schemes to recruit migrants to Australia brought out Britons. That changed after Australia faced the threat of invasion in World War II. In 1945 the Labor government of Ben Chifley planned a massive migration program in order to boost population and so make Australia better able to defend itself.

The government contained the first federal minister of immigration, Arthur Calwell, who was an admirer of the US and its success in integrating migrants from all over Europe. He was ready to look to Europe for migrants, though he promised that nine out of ten migrants would still be British. Calwell was himself a fierce defender of the White Australia policy and knowing that the bulk of the Australian people shared his views he wanted the Europeans to be as little "woggy" as possible. The light-skinned Scandinavians featured largely in the government's plans but sadly their governments were not interested in promoting migration. All the government's planning came unstuck because of the shortage of shipping. The only ships available were those being used by the UN to ship persons displaced by war to the new world . Calwell, in Europe, decided to take these displaced people. He cabled home to Chifley for permission and received it. The cabinet was not consulted for the very good reason that it would have opposed this move. Already there was opposition to the departure from an exclusively British migration.

Calwell had the great disappointment of never being prime minister, but he had more influence on the course of Australian history than most men who have held that office. He was not alone in wanting a large migration scheme but it was he who at a crucial moment took the great risk of launching it as overwhelmingly a European scheme, ditching his nine-out-of-ten Britons promise. He came home and organised the first large-scale government advertising and public-relations campaign to ensure that Australians accepted what he had done.

As the minister for immigration Calwell administered the White Australia policy with an inhumane zealotry, and as leader of the Opposition in the 1960s he stood ready to defend this bastion of old Australia as Liberal governments contemplated dismantling it. The Liberal minister for immigration, the champion cyclist Hubert Opperman, put to the Menzies cabinet in 1964 a proposal to allow migration from Asia; the old man opposed it and it failed. After Menzies left, Opperman tried again in 1966; he had the support of the new prime minister, Harold Holt, and a limited measure to allow entry of Asian people was accepted.

The minister and the prime minister deserve some credit for making the change but its constant advocate and its architect was the head of the Immigration Department, Peter Heydon. His was such a cautious approach to change that it is a surprise to learn from Peter Ryan, who knew him well, that this civil servant was large, ebullient and almost indiscreet with his political gossip. Heydon had been a diplomat in Asia and knew the damage to Australia that the White Australia policy caused. He knew too that there was a danger for the government in advocating its removal. The change which he crafted and which the Holt government carried through parliament was presented as almost no change at all, but once the law was amended the numbers of Asian people admitted to the country was much larger than advocates had dared to hope.

The process of change can be disappointing to those who always want fireworks. Whitlam very publicly shifted migration to a non-discriminatory basis in 1973, though he admitted not many more Asian people. The symbolism of this change was central to the nation's new view of itself, but the breaking of the taboo had been done by his predecessors and had required more persistence and courage.

The deeds I have discussed so far clearly have my approval. My seventh example is one in which I was a disappointed participant.

Soon after Bob Hawke and Paul Keating came to power in 1983 they began the deregulation of the economy, something which they had not intended to do and of which they had given no warning. They puzzled and dismayed their party, which had always thought that an unregulated capitalist economy was not in the public interest. The Liberal Party, after a fierce internal struggle, was openly committed to deregulation and wanted it to be carried further by the sale of government enterprises. Hawke and Keating won elections by ridiculing this policy: they were proud of having floated the currency but, they said, it was ideology run mad to sell off flourishing enterprises like Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. These two enterprises were the creations of earlier Labor governments and they stood for Labor people as good in themselves, and as a symbol that businesses could be run for public benefit and not for private profit. I voted for the Hawke-Keating government to protect Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. It was a matter of principle for me: I would never fly on a private airline; I would never use a private bank.

But Hawke and Keating could not resist the new logic of economic rationalism. They decided that they had to sell off government assets. They took this policy to the Labor Conference in 1988 and were rebuffed. The party, having accepted so much, was going to protect the Labor icons. Then the government, which meant Paul Keating, first as treasurer and then as prime minister, sold them off anyway, bludgeoning the party into agreement. The Liberal Party played the honest part in all this; since Labor had adopted its policies, it gave the government its support (which was necessary to get measures through the Senate).

I was in the dustbin of history, the victim of a very bold outfit. Keating was bolder than Hawke. Don Watson tells of his skipping down a corridor after one of his coups boasting that Hawkie would never have done it. John Edwards reports that his boss felt there was no job in the world that he could not do, which Paul Kelly cites as a sign not of boldness but of hubris. This government was almost too bold or took its followers too much for granted (which is Barry Jones's view). Other governments have disappointed their party followers by not doing what they had promised or not doing all that their party platform promised; this government summarily undermined the party's foundation principles and so may have done it fatal damage - or perhaps damaged it only for the purposes for which it was formed, and it can develop others. As to the effects of the Hawke-Keating deregulation, I and other sceptics have to admit that it has provided the basis of our new prosperity, though in the dustbin I still harbour private doubts about what global capitalism might finally do to a small nation. Will Qantas survive, for starters?

John Howard was a supporter of a deregulated economy before Hawke and Keating. He has acknowledged their part in creating the prosperity from which he and the country have benefited, and he complains that the Liberals supported Labor's economic reforms while they have opposed his. His courageous deed consisted of going to an election promising to introduce a new tax, the GST. He took a huge risk but won the election and hence defied the common sense that people won't vote for new taxes.

What is most commonly remembered in regard to Howard and the GST is that he promised never ever to introduce one. John Hewson, as the Liberal leader, went to the 1993 election promising a GST, which allowed Paul Keating to defeat him and survive as prime minister, though Keating as treasurer had wanted to introduce such a tax. John Howard, facing Keating in 1996, promised that he would not introduce a GST. A journalist, believing that the mutability of public affairs should be controlled by promises in perpetuity, asked, "never ever?" which forced him to reply, "never ever". When he decided nonetheless to introduce a GST he gave the people every chance to defeat the proposal, since it was put to them at an election. The people accepted him and his tax.

You have to be that rare bird, a historian of federal-state relations, to appreciate the full significance of the GST. It is a Commonwealth tax but the large revenue it raises goes to the states. Our federation was unbalanced financially from the outset because customs duties, a chief source of revenue for the states, passed to the Commonwealth. Every attempt by the states to raise their own form of indirect tax has been frustrated by the High Court. Then in World War II the Commonwealth, with the sanction of the High Court, blackmailed the states into giving up their income tax. Without the standard forms of direct and indirect taxes, the states were left as mendicants of the Commonwealth. The GST has given the states their own indirect tax whose returns grow with the economy, something which every expert has advocated for decades and which seemed highly unlikely ever to be realised. I pick it as the prime minister's most enduring legacy.

My list has encompassed the deeds of colonial governors who had a large discretion and of governments responsible to a wide electorate. What is interesting about the deeds of the elected governments is that none of them, except the last, was put as a proposal to the people at an election. Parkes had just won an election on the free-trade cry when he announced that free trade was a trifle compared to the making of a nation; Calwell took European refugees on the run; when Holt began dismantling the White Australia policy he had taken over from Menzies, who had certainly not signalled any such change at the previous election; Hawke and Keating had directly opposed at elections the policies they then adopted.

I find all this very heartening. I am happy to have not too much transparency in our politics; the hold of the people is the loose one of punishing for serious mistakes. For all that our system appears to push politicians into short-term considerations of survival, in fact it is a very open one allowing plenty of room for creative leaders who are willing to take risks. Part of the skill of a good leader is knowing when the odds of failure have lengthened. Part of the magic of good leadership is that dangers melt away in the face of it.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

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