A good idea at the time

Tony Smith

James Walter with Tod Moore What Were They Thinking? The Politics of Ideas in Australia, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2010 (400 pp). ISBN 9-78086840-971-9 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2010 (384 pp). ISBN 9-78174223-093-1 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Much comment about the 2010 Australian election campaign deplored the absence of serious debate around vital issues. The Labor Government and Coalition Opposition offered such similar policy alternatives on asylum seekers, climate change and economic management that the campaign became a presidential contest between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and contender Tony Abbott. Some observers might have thought this highly democratic but others regarded it as poll driven cynicism. Social researcher Hugh McKay lamented on Radio National that neither leader provided a political ‘narrative’ within which people could interpret their personal stories (ABC Radio National 2010).

At a time when pragmatism seems to have suppressed principle, it is important to remember that broad ideas have played an important role in the development of Australian politics. Two recent publications demonstrate the work of scholars who focus on ideas. The works, diverse in scope and style, illuminate the dominant thinking of specific periods and examine the challenges raised by proponents of change. James Walter and Todd Moore provide an overview of ideas that dominated debates and decisions in distinct epochs since the European colonisation of Australia. Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill sketch some 50 Sydney-based radicals whose firm adherence to ideas caused them to clash with institutionalised power. Together these works stimulate serious critical questions about the meaning of politics in 2010.


People who value the life of the mind assume that ideas inform most significant events. Some ideas are stated explicitly before decisions are taken but others are inferred later. Walter notes that in 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote an essay to explain his government’s response to the global financial crisis. Walter returns to Rudd’s essay at the end of his book, placing Rudd’s response within the historical context of political and economic ideas. Walter could not have anticipated Rudd’s removal from the leadership in mid-2010 but when scholars make a detailed examination of the 2010 election campaign, they will need to consider the possibility that Rudd’s essay played some part in his loss of Caucus support. What Were They Thinking? will be essential reading in that process.

Walter examines the competition between ideas and explains why some prevailed. He notes that the ‘foundational ideas of Australian politics arrived in the luggage of settler peoples’ and that our ‘dominant ideas have a broad genealogy’ (p. 25). Australian ideas owe much to an ability to ‘borrow, adapt and apply’ ideas from elsewhere and then offer ‘something distinctive’ (p. 26). By translating these ideas, the political process helps to give meaning to everyday life. Rudd’s essay drew on both ‘traditional’ and ‘organic’ intellectuals. Traditionalists theorise more generally, while organic intellectuals engage in specific debates and may be partisans of an issue. So while Rudd referred to Bonhoeffer, Hayek and Keynes, he also acknowledged his staff. Walter says that by using both types of source Rudd aimed to create a discussion that would be ‘reciprocal and dynamic’ (p. 29).

Broad ideas have played an important role in the development of Australian politics.

Walter’s own narrative notes that initially the British colony was autocratic. When wealthy landowners sought to establish a local conservative ascendancy, this was derided as a nascent ‘bunyip aristocracy’ by other free settlers, emancipists and those born here. European Chartism was influential, especially following discovery of gold around 1850 and the resultant population boom. The aims of the Ballarat Reform League during the Eureka rebellion included such Peoples’ Charter demands as universal manhood suffrage, abolition of property qualifications for parliament and payment of MPs (p. 51).

As Federation approached in 1901, Free Trade and Protectionist ideas were the chief antagonists. The constitution for the Commonwealth was drafted at the Federation Conventions during the late 19th century. The few conservative delegates to the conventions came mainly from the smaller states, where industrialisation had not entrenched urban influence. And although labour had begun to organise politically, radical policies such as determination to abolish upper houses largely excluded Labor leaders from the conventions. ‘What emerged’, says Walter, ‘was a classically liberal document, with its inbuilt checks and balances on the powers of the Commonwealth and the states, and its commitment to responsible government’. According to Walter ‘Federation would effectively crystallise national sentiment and provide a remarkably resilient platform for twentieth-century politics’ (p. 84).

During the 20th century, party politics settled into the bipolar competition familiar today. A consensus evolved that Australia would have a ‘liberal polity in which individual enterprise was lauded, but state action was accepted’ (p. 116). Despite this ‘settlement’ the balance between these ideals varied over time. Tod Moore notes that during the First World War Prime Minister Hughes struggled bitterly against the radical tendencies of the Industrial Workers of the World. The idea of ‘White Australia’ was debated in the context of a growing nationalism, while rural-based politicians emphasised the distinctiveness of country people and their experiences. The Great Depression exposed deep social rifts and culminated in para-military organisations plotting to overthrow NSW Premier Jack Lang, a situation eased only when Lang was dismissed by the Governor after threatening to repudiate the State’s debts to foreign banks. Amidst the inter-war explosion of ideas, what Walter calls ‘institute scholars’ created a ‘permanent public sphere’. Sometimes on university campuses, associations such as the League of Nations Union, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Institute for Pacific Relations and the Australian Institute of Political Science created firm sites for scholarly study and published influential journals such as Australian Quarterly and Public Administration (pp. 161–162).

Walter says that government met the industrial demands of the Second World War by using a ‘command culture’ (p. 179). The requisite ‘top-down technocratic expertise’ provided a model for the bureaucratic organisation of industry and labour during the post-war reconstruction of the late 1940s. H.C. Coombs, adviser to the Curtin and Chifley Governments, advocated full employment, but ‘business progressives’ became increasingly hostile to regulation and direction. Robert Menzies emerged in this period as an opponent of government powers, especially of Labor’s attempt to nationalise banks. Menzies’ own governments were pragmatic. He funded infrastructure developments and allowed his Country Party coalition partners to drive the trade agenda on tariffs. The non-Labor parties needed to maintain a degree of equality to aid social integration and used the welfare state to support the capitalist system.

Walter necessarily selects ideas that achieved prominence.

The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by the Cold War, mass immigration and the rise of an educated generation that would challenge the faith of their parents in the ideas of their time. Cultural homogeneity became impossible and the suburban dream dissipated, partly because of moves to liberate women. Student movements flexed their muscles, particularly over Aboriginal disadvantage, conscription and the war in Vietnam. According to Walter, New Left ideas took hold and ‘issue-oriented politics began to be subsumed within a more comprehensive social critique’ (p. 234).

While some placed great hopes in the Whitlam Government of the 1970s, a world economic downturn presented governments with a dilemma: maintain full employment or contain inflation. Following the Fraser years, Hawke and Keating led Labor Governments very different to Whitlam’s. Hawke stressed consensus and fostered an Accord with the trade union movement to contain wages growth, and economic rationalism became the bureaucratic paradigm. Major economic reports by Ross Garnaut and Fred Hilmer were widely cited and Keating pursued policies of privatisation and micro-economic reform to drive economic restructuring. Moore says that ALP directions were criticised by ‘mainstream left intellectuals’ such as Graham Maddox and Hugh Stretton and also by Marxists and political economists such as Humphrey McQueen, Bob Connell, Ted Wheelwright, Greg Crough, Frank Stilwell and Ken Buckley (p. 284). While such labels and stereotypes might be over-generalisations, they give some understanding of the range of influences and intellectual traditions confronting mere politicians.

On the Right, conservative ‘think tanks’ such as the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Studies and H.R. Nicholls Society argued for even more scope for the exercise of market forces. The ‘Dries’ who supported such ideas used the period in opposition to purge ‘Wet’ opponents from the Liberal Party. Returning to government, Prime Minister Howard vetoed activist politics, waged a culture war to capture the Australian legend, criticised elites and claimed to make the ‘mainstream’ more ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Because he was even more economic rationalist than Keating, there seemed to be no alternative to Howard. Walter argues that Howard’s success fitted Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis in which ‘philosophy and political imagination were defeated by a sense of the inevitable’ (p. 295). Only when he won a Senate majority in 2004 did Howard falter. He returned to a ‘command culture’, threatening the industrial relations consensus, disturbing the federal balance by suggesting Commonwealth takeover of hospitals and intervening in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. The dominant leadership style Howard exploited in responding to terrorism was not suitable for dealing with issues such as climate change and water, which demanded a community consensus. Howard’s inflexibility created the opportunity for an election victory for Labor in 2007, under avowed economic conservative Rudd (p. 316).

Irving and Cahill amplify some silenced voices.

Scholars seeking to understand the 2010 election campaign need to examine its political and economic contexts. Why did Labor strategists decide to ignore such issues as asylum seekers, military commitment to the war on terror, Indigenous affairs and climate change? Did they fear that the opposition would exploit the Rudd Government’s failure to create the consensus needed to address such issues? While What Were They Thinking? is already a massive undertaking, Walter and Moore are perfectly positioned to make sense of the 2010 election in a future edition. By extending their own narrative about the interaction between ideas and political action, Walter and Moore could provide a cogent explanation of the electorate’s ambivalence about both major parties.


While Walter necessarily selects ideas that achieved prominence, some of the dissenters examined by Irving and Cahill in Radical Sydney: Places, Portraits and Unruly Episodes have been largely forgotten. The 47 brief chapters concentrate on description rather than analysis and while Irving and Cahill are generally sympathetic towards the characters they have included, the authors show occasionally that in their research they have been critical of their sources. They note for example that Lieutenant William Dawes’ reputation for refusing to undertake punitive expeditions against the Indigenous people sits oddly with allegations about his later career. They cite Cassandra Pybus’s work on Dawes’ harsh, possibly racist administration in West Africa and the West Indies.

Irving and Cahill amplify some silenced voices of ‘Aboriginal fighters, convict poets, feminist journalists, democratic agitators, bohemian dreamers and revolutionaries’ (p. 2). They identify a geographical divide across Sydney. At one end of town are the ‘symbolic buildings of church and state’ and other institutions of authority, conservatism and capitalism such as ‘the stock exchange, the newspaper editorial rooms and the retail emporia’ (p. 4). Deprived of power except that arising from their numbers, working class people of the inner suburbs to the south and west, for example Darlington, Redfern, Glebe, Kings Cross and Paddington, valued open spaces for gatherings to demonstrate their democratic potential. Radicals used mass rallies to show the authorities that there was power in their numbers. Recognising an implicit threat, governments sanctioned some areas such as the speakers’ corner in the Domain as a ‘safety valve’ to ease revolutionary pressures (p. 5).

Perhaps because of their Sydney-centric focus, Irving and Cahill’s emphasis sometimes differs from Walter’s. On the Vinegar Hill rebellion of 1804 for example, they note government concern over links to the 1798 Irish rebellion. While Walter mentions the 1854 Eureka rebellion and acknowledges 1804, he does not emphasise the Irish influence but the gold rush period’s Chartist style demands for democratic institutions. Irving and Cahill argue that Irish convicts saw themselves as ‘victims twice over of colonialism’ (p. 15). The authorities feared anarchy in poorer suburbs. In the 1840s police were frequently set upon by mobs in The Rocks, and Irving and Cahill identify ‘thirty moments when the face and muscle of popular power were revealed to the colony’s rulers’ (p. 44).

The second half of the 20th century brought a fragmentation of the class struggle.

From the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th, Sydney’s politics followed a class pattern. Workers organised to bargain collectively and gained intellectual inspiration from socialists who interpreted international theories for local industrial circumstances. Irving and Cahill note the importance of the New Theatre and Bruce Scates describes the contribution of radical bookshops including McNamara’s in Castlereagh Street (pp. 89–96). Women seeking justice through political involvement established literary circles such as that around the Dawn Club, named after a newspaper edited by Louisa Lawson, mother of the famed writer Henry.

Irving and Cahill provide maps of the chief sites they mention. The spatial dimension of politics is often overlooked, but in the 20th century workers considered it important to secure a presence in the central business district rather than be excluded. The Trades Hall in Sussex Street was important both symbolically and as a practical place from which to send delegations to parliament. In the 1960s and 1970s, the middle class rediscovered inner suburbs and a process of gentrification reduced the visibility of workers around the city. On the waterfront however, insecurity of employment compelled workers to live near the wharves. (The waterfront area once known as the ‘Hungry Mile’ has been recently incorporated into the new precinct of Barangaroo (p. 343).)

Occasionally, conservative forces mobilised against unionists, importing strike breakers from the North Shore and the country. In 1917, a striking transport worker was shot dead by a ‘scab’. Many veterans of the Great War claimed a right to defend society from disruptive forces and some ex-officers exploited this patriotic fervour. By 1932, with fascism rising in Europe and Australia deep in depression, the New Guard became a sinister threat and a coup d’etat might have occurred had Premier Lang not been dismissed by the Governor (p. 195).

During the Depression, hundreds of families were evicted from their houses in inner suburbs and many went to camps from La Perouse to Liverpool. Evictions were resisted and bloody clashes occurred between protestors and police. The second half of the 20th century brought a fragmentation of the class struggle. Some radicals, such as conscientious objectors, were caught up in the big issue of Australia’s role in the Cold War. Others such as gay activists and supporters of the ‘green bans’ challenged dominant power structures and exposed corrupt police in the process. Perhaps the Indigenous people of the Sydney area have been the most alienated by the city’s growth. It is encouraging that Irving and Cahill note examples of the presence and activism of Aboriginal people. Fred Maynard launched the Australian Aboriginal Progress Association in 1925 and Aboriginal radicals marked anniversaries of British invasion with a day of mourning in 1938 and a survival day in 1988 (pp. 161, 216, 328).

Kevin Rudd’s attempt to construct an inclusive narrative was a significant risk..

The characters of Radical Sydney are so diverse that the authors’ brief introductory overview could profitably have been longer and deeper. This work will appeal to overseas visitors browsing the shops at museums and galleries, to a popular readership hungry for racy anecdotes and to Sydney residents curious about their history. While there is a guide to further reading, and the authors provide some insights within individual chapters, the specialist reader might wish for more of Irving and Cahill’s conclusions regarding themes that emerge from their sweeping survey.


Walter and Moore argue that Kevin Rudd realised that the task of political leaders is to ‘craft a narrative for the times’ (p. 341). For Walter, the global financial crisis served as a reminder of the ‘centrality of the economic dimension in politics’. He writes that ideas which ‘do not carry with them an answer to the problem of resource allocation – who gets what, when, how – are marginalised’ (p. 336). Sometimes, as Irving and Cahill demonstrate, individuals who suggest unpopular answers risk becoming political outcasts.

Walter and Moore found similarities between the contexts of 2009 and 1909. They note that policy regimes are circular: some leaders must be progressive reformers, while others are modifiers or consolidators; policy exhaustion usually leads to a transitional phase involving breakdown and renewal. It is arguable that the Labor Government that won office in 2007 found itself in the dangerous renewal phase.

A ‘politics of ideas’ is in continual struggle with other forces that would prefer to eliminate choice and so suppress politics. For Walter and Moore, the struggle might reasonably be described in terms of the proponents of market mechanisms dominating advocates for social rights. Adherence to market values limits the political sphere and overwhelms any political leader who thinks that market forces should be contained within the political process. In that context, Kevin Rudd’s attempt to construct an inclusive narrative was a significant risk.

Walter notes the unfortunate tendency among policy insiders and intellectuals to believe that they have found the ultimate solution to the problems of their age and to treat every preceding generation with ‘condescension’ (p. 342). He expresses hope that in seeking a new ‘accommodation between state and market’, those who construct the new regime will learn from ‘the rich history of our political thinking, the resource it provides, and the resilience that has characterised Australian adaptations of the patterns of Western thought’. While the works of Walter and Moore and Irving and Cahill make such learning more likely, Walter doubts that these regime builders will learn humility quite so readily (p. 352).


ABC Radio National 2010, ‘Election pulse’, Life Matters 16 August [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2010/2983583.htm [2010, Sep 1].

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

View other articles by Tony Smith: