Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Ethical State, by Marian Sawer

For those interested, a good companion book to Marian Sawer’s The Ethical State would be Judith Brett’s history of liberal parties in Australia. If you want to see how much of Australia’s social-political theory and practice has turned on its head over the last 25 years, these are the books to read. Both demonstrate that what the Liberal Party of today stands for is millions of miles away from the sort of liberalism espoused by Alfred Deakin, Australia’s PM on three occasions roughly a hundred years ago.

In brief, a hundred years ago, the Oxford philosopher T.H Green developed a criticism of market liberalism, or free contracts. Free contracts between capital and labour were deemed as manifestly unfair as employers – money – had all the power, and employees could not negotiate a fair deal for themselves. (Recall, today the Howard govt. wants to introduce Australian Workplace Agreements into the workplace.)

He also believed that state intervention could also help to promote equality. This is in direct opposition to the idea of laissez-faire economics, where the market would decide the fairness of everything. Marian Sawer describes this phenomenon as ‘social liberalism’. These ideas were introduced into Australia by journalist Walter Murdoch. (He also wrote a biography of Alfred Deakin, as is, I’m pretty sure, the great-uncle of grandfather to Rupert Murdoch. I could be wrong, but I’m 99% sure they are relations.)

To get an idea of this philosophy of state intervention for the good of all, I quote Henry Bournes Higgins, a parliamentarian responsible for including industrial relations powers in the constitution. (His legacy, or rather, the end of it with the new IR reforms being promulgated by the Howard government, are the subject of a recent column by The Age’s Shaun Carney.)

‘Have not the people come to realise that the greatest liberty is obtained where there is the greatest law – that where there is the greatest restraint in the common interest, there is found the greatest liberty for the individual and for individual action?’

Marian Sawer also describes the contribution of women to this growth of social-liberal politics, with their interest in a more nurturing approach to the citizenry, rather than throwing everyone to the ravages of tooth-and-claw nature.

Read this book (along with Judith Brett’s book on The Liberals) to see what Australia once was, what it might be again, and ponder the world of market liberalism we are marching into.

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