Australian liberalism, Australian conservatism and trade unionism

Writing a paper about small business in Australia. An extract on the attitudes of Australian conservatives to trade unions from :
Social liberals admitted the fact of working-class dependence under capitalism. They rejected revolutionary socialism and argued that trade unions and the democratic state would counterbalance employers. As protective legislation was extended to employees from the later nineteenth century a struggle developed between legislators who sought to extend the scope of industrial regulation and courts hostile to such regulation.  
The social liberal recognition of unions was never however accepted by many employers who remained faithful to a liberal-conservative model. Australian scholars have understated the role of conservatism in Australian history. There is an Australian conservative tradition whose lineage stretches back to the opponents of colonial democracy, the defenders of ‘freedom of contract’ in the 1890s and to the critics of Deakinite liberalism such as the Australian Women’s National League. Even recent scholarship on the critics of Deakinite liberalism from the right has defined them as ‘free trade liberals’ rather than conservatives. Herbert Spencer’s Australian champion Bruce Smith ended his 1887 Liberty and Liberalism with a threat of armed resistance against democratic excesses. Those who identify a hegemonic Deakinite settlement, such as Paul Kelly, after 1910 neglect the extent to which the ‘right to manage’ was a core value of many Australian employers for decades after the Harvester judgment. The managerial style of many employers as Christopher Wright has argued remained one of ‘simple control’.  
The Australian industrial relations order between the wars reflected as Andrew Wells has argued not a hegemonic consensus but rather a stalemate. Employers clung to the right to manage, and their power was bolstered by high levels of unemployment, but they faced a mobilized working-class whose defensive strength was reinforced by the industrial arbitration system. Conservative politicians sympathized with employers but sought to maintain majority support from an electorate devoted to the arbitration system. 
 Rather than a Deakinite settlement in industrial relations it would be more accurate to identify a ‘Menzesian’ settlement. In the later 1940s Robert Menzies revived social liberalism; the reborn Liberals would champion ‘responsible’ unionism rather than merely accord it grudging toleration. This new liberalism accepted collective action (unlike Herbert Spencer) but added an element of moral evaluation of those obliged to resort to collective action. They were cast as necessary but unenterprising members of society.  
The post-war Menzesian settlement broke down from the late 1960s. In a full employment economy the recognition of workers’ collective agency that social liberalism provided served as platform for unions to win major gains over employers. Questions of industrial relations were at the centre of national politics, and attitudes towards union power were a major determinant of voters’ choice between parties. Even after the end of full employment unions remained strong and after 1983 Labor’s corporatism turned voter distrust of union militancy to its advantage.  
With the Liberals becalmed after 1983 it was the ‘new right’ took the running against unions from the late 1980s. The ‘new right’ was not a homogenous force, some such as the young Peter Costello or Geoffrey Blainey proposed a more muscular version of the traditional Liberal critique of union militancy and excess, but others went further to a more thoroughgoing assertion of the illegitimacy of unionism. During the Prime Ministership of John Howard these two approaches would contend for influence over policy.  
Prime Minister Howard celebrated the rise of the ‘enterprise worker’ which included not only the self-employed but also those workers committed to the profitability of their employer. Howard’s rhetoric appalled his opponents, who cast him as a master cultural warrior, but past Labor governments championed workplace cooperation and Menzies had appealed to the enterprising working-class.


Social liberals admitted the fact of working-class dependence under capitalism. They rejected revolutionary socialism and argued that trade unions and the democratic state would counterbalance employers. As protective legislation was extended to employees from the later nineteenth century a struggle developed between legislators who sought to extend the scope of industrial regulation and courts hostile to such regulation.

The social liberal recognition of unions was never however accepted by many employers who remained faithful to a liberal-conservative model. Australian scholars have understated the role of conservatism in Australian history. There is an Australian conservative tradition whose lineage stretches back to the opponents of colonial democracy, the defenders of ‘freedom of contract’ in the 1890s and to the critics of Deakinite liberalism such as the Australian Women’s National League. Even recent scholarship on the critics of Deakinite liberalism from the right has defined them as ‘free trade liberals’ rather than conservatives. Herbert Spencer’s Australian champion Bruce Smith ended his 1887 Liberty and Liberalism with a threat of armed resistance against democratic excesses. Those who identify a hegemonic Deakinite settlement, such as Paul Kelly, after 1910 neglect the extent to which the ‘right to manage’ was a core value of many Australian employers for decades after the Harvester judgment. The managerial style of many employers as Christopher Wright has argued remained one of ‘simple control’.

The Australian industrial relations order between the wars reflected as Andrew Wells has argued not a hegemonic consensus but rather a stalemate. Employers clung to the right to manage, and their power was bolstered by high levels of unemployment, but they faced a mobilized working-class whose defensive strength was reinforced by the industrial arbitration system. Conservative politicians sympathized with employers but sought to maintain majority support from an electorate devoted to the arbitration system.

 Rather than a Deakinite settlement in industrial relations it would be more accurate to identify a ‘Menzesian’ settlement. In the later 1940s Robert Menzies revived social liberalism; the reborn Liberals would champion ‘responsible’ unionism rather than merely accord it grudging toleration. This new liberalism accepted collective action (unlike Herbert Spencer) but added an element of moral evaluation of those obliged to resort to collective action. They were cast as necessary but unenterprising members of society.

The post-war Menzesian settlement broke down from the late 1960s. In a full employment economy the recognition of workers’ collective agency that social liberalism provided served as platform for unions to win major gains over employers. Questions of industrial relations were at the centre of national politics, and attitudes towards union power were a major determinant of voters’ choice between parties. Even after the end of full employment unions remained strong and after 1983 Labor’s corporatism turned voter distrust of union militancy to its advantage.

With the Liberals becalmed after 1983 it was the ‘new right’ took the running against unions from the late 1980s. The ‘new right’ was not a homogenous force, some such as Peter Costello or Geoffrey Blainey proposed a more muscular version of the traditional Liberal critique of union militancy and excess, but others went further to a more thoroughgoing assertion of the illegitimacy of unionism. During the Prime Ministership of John Howard these two approaches would contend for influence over policy.

Prime Minister Howard celebrated the rise of the ‘enterprise worker’ which included not only the self-employed but also those workers committed to the profitability of their employer. Howard’s rhetoric appalled his opponents, who cast him as a master cultural warrior, but past Labor governments championed workplace cooperation and Menzies had appealed to the enterprising working-class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>