Distinctively among the nations of the world, Australia was founded as a populist democracy, committed to egalitarianism between individuals and majoritarianism in government. This dual commitment has led to the development of a state that, as W.K. Hancock famously noted in Australia, is treated by Australians as a “vast public utility, whose duty it is to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number”, which in practice means exercising “collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’”. Yet as Hancock’s scare quotes indicate, there is an unavoidable tension within that system of government, as the needs and wants of individuals are sometimes set aside in the cause of system efficiency. It would not surprise Hancock, then, that as individual possibilities and ends have diversified in Australia, an ever more sophisticated bureaucracy has developed to service them. Yet over time, this bureaucracy has increasingly become an expert class empowered to determine individual interests rather than to serve them. A system established to turn the equal exercise of individual liberties to the general advantage now serves only a narrow set of established interests, threatening Australia’s traditional egalitarianism.
The question is how and why bureaucratisation has had this effect – and it has renewed salience after the crisis of 2020. The government response to Covid-19 has revealed the authoritarian streak in our political class, and, perhaps more worryingly, the blind obedience of our people. Public health measures like the lockdowns have demonstrated the tremendous power of our bureaucracy, to which our politicians are happy to defer. Moreover, that bureaucracy is increasingly becoming a privileged class, which has grown in number and seen its wages rise even as the private sector faces tremendous job losses and hardship. This is on top of wages and superannuation contributions which were already far above what many private sector employees could hope to earn.
But the problem is much older than all this. Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated the tendency of a democratic state to eventually become “an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing [the people’s] pleasure and watching over their fate … [and] provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances”. To understand whether Australia is fated to live out Tocqueville’s prediction, we need to trace Australia’s instinct for populism and practical reliance on expert rule to their common source.
Russel Ward’s radical Australian Legend popularised the image of Australia as fundamentally egalitarian, majoritarian, and democratic. There is considerable evidence for the proposition. The Australian colonies were some of the first places in the world to give every man the vote and they were also some of the first places to give women the vote. Our colonial parliaments were characterised first by the fulfillment of the Chartist program – the seemingly forlorn hopes of working-class Britain made a firm reality in the antipodes – and then by the populism of the land laws, as the people demanded that squatter estates were broken up and made available to them at a reasonable price. Our egalitarianism is perhaps best embodied by the concept of ‘mateship’, a national order that admits no entrenched deference of any kind.
Australian egalitarianism is a distinctive offshoot of Australia’s British heritage, which continues to exert a powerful influence over our country and its government. While a 2010 book dubbed post-British Australia an Unknown Nation, gripped by an existential search for identity, defining what it means to be Australian still primarily involves trying to differentiate the country from other Anglosphere nations. Australia’s language, political institutions, and legal system are defined by our colonial heritage and will be for the foreseeable future. Our intellectual culture was and is extensively British. We have been shaped by ideas formulated by British intellectuals like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. Benthamite utilitarianism – roughly, the proposition that what is moral is that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – has been particularly central to our pragmatic and extensive use of the state, to the point where Hugh Collins dubbed Australia a distinctively “Benthamite Society”. A bureaucratic legacy was imparted by the fact that we were for a long time administered by the Colonial Office, a department of the British state.
Indeed, Australians thought of themselves as being ‘more British than the British’, constructing a nation where British egalitarian ideals that emerged as a critique of the British class system could be enacted without the strictures imposed by that kind of stratification. For example, celebrated Australian innovations like the secret ballot had been advocated in England for decades, but we were able to enact them first because we did not have to resist an ancient and entrenched elite. Wealthy landlords like the Macarthurs had plans to set themselves up as a colonial aristocracy modelled on England, but while their little English villages can still be found dotting the rural countryside around Sydney, the designs of these petty aristocrats were never realised, defeated in part by enlightened Governors like Lachlan Macquarie and Richard Bourke.
But Australian egalitarianism was not entirely idealistic. It was also a pragmatic response to our unique circumstances. The original intent of the British was that the settler population would live off the produce of public farms under military rule. But they soon recognised the failure of compelled work and were forced to embrace incentive, with ex-convicts permitted to set themselves up as successful landowners. The result of this decision and the later defeat of the ‘exclusives’ was an enduring distaste for class distinctions. In the mid-nineteenth century Scottish-born Presbyterian Minister and political agitator John Dunmore Lang described Australia as “a land where already perhaps more than in any other part of the world ‘a man’s a man for a’ that”.
Similarly, our egalitarianism was also a product of a severe labour shortage combined with resources like pastoral land and mineral wealth that could produce great export value from that labour. The result was great social mobility combined with economic prosperity. Australians enjoyed the highest wages in the world from around 1850 until the 1890s and colonial parliaments tended to be filled with self-made men who had risen from comparatively humble backgrounds. John Hirst describes the powerful impact that the high value of labour had on the Australian psyche:
Bush life was unique in that the age-old disdain for manual labour disappeared. Working men’s skills were highly valued, and in this world there appeared little else to value. Working men were not simply more independent, that is less beholden to their masters, they were amazingly assured and self-confident.
Australia’s native egalitarianism came to inform every aspect of the young society. In Victoria, universal manhood suffrage was partly the product of the Eureka rebellion and the wealth of the goldfields, which were accessible to any man with a pick or pan. On the goldfields, men from various backgrounds and social standings wore the same clothes. They began to call each other ‘mate’, the origin of the ‘digger’ legend which would later be galvanised on the battlefields of World War One. In New South Wales, high wages overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the property qualification on the franchise, which in England had kept power in the hands of a wealthy middle class. Since the early days of the Bulletin, founded in 1880, Australia celebrated the larrikin, the man who takes an irreverent attitude towards authority, and thus undermines any attempt to impose a rigid social hierarchy. Egalitarianism also fed into the tall-poppy syndrome, the cutting down of people with high and erroneous pretensions, a generally positive quality that sometimes degenerates into a rejection of earned success and individual effort.
AUSTRALIAN MAJORITARIAN POPULISM
Australian egalitarianism found expression in democratic and majoritarian government. By the early 1860s most of the Australian colonies had established popular control of government, which was directed towards the implementation of a unique mix of Chartist liberalism and a home-grown populism that sought to entrench egalitarian values.
The populist agenda centred on breaking up squatter estates and placing people on the land as a new democratic property-owning yeomanry. The ‘land question’ dominated nineteenth century politics, producing cult heroes like John Robertson and villainising the supposedly greedy squatters. These policies were of dubious success in breaking up large estates, and were ultimately undermined by exploited loopholes and economic realities. But echoes of the desire for widespread land ownership can be seen today: people still speak of ‘owning your own home’ as the Great Australian Dream. As early as 1870 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “the working classes are purchasing largely of suburban lands for building purposes, and if they require money to complete their homes, it is readily obtained”.
Australia’s populism could also be seen in the federation campaign. Federation started as a top-down effort, even though it was led by men who had risen from poor backgrounds, like Henry Parkes. Parkes, who had resisted the pre-existing Federal Council, was essentially goaded into attempting to accomplish federation by a dare from the Governor Charles Carrington. Much like the later republican campaign, derided as the ‘politicians’ republic’, this elite-led movement failed. It was only resurrected by a more grassroots approach, appealing to a fledgling Australian nationalism, and the democratic proposals of John Quick. Quick called for a series of conventions where the delegates of each colony would be directly elected by the people to produce a draft Constitution which would then need to be approved by referendum. The emphasis this process placed on popular control provided an enduring legitimacy which was further cemented by the fact that the Constitution as it emerged could only be changed by further referendums.
Yet it might be seen as curious that this popular movement eventually produced a Commonwealth that featured significant constraints on majoritarian rule. The double majority needed in a referendum and the senate giving equal representation to each state regardless of population are both brakes on the popular will. These limitations prompted significant contemporary backlash, including the opposition of the Labor Party, which was committed to a unitary state and a unicameral parliament that would minimise the barriers to popular control. It was also one of the main reasons why Sydney twice voted no to federation; Premier George Reid was even burned in effigy as “the strangler of majority rule” for campaigning for ‘yes’ during the second referendum campaign. To some degree, then, Australia’s federal structure seems to be at odds with our country’s underlying populist majoritarian tendency.
But this is not the whole story. Properly understood, Australia’s federalism always contained within it a centralising tendency. As Alfred Deakin put it, the states were left “legally free, but financially bound to the chariot wheels of the central Government.” In practice, this has meant that outside of some state parochialism and occasional ‘new state’ movements, localism is relatively weak in Australia. In New South Wales a comprehensive system of local government was not introduced until after federation. Local governments remain entirely subordinate to the states and attempts to protect their position by enshrining them in the Constitution have so far been unsuccessful. Australia evinces no ideological commitment to the diffusion of power; our federalism is an expression of our pragmatism, it is largely majoritarian in practice, and it has been gradually shaped by the populist impulse.
All of this is quite intuitive: a culture that allows the average person to rise produces a politics that puts a premium on the opinion of that average person, and, since it believes that people are basically the same, it sees no real objection to simply tallying up preferences and giving effect to the majority view. The central question of Australian politics has generally been how we can use the state to ensure that it benefits as many people as possible. Egalitarianism at the individual level plays out as populism in government.
Yet, if it is understandable that egalitarian values lead to populist politics, it is also evident that populist politics can create an unhealthy, and ultimately self-undermining, reliance on, and faith in, the state.
Indeed, it is a basic fact of Australian history that our people fundamentally trust the state. Hirst argues that this tendency coexists with a lack of respect for our politicians, individually and as a class. This unusual conjunction is also, in part, a function of our egalitarianism. Many of the rough and tumble men elected to parliament failed to live up to British notions of decorum; the New South Wales parliament even earned the moniker the “bear pit” for its frequent “abusive language, personal invective, and occasional physical assault”. The enduring distaste this kind of behaviour engendered was demonstrated by the 1967 nexus clause referendum, where the populist slogan of ‘no more politicians’ easily overwhelmed the institutional strength of both major parties.
For all this though, and despite the larrikin image of an irreverent attitude towards authority, we are an incredibly obedient people, something the Covid-19 lockdowns highlighted.
This trust in the state is due, at least in part, to the fact that Australia has little history of domestic tyranny. On the whole, the early autocratic colonial governors were not tyrants and were willing to empower ex-convicts and keep the ambitions of would-be aristocrats in check. On this point, we contrast strongly with Americans. While they are taught to revere the revolutionary leaders who had to risk life and limb to break away from George III, Australians have had democracy since before the popular consciousness can even remember. Britain gave us our free political institutions without any need for armed conflict. Australians never fought a war of independence, and do not maintain a right to bear arms in case liberty needs to be defended against a new form of despotism. While waves of immigrants have brought with them memories of the evils that a state can inflict on its population, and Indigenous Australians suffered cruelty during settlement, the modern Australian nation has never experienced despotism and seldom entertains the thought that it might.
Our trusting attitude towards the state is perhaps best represented by our lack of a Bill of Rights, a situation which is increasingly rare around the Anglosphere. This is an embodiment of the Westminster principle of parliamentary supremacy, but Westminster itself has not stuck to it. Hewing to the older principle is an expression of our commitment to majoritarianism, the idea that a government embodying the collective will of the Australian people should be able to express that will. Those opposed to an Australian Bill of Rights look to the American Supreme Court and the tremendous power it wields beyond the reach of Congress and argue that we do not want that here. In 1988 the Hawke Government, marking the completion of Labor’s shift away from its populist majoritarian roots, attempted to enshrine a small number of rights in the Constitution. More than two-thirds of voters rejected the proposal.
Australians’ trust in the state is also built on the active role the state has taken from the very beginnings of our history. British parliamentarian Edward Gibbon Wakefield argued that new countries would require “ample government” to set up, and developed a scheme of rational colonisation whereby land would be sold at a high price, which would then be used to subsidise migration and build public works. The Wakefield scheme was only carried out in full in South Australia, but government assisted migration became a cornerstone of Australia’s national development, making it possible to compete with the far shorter and cheaper trip prospective British migrants might take across the Atlantic. Immigrants brought over by the government expected the government to help them find work, and while scarce labour was generally quickly consumed by the booming market, in times of economic distress, governments became accustomed to providing employment on relief works on a scale that had no equivalent in Britain.
The Wakefield philosophy of using land sales for public purposes meant that the true cost of an activist state was hidden from the average person it ostensibly served, and so it grew freely (though one notable group who could not have failed to notice the true cost of this policy were the Indigenous people whose lands were sold to finance it). Combined with generous loans from British banks, railway rates, and some revenue garnered from tariffs, Australians could have all the benefits of public spending without their burdens. In 1889, taxation has been estimated to have been as low as 5 per cent of gross domestic product, which must have been a key factor in Australia’s tremendous economic prosperity and world leading wages. It took until World War Two for taxation to rise above 20 per cent of gross domestic product, and this legacy of big and easy spending has proven difficult to shake.
Australian statism found prototypical expression in the colonies’ massive spending on government-owned and operated railways – the largest system of its kind anywhere in the world, and the largest employer on the continent until well into the 20th century. This vast system established a key precedent in Australian politics by taking important responsibilities out of the hands of parliament and placing them in the hands of independent bureaucrats who would oversee them with expertise, free from the influence of democratic bargaining. In 1883 Victoria created the first Railway Commission, which would operate with a significant amount of autonomy from the responsible minister, and the example would soon be followed by the other colonies. Jonathan Pincus argues that
the commission system seems to exemplify a persistent strand of Australian exceptionalism: the heavy reliance on public guardians, purportedly disinterested and expert individuals; or, more commonly, commissions and committees of great number and variety, into whose hands the various parliaments have placed significant non-judicial power.
Another way to view this development is as an extension of Hirst’s point about the Australian distinction between politicians and impersonal authority. Railways had become too important to be entrusted to the representatives of the people, because of their vested interests and lack of expertise – or at least, that is how the political class justified lightening their own responsibilities. This was done at the behest of a democratic state that greatly valued its railways; it was an embodiment of the will of the people. But once the logic of expertise was accepted, it became more and more difficult for the democratic body to question the decisions of those experts. The increasing complexity of the bureaucratic state commenced a gradual decoupling of its functions and its original populist impetus.
EARLY AUSTRALIAN MANAGERIALISM
The metamorphosis of populist hopes into bureaucratic managerialism was accelerated by the rise in Britain of ‘new liberalism’, which gave birth in Australia to ‘new protectionism’ – a policy of tying high tariffs to artificially high wages. Under this influence, the state came to think of its role as protecting the people from competition, both internal and external. Hancock wrote that “the very word [protection] appeals to them, because they believe in their hearts that both their enjoyments and their existence need to be protected against extraordinary dangers”.
The new protectionism can be thought of as an early Australian experiment in managerialism, and it was a failure. The result was a cycle of inflation in which the purchasing power of high wages was dissipated by the high cost of goods and services that had to fund those wages.
Such were the calamitous effects of the new protectionism that Hancock was moved to declare that “the Australians have always disliked scientific economics and (still more) scientific economists. They are fond of ideals and impatient of technique”. But this is somewhat misleading. Protectionism and more novel interventions in the market, like the Harvester Judgement of 1907, which defined a “fair and reasonable wage” as enough to support a wife and three children in frugal comfort, were based in the conviction that economic reality could be overcome by careful management, a conceit of the bureaucracy that persists to this day.
This, then, was the other lasting result of the new protectionism: the creation of a vast bureaucracy to oversee the state’s incessant tinkering in the market for goods and labour. The Arbitration Court would set a new wage rate which increased the costs of production, and then the Tariff Board would be forced to increase tariffs to offset those production costs against competition, and this would create further inflation which would lead to a new wage rate. Inflation spurred government, particularly state governments, to continually expand their purview in an attempt to bring it under control. One concept which caught on was to set up government businesses which would set a minimum price for goods against which the private companies would have to compete. Soon there were government bakeries, abattoirs, and brickworks, to name just a few. In order to make up for the way the Australian system was making traditional exports uncompetitive, there was also a great imperative to introduce export bounties, outlaying even more government funds in the hope that they could bring in some much-needed cash.
When the economy crashed at the end of the 1920s, the value of Australian exports plummeted, and Australia was left with little means to pay its debts. The irresponsible ideological belief that economic reality could be ignored finally peaked when New South Wales Labor Premier Jack Lang advocated repudiating Australia’s debts, a move that would have forever destroyed our credit and standing in the global economy.
This disastrous outcome was forestalled by a surge of what can only be described as popular conservatism. In a moment of triumph for middle class values, a popular campaign successfully convinced citizens to put their own savings into a loan conversion scheme, while the creation of the All for Australia League, which claimed 130,000 members, and the ascension of Joseph Lyons as Prime Minister, saw Australia pursue a policy of tight fiscal restraint aimed at paying down our debt and maintaining our respectability in the eyes of the world. Australians, it turned out, were not as idealistic as perhaps their enthusiasm for the state might imply. Yet neither were Australians prepared to entirely abandon the state’s populist commitments. After all, Lyons was a former Labor Premier, and the public knew there would not be radical changes to the system of industrial arbitration and tariff protection.
Ultimately, then, Lyons’ conservatism succeeded only in making the incipient managerial state more viable, paving the way for the more thoroughgoing technocracy that was to emerge from World War Two.
EXPERT RULE IN AUSTRALIA
The new protectionism showed how populist instincts could be transformed into bureaucratic management, at great expense to the people it was supposed to serve. But the lesson that was taken from this was only that the state must be made more efficient if it were to deliver on its promise to the people. While by the 1930s commentators could already see the failures of the managerial state, often their solution was not to reduce the areas of government involvement, but to place them further out of the reach of politicians and populist impulses. Hancock, for example, demanded that “if the state is to manage its business undertakings successfully, popular control must make large concessions to technical efficiency”, a position that was supported by Frederic Eggleston’s State Socialism in Victoria. Put another way, the increasingly complex state was growing beyond the capacity of popular rule. Utilitarian logic demanded that the state be placed into the hands of experts.
World War Two gave this push added force. During the war, the Commonwealth mobilised the nation’s full resources, including taking exclusive control of income taxation in a manner which grew its revenue from 8 to 24 per cent of the economy. The Commonwealth enlisted labour, regulated prices, and rationed goods, taking control of the economy and directing it according to the advice of a rapidly expanding public service. None of this should be surprising, it was change driven by necessity.
But the real driver of change was not so much the war as the advantage taken of it by the emerging bureaucratic class. Under the influence of an international movement which enraptured progressive intellectuals across the West, the wartime growth of the state was to be made permanent in the concept of “reconstruction”. These intellectuals saw the war as an opportunity to fundamentally reshape society into what they believed was a fairer and more equitable system – the original Great Reset. Their goal was set forward in the Atlantic Charter signed between Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941, before the United States had even entered the war. The Charter stated that for the Allies the purpose of the war went beyond achieving peace and involved “the object of securing for all improved labour standards, economic advancement and social security”.
Stuart Macintyre has documented how this movement shaped the administration of Ben Chifley in Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s, a left-leaning tribute to government expansion:
The war gave such experts the opportunity to participate in government since the tasks of planning, organising and administering a total war effort required a capacity that the existing Commonwealth public service was unable to provide. That brought an influx of younger, university-trained officers drawn from the networks in which the schemes of social meliorism and rational improvement were nurtured.
Ever since the early days of the railway commissions, Australians had been taught to lean on experts and now in the hour of direst need those experts were able to seize a new level of control. They pushed for a large expansion of the welfare state and control of the economy. Leading public servant Herbert “Nugget” Coombs, Director-General of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, captured the ethos when he said that the war created the “opportunity to move consciously and intelligently towards a new economic and social system”. A self-confident technocrat, Coombs insisted that Australia had “the resources, the personnel and the technique” to accomplish his vision, the limitations were “primarily political and social rather than economic and technical” – that is, the only problem was that the electorate might not go along with the bureaucrats’ plans.
The electorate gave at best a half-hearted endorsement to the top-down reformist program, electing to stick with Chifley in 1946, but rejecting all but one of the five expansionist referendum proposals put before them between 1944 and 1948. The goal of full employment tapped into the Australian desire for protection in the fullest sense, and one of its critics, Douglas Copland, complained of an “obsession with security” that formed a hangover from the Depression and hurt potential growth. In a signal shift away from populism, Chifley strained his relationship with Labor’s grassroots union base by rejecting wage increases in the name of fighting inflation. Once a perennial aspect of the cycle established by “new protectionist” thinking, this was now identified by the newly empowered economic experts as an enemy against which all the levers of Keynesian control needed to be directed. In order to hold the line against the unionists, Chifley hid behind the supposed independence of the Arbitration Court, but this did little to halt a wave of strikes which helped to undermine his Prime Ministership.
By the 1949 election campaign, the growth of bureaucracy had become so marked that it featured as a central campaign issue – and, given the results, arguably a vote winner. Opposition Leader Robert Menzies promised to free Australians from the strictures of the “Socialist State, with its subordination of the individual to the universal officialdom of government”, taking aim at continued rationing and the intense regulation of the economy.
However, as has often been the case in Australia’s two-party system, the rhetorical difference Menzies framed between Labor and the Liberals would prove greater than its substance. When he assumed office Menzies chose to keep the vast majority of Chifley’s “officialdom”, even retaining Coombs in his relatively new post as Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, then promoting him as the first Governor of the Reserve Bank in 1960. Coombs was just one of the “seven dwarfs”, bureaucrats who exercised such dominance over government policy that they earned a popular nickname and are remembered to this day. Other examples include Sir Roland Wilson, Sir John Crawford, and Sir Henry Bland, men whose reputation and influence was so grand that it earned them imperial honours. This was an era which Daniel Bell dubbed “the end of ideology”, with centrist politics dominating the West. In 1970 Menzies wrote that politics had moved away from a strident conflict of ideas into an era of careful empiricism, where politicians worked hand in hand with public servants implementing good policy grounded in facts.
Populism was thus gradually strangled by the major parties’ shared managerialism. Menzies had accepted his predecessors’ imposition of a bureaucratic state, and those who were most aggrieved by this were forced to accept his leadership or else risk a Labor success, which the right feared more than ever in the Cold War climate. The Liberals became the party of government, respectful of the supposed independence of the public service and generally heeding its advice. On the other side of the aisle, Chifley had taken Labor on its first steps away from its popular working-class roots and towards what has become a virtual integration with the public service. By the time the party was next in office, one of those university educated believers in “social melorialism” Macintyre associated with “reconstruction” was the Labor leader.
Gough Whitlam distanced himself from the populism of Labor’s early days, now widely discredited by Arthur Calwell’s support for the White Australia Policy among other things, and embraced social progressivism with an elitist streak – typified by his $1,300,000 purchase of Jackson Pollock’s divisive Blue Poles. He pioneered a scheme of universal healthcare which would become extremely popular when reintroduced by Bob Hawke. This tapped into the old idea of the state as a vast public utility, but it was hardly the return of the old egalitarian-populist Australian democracy; instead, it is better thought of as an extension of the post-war rise of expert rule, in this case, a vast public health bureaucracy that quickly took an interest in every individual action with any sort of bearing on anyone’s health or the system of healthcare provision.
Even Hawke, who styled himself as a down to earth leader in a manner that evoked pre-Whitlamite Labor, exemplified this trend towards expert rule. His public image belied the fact that his Rhodes Scholarship and lack of practical experience outside of union advocacy were representative of the increasing isolation of Australia’s political class. Over the coming decades, unions would become a parallel bureaucracy, increasingly distant from the working class, more representative of the public service, which is one of the few areas where union membership has not declined, and fully embracive of a progressive ideological agenda associated with high levels of tertiary education.
Hawke’s treasurer and eventual successor as Prime Minister, Paul Keating would pursue the ‘Big Picture’, a program that was almost the antithesis of populism in its insistence that the Australian public change their attitudes to fit his vision of the future. Through the introduction of compulsory superannuation and the subsequent domination of industry superfunds, Keating was able to expand the power of union-bureaucrats to push this social agenda into the private economy. This was part of the rise of a private bureaucracy, an army raised to oversee the implementation and enforcement of government regulation. The marriage of the public and private managerial classes now stands against the possibility of an authentically populist politics, and indeed, runs athwart the traditional egalitarianism from which Australian populism first grew.
A central irony of Australian political history is that the natural egalitarianism that emerged in the colonies led to a kind of populism founded on a utilitarian view of the state, but as this populism came to bolster trust in, and support for, the state, it created a ruling class with exactly the kinds of entrenched powers and privileges that Australian egalitarianism was supposed to prevent.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether this irony will ever be acted upon. The vaunted reform period of the 1980s did not lead to any significant retreat of the bureaucratic state. Businesses which had once been run directly by government may have been in private hands, but what they could and could not do was now controlled almost as directly through a vast increase in regulation and the administrative apparatus necessary to enforce that regulation. In the first ten years of Telstra’s privatisation for example, the pages of federal legislation governing telecommunications rose from 1,600 to over 10,000. Independent statutory bodies like the ACCC and ASIC have grown in size and scope, wielding tremendous power with little parliamentary oversight. There has also been a large increase in delegated legislation, regulations and other types of laws that can be made by bureaucrats rather than elected members of parliament.
John Howard did break with the Menzies tradition by sacking six departmental secretaries when coming to power, and his administration oversaw a reduction of 30,000 public sector jobs in his first term. His aim was to assert the authority of his government to shape policy according to its mandate from the Australian people, a reflection of a modern Liberal belief that the public service had grown too powerful and was liable to espouse a Labor outlook on policy. Tony Abbott likewise introduced a hiring freeze and significant retrenchments in an effort to get the public service down to a manageable size. This push back has proven to be a failure, and has not halted the processes described above. By June 2019 there were 2,046,700 public servants across all levels of government, up from 1,751,400 in June 2008, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If the sheer size of the public service can be taken as a proxy for its reach, complexity, and power, then Australia is certainly continuing down the same path it has been on since World War Two.
The classic Australian pact has been that the state should serve the interests of the majority of individuals – that is, state action should aid and not frustrate people’s projects, as individuals possessed of equal standing. Yet as it pursues ever more diverse and complex ends of its own, the state has come to dictate terms to the people, asserting itself as their superior. The contradiction at the heart of the present state of affairs would seem to present an opportunity for an astute politician who can tap into Australia’s populist impulse to push back on the expert ruling class and re-establish popular control of government.
This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia and is written by Zachary Gorman, Professional Historian and Author. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.