... No political party in this country has a better proven record in this field than does the Liberal Party of Australia.
Australian liberalism is quite unique in character. True, it derives largely from the classical British and European liberal traditions associated with Locke and Mill, T. H. Green, Montesquieu, Tocqueville and others, but it also differs from that classical liberalism in significant ways. Onto this trunk of classical liberalism several new limbs must be grafted. The first of these derives from the fact that the early Australian liberals were fascinated and influenced by their American counterparts. Just as the structure of our Parliament with a House and an elected State based Senate represents a meld of British and American thought so does Australian liberal philos- ophy. The ideas of Paine, Calhoun, Madison and Jefferson were respected by early Australian liberals and influenced them greatly.
The second new limb derives from our unique historical origins. Early Australian liberals were as- sociated with the demands for radical change in the colonies. It was these liberals who led the fight to end transportation, to break the English stranglehold of Australian trade policies, to vest the control of immigration policy in the hands of the Colonial Governments themselves, to extend the franchise and of course to wrest self Government from the mother country and to bring about Federation.
Above all, Australian liberalism up until at least the First World War was by European, British and American standards a thoroughly radical philosophy.
...The triumphs of this radicalism led Australia into being a world pioneer in such electoral matters as the secret ballot, adult suffrage and votes for women. It led to our unique, revolutionary and highly successful system of industrial conciliation and arbitration. It led to our pioneer experiments in systems of land owner- ship and to the early development of a free, secular and compulsory system of basic education. And it led in 1908 to the introduction of the Invalid and Old Age Pensions Bill, Legislation second only to that of New Zealand as one of the first of its type in the world in this area.
The Bill was part of the great reforming programs of the Deakin Ministry composed of Protectionists and Liberals and was introduced by a Queenslander, the Attorney General, Lyttleton Groom, the Liberal Mem- ber for Darling Downs. In presenting the Bill, Groom said:
"It is not necessary at this stage of our national development to support with arguments the need for a Commonwealth Old-age Pensions system. In every enlightened community the establishment of Old-age Pensions is regarded as an ideal whose attainment should be earnestly sought, it being felt to be a reproach to civilisation that many persons whose lives have been spent in working for the advancement of the State should in their old age, through no fault of their own, be compelled to end their days in charitable institutions . . ."The philosophy behind such a measure had been defined by Deakin himself years before. In 1895 giving an address entitled 'What is Liberalism?' Deakin had said:
(Hansard, 3 June 1908;1P 11922)
"The reconstructive element in Liberalism must in future come to the front. In political economy, having induced politicians to discard the old program "The Devil take the Hindmost" Liberalism would now indicate a new teaching with regard to the poorest in the community, that all should have what was their due. By fixing a minimum rate of wages and wise factory legislation, wealth would be prevented from taking unfair advantage of the needy. The latter would be saved from leading wretched and imperfect lives . . .~
The record of subsequent Liberal Governments in pioneering new areas of welfare legislation has lived up to Deakin's early lead, and this has been especially so in the case of persons in physical need. In the mid 1960's the Menzies Government which had already moved to pay Child Endowment for first children extended the provisions of the Act to student children and the Fraser Government made major changes in the whole Child Endowment system in 1976. Indeed the Family Allowance Scheme is at once Liberalism at its most radical and Liberalism responding to real and demonstrated need. Aged Persons Homes were as- sisted in 1954. In this period in which Bill Wentworth was Minister, from 1968 to 1972 we saw the introduc- tion of the Aged Persons Hostels Act, the State Grants (Home Care) Act, the Delivered Meals (Subsidy) Act and major liberalising of the means test provisions. In 1976 the Fraser Government replaced the means test for cash assistance with an income test and brought aged persons institutional care under the umbrella of insurance.
I mention the names Menzies, Fraser and Wentworth to indicate that those members of the Liberal Party, often characterised as the most con- servative, are in fact often the most radical reformers; just as in Britain the high Tories like Disraeli or the American Republicans like Eisenhower have often pioneered and presided over changes which their overly radical opponents would never have been allowed to suggest or bring to function.
I turn for the moment away from our philosophy and our programs to take up the topic of "need" as such. There is no easy definition of need. It must be clear that no one individual has the same degree or priority of needs of any other. Equally there are needs in a real sense that simply cannot be removed by actions on the part of Governments.
It would be relatively easy for me to confine myself to a discussion of objective, quantifiable physical needs, along the lines of the Henderson Commission Inquiry into Poverty set up by Bill McMahon. I could then talk about levels of need in minimum incomes, housing, perhaps education, health or the like, and I could define standards to which everybody should be assisted. All too often this has become the level of debate current in Australia. But giving people decent minimum stan- dards of health, income, education and housing is potentially or conceptually relatively easy. After all these things are basically matters of finance and planning, and if we were all prepared to put up with taxation on the level of Britain or Scandinavia, then I have no doubt that we could achieve these minimum levels to eliminate that kind of need, at least in the absolute sense. Of course most of us would have to put up with reductions in our standards of living or service - as was clearly evident by Labor's Medibank fiasco - but it would be possible.
But need is not necessarily or finally physical and very often the greatest needs of an individual are social and psychological. The sociologist David Reisman, long ago wrote a book entitled the "Lonely Crowd" - not a contradiction in terms but a statement of great truth. The need to belong, the need to be recognised as an individual, as a full human being, as a worthwhile part of the social, economic and political part of the Australian nation are needs too - needs often left unsatisfied.
...I was at some pains to make the point that basic human and individual physical wants (I confine my remarks to Australia) could in fact be met by the Government. The tool would be a massive redistribution of wealth and the price would be strict controls by the Government over the lives of most of the community and the growing total dependence of more and more people on the Government.
The pressures on any democratic Government to tread this path are immense. The promise of plenty in our fabulously rich nation has been turned into a flood of rising expectations. The new cargo cult one could say. Everyone expects the Government to do more for him or her - businessmen, importers, exporters, public servants, trade unions, the churches, special groups in need and so on. The Government can satisfy these wants at present only by taking more from the productive, the energetic and the innovative. There are more voters demanding more services who will be alienated by confiscations. The results of this utilitarian calculation in cynical hands is the cave-in of the Government along the lines of the Whitlam era.
...The price of this cave-in would as I said be in terms of human liberty. Clearly one's liberty to derive personal benefit as a result of greater personal effort would be destroyed by excessive taxation. One's liberty to be treated equally and not penalised for excellence would be abrogated. Any Government to be big enough to undertake these massive redistribution programs would be so big and so bureaucratised that power would quickly pass even further from the hands of the people and into the hands of the anonymous unaccountable public servants.
... So that is the dilemma, the conflict of how to achieve proper levels of human welfare without falling below proper levels of human liberty.
I would like to refer you now to two quite extraordinary recent publications. In 1971, John Rawls produced a book entitled "A Theory of Justice" which has been offered as one of the major philosophical and intellectual works of the last quarter century. Similarly another American, Robert Nisbet, recently published a paper entitled "The Fatal Ambivalence of an Idea: Equal Freemen or Equal Serfs?" The central theses of these works are similar so I shall present just one general review of them.
For Rawls and Nisbet we have all been misled down the road to serfdom by the almost mystical properties that it is alleged derive from the concept of "equality". In pursuit of this equality, they say Governments have debased standards, imposed regressive conformity, destroyed incentive, violated minority rights and sacrificed individual liberty. For them, coercive paternalism has become the order of the day; and envy is elevated into political practice, idealised to make it look, instead of its base and mean self, like a simple pursuit of justified "equality". Now Rawls and Nisbet are not saying anything really new, but they are drawing attention to a matter lost recently from the view of liberals.
The exactly contrary view equal]ly has its adherents. In 1973 J. C. Kincaid published a book "Poverty and Equality in Britain: a Study of Social Security and Taxation" which he concluded by writing:
"But even then it would be a question only of reform and of patching up improvements in existing provisions. Poverty cannot be abolished within capitalist society, but only in a socialist society under workers' control, in which human needs, and not prof its, determine the allocation of resources"How then is the contemporary liberal to face up to this problem, given that he or she is compassionate and concerned about people in need and that he or she has an equal concern to resist further diminutions of personal liberty and freedom? I think that the first answer lies in recognising the problem for exactly what it is.
Henderson on the very first page of his first main report makes the point:
"Poverty is not just a personal attribute: it arises out of the organisation of society."Is it then true that we cannot do anything about the problem without a total remake of the social system? I think not, although I recognise that there are many who do believe our existing system is too far gone to be able to reform itself. The most penetrating attack on the "social engineering" approach - that is the total remake of society to achieve certain desired aims - has been made by Sir Karl Popper, arguably the world's greatest living philosopher. I want to quote at some length from Popper because he will lead us in thedirection I want to follow.
"In all matters, we can only learn by trial and error by making mistakes and improvements; we can never rely on inspiration, although inspirations can be most valuable as long as they can be checked by experience. Accordingly it is not reasonable to assume that a complete reconstruction of our social world would lead at once to a workable system . . . I hold that he who teaches that not reason but love should rule opens the way for those who rule by hate ... The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. The political demands for piecemeal (as opposed to utopian) methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the right to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of their friends..."I think that sums up the liberal position very well. A concern to abolish suffering, but a belief that total paternalism is none of our business.
Such an attitude is often portrayed by our political opponents as being simply the very least we can get away with politically, a grudging, ungenerous and reluctant commitment to do only the bare minimum of what is necessary.
This line of attack fails for two reasons. In the first place what most socialists see as "necessary" is in fact far too much and secondly these opponents never count the cost of their actions. In fact they often pretend there is no cost at all.
The loss of personal liberty, suppression of initiative, penalising of enterprise, crushing taxation and expanding bureaucracies are high prices to pay. In fact as prices they are too high.
In terms of physical health the big thing that is needed is a change in lifestyle. What kills most Australians is a direct result of living unwisely - too much alcohol, tobacco or other drugs; wrong foods; lack of exercise, unnecessary tension - these are the real killers. We have epidemic diseases under control and except for a few special areas such as aboriginal health this is an area needing behavioural change. Naturally the Government has a role in the provision, location and priority it assigns to medical and health services and these must be made more responsive than they currently are to actual community needs and requirements.
One of the main determinants of poverty and social deprivation is associated with housing conditions. Liberals welcome experiments such as the Have Scheme which gives people a chance to improve their housing conditions through the exercise of free choice. Equally, a Government role in providing loans to assist in this area is important.
As far as sheer levels of income is concerned there is still a great deal more to be done in investigating the concept of a guaranteed minimum income before this can be advocated or even analysed, with any degree of confidence. What can be said however is that for individuals, reductions in real levels of taxation with consequent restoration of incentive is a vital part of increasing personal capacity, preventing the emergence or aggravation of unnecessary social need in families of those in the Australian work force.
Insofar as education is essential for anyone to cope with the sheer task of living in a highly complex and bewildering society, it seems that the case for some Government involvement is strong. But beyond a certain point I feel we have failed to respond to real needs, as distinct from what planners thought ought to be needs. We have failed to cater for basic requirements in the fields of non-university, post- secondary education. Once again liberals should be attracted to the use of special loan schemes which allow both student freedom of choice and minimises the real cost loan by the whole community, including those taxpayers who are unable to take advantage of the educational opportunities. Here let me pause briefly to discuss a particular concern. Tertiary education is statistically still more likely to be enjoyed, especially at universities and colleges of advanced education, by the sons and daughters of the well off. If one is in the business of directing resources to those in need one could wish to re-examine the social equity or appropriateness of universal free tertiary education as opposed to comprehensive loan schemes or other forms of intervention.
Our legal system is still not adequately catering to the legal needs of the poor. We know that the poor, the uneducated, the migrants, the aborigines and other minorities get in fact a less than fair deal from the law compared with the affluent, middle class, educated citizen. The problem is still one of access to resources as much as it is the achievement of due process within the system.
Economically people need to have greater personal power to dispose of their own income. Lower taxation does this as does reasonable consumer and trade practices legislation. Reward for effort should still be a key liberal concept; one that is consonant still with a desire to assist those in need. Marx was right in pointing out to us the dangers we as liberals and democrats run if we fail to deal with the problem of the alienation of the worker from his work. Schemes of employee participation in making decisions relevant to the factory floor or the office management are effective responses to those who feel in need of greater control over their own lives.
The environmental challenge will only be met by our recognition that people are genuinely concerned that their very conditions of life should not be prejudiced to assist the economic or political advancement of others. We liberals have all too often lost the support of genuine environmentalists by failing to recognise the real problems of human life styles which should be dealt with so that the rights of individuals are given due and proper consideration.
Quite clearly there is a need to restore greater political influence to individual citizens. Proper, respectable and legitimate electorate arrangements, the abolition of corrupt gerrymanders; the protection of civil liberties; the right of free expression; respect for legitimate peaceful dissent and open communication between Government and people are all vital elements in protecting the capacity of individuals to satisfy their own personal needs to control and to be part of the political community within which they operate.
Finally I mention the need for an open society ane which is both structurally and morally capable of responding to different needs and aspirations. In Australia today there are signs of a growing intolerance towards minorities, a lack of charity and compassion for the disadvantaged and a declining level of personal concern for the rights and welfare of others. Liberals must resist these influences with urgency and dedication to ensure that the vast majority of people are still able to believe that their own personal and individual aspirations can be realised by their own efforts within the existing social framework, for, as Burke said:
"A state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation."What I have tried to say to you tonight is that your topic "The Individual in Need" is urgent in our contemporary society. It is a complex and diverse proposition, referring as it does to a good deal more than simple physical conditions.
The dilemma of balancing the response to human want with human liberty has come more to the fore as the means of eliminating human want has increasingly fallen into the hands of the Government. I want us all to be aware of the costs-involved in any expansion of Government activity or of Government control over the lives of others. This cost is a cost both to the recipient of aid in terms of his or her own reduced freedom of action and greater levels of personal dependence on Governments and a cost to the person from whom resources are either taken directly or to whom they are denied because they are channelled in other directions.
If on the other hand I am right in my belief that the problems are best solved not primarily by the redistribution of existing wealth but the creation of more wealth generally, and that what really needs to be redistributed is power - away from the Government and back to individuals, then this can only be achieved by stating and restating our fundamental liberal commitment to the maximum liberty of each person.
How uniquely the Liberal Party and the liberal philosophy is placed to do just this, for it and it alone in Australia really possesses that necessary faith in individuals, in people, that belief in the inherent goodness of free men and women. What a challenge it is for us all, but especially for the younger generation of Liberals.
In 1942 Menzies said:
"The great vice of democracy, a vice which is exacting a bitter retribution from it at this moment, is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody else's wealth and somebody else's effort on which we could thrive. To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service, these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particular. Yet, ambition, effort, thinking and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self- Government but are the essential conditions of success"His words some 35 years ago, and those of Deakin over 40 years earlier remind us that the fundamental truths of liberalism are as valid now as they always have been, and that they serve today as a real guide to action and to the development of that sort of decent, humane, progressive Australian society to which we all of us here aspire and which we as Liberals intend to make a reality.
Senator D. Sherrington Memorial Lecture: 1 November 1977