Foreign Correspondent: Australia
Work in progress
Sydney. We have long known that Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser professes to admire the works of Ayn Rand. Indeed, this is seen to be so much a part of the man that Australia's top political cartoonist, Larry Pickering, often draws the Prime Minister walking around with an Ayn Rand book in his hand.
But it has always been difficult to see any Randian influence in anything Fraser or his government does—and goodness knows he's had every opportunity, having been elected with a record majority in November 1975 by an electorate thoroughly chastened by a disastrous experiment with the socialist Labor Party.
The most optimistic observer could perhaps see some Friedmanite influence in the attack on inflation, and odd phrases with Randian overtones sometimes crept into the Prime Minister's speeches. But that's about all.
Then came the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London (Guy Fawkes—where were you??). Mr. Fraser was reported as having taken a leading role in proposals to totally reconstruct the world commodity market.
His statements there made clear that Mr. Fraser is committed to "massive government intervention in international commodity markets." Mr. Fraser was actually quoted as saying that "the open market system belongs to the laissez-faire economics of the last century." So now we know where he really stands.
The King is dead. Long live the King.
In the New South Wales Division of Fraser's Liberal Party, there is a powerful conservative group (they would have little to disagree about with Ronald Reagan) pushing for the adoption of a new State Platform. At the time of this writing, they have a very good chance of being successful. In amongst all the typical liberal verbiage in this document, there are commitments to sell off all public roads, water, and rail transport to private enterprise, to give "favourable consideration" to the construction and operation of private enterprise toll roads, and to sell off local government capital equipment and instead sub-contract capital works.
While this is obviously not enough, it does indicate that the process of stealing the more acceptable libertarian proposals of the Workers Party has begun. I might add that it really is most surprising to see this conservative group proposing even these policies.
The Workers Party itself has had a mixed year. Difficulties about the name of the party and a rigid constitution that virtually made the name impossible to change caused party members in NSW, Queensland, Northern Territory and West Australia to resign from the WP and form a new party called the Progress Party. This changeover was accomplished without any difficulty in these states.
Each state division of the Progress Party is completely autonomous, and there is cooperation without affiliation at the federal level—a decentralization of control that is in keeping with libertarian principles of organization anyway. The platforms of the various state divisions vary to some extent, but do follow the basic form of the WP platform—the main motivation for change being a desire to include more argument and specific policies in the platform, rather than just having it as a bare statement of a position.
The original WP now only exists in an active form in South Australia, where it has had a very spirited year pursuing a policy of making news and points of principle by acts of civil disobedience. They have gained enormous amounts of publicity by making public issues out of such things as compulsory seat belt laws, registration of hypno-therapists, State control of doctors' fees and bread price-fixing. Members have publicly disobeyed the laws, refused to pay fines, and have taken their cases to court—with a fair degree of success.
State elections coming up soon in South Australia will show how successful this tactic is in generating public understanding and support. There is a chance that this type of activity could be viewed by the overwhelming majority of the people as the work of a ratbag, lunatic fringe, in which case as a political tactic it is counterproductive. Hopefully this will not be the case and instead the activity of the hard-working and extremely dedicated members of the South Australian WP will be rewarded with a good show of public support.
The relationship between the WP and the various PPs has been a little unfortunate. The WP runs perilously close to being what Murray Rothbard calls "left sectarian," whilst the PPs could be accused of the opposite sin of "right opportunism." This situation has arisen because of the acute scarcity of mature, educated libertarians. The WP people tend to have the religious zeal of the newly converted, and the PP people tend to be dominated by the "realists" who have a gut level understanding of the philosophy, not much time for fine theoretical detail, and above all, a desire for quick results.
The PPs in Queensland and the Northern Territory are very active, however, and are increasing membership and getting a lot of publicity. An election coming up soon in the NT could well see the best results yet. The NSW PP seems to have followed the path of the FLP of New York, and is now fighting for survival.
One of the results of the divisions that have occurred between and within these parties is that there has been a movement of libertarians into other activities so as to get away from the hassles of politics. The most important development in this regard has been the continued growth of Greg Lindsay's Centre for Independent Studies. As well as having Murray Rothbard and Professor F.A. Hayek on its Academic Board of Advisors, the Centre has acquired the services of at least eight local academics (which for us is a flood of talent!), including economists Sudha Shenoy, Naomi Moldofsky and Lee Eckermann, and philosophers Moshe Kroy and Lachlan Chipman.
The most ambitious undertaking of CIS so far was a weekend seminar titled "Man, Economy and State," at which the above-mentioned academics presented papers. The seminar was very successful, well attended and an immensely satisfying experience—particularly for those who have been active libertarians through the previous lean years. People came to the seminar from all over Australia, as well as from New Zealand. More than anything else, I think the development of CIS indicates that libertarianism is here to stay.
Another offshoot of the political activity was the formation of a Libertarian Dinner Club here in Sydney. Four dinners have been held so far, with attendances increasing each time to the most recent mark of 62 people. These have been surprisingly successful events in terms of attendance, and this is in no small part due to the high caliber of speakers that the Club has been fortunate enough to obtain—namely, Sudha Shenoy, British Labor MP Stephen Haseler, Professor Lachlan Chipman, and monetarist economist Professor David Laidler.
On another front, Duncan Yuille is continuing to build up his very valuable book service, and has had many successful showings of the films, "The Incredible Bread Machine" and "Adam Smith."
A notable conversion to a hard libertarian position (and a recruit for CIS) is Peter Samuel, the star journalist of Australia's only national current affairs magazine, The Bulletin. This magazine outsells Newsweek almost two to one, and is getting close to equaling the Australian circulation of Time so its influence is not insignificant.
Coincidentally, as I happen to be working as a copywriter for the advertising agency with The Bulletin account, I get to write the television advertisements for most of Peter Samuel's lead articles. As he has recently written strong articles on the tax system, the education system (twice), the Labor Party, and the cost of government, you can imagine what a nice task it is.
At the time of this writing, the first Australian libertarian book to be published by a major publisher this century is rolling off the presses. Called Rip Van Australia, it was written by John Singleton (founding chairman of the WP) and myself. This collaboration was made simple by the fact that the book is written in the style of Robert Townsend's Up the Organization—that is, a whole series of variable length essays on a range of topics listed in alphabetical order. The book covers over 100 topics in essays ranging from a single line to many pages in length. Because John Singleton, as Australia's best known and most controversial advertising man, has attained the position of a national celebrity here, the book should get enormous publicity, and it will be interesting to see just what effect it has.
The past year, then, may not have seen any great leaps forward, but it has seen some very useful consolidation.