Australian Sen. David Leyonhjelm Crafts a 'Libertarian Moment' Down Under

The country's first libertarian federal legislator takes his seat


David Leyohjelm
David Leyonhjelm/BS Services

In September, with some help from Australia's system of proportional representation, top ballot billing, and compulsory voting, the country elected David Leyonhjelm (pronounced "lionhelm"), a libertarian, as a senator. His party is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which unlike America's established Libertarian Party, goes back less than 15 years. It was founded in 2001.

Leyonhjelm just took his seat and began his term at the beginning of July. He finds himself in the press explaining libertarian philosophy in a country with little history of it, working to fight for lower taxes and looser gun laws, while at the same time lobbying for same-sex marriage recognition and marijuana legalization.

Leyonhjelm took some time for a phone interview with Reason, discussing his status as a "crossbencher" between the ruling coalition—the center-right Liberal Party and more conservative National Party—and the leftist opposition of the Labor Party and the Greens. He explained how he got elected, how he's been perceived, why his inaugural speech was all about explaining the basics of libertarian philosophy, and what he hopes to accomplish.

Reason: You're the sole representative of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Senate. Does this make you the sole libertarian, or do you have allies who come close to libertarian philosophy?

David Leyonhjelm: I'm the first politician, at least in the federal parliament, who's been elected on a libertarian platform, but there are libertarian-inclined people in the Liberal Party, which is the governing party. There are also people with some libertarian inclinations, at least on some issues, in the National Party, which is in coalition with the Liberal Party. And occasionally you'll find a couple in the Labor Party, which is the equivalent of your Democrats, but there's not very many of them and they tend to have big blind spots as well. 

Reason: Were you surprised when you were elected? Stories I've read seem to associate your victory with Australia's compulsory voting laws and your placement on the ballot.

Leyonhjelm: I knew three weeks before the election that I was going to be elected. The media don't understand the voting system very well. It's a preferential system and it is relatively complex. The parties control the preferences by submitting group voting tickets. Everybody needs preferences to get elected. There are six senators elected from each state in each election. Only the first three, sometimes four, get elected on primary votes, then the last two if not the last three are elected with the help of preferences. Once the preferences were lodged, I knew I was going to be elected, provided I got about two-and-a-half to three percent of the primary vote. In the end I got nine-and-a-half percent of the vote. (Note: The preferential system is explained by Wikipedia here)

We attribute that to two factors. One is being first on the ballot. It's always worth about one to one-and-a-half percent of the vote. There was probably some name confusion. Our party is the Liberal Demoractic Party and the governing party is the Liberal Party and it's in coalition with the National Party. They run a joint ticket, so they appeared on the ballot as Liberals/The Nationals. People who were looking for the Liberal Party, some of them at least, would have seen our party and thought we were the same thing.

We think we would have gotten two-and-a-half to three percent of the vote without any extra factors, but we got nine-and-a-half percent of the vote and we attribute that mostly to the fact that the Liberal Party went on a campaign of warning voters not to vote for us in the week or so before the election. Talkback radio, which has huge reach, was constantly telling people don't vote for Liberal Democrats by mistake: "They're number one on the ballot but don't vote for them by mistake. They're not the Liberal Party." And then the day before the election, the biggest-circulation newspaper in New South Wales where I was elected ran a two-page spread, a huge big thing, with a picture of me and another guy from my party, warning, "Don't vote for these guys by mistake!" And Australians are a perverse people. … There's a significant number of them that will do exactly the opposite of what they're told. It's actually quite an endearing feature about them. If they're told that the right thing to do is such-and-such they'll go and do the opposite. We think that was a major factor. Being told not to vote for us was good enough for them. They thought, "If we shouldn't vote for them, then actually we will."

Reason: Despite the fact that you may have benefited from compulsory voting laws, you have spoken critically of them, is that correct?

Leyonhjelm: Yes, that's right. We argue that we have a right to vote, and it's not a right if you get fined for not doing it. So it becomes an obligation, like paying your taxes. You don't have a right to pay your taxes; you have an obligation to pay your taxes, and you get penalized if you don't do it. Voting is in the same category: To pretend it's a right when you can be prosecuted for not doing it is ridiculous.

Reason: In your maiden speech in July, you spent much of your time simply explaining the basics of libertarian or classical liberal philosophy. Did you feel it was important to explain where your political platform came from and is it an indication there isn't a lot of understanding of the classical liberal philosophy in Australia?

Leyonhjelm: Yeah, that's right. Australia doesn't have a history of revolt against its government. A revolution has never occurred. The worst we've had is a minor reaction to tax-collection amongst miners back in the 19th century. We tend to be a law-abiding, relatively placid sort of people who think the government is our friend. We have a long way to go in terms of educating Australians that the government is a nasty, big, grasping beast. So it's necessary to serve out the basics.

The other thing is also that there is a tendency to note anybody who believes in low taxes and less government expenditures as being far right—a far-right extremist is the term that gets thrown around quite commonly. So I have spent quite a bit of my time in the media—confusing the media if you like—by talking about right-wing issues and the soft-left social issues: same-sex marriage, marijuana, assisted suicide. Those sorts of things which the left thinks are their issues, and I'm in the process of characterizing them as liberty issues. And it's partly to head off this far-right extremist label. So in my maiden speech it was important to set out the philosophical underpinnings of it to show it goes back a long time. Journalists who report on me and the commentators are not very well grounded in political theory and ideology. So really it's been a sort of an educational process to avoid the labeling, and it's working. Papers are now commonly referring to me as libertarian rather than right wing or left wing.

Reason: What kind of response did you get from your maiden speech?

Leyonhjelm: Very positive. Really more than I expected. I had lots of people contact me and tell me how much they liked it and how inspiring it sounded. Quite a number of senators who were in the chamber listening to me—it's a courtesy thing to listen to the speeches—many of them said, "God, I wish I could make a speech like that." They are bound by party discipline in Australia. You guys, your Republicans and Democrats will vote as individuals a lot of the time. Our guys don't do that very often. It's pretty rare. So once they've made a party decision, they're bound to support it and many of them are unhappy about that—they find it very uncomfortable. They envy me being able to speak my mind on whatever I like and a number of them agree with me and wish their party was like mine. So it's an interesting experience, pushing from a liberty direction when the agenda has been historically coming more from the left wing.  

Reason: You just took your seat in July and you've already been getting some media attention. Could you explain what a "crossbencher" is for non-Australians and what that means as far as what you can accomplish in the Senate?

Leyonhjelm: The Senate has a history of not being controlled by the government [the majority, ruling party]. Only a relatively few years it its history has it been controlled by the government. The Senate is a proportional representation system, not a "first off the post" [winner takes all] system. … If you have two parties on the left or two parties on the right, they tend to cancel each other out and neither of them will win, so there's no incentive to have more than two parties in the race. We have a proportional system with preferences and so forth, so we end up with something more like what the Europeans get, with a range of parties.

There are 76 senators, and obviously to get a majority you need 38. The government almost never has 38, so there are other parties which hold the balance of power. … Our government is formed in the House of Representatives and whichever party has the majority in the House forms the government. … The crossbenchers are the ones who can decide which side has the majority in a competing or neutral vote. If legislation is to go through and the government supports it and the opposition opposes it then the crossbench votes are crucial in deciding what the numbers are, whether it goes through or doesn't go through. I'm one.

The Greens Party has 10 senators, though they nearly always vote with the Labor Party opposition. And so there are eight other senators who are not Liberal, Labor or Greens, and the government requires six out of the eight voters to get its legislation through. The eight of us are referred to as the crossbench.

Reason: Right now you're working on trying to get a "conscience vote" for gay marriage recognition in Australia. Could you explain how that works?

Leyonhjelm: Same-sex marriage has been on the agenda here for a long time, as it has been in the U.S., and the push been coming from the left. And the government [majority] is comprised of a bunch of sort-of libertarian-inclined people plus conservatives. Anything emanating from the left they are instinctively opposed to it. So I have attempted to recharacterize the issue as a liberty issue, in the sense that the government shouldn't be deciding or dictating the gender of the person you might want to marry.

It's part of a number of issues I'm working on in which I want to steal the libertarian-inclined voters who are not really socialists, I want to steal them away from the Greens. Same-sex marriage is a big issue amongst the youngsters and voters. They think the only party that will support same-sex marriage is the socialist parties, the Greens. So it's part of my attempt to steal it away from them. … I also think I have a chance at success, because I'm not a socialist. I am not coming at it from the left. I'm coming at it from a liberty perspective.

The key to success will be if somehow I can convince the Coalition parties, which is the Liberal Party and the National Party, to allow a conscience vote amongst its members. They won't accept a party discipline vote, they wouldn't agree to that. … But the Labor Party has agreed to a conscience vote. That goes back for a couple of years. … There are a lot of Labor Party people who are conservative on this issue and are strongly opposed same-sex marriage, and some are in favor of it. … The Labor Party would have a huge internal fight if they tried to force a party vote. The only safe way to do it is a conscience vote. The Greens are in favor and the Labor Party would allow a conscience vote. Up to date all the impetus for this issue has come from the left. … The Liberals have said no, we won't have a party vote—we're opposed.

But times are changing, and there's a call for a conscience vote in the Liberal Party. And the prime minister has said he will allow for a conscience vote. Part of the pressure is coming from the fact that he has a sister who is a lesbian. … The bottom line is that there's a fairly high chance of a conscience vote by the Liberal Party as well. The Nationals appear to be opposed to it, but if the Liberals go for a conscience vote, I think they will as well and maybe some of them will vote for it. I am about 90 percent certain that a conscience vote will be agreed by the Liberal Party.

After that it then comes down to the absolute numbers. One of the lobby groups that's been talking to us called Australian Marriage Equality, they think they have a fix on the numbers. … If there is a conscience vote, if every MP is able to vote according to their personal view on it, they still think the numbers are against us, even if the public is in favor now. So even after a conscience vote there's going to have to be some serious lobbying going on. Even getting to the point of a conscience vote among the Liberals would be considered progress.

Reason: So it's going to take a lot of work, even if you get the conscience vote, to pass?

Leyonhjelm: Yes, it's not in the bag. The Australian Marriage Equality people tell me we're about 20 votes short. That's not out of the question, but we can't take it for granted.

Reason: Prime Minister Tony Abbott has abandoned efforts to amend Australia's hate speech law, within the country's Racial Discrimination Act. Why did that happen and can it be reversed?

Leyonhjelm: It happened because the debate was poorly handled. Our attorney general didn't characterize the debate all that well. He said that people have a right to be a bigot, which is of course true, but that was interpreted as being a justification for the retention of section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act.

What the act does is make it an offense to offend, humiliate, or insult a group of people on the basis of race. And of course that's highly subjective. People can be offended by all sorts of things. There was a high-profile journalist who was prosecuted over this and fined, and even now there is a court ban on repeating the articles that he wrote. The articles he wrote were about pale aboriginals getting an advantage based on their aboriginality. The government has these positive discrimination policies in some respects towards aborigines and these people were benefitting from that, even though if you looked at them, you'd be forgiven for not realizing they're aborigines. So he wrote about that, they decided they were offended and took it to the antidiscrimination board and he was fined.

It became this very controversial issue, and the prime minister gave a statement before the election last year that he would partly repeal or modify the law so it would never happen again. When the attorney general took up the debate—and I think the attorney general is genuinely in favor of free speech—he didn't handle the debate particularly well, and it became embroiled in a debate about, rather than speech, about bigotry. Most of the pushback was coming from ethnic groups who said, "We don't want to be vilified." But what they were really arguing about was, "We don't want people to think bad thoughts about us. That if we somehow suppress the speech somehow that will help the way people think."

I think if the debate had been differently handled the outcome might have been better. … There were a number of Liberal Party members who were under pressure from their electorates who came out publicly opposing any changes to the law, so the prime minister had problems in his own ranks. The indications were the government would lose had been obvious for quite a while now. It really wasn't a surprise to me that they made this decision, though it was profoundly disappointing. I was hoping they would negotiate another way of doing it to satisfy some of the complaints. …  They really have annoyed the libertarian, small-l liberal community here over this, and it's not the end of the matter, but they're going to have to find a way for the government to do something about it without drawing attacks from ethnic organizations.

Reason: Discussion in Australia seems to link the abandonment of hate speech reform with a push for new unity and in support of anti-terror policies. What is the connection and what does it mean?

Leyonhjelm: There is none. It's just muddying the water politically.

The issue that's emanating, the anti-terror, national security discussion is that we have a number of Australians who have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight in their wars there and quite a number of them on the side of ISIS, and there's actually a picture of a young boy on the front page of one of the biggest newspapers in Australia here. He's the son of an Australian who's gone back to Iraq, I think it is. He's holding the head of a Syrian soldier whose been killed and had his head cut off. He's holding the head up. So what we're hearing is news reports of that sort of thing going on. There's supposedly 100-120 Australians who have done this, who have gone over and are now fighting in the wars there.

And the security organizations are telling us these people are a threat to Australia because they'll come back here, radicalized and intent on doing harm. That's being used as justification for amending our national security laws to allow the security organizations to spy on us, retain data, such as your NSA does, and generally be a lot more intrusive. It's the usual trade off of liberty versus security.

Reason: To what extent does Australia need to be concerned about terrorism? Do you think there's a likelihood of 100 former Australians to come back and stir up rebellion in Australia?

Leyonhjelm: Even if every single one of them was a clear and present danger to Australia and wanted to come back here and cause mayhem, the security agencies have all the powers that they need to deal with it. They don't need any more power. It's a smoke-screen for empire-building by the agencies. … The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation [ASIO] has been growing from a relatively small operation with a relatively limited budget to a really large organization with a very large budget, and I think it's nothing more than empire-building. You build an empire and then decide you need something to do. "I know, let's spy on the citizens. You know, you might catch somebody." It's being driven by the security agencies.

The federal police do the same thing. They used to be small agency and now they've grown and grown and grown, and, you know, they need to justify themselves. You have to find enemies. You have to find threats and you have to scare politicians into granting you more authority to do more things otherwise your budget might get cut.

Reason: What is the public response, compared to America, where this been quite a bit of outrage over whether the NSA or the FBI or the CIA can use the Internet to snoop on its citizens? Are you getting a similar response in Australia?

Leyonhjelm: It's hard to tell what the public generally is thinking yet. I don't think they've quite woken up to it.

The media is skeptical. There are some commentators who are saying, "Well, it's pretty obvious these people from Australia who are going over there to Iraq are dangerous; therefore, we should give the agencies any power they want." That school of thought can be found. But they're just one voice. The more common voice is, "This is risky." They want the agencies to justify why they need extended powers, why they aren't capable of dealing with this threat with their current powers. And we don't like be snooped on. So my feeling is that the government is going to back away from it.

The bigger debate—there are a couple of worrying elements. One is legislation that's been introduced to parliament to make it an offense to report on anything that our ASIO is up to. That's our domestic spying agency. It's kind of a legal cover for them to do anything they like and be as incompetent as they like and it can't be publicly reported. There's quite a bit of pushback starting to gather on that one.

The other one that's causing a fair bit of grief is a metadata retention plan, the equivalent of what your NSA does. We don't have metadata retention at the moment and the agencies have been saying, "Oh, well we should have it. You can't use it if you haven't got it," sort of thing. But I spoke to one of the ministers last week about this because he does know what "metadata" means—he knows quite a lot about the Internet and how it works—He said to me people who are asking for this data, people who are thinking this is a good idea, actually have no idea what they're asking for. They don't know what they're going to do with it. They don't know what the implications of requiring it are. They haven't really thought this through.

He gave them a demonstration on a VPN [virtual private network] and said, "By my IP address, tell me what you can find out about me now." And they had no idea there was such a thing as a VPN. It indicates to me that these people are not well-informed enough to make these kinds of decisions. As it stands, it may be that the government may only require the Internet companies to store the IP address of the originating Internet use, so they'll know what computer you're from and what IP you're working from, which is not a lot different from keeping a record of the phone you're calling from. So if that's the case, it's probably not going to pose too much alarm. He's a minister and he knows what he's talking about. But he's surrounded by people who don't know what they're talking about who think that they need something more. We don't know yet where this will end up. It does have the potential to be very dangerous.

Reason: From your background, gun rights are important to you. What's the status of gun control in Australia and do you have any plans in this area?

Leyonhjelm: Gun control is still legally the jurisdiction of the state governments, not the federal government. There is a National Firearms Agreement, which was introduced in 1996 in the wake of a massacre we had here in Port Arthur in Tasmania. What it did was committed each state to a fairly high degree of consistency, though not absolute consistency, on banning semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, pump-action shotguns, and introducing a registration system for long arms. Pistols have long been registered. There really wasn't much objection to that. But long arms hadn't been registered, and we had had access to semi-automatics and pump-action shotguns as well.

So the 1996-1997 bans introduced registration and this National Firearms Agreement was the vehicle that carried it. It has no statutory authority and in fact the federal government has no real control over the states on this other than the fact that the states are fairly well beholden to the federal government for a financial lifeline, if you like, to come and collect all the taxes and then hand it out to the states. We've had some of the states loosening things a little bit in a few areas, nothing substantive. No reintroduction of semi-automatics, for example.

What can I do about it? It's too early to tell. Firearm owners get harassed at the commonwealth level when they're reporting things. A lot of it is just policy/attitudinal stuff from the bureaucrats, and that's something that I hope I can address. The National Firearms Agreement could be torn up. Our prime minister has made noises about beefing up our federal system; in other words, giving the states more autonomy and removing the commonwealth from the area of activity more. I've heard that sort of talk before and usually nothing comes of it and I wouldn't be surprised if the same happened this time. But getting out of firearms licensing and regulation and leaving it to the states would be consistent with that approach and if I can push it in that direction I will. That would then allow the states to depart from the National Firearms Agreement if they thought it was okay to do so, and there is reason to think that they might do so. New Zealand didn't ban semi-automatics, for example, at the same time Australia did and they've had no negative consequences as a result of that. The statistics following our new laws in 96-97 show they've made no difference to anything that matters. The evidence for the restrictive approach is not strong. On top of that, it costs them a lot of money to maintain the firearms registry and doesn't contribute anything in terms of crime control.

What can I do about it? Not a lot in the Senate. I'm in the wrong jurisdiction. We—the Liberal Democratic Party—are running candidates in the state elections, and once we have people in the state parliament, maybe we can do something concrete on firearm laws. But from the Senate I'm very limited in what I can do.

Reason: What other issues are you looking to tackle as your term gets started? Your speeches and comments seem to hit on nearly every issue near and dear to libertarians. How are you prioritizing?

Leyonhjelm: My biggest performance indicator is to win support for the Liberal Democratic Party so that we can win more seats. In practical terms my ability to change things is relatively small. Although I'm a crossbench senator and my vote will be crucial at times, there are seven others in the same situation. So the ability to get stuff that I want is going to be restricted.

So the big picture is to win voters for the libertarian coalition and the Liberal Democratic Party in particular. So that next election we can win more Senate seats.  And the one after that we can win more Senate seats. And then on and on it goes. A major objective is to win one Senate seat per state per election. If we got to that point we would have 12 senators. And out of 76 that is enough for us to determine what the agenda is, which could make a real difference under our circumstances. … So a lot of my focus will be on convincing people that getting the government off your back, out of your pocket, leaving you alone, giving people choices, and that the government makes things worse and not better is a plausible, supportable position. I only need about 10 to 15 percent of the vote to achieve that objective, so I don't have to please everybody. The left can be as rude to me as they like as long as they use my name and the name of the Liberal Democratic Party so that they increase awareness of the party; then it actually serves my purpose.

In legislative outcomes, there are a few things that I'm aiming for. I'd like to get the government to agree to put sunset clauses in all our legislation. I'd like to win on the same-sex marriage issue. I would like to think I could make some progress on marijuana. I would like to think I could embarrass the government into balancing our budget. Fiscal responsibility is a high priority. I would like to think I could embarrass the government into not encroaching on our freedom in the name of national security. But at the end of the day my number one task is to alert Australia to the fact that the government can go the other way. It can be loosened, relaxed, less intrusive. People can do more things for themselves, and it doesn't require the government to treat you like a stupid child all the time.