Colin Brammall, “19th-century laissez-faire philosophy ‘with a safety net’,” The Canberra Times, April 28, 1982, p. 2.
A Liberal Party backbench grouping, variously labelled “ginger group”, “dries” and “free marketeers”, has been attracting increasing publicity.
In the aftermath of the party leadership and deputy leadership ballots, there was considerable speculation about how much influence the grouping had had.
It is apparent that the influence is of some substance but questions about where they stand in the political spectrum attract either complicated answers from those who think they know, or shrugs from those who know they don’t.
There are a motley group whose combined philosophy cannot be explained simply, because there are so many aspects that boiling them all down to a common factor would result in a meaningless cliche.
But for starters, it can be said that they want to reduce the size of government, give market forces a more free rein in society and recreate individual liberty (and, with it, individual responsibility).
They favour, for example, deregulation of interest rates and means-testing of social-security benefits.
There are, reputedly, about 30 of them and their most public representatives are Mr John Hyde (WA) and Mr Jim Carlton (NSW). They include Mr Murray Sainsbury, our almost-local Member.
Their votes in the recent Liberal Party ballots undoubtedly crossed over among all the candidates, although Mr-Howard-for-Deputy-Leader probably was a strong sentiment in the group because his economic views sometimes coincide with theirs.
For an answer as uncomplicated as possible to what they stand for, we asked Mr Hyde.
“Above all else, our group faces facts,” he said. “When we advocate things to the Government our arithmetic will be correct. We take the consequences of decisions into account …”
“In such successes as we have had — we haven’t had many, for God’s sake — we’ve forced the Government to actually accept the arithmetic there in front of them.”
“For the most part we’re liberals, in the 19th-century use of the word. We’re economic and, for the most part, social libertarians, although some of us would have more conservative views than I’ve got in the social area.”
It was a 19th-century laissez-faire philosophy, “with a safety net”.
The “net” was means-testing of welfare.
“… I would apply a safety net, not for economic reasons, but for humanitarian reasons,” he said.
Although a 19th-century liberal, he does not align with 19th-century anti-union attitudes, which “were trying at that stage to preserve an employers’ cartel. They are equally objectionable, for exactly the same reasons.
“A lot of the attempts to set up trade unions were attempts to set up countervailing forces [to the employers’ cartels].”
“If you are going to have cartels in society, it would be better to have your forces countervailed. But better still is not have either cartel.”
“Faced with the circumstances at the time, [in the 19th century] I might well have advocated a union movement to countervail some of those employers’ cartels. We’ve still got a few of them but they’re mostly powerless now.”
“A union belongs in a mercantilist society. Bismark’s Germany.”
“I find the attitude of the trade unions thoroughly objectionable on liberty grounds … and I find employer organisations [objectionable] when they do the same thing — although they haven’t got the same power except possibly in agriculture.”
“Our economic policy is strictly conventional. We aren’t rewriting the textbooks. We’re the ones that are with the textbooks and the overwhelming majority of economists would agree with us. And we are pretty consistent with out party’s rhetoric.”
“We believe in individual liberty and with it, individual responsibility. We don’t think it’s possible to be free and not accept responsibility …”
“We believe in the market. We’ve got much more faith in the market than we have in bureaucratic decision-making. This is only another way of saying we trust the people to identify their own interests and act on them and are not prepared to play God with other people’s interests.”
“Society’s controls had been set up to advantage the wealthy against the poor. In either society [free or regulated], the strong will get to the top … However, the wealthy’s ability to disadvantage the poor in a regulated society is greater.”
“Wherever you’ve got bureaucratic control, the powerful do better than they would where you’ve got a relatively free market operating. I’m not saying that market are perfect — there is such a thing as market failure — but what other people must accept is that there is also bureaucratic failure.”
“It was an empirical fact that highly regulated societies such as Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union made an awful mess of things and that relatively free societies were more egalitarian.”
“The controls are there because, in a regulated society, the articulate are strong and they set up the rules to suit themselves.”
“People who are in reasonably well-to-do suburbs scream like buggery about high interest rates, so they put controls on them.”
“If interest rates were deregulated, they might well go up, but this would be to the advantage of poorer people. Those who borrow money are, on average, wealthier than those who lend, although the two overlap considerably,” he said.
With higher interest rates, the poorer people, who saved money, would get more interest back on their money and the wealthier, who borrowed, would to pay more interest.
In his philosophy, anybody who could borrow money to buy a house was not poor.
He believes that a free-society policy would help to have the Fraser Government re-elected.
“I think the Fraser Government’s best hope of re-election is to be regarded as the best economic managers available to Australia. If we sacrifice that card, our hand really is very thin. We’re not going to be able to outbid the Labor Party on handouts.”
“I’ll go further than that. We’re sacrificing the nation. Nations which have done that have got themselves into very deep water indeed.”
“Mrs Thatcher’s Government is pulling Britain out of that. She really is, Falklands aside …”
The Fraser Government had been monetarist, for two years, off again for three years and now had been monetarist again for the past year.
In those three “off” years, the government had not had the “stomach” to stick with hard monetarist policies. Britain had maintained tight money control and, “That’s why our inflation is going up and Britain’s is going down.”
“Monetarism really is very simple and it doesn’t claim very much. As much as it does claim stands up fairly well: without controlling money supply you are not going to control inflation.”
“Friedman would have you believe that money supply is the only determinant of inflation. I’m inclined to believe him, but I know that good economists dispute that — and I’m not in the business of rewriting economic textbooks.”
The group’s philosophies were not just those of a Liberal Party “ginger group”.
“There is a move throughout the world to favour markets and have less trust in governments”, he said. “That’s really your choice. The record of government has been poor since the Second World War. They have not managed to control people’s lives very well. People put less trust in them, in politicians’ wisdom. About time too.”
He agreed that the expression “dries” people did not mean anything in Australia. The expression “wets” had been imported from Britain, where Mrs Thatcher had referred to her opponents as “wets” (an English schoolboy expression, used by Mrs Thatcher to label what Australians might call “bleeding hearts” or those who were uncomfortable facing the “hard options” of economic life).
There was no recognisable grouping the Liberal Party which could be labelled “wet”, although there were some individuals with “wet” ideas.
His grouping, however, was recognisable for its opposite views and a Canberra journalist had tagged “dries” on it. Mrs Thatcher regarded her supporters as “non-wets”.
Another tag given to them had been “free marketeers”. The word “free” has been another press-gallery invention.
“It’s not a word we use,” he said.
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