John Hyde, one of the most influential Liberal backbench MP's in the party's history, and one of the first "dries" who revolutionised not just the Liberal Party, but the entire country, has broken a long silence to speak out at the state of politics in Australia.
The following is a transcript of a speech given at the Perth launch of The Modest Member: The Life & Times of Bert Kelly. In it John Hyde attacks spin-doctors, politicians acting not in the national interest, the silencing of free speech in Parliament, and the Federal Liberal Party for being "pathetically weak" and, in some areas, positioning itself "to the socialist side of Labor". It is well worth a read in its entirety:
I learned most of what I believe I know about the arts and obligations of politics at Bert Kelly’s feet. This occasion, therefore, has a particular poignancy for me. Politics can be played like footy for the artificial goal of beating the other team and leaving your team’s name on a bit of silverware or whatever; or it can be an inch by inch endless struggle to make good but unpopular policies popular. Of course, all pollies play a bit of both games. Nevertheless, despite having been a skilled footballer, Bert thought there was far too much of the former and built the reputation we are here to honour by attending to the latter.
I have written an address, which is not something I have done for years, because I want to place my opinion concerning the current unsatisfactory state of Australian national politics on record. I am sure Bert would have had something to say about it and I am deliberately drawing on his authority in the confidence that he would have approved of my doing so.
First, however, I congratulate you, Hal Colebatch, on an excellent account of an exceptional and worthy contribution to Australian public life. You reminded me of things I had forgotten and of a few that I never knew. You drove home to me the fact that political standards have slipped more than somewhat from levels, achieved partly as a result of Bert’s sustained effort, that had prevailed for some twenty years. It is a good read, an instructive read, and should be read by every politician.
I loved Bert Kelly with the sort of love I had for my father when he lived. In Bert’s presence I knew that I was with not necessarily my intellectual or tactical superior, although probably that too, but my moral superior. Time and again I have asked myself would Bert approve. In the Federal Parliament he mentored me and chastised me. When in South Australiacollecting funds for the two think tanks Helen and I ran, I would stay with the Kellys and sat several nights with Bert and Lorna discussing politics, family farming, morality and even Kipling. It has gone largely unremarked among Bert’s attributes that he made an excellent home brew. Lorna drew upon an enormous fund of common sense. I am pretty confident that she was Bert’s most effective and most respected critic.
BACK BENCH FREEDOM
Think what Bert’s response might have been if some well intentioned, or not so well intentioned, colleague or leaders’ apparatchik had told Bert to ‘stay on message’. Most likely he would have said something like, ‘If the message is correct’. I remember the occasion following Labor’s 25% tariff cut when we were all exhorted to go to Tasmania to win the Bass by-election. Bert told Malcolm and the party room that he was happy to go to Bass but that we should all bear in mind that he would be on Gough’s side. Bert found lies made for political advantage too difficult. Most politicians did stay more or less on message most of the time, nevertheless, had back-bench Liberals then been told instead of occasionally very politely requested to stay on message, the consequence may well have been a minor revolt. In my day at least, even if we did not often exercise it, we valued and I thought had been promised, a parliamentarian’s right to speak his mind.
I cannot speak with the same certainty about the Labor Party but some Labor MPs did at times depart the party line. We Liberals thought that our relative freedom meant that we were quite a superior bunch. Except for Jensen and Washer, since the Liberal Party’s decision to oppose further deregulation of the wheat market, it is a conceit that has been made impossible.
It is an issue of principle that should be second nature to anyone who dare call himself liberal that farmers ought to be allowed to sell their wheat to whom so ever they please. By positioning the Liberal Party so clearly on the socialist side of Labor our Federal representatives have called into question what they claim to believe in. Do they believe in anything except that it would be nice to be in office?
The Liberal Party cannot credibly promise to out-spend Labor. Without offering the public something to believe in they offer nothing even to football game politics save their dubious claim to greater competence.
Some say the decision is necessary to keep the peace with the National Party. Oh dear! Have they learned nothing from Labor’s experience of the Greens? I don’t think that Abbott, Bishop and Co are more socialist than Labor. They are just weak—pathetically so. It is for that weakness that I feel they have earned my disgust. It’s not just the Feds: there is a parallel and equally immoral situation in WA with potato marketing.
Although politicians of Kelly’s day were often enough untruthful, there was not then the unscrupulous, professionally designed, spin that is normal today.
THE NATIONAL INTEREST
I concede that to some extent the jury on the current administration must still be out, but we can agree, can we not, that the Canberra Government’s dedication to reform in pursuit of the national interest compares badly with that of, for instance, the Hawke government.
I think I dare say of course, Bert was not as humble as he made out. His self deprecation occasionally irritated his closest friends. He knew perfectly well what he was achieving against opposition that would have overwhelmed a lesser man. Malcolm Fraser’s opinion notwithstanding, he was an instinctive tactician of great political judgement, but his concern was government not the immediate election. Which party implements the right policies was to him and still is relatively unimportant. We cannot now benefit from an attempt by, say, Tony Abbott to have him stay ‘on message’. I am sure such a contest would be not only instructive but at times very amusing.
The tendencies, encouraged by professional spin doctors, for party leaders to insist that parliamentarians stay on message and devote much of their energies to the nationally unproductive activity of character assassination are unlikely to be the sole causes but they have surely contributed to return towards the bad old days with which Bert contended—the days before the better government of Hawke, Keating and Howard—the days when short term political advantage and/or personal aggrandisement trumped objective policy analysis.
Bert was a great parliamentarian. He used the forms of the House, the other opportunities to speak afforded all parliamentarians and those of a columnist to address great national interests especially the evil of economic privilege which was not only unfair but damned inefficient. In Bert’s day when standards were truly appalling bad government had, by the 1970s, resulted in Australia’s relative decline in living standards, too much industrial strife and stupid catastrophic episodes such as the wool industry debacle. (In passing, for those who wish better to identify the vipers in the nest, I also recommend another book, Massey’s Breaking the Sheep’s Back)
Spin is primarily intended to divert public attention from the difficult and essential to the trivial. We have, for instance, just had another much spun report telling us to get closer to Asia and again telling us that command of an Asian language will be the key to success. The spin clutches at the straw of bilingualism when a life jacket might be reached with sufficient effort. If we are to be much use to ourselves we must offer the Asians, and non Asians for that matter, the goods and services that they need at competitive prices or, as with defence, must respect. To do that we must improve economic productivity by addressing the bottlenecks in our labour markets, our inappropriately regulated industries, our insufficiently productive public investments, our defence shortfall and our needless public debt. In short, we must continue, or return to, genuine reform.
There is no Bert Kelly in the Federal Parliament, but we celebrate Kelly because he was an exceptional man whose like we may not see again. Instead of just waiting for such a man we might deplore and try to change the political practices that make it harder for politicians who cannot quite muster Bert’s courage and abilities to address the great issues. There is a lot of ruin in a nation of Australia’s strength but, if we don’t, we will continue to undo the reforms of the Hawke, Keating and Howard years that stood by us so well during the Global Financial Crisis until we return to the gradual economic decline that predates them.
Thank you Hal Colebatch. Thank you Bob Day, Harold Clough, Ron Manners, and the Bert Kelly Research Centre for The Modest Member: The Life and Times of Bert Kelly. It is with very real pleasure that I declare it launched in Western Australia.
John Hyde is the former Member for Moore, and one of the four founding members of "The Dries". A farmer by background, he later became Executive Director of the Australian Institute for Public Policy and is author of the book "Dry".