Australian political thought

Nicholas Barry 

Key terms/names

conservatism, labourism, liberalism, nationalism, race, social democracy, socialism, utilitarianism


Ideas are central to politics. Individuals and groups have different ideas about which values are most important, what kind of society we should live in, how the world works and what role the state should play. This is what political scientists often refer to when they use the term ‘ideology’. Ideological disagreements often underpin disagreements over the laws and policies that should be adopted. For this reason, a full understanding of politics and public policy in Australia requires an awareness of the major ideas and ideologies held by Australian citizens, politicians and activists.

In the past, an influential line of thought held that political ideas were relatively unimportant to Australians who were more concerned with their economic interests than anything else.1 However, this is an oversimplification of Australian political history.2 As this chapter demonstrates, Australian politics has been shaped by a range of ideas and ideologies, often resulting from engagement with political thinkers in other parts of the world. This chapter provides an overview of some of the most influential of these ideas and ideologies, focusing on conservatism, liberalism, socialism, social democracy and nationalism, and explores their impact on Australian politics.


Conservatism has been a major ideological influence in Australian politics. The core of conservatism is maintaining past traditions while accommodating small but gradual social change. In general, conservatives have ‘an essentially pessimistic view of human nature’.3 They tend to focus on the limits of human reason, given the complexity of the world and the impact of ‘non-rational appetites’.4 This means they believe that human beings need stability, hierarchy and tradition to thrive. They are sceptical about the desirability of rapid social change, believing instead that there is an accumulated wisdom in traditional customs and social institutions and that these beliefs and practices should generally be preserved.5 The most famous expression of this view was Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, Reflections on the revolution in France, which warned of the dangers of radical social and political change in the pursuit of abstract universal ideals.6 Conser­vatives also tend to emphasise the importance of religion and religious authorities in guiding individual behaviour. These features of conservatism all have important implications for the role of the state, and they mean that the state may be justified in passing laws that restrict individual freedom in order to preserve traditional beliefs and practices.

Another strand of conservatism is concerned primarily with preserving the cultural traditions of the community. In Britain in the early 1800s, this ‘cultural conservatism’ was originally concerned with protecting the traditional English way of life against the Industrial Revolution and the rise of materialism, which many believed was undermining traditional cultural practices and loyalties.7 Cultural issues, including the effect of free market capitalism on human relations, continue to concern some conservatives.8 But greater concerns, particularly among religious conservatives in the USA, have been the movement away from the traditional heteronormative family structure, challenges to traditional gender roles, a more permissive attitude towards sex and the rise of the welfare state, all of which are perceived to have led to an erosion of personal responsibility.9

Conservatism has continued be a significant ideological force in Australian politics since Federation. In parliament, the Liberal Party and its predecessors have often been strongly influenced by conservative ideas (although, as its name suggests, liberalism is also an ideological influence on the party, as will be discussed in more detail in the next section). Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was a staunch monarchist and drew on the ideas of Edmund Burke to argue against Australia becoming a republic:

I take an unashamedly Burkean view. I do not support change because I am unconvinced that a better system can be delivered … Changing the Constitution in such a fundamental way is not a play-thing of the ordinary cut-and-thrust of Australian politics. We are dealing here with institutions affecting the long-term political health and stability of the nation.10

More generally, the desire to preserve political and cultural ties to Britain has been one of the abiding features of Australian conservatism.11 For example, one of the most controversial decisions made by Tony Abbott during his prime ministership was the decision to introduce knighthoods in Australia and to award one of these knighthoods to Prince Philip.12 This decision reflected a conservative desire to reintroduce an honours system based on the British model; a belief in the value of hierarchy, apparent in the desire to establish a system of titles; and a conservative attachment to the Crown, seen in bestowing the award on a member of the royal family.

Conservative ideas have also figured prominently in debates over a range of social issues and policies. For example, until the final decades of the 20th century, Australia had a particularly strict censorship regime that aimed to place limits on the literature and films that citizens were able to access to protect ‘Anglo-Saxon standards’.13 The conservative viewpoint also came through strongly in debates over the introduction of no-fault divorce and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. More recently, the major opposition to marriage equality came from conservative politicians and religious organisations. For example, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott advocated a ‘no’ vote in the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite on the grounds that it was ‘[t]he best way of standing up for traditional values, the best way of saying you don’t like the direction our country is heading in right now’.14 Since the late 1990s, conservative ideas have also been central to the ‘culture wars’, with conservatives opposing a variety of trends that they believe are undermining the dominance of Christian values in Australia, particularly multiculturalism, cultural engagement with Asia, and more critical accounts of Australian history that draw attention to the violence of colonialism and its ongoing effects. The idea that it is important to preserve Christian values in Australia was reflected in former Liberal–National Coalition Prime Minister John Howard’s comment that ‘the life and example [of Jesus Christ] has given us a value system which remains the greatest force for good in our community’.15


Liberal ideas have also been highly influential in Australia. In fact, liberalism has sometimes been viewed as the dominant ideology in Australian politics.16 There are major differences between varieties of liberalism, but they are all committed ‘to individualism, a belief in the supreme importance of the human individual, implying strong support for individual freedom’.17 Linked to this, liberals are opposed to the ideas of hereditary aristocracy and natural hierarchy that have often been associated with conservatism. Rather, the liberal view is that citizens have an equal moral status, meaning they are entitled to an equal set of rights.

A variety of implications flow from this core idea. First, liberals are opposed to absolutism.18 The authority of the state – its right to exercise coercive power – is not natural or the result of religious decree but only justified to the extent that it has beneficial consequences for the lives of citizens. This idea, which most famously found expression in John Locke’s Two treatises of government (1689), means that state power is only justified to the extent that it ‘enable[s] the society to achieve those limited goals that a political order enables us to achieve – the security of life, property and the pursuit of happiness’.19 In the liberal tradition, this view has often been explained with reference to the idea that there is a (hypothetical) social contract between citizens and the state. Although the idea of the social contract has taken a variety of forms, it is usually understood to be a thought experiment that begins by imagining what life would be like in the state of nature – a world without the state apparatus. A flourishing and orderly society is assumed not to be possible in the state of nature; hence liberals believe that individuals would agree to give up their absolute freedom in the state of nature and establish the institution of government (what we would now refer to as the state). This establishes the basis for citizens’ agreement to respect the state’s authority. In return, the state is obliged to maintain order and protect citizens. However, under liberal forms of the social contract, there are limits to the state’s authority: it must respect the core rights of citizens, and, if it fails to do so, it loses its legitimacy and revolution may be justified.20

Although most liberals endorse human rights and individual freedom, there is great diversity in how different liberals understand these concepts. One of the major distinctions is between classical liberalism and social liberalism.21 Classical liberalism is generally associated with a belief in rights to life, liberty and property. There should also be minimal government intervention in the economy, with the emphasis instead on freeing up the market forces of supply and demand. This means that the state should, for the most part, let producers and consumers make their own economic decisions without the restrictions associated with heavy government regulation, taxation, tariffs or other forms of interference. Key liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith are often viewed as falling within the classical liberal tradition.22

In the 19th century, a different form of liberalism began to emerge, described variously as ‘social liberalism’, ‘new liberalism’ or ‘modern liberalism’.23 Associated with the work of J.S. Mill, L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green, social liberals drew attention to the problem of poverty and argued that the state was justified in assuming a more expansive role in the economy, intervening to provide more benefits and services for citizens to help ensure that they are able to obtain the basic necessities of life and to bring about equality of opportunity. This was justified with reference to the liberal commitment to individualism and individual freedom. The idea was that for individual freedom to be meaningful, individuals needed more than the absence of external interference with their actions; they needed a certain level of material wellbeing to give them autonomy (i.e. control over their lives) and the means to fully develop their capacities. This form of freedom has been described as positive freedom, in contrast to the negative freedom (i.e. freedom as non-interference) that was associated with classical liberalism,24 and it provided a justification for the emergence of the welfare state.

In the second half of the 20th century, another strand of liberalism emerged that became known as ‘neoclassical liberalism’ (or ‘neoliberalism’). Linked to the work of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, among others, this approach argues against the growing size of the welfare state on the grounds that it is undermining self-reliance and individual responsibility, as well as distorting the market. Rejecting the positive account of freedom associated with social liberalism, neoliberals argue that liberals should return to their classical roots, advocating minimal government and the free market.

These strands of liberalism have all had – and continue to have – a major impact on Australian politics. The division between different types of liberalism was also important in the development of the Australian party system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The two largest ‘parties’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘groupings’, given their relatively loose organisational structures) in the first federal parliament were the Protectionists and the Free Traders. As their name suggests, the Free Traders, led by George Reid, were strongly influenced by the free market ideas of classical liberalism.25 Reid associated free market liberalism with the idea of individual freedom. He thought the free market was essential to economic and social progress because it encouraged competition: ‘the great destiny of humanity lies in allowing the genius for competition, for striving, for excelling, for acquiring, to reach its uttermost latitude consistent with the due rights of others’.26

In contrast, the Protectionists held that the federal government should put tariffs on goods being imported into Australia in order to protect local industries, giving them an advantage over international competitors. This went alongside support for a range of other forms of government intervention in the economy that were designed to prevent poverty and improve the lives of citizens.27 As the most influential figure in the Protectionists, Alfred Deakin, put it:

Liberalism would now inculcate 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, and the latter would be saved from living wretched and imperfect lives.28

Ultimately, the position advocated by the Protectionists won out. With the support of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), tariffs were introduced, along with a range of other policies, including compulsory wage arbitration, which ultimately meant that workers’ wages were relatively high compared to other countries. These policies (along with other measures such as the White Australia policy, discussed below) later became known as ‘the Australian Settlement’ and remained in place for much of the 20th century.29 There were still major disagreements between political actors over the extent of government intervention in the economy, and in the postwar period some critics argued that the Australian welfare state was relatively underdeveloped, having fallen behind other countries. Nonetheless, the broadly interventionist approach associated with Deakin’s social liberalism had become institutionalised, going on ‘to dominate Australian society and politics for the first 70 years after Federation’.30

By the 1970s, this approach came under challenge as neoliberal ideas became increasingly influential in Australia. A variety of think tanks argued that the welfare state had become too large and that there was a need to reduce government intervention in the economy through tariff cuts, financial deregulation, industrial relations deregulation, tax cuts and privatisation.31 The Australian economy was perceived to be underperforming as it faced problems with stagflation (the combination of stagnant economic growth and high inflation). The interventionist economic ideas embedded in the existing framework, reflecting social liberalism, were seen to have failed, and a broadly neoliberal approach was believed to offer the solution.32 These ideas did not fully reshape public policy in Australia until the Hawke–Keating Labor government held office (1983–96), bringing in a range of policies that were heavily influenced by neoliberal ideas. It moved to phase out tariffs, open the economy up to market forces by deregulating the financial system and privatise major government assets. During this period, the Liberal Party, which was in opposition, was racked by internal division between social liberals (known as ‘the wets’) and neoliberals (known as ‘the dries’) over the ideological direction of the party. Ultimately, the dries won out on economic questions;33 the vast majority of Liberal Party MPs now subscribe to a broadly neoliberal approach to the economy.

Socialism and social democracy

Socialist ideas have also been important in Australia. Socialism is a particularly difficult ideology to define because of the many different types of socialism that exist; nonetheless, most accounts of socialism reflect a commitment to principles of egalitarianism and community.34 The socialist commitment to egalitarianism involves a more radical understanding of equality than the idea of equal citizenship or equality before the law, requiring a higher degree of equality in the standard of living individuals enjoy (going as far as equality of outcome on some accounts). The commitment to community (or solidarity) reflects the idea ‘that people care about, and, where necessary and possible, care for, one another’.35 As both these principles suggest, a socialist society is supposed to lack the social division and competition that tends to characterise life in a liberal capitalist society.

Despite the importance of egalitarianism and community in socialist thought, the most influential socialist thinker, Karl Marx, did not explicitly draw on these ideas in his mature work. Instead, Marx put forward a ‘scientific’ account of socialism based on the idea that politics and history are driven by the conflict between different classes, with this conflict in turn reflecting the nature of the economy and its level of technological development. In a capitalist economy, the central conflict is between the bourgeoisie (the capitalist, property-owning class) and the proletariat (the working class who are forced to sell their labour to survive because they do not own property). In contrast to the positive view of the market associated with classical liberalism, which tends to view workers as free and equal in a capitalist society, Marx argued that the proletariat are, in reality, exploited by the bourgeoisie because they are not paid the full value of their labour.36 This leads to the impoverishment of the working class. Over time, wealth will become increasingly concentrated and the proletariat will increase in size. This ultimately makes it possible for the proletariat to take control of the state and overthrow capitalism, abolishing private property and exploitative wage labour.37

Socialists have also disagreed over how the transition to socialism is likely to occur. Revolutionary socialists believed that a revolutionary takeover of the state was necessary to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Other socialists believed that reform could occur through democratic means if democratic socialist or social-democratic political parties could contest elections, win government and then use the power of the state to institute socialism. Although the term ‘social democracy’ was originally used to refer to political parties advocating the democratic route to socialism, over time it has come to be associated with a much less radical approach. Instead of winning government to overturn capitalism and bring about full-blown socialism, social democracy now generally means a capitalist economy with a strong welfare state in place that provides a generous level of benefits and services to citizens (such as unemployment benefits and universal health care), thereby ensuring a high level of social protection for workers (and others), a higher degree of equality of opportunity and a lower level of inequality in income and wealth. In other words, ‘it stands for a balance between the market and the state, a balance between the individual and the community’.38

Both socialism and social democracy have been longstanding influences in Australian politics. In the late 19th century, key socialist works by Marx and Engels and by ‘utopian’ socialists such Edward Bellamy, William Morris and others were being read by both workers and the urban intelligentsia.39 There were also reading groups to discuss Marx’s Capital, and socialist newspapers and journals. This climate contributed to the development of the ALP in the 1890s, although the relationship between the ALP and socialism is complicated and controversial. Key figures within the Labor Party certainly endorsed socialist ideas and used the term, while making clear that it should be achieved through electoral victory and gradual reform rather than revolution. However, the kind of socialism that most figures within the Labor Party endorsed fell short of the Marxist ideal. This is reflected in the qualified nature of the Socialist Objective the Labor Party adopted as part of its platform in 1921, which committed the party to ‘the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange’, but not if this property was ‘utilised by its owner in a socially useful manner’.40 Labor’s commit­ment to socialism was perhaps best seen in its support for government ownership, at least until the 1970s and 1980s, but this fell well short of major government control of all key industries. Often Labor’s policies in office seemed to be closer to the goals of social democracy in its more moderate form, which focused on building the welfare state to provide greater security for citizens and to reduce levels of inequality.

Nationalism and exclusion

Australian politics has also been influenced by a number of other ideas that cut across and interact with many of the ideologies discussed above. Foremost among these is nationalism. A nation is an ‘imagined community’ into which one is born,41 and often those who belong to such a community are believed to share certain characteristics. Nationalism is the idea that ‘people who share a common birth – who belong to the same nation – should also share citizenship in the same political unit, or state’.42 The development of Australian nationalism is generally traced to the second half of the 19th century. It was associated with a growing sense that there was a distinctive Australian identity characterised by egalitarianism, mateship and distrust of authority.43 This sense of nationalism was linked to the growing desire for greater independence from Britain and to the ‘progressive’ policy measures associated with the Australian Settlement, which were supported by social liberals and the labour movement, particularly labour market regulation.

However, the egalitarianism and mateship associated with Australian nationalism for the most part applied to white men. Australian national identity embodied ‘a specific model of masculinity – the Lone Hand or Bushman’ – that excluded women.44 First Nations people were also excluded, being denied the formal rights and status associated with equal citizenship until well into the 20th century, and migration was restricted to ‘white’ races through the White Australia policy. The latter policy was a core part of the Australian Settlement, enjoying support across the mainstream ideological spectrum. Speaking on the Immigration Restriction Bill 1901 (Cth), which introduced the policy, Alfred Deakin famously stated that ‘[t]he unity of Australia is nothing if it does not imply a united race’.45 The 1905 federal Labor Platform called for ‘[t]he cultivation of an Australian sentiment based on the maintenance of racial purity’.46 Thus, although nationalism was linked to relatively progressive policies in some areas, it was also infused with both sexist and racist ideas.

It is important to emphasise that racism predated the emergence of Australian nationalism. In fact, it has been at the heart of Australian politics since 1788. Britain colonised Australia without the permission or authorisation of the First Nations people, who had occupied the land for tens of thousands of years and whose own ways of life and systems of government were violently displaced. One of the ideas underpinning this colonisation and violence was racial hierarchy – the idea that some races are inherently superior to others.47 Indigenous peoples were treated and depicted in dehumanising ways by the colonists, and the idea that they were the ‘lowest race in the scale of humanity’ appears to have been very influential.48 In the second half of the 19th century, Social Darwinism emerged as the dominant way of thinking about race, linking racial hierarchy to the idea that there was a constant conflict between races and that ‘the fittest and the best’ would ultimately survive, while the others would die out.49 The legacy of these ideas was policies of violence and oppression towards First Nations people, and assimilation, which assumed that First Nations cultures would eventually die out. These ideas also shaped the development of Australian nationalism. As Marilyn Lake has put it, ‘The project of progressive reform was imbued with settler colonialism’s “regime of race”, which informed the ascendant politics of “whiteness”’.50

The dominance of sexism and racism in Australian political thought was challenged by women, First Nations people and people of colour. Key thinkers challenged their exclusion from accounts of Australian national identity and called on ‘progressive’ thinkers to apply their ideas more consistently. For example, suffragists such as Rose Scott appealed to Australian patriotism to argue that the right to vote should be extended to women,51 while later feminist activists drew on the ‘enabling state of social liberalism’ in their fight for gender equality.52 First Nations thinkers have also drawn on social liberal ideas, calling for equality and freedom to be extended to all people. An early example of this was the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association, which formed in 1924 to fight for equal citizenship for First Nations people.53 These ideas played a role in helping achieve equal citizenship (at least in a formal sense) for women and First Nations people and an end to a racially discriminatory immigration policy. However, there are also significant and ongoing disagreements among these groups over political ideas. In particular, many thinkers have argued that there is a need to move beyond a liberal framework to achieve gender equality for women54 and justice for First Nations people.55 It is also clear that, although mainstream politicians now (generally) profess to support gender equality and racial equality, this is not always reflected in their policies or rhetoric, as illustrated by Australia’s treatment of (primarily non-white) refugees who arrive by boat, the demonisation of Muslims and scare campaigns against African migrants. Combined with the persistence of violence against women, First Nations people and people of colour, this highlights that sexism and racism remain major problems in Australia.


This chapter has introduced some of the major ideologies that have shaped – and continue to shape – Australian politics. It has outlined the Western ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, socialism, social democracy and labourism, explaining their key ideas and discussing the ways they have influenced Australian politics. It has also highlighted some of the common ideas that cut across many of these ideologies, particularly relating to nationalism, race, gender and human dominance over the rest of the eco-system. Although much more could be said on each of the positions discussed here, this brief overview challenges the view that Australian politics is bereft of ideas and illustrates – for better and worse – the diversity of Australian political thought.


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About the author

Dr Nicholas Barry is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University. His research and teaching interests are in political theory, political institutions and Australian politics. He is currently working on a number of projects relating to contemporary theories of egalitarian justice, the dynamics of constitutional conventions and institutional change in Australia.

1 See, for example, Bryce 1921, 244; Collins 1985; Hancock 1930.

2 See, for example, Clark 1980 [1956]; Edwards 2013; Hirst 2001; Rowse 1978; Sawer 2003; Walter 2010.

3 Heywood 2004, 22–3.

4 Heywood 2004, 22.

5 Ball and Dagger 2004, 88–9. See also Edwards 2013, 34–5.

6 Ryan 2012b, 619–34.

7 Ball and Dagger 2004, 98.

8 For example, Scruton 2001.

9 Ball and Dagger 2004, 107–10.

10 Howard, cited in Irving 2004, 95.

11 Melleuish 2015.

12 Safi 2015.

13 Moore, cited in Errington and Miragliotta 2011, 121.

14 Abbott, cited in Karp 2017.

15 Howard, cited in Johnson 2007, 199.

16 For example, Rowse 1978.

17 Heywood 2004, 29.

18 Ryan 2012a, 28–30.

19 Ryan 2012a, 28–9.

20 Ryan 2012b, 488–91.

21 Heywood 2004, 29–30; Ryan 2012a, 23–6; Sawer 2003, 9–30.

22 Ryan 2012a, 24.

23 Heywood 2004, 29–30; Ryan 2012a, 25–6; Sawer 2003, 9–30.

24 Berlin 1969.

25 Walter 2010, 24, 97–9.

26 Reid, cited in Walter 2010, 98.

27 Edwards 2013, 68–9.

28 Deakin, cited in Walter 2010, 100.

29 Kelly 1992. Although the idea of ‘the Australian Settlement’ has been highly influential in both academic and popular discussions of Australian politics and public policy, the existence of such a settlement, and Kelly’s presentation of its content, has also been challenged. See, for example, Stokes 2004.

30 Cook 1999, 180.

31 Bell 1993; Pusey 1991.

32 Painter 1996.

33 Brett 2003.

34 Cohen 2009.

35 Cohen 2009, 34–5.

36 Ryan 2012b, 786–8.

37 Cohen 2000.

38 Heywood 2004, 308.

39 Walter 2010, 70-76.

40 Cited in Bramble and Kuhn 2011, 43. See also Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno 2011, 68–9.

41 Anderson 1983.

42 Ball and Dagger 2004, 14.

43 Brett 2003, 203; Ward 1958.

44 Lake 1997, 42.

45 Deakin, cited in Brett 2017, 265.

46 Dyrenfurth and Bongiorno 2011, 43.

47 Reynolds 1987, 110–1.

48 Byrne, cited in Reynolds 1987, 110–1, quotation at 110.

49 Reynolds 1987, 116, 119.

50 Lake 2019, 5 (references suppressed).

51 Lake 1997, 41.

52 Sawer 2003, 165.

53 Lake 2019, 238–41.

54 Lake 2019, 238–41.

55 For example, Moreton-Robinson 2015.