Thus begins a journey of a thousand miles—with a single step.
You may recall back here I introduced you to David Leyonhjelm, newly-elected Australian Federal Senator from New South Wales, representing the Liberal Democratic Party, Australia’s primary Libertarian political party. Having taken his seat on 1 July, yesterday he gave his maiden speech to the Senate. Dare we hope it presages a revolution, in Australia at least?
Here, without further commentary from me, is the text of that speech, reproduced in full. You can access the original transcript in the Australian Hansard. Readers of LibertyGibbert overseas, read it and envy us…
The PRESIDENT (16:59): Order! Before I call Senator Leyonhjelm, I remind honourable senators that this is his first speech and, therefore, I ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.
Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (16:59): Thank you, Mr President. Fellow senators and Australians, last September the people of Australia chose 40 men and women to represent them here, together with the 36 elected three years earlier—just 571 Australians have been granted this high honour. We come from diverse backgrounds and occupations. Beyond this place, each of us has been tempered by the challenges of life.
We have all tasted the bitterness of failure and exhilaration of success. Whatever our political alignments, that experience will have imparted in us a collective accumulation of knowledge, judgement, wisdom and instinct that should serve our country well. Indeed, we are the most representative swill ever assembled.
I also believe we are about to begin one of the most exciting periods in the life of the Senate. In the service of this mission, at the outset I declare that I am proudly what some call a ‘libertarian’, although I prefer the term ‘classical liberal’. My undeviating political philosophy is grounded in the belief that, as expressed so clearly by John Stuart Mill:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully ever exercised over any member of a civilised society against his will is to prevent harm to others.
I pledge to work tirelessly to convince my fellow Australians and their political representatives that our governments should forego their overgoverning, overtaxing and overriding ways. Governments should instead seek to constrain themselves to what John Locke advised so wisely more than 300 years ago—the protection of life, liberty and private property.
When I was elected nine months ago, and my party’s policies became better known, there was a wave of rejoicing in certain circles. When I said I would never vote for an increase in taxes or a reduction in liberty, there were people who said there was finally going to be someone in parliament worth voting for. That was quite a compliment. What they, and I, believe in is limited government. We differ from left-wing people who want the
government to control the economy but not our social lives, and from right-wing people who want the government to control our social lives but not the economy. Classical liberals support liberty across the board.
I have long thought that leaving people alone is the most reasonable position to take. I always suspected that I did not know enough to allow me to tell other people how to live their lives. But that did not arise in the background, so a bit of explanation is necessary. I never liked being told what to do, and I tend to assume others feel the same. The simple rule do not do unto others what you would rather them not do to you has always driven
my thinking. At least since I reached adulthood I have also accepted responsibility for myself and expected others to do the same. Even when my choices have been poor, as they inevitably were at times, I do not recall being tempted to blame others or to consider myself a victim.
During my early years, the issues that raised my blood pressure were those of individual freedom. But for the election of the Whitlam government, I would have either served two years in jail or in the Army. I refused to register for national service. Being forced to serve in the Army, with the potential to be sent to Vietnam, was a powerful education in excessive government power.
The abortion issue was also controversial at the time. There were doctors and women being prosecuted over what were obviously difficult private choices. Backyard abortions were common. I knew some women affected and could never see how the jackboot of government improved things. I also noticed that those opposed to abortion or in favour of conscription were not interested in trying to debate their opponents; instead they sought to seize the levers of government and impose their views on everyone else.
As my family never had much money, I used to think spreading other people’s money around was a good way to make life fairer. As the saying goes, ‘If you’re not a socialist at 20 you have no heart, but if you’re still a socialist at 40 you have no brains.’ By that standard I hope I have preserved a bit of both. Not long after I started full-time work as a veterinarian, I recall looking at my annual tax return and being horrified at the amount of
money I had handed over to the government. When I looked for signs of value for that money, I found little to reassure me. To this day I am still looking.
Our liberty is eroded when our money is taken as taxes and used on something we could have done for ourselves at lower cost. It is eroded when our taxes are used to pay for things that others will provide, whether on a charitable basis or for profit. That includes TV and radio stations, electricity services, railways, bus services, and of course, schools and hospitals. It is eroded when our money is taken and then returned to us as welfare, with the only real beneficiaries being the public servants who administer its collection and distribution. It is eroded when our money is used on things that are a complete waste like pink batts, unwanted school halls and accommodation subsidies for wealthy foreign students. It is eroded when the money we have earned is taken and given to those of
working age who simply choose never to work. Reducing taxes, any kind of taxes, will always have my support. And I will always oppose measures that restrict free markets and hobble entrepreneurship.
But the cause of liberty is challenged in other ways as well. Liberty is eroded when our cherished right to vote is turned into an obligation and becomes a crime when we do not do it. It is eroded when we are unable to marry the person of our choice, whatever their gender. It is eroded when, if we choose to end our life, we must do it before we become feeble and need help, because otherwise anyone who helps us commits a crime. It is eroded when we cannot speak or write freely out of fear someone will choose to take offence. Free speech is fundamental to liberty, and it is not the government’s role to save people from their feelings. Liberty is eroded when we are prohibited from doing something that causes harm to nobody else, irrespective of whether we personally approve or would do it ourselves. I do not use marijuana and do not recommend it except for medical reasons, but it is a matter of choice. I do not smoke and I drink very little, but it is unreasonable for smokers and drinkers to be punished for their alleged excesses via so-called sin taxes. Liberty includes the right to make bad choices.
Quite a few people say they support liberal values but claim there are valid exemptions. The most common one is security or safety, something that has become pervasive during the so-called war on terror. As William Pitt the Younger observed:
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
Perhaps some are scratching their heads right now. How can someone support marriage equality, assisted suicide and want to legalise pot but also want to cut taxes a lot? If you are scratching your heads, it is because you have forgotten that classical liberal principles were at the core of the Enlightenment, the period that gifted us humanity’s greatest achievements in science, medicine and commerce and also brought about the abolition of
Classical liberals do not accept that there are any exemptions from the light of liberty, but we are not anarchists. We accept there is a proper role for government—just that it is considerably less than the role currently performed. Government can be a wonderful servant but a terrible master—something leading Enlightenment figures, like John Locke, realised. John Locke’s view of the role of the state was starkly different from that of
another important philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes thought the natural state of man was perpetual war, with life nasty, brutish and short. In his view, the only way to achieve civilisation was to relinquish all liberties to the sovereign who then allowed us certain rights as he chose. Hobbes is also known for arguing the sovereign should rule with due regard for the desires of the people. There is no doubting though where he thought ultimate power resided or rights originated.
Locke was much more optimistic. Man is peaceful and industrious, he argued. But to establish a society in which private property can be protected it is necessary to relinquish certain liberties to the sovereign. However, this is a limited and conditional arrangement. Only sufficient powers as required for the preservation of life, liberty and property ought to be relinquished and ultimate power remain with the people. If the sovereign gets too
controlling, those powers can be reclaimed. Locke was heavily influenced the American Declaration of Independence. As many here will recognise, it says:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government …
When it says ‘all men are created equal’ it does not mean everyone is the same or that everyone should achieve the same outcome in life but that no individual or class enjoys moral or legal superiority over other individuals or classes. When it says ‘we are endowed with inalienable rights’ it means rights that cannot be taken from us. Good governments can help protect our rights by reflecting them in governance, but they do not get to dole them out piecemeal. Bad governments may seek to legislate away our rights, but only by usurping them.
The right to life is obviously the most fundamental right of all and no government should ever seek to deprive us of that. That includes not only arbitrary killing but also judicial killing. Likewise, it includes the right to protect your own life and that of others, for which there must be a practical means—not merely an emergency number to call. Self-defence, both in principle and in practice, is a right, not a privilege.
Liberty is not a cake with only so many slices to go around. It only makes sense when the freedom of one person does not encroach upon that of others, but instead reinforces it. Thus it is perfectly legitimate for governments to place limits on things done by a person that limit other people’s freedom. Those include such things as violence, threats, theft and fraud. It is not, however, legitimate for government to involve itself in things that an individual voluntarily does to himself or herself, or that people choose to do to each other by mutual consent, when nobody else is harmed. It is quite irrelevant whether we approve of those things or would choose to do them ourselves. Tolerance is central to the concept of liberty. It may matter to our parents, friends or loved ones, but it should not matter to the government. Those things belong in the private realm.
This distinction between the public and private realms can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks and is well known in Roman or civil law. Some things fall within the legitimate scope of government, some do not. The Declaration of Independence also says ‘governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers’. That means: when governments act to secure rights they are acting justly and when they move to violate those rights they are acting unjustly. They derive that legitimacy from the consent of the governed in places like this. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.
Australia does not have the equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, a bill of rights or even a history of resistance against authoritarian government. The Eureka Stockade, which was prompted by excessive taxation and oppressive enforcement, is about all we have. That makes it especially important that those in places like this understand the only thing standing between an authoritarian state and the protection of life, liberty and private
property is a vote in parliament. We must never forget that we are the people’s servants. This means we must be willing to take a light touch and to de-legislate, to repeal. As much as possible, people need to be able to choose for themselves and be free to choose, for good or for ill.
For that reason, some may think of these as being peculiarly American words, but the ideas have their origins in the Scottish Enlightenment. Although it sometimes seems Scotland has produced nothing but incomprehensible socialists, it also gave rise to the modern world’s most liberty-affirming thinkers. Among them was David Hume, who argued that the presence or absence of liberty was the standard by which one ought to assess the past. And on the subject of property, he said:
No one can doubt, that the convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society, and that after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.
I do not think the Americans disagreed with the Scots on the importance of private property when they substituted the pursuit of happiness, but, if they did, I would side with the Scots!
Notwithstanding my earlier comments, I am not a student of philosophy. While Locke, Adam Smith and Mill have their place in my thinking, along with Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, I consider the Enlightenment to be part of Australia’s political and intellectual heritage: it does not belong to the Scots, the Americans, or the French.
While I sit in the federal parliament, I do not approve of the extent of its power. Liberty is more secure when power is shared with state governments, independently funded and competing with each other to be more attractive to Australians as places to live and do business, and, of course, each doing their bit to protect life, liberty, and property.
On the subject of private property, there is much today with which Locke would find fault. Rather than protecting private property, governments federal and state have been retreating from this core duty. The property rights of rural landowners have been undermined by bans on clearing native vegetation, imposed at the behest of the Commonwealth in order to meet the terms of a treaty Australia had yet to ratify. Over and over, the value of property is indirectly eroded through government decisions, and typically without compensation. In enacting plain-packaging laws on cigarettes, for example, the previous government destroyed valuable intellectual property. No matter what you think of smoking, it does not justify destruction of property.
We trade years of our lives to pay for the things that we own, and, when governments take them from us or try to tell us what to do with them, we lose part of ourselves. And yet, when it comes to property that we own in common, like national parks and fishing grounds, we are often locked out on the claim that nature is far too important to let scruffy humans enjoy it. Whilst in this place, I will do all I can to oppose this trend. Environmental fanatics are not omniscient geniuses: they do not know enough to tell other people how to live their lives any more than I do. Indeed, they are the same people who engage in anti-GMO pseudoscience—pseudoscience that is not just nonsense but murderous nonsense.
The Liberal Democrats are strong advocates of capitalism. But, before capitalism, we are advocates of freedom. When people are free and entrepreneurial, free-market capitalism and prosperity are what follow. However, I am pragmatic enough to recognise that two steps forwards require one step backwards. I am only one vote, and one voice.
I am also aware that some senators in this place share my views but are constrained from speaking openly. Whatever party you are in, if you believe in making the pie bigger rather than arguing about how it is cut up, we have plenty in common. To all of you, I would say this: when any specific issue arises—be it legislation or advocacy—that advances the cause of liberty, if I can say or do something to help, you only need to ask. In my party, the only discipline I am likely to suffer will be due to not pursuing liberty enough!
I have pursued liberty through membership of the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the shooters party, so I can say with confidence the Liberal Democrats do not seek power to impose our views on the nation. All our policies are about freedom—the absence of control by others. We seek to have representatives elected in order to restrict the power of the state over individuals, to encourage the government to do less, not more.
I have one matter to address before I close. It is traditional in first speeches to thank those who contributed to one’s being here. I acknowledge that it would not have happened without the help of a number of people. First and foremost is my friend and colleague Peter Whelan. Peter and I have been a tag team ever since 2005, when I introduced him to the Liberal Democratic Party. If Peter had not decided to join, I might never have got involved myself. Peter is perpetually optimistic and willing to help, and has chipped in with even more money than me. One of my enduring regrets is, in failing to submit our preferences in Victoria on time, I destroyed any chance of him also being elected to the Senate.
There are others in the party who deserve thanks. I am reluctant to name them as I am sure to miss out on some, but long-term supporter David McAlary warrants a mention. I also want to thank those libertarians who established the party in 2001 and contributed so much to its principles and direction. I also thank my employee Michelle, who has helped in many ways. I thank my friends and colleagues in business, who never let me take
myself too seriously. Finally, I would like to thank my wife of 30 years, Amanda. She has long humoured and tolerated my political activities, never sure if any of it mattered but now immensely proud that it does. I view my election as an opportunity to help Australia rediscover its reliance on individualism, to reignite the flame of entrepreneurship, and to return government to its essential functions. There is much to be done.