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POLICY • Vol. 29 No. 1 • Autumn 2013
The Modest Member:
The Life and Times of
By Hal G.P. Colebatch
Connor Court, Ballan, 2012
$29.95, 300 pages
Bert Kelly was the federal
member for Wakefield
from 1958 to 1977. Kelly spent most of
his political career as a government backbencher.
Yet in combination with his role as columnist and
author, Kelly had a more profound influence on
Australian public policy than many cabinet ministers.
From the moment he entered parliament, Kelly
waged a mostly lonely battle against Australia’s system
of tariff protection at a time when protectionism
was unchallenged as an article of faith in Australian
public life. By the time of his death in 1997, Australia’s
tariff barriers had been substantially lowered.
Kelly came to politics as a farmer. His father had
been a member of the Tariff Board, while one of
his predecessors in the seat of Wakefield, Charles
Hawker, had opposed tariff protection. Kelly
understood the burden that the protection of
Australian manufacturing imposed on rural
producers. He also understood that government
intervention to support farmers often did them more
long-run harm than good. More fundamentally,
tariff protection offended Kelly’s keen moral sense.
Bert Kelly had two weapons in his battle against
protectionism: knowledge of policy detail and mastery
of the written word. Kelly became an expert on the
processes and reports of the Tariff Board, a precursor
to today’s Productivity Commission. Through hard
and mostly thankless work, Kelly’s command over
the facts ensured that he could effectively challenge
government policy, not least the policies pursued by
his own side of politics.
Kelly’s other weapon was his ability as a writer to
inform and entertain. As a columnist in both the rural
and national press, Kelly savaged protectionism and
rent-seeking in folksy, satirical and accessible prose.
It would be difficult to underestimate the influence
of his writing. This reviewer still recalls as a teenager
in the 1980s reading Kelly’s ‘Modest Farmer’ column
in The Bulletin magazine.
The most valuable personal quality Kelly brought
to his anti-protectionist crusade was persistence.
It is hard to imagine how lonely and frustrating the
battle must have been in an intellectual and policy
climate so thoroughly dominated by protectionist
thinking. Kelly would never lose an opportunity to
speak at length to an empty House of Representatives
on Customs Tariff Amendment bills and other
Kelly had no formal training in economics,
but taught himself what he needed to know. He
probably had a better intuitive grasp of economic
relationships than many academic economists.
Kelly’s thinking was ahead of his time—and not only
on the question of tariffs. Partly as a result of his
travels in the developing world, Kelly saw the
connection between free trade and economic
development at a time when development policy was
firmly wedded to statist models of economic growth.
He saw that foreign aid was every bit as harmful to
foreign economies as handouts to domestic industry,
a view only now well established in the development
literature. He also understood the connection between
free trade and peaceful international relations.
However, it must be said that Kelly was not
a complete free trader. He argued for ‘low tariffs,’
not ‘no tariffs.’ He accepted in principle the ‘infant
industry’ argument for protection, although he was
scathing of it in policy practice. He recognised that
the more assistance an industry required, the less
likely it was to ever stand on its own feet. Kelly
was careful not to be pigeonholed as a free trade
ideologue or extremist. This pragmatism made him
an even more effective opponent of protectionism.
Kelly was also suspicious of the benefits of
immigration and city life. But judged against the
intellectual and policy climate of his time, Kelly was
a standout libertarian.
Kelly’s direct influence on policy is hard to delineate.
Hal Colebatch suggests that Kelly may have had
some influence on the 25% across-the-board tariff
cuts of the Whitlam government in July 1973. But
the motivation for this cut was a ham-fisted attempt
at controlling inflation rather than intellectual
recognition of the damaging effects of protectionism.
Kelly’s clever question time baiting of Whitlam
government Treasurer Jim Cairns—getting Cairns to
argue for printing money to lower unemployment—was
probably a factor in Cairns’ demise.
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