THIS year is the 80th anniversary of John ‘Black Jack’ McEwen’s election to Parliament. John McEwen is generally no longer thought of so much as a leader of a political party but as a prophet of protectionism.
His legacy is used and abused, depending which side of this debate you are on. As Marc Antony once said, at least in dramatic form, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
McEwen was less fervent ideologue and more pragmatic politician.
Long forgotten now is McEwen’s opposition to protectionism in his first speech to Parliament. McEwen said that our export industries “have to regain the overseas markets which they have lost largely as a result of the national policy of protection. I admit that the people of Australia have always supported a protective policy, and that, while we are entitled to disagree with that policy to a certain extent, we must submit to a decision reached by an over- whelming majority of the people”.
This is the catalyst that is now long forgotten. The Country Party only adopted ‘protection all round’ because of the Labor Party’s and the Liberal Party’s (including their predecessors) implacable support for protective policies.
The Country/Nationals party is the only party left in Parliament that was formed on the basis of support for freer trade. In 1920, the then minister for trade and customs, Walter Massey-Greene, proposed substantial increases in tariffs.
In the first year of the Federal Country Party, they opposed these changes and, in 1934, the Country Party required that tariffs be removed on 465 items of machinery as a condition of forming a Coalition government. But, overall, the Country Party lost more free trade battles than it won and so decided, if you can’t beat them, join them.
It is crucial to remember that these policies did not emerge because other countries embarked on protection: they came about because other industries in Australia were protected. If other nations want to throw rocks in their harbours, that is no reason for us to follow.
Some who would like to see a return to McEwen-type protection policies forget that this domestic catalyst no longer exists. Domestic tariffs are now basically gone, quotas are no more and even labour markets have been substantially liberalised.
Any moves back to a protectionist environment are more likely to hurt Australian agriculture. All forms of protection make exports more expensive and many Australian rural industries rely heavily on exports.
That is why the Coalition’s recent agriculture green paper follows an approach that seeks to support these industries, not replace them.
The green paper calls for greater investment in dams, the opening up of new markets, protection of Australia’s high level of biosecurity and strengthening of our competition laws so that Australian farmers have a more equal bargaining position.
This approach is consistent with McEwen’s support for what he called the ‘wealth-producing industries’, the agricultural, mining and manufacturing industries.
Others argue that McEwen achieved his results by simply blackmailing his Coalition partners. This is not true.
McEwen was always a staunch Coalitionist. He was kicked out of the Victorian Country party for a short time because he joined a Federal coalition government.
McEwen once referred to the Liberal Party as the Country Party’s “political blood brothers” and went on to say: “There seems to be a view in some quarters that all we have to do is sit on the cross benches and tell the government what to do. That is ludicrous. It doesn’t work that way."
The propensity to pull and punch McEwen’s legacy into the shape best suiting other interests is why the Page Research Centre has relaunched his autobiography with a new edition. The original edition had just 200 copies printed, perhaps contributing to the distortion of his legacy.
Eighty years since McEwen’s election to Parliament, it is time for him to have his say in his own words.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Queensland Country Life on 6 November 2014.