Review Essay: David Kemp. A Liberal State. How Australians Chose Liberalism over Socialism 1926-1966

May 16, 2021

David Kemp’s multi-volume studies of settler-colonial Australian Liberalism since 1788 have been carried out with support from the Menzies Research Centre and funding from the Cormack Foundation, which is registered as an ‘associated entity’ of the Liberal Party with the Australian Electoral Commission. But does the latest volume forget  to factor in Australia’s regional challenges in the mid twentieth century?

Kemp himself was born to the blue rosette of Liberal allegiance, being the son of Charles Kemp who is described in his mini-biography inthe current volume as ‘initial proposer and first Director’ of the Institute of Public Affairs (Victoria) 1949-76. Along with his brother Senator Rod Kemp, David Kemp was a member of Parliament from 1990. He served as federal Minister for Education, Employment, Youth Affairs and Environment and in several executive roles.

The present volume, covering the period 1926-1966, is probably a quarter of a million words. It includes in its sources the IPA(Victoria) which was the subject of Kemp’s B.A Honours thesis for the period 1942-47 at the University of Melbourne in 1963. Kemp did his PhD on Australian voting patterns at Yale, and rose rapidly to Professor of Politics at Monash on his return before going into advisory roles in Canberra that led to him being selected for the safe seat of Goldstein in Victoria.

So as a consummate Australian Liberal writing under Liberal Party auspices we can see the value of his encyclopaedic approach to the history of the pre-war and post-war decades of Australian politics. And he covers a great deal, providing an interesting take on what he considers to be the intellectual underpinnings of Australian Liberalism.

He points inter alia to Keynes, Schumpeter, Friedman, Hayek, Dewey, Popper, Oakeshott – and Ayn Rand. The trend of his compendium of information is spelled out clearly in the subtitle of the present volume ‘A Liberal State – How Australians chose Liberalism over Socialism 1926-1966.’

After the challenges of the 1930s, Australians had to be mobilised to fight first in Europe despite their resentment over the priorities of the Motherland in the First World War. Then against Japan, which rapidly moved  to home defence after Pearl Harbour in December 1941  and the fall of Singapore two months later. It hadn’t been Robert Menzies’ finest hour when he walked out of the coalition wartime Cabinet in August 1941.

Kemp has some difficulty in presenting this, noting that ‘If Menzies had chosen to stay, he could have done so. He chose not to.’ He goes so far as to write of Menzies ‘It is not hard to see his resignation as a defiant act of self-defence.’

So Curtin, whose health was frail, was left to persuade and organise the unions and workers into the war effort for the duration. Menzies meanwhile travelled to Britain and the USA, learning from both Churchill and Roosevelt. In 1944 he founded the Liberal Party.

It took five years to regain office as the Chifley Labor government dealt with the reconstruction of the postwar economy.

Kemp’s treatment of Menzies’ second Prime Ministership manages to mention Woomera in half a sentence but not at all the atomic testing and nuclear trials that Menzies permitted throughout the sixteen years from 1949 to 1966.

Apart from blanking the role Australia played in helping the British become the world’s third atomic power in October 1952, and then the third thermonuclear power by permitting trials of H bomb components and systems, there is much to be learned about how Ming managed business he wanted to get done.

In September 1950 Prime Minister Menzies agreed to UK requests to allow a reconnaissance of the Monte Bello Islands as the probable site for atomic bomb tests. He did not do this entirely alone as has sometimes been suggested.

According to a telegram [in the Australian Archives, A6455, RC559, Part 2, ID 1905214 available online] from the UK High Commissioner in Canberra to London

‘On reading Mr. Attlee’s message Mr. Menzies at once said that any special facilities which Australia might possess for this or similar purposes would of course be made available.’

He ‘called Acting Minister for Defence (Mr McBride) into consultation and said that at this stage no-one else would be informed except Shedden [Secretary of the Department of Defence].’ Menzies thought that ‘later if proposal eventuated he thought it would be desirable to take leader of Opposition into confidence.’

On March 5, 1951 MP Mr Ormsby-Gore askediv the UK Minister of Supply ‘whether this country now possesses the technical knowledge required for the manufacture of atomic bombs’. The reply was ‘Yes’.

In late March Prime Minister Menzies in a Top Secret and Personal message from Prime Minister Attlee was informed that

‘My colleagues and I have decided that to wait any longer for the Americans would mean subjecting our plans to an intolerable delay’ and asked permission ‘to go ahead now with preparations for a test in the Monte Bello islands in October 1952, which is the earliest date by which a prototype of our weapon will be ready.’

There having been a double dissolution of Parliament, the Australian federal election was held on April 28, 1951 and Menzies told Attlee that he would need to wait until he was re-elected before he formally agreed in principle – which he did on May 10, 1951.

In other words, he kept his government’s willingness to host British atomic weapons development and testing from the electorate and the Opposition until he had been returned, with what Kemp notes was ‘a decline in support.’

He was still keeping it from his own colleagues on June 29, 1951 when the Minister for Supply Mr Beale was asked in Parliament if Australia ‘would provide an area for the testing of atomic weapons, including atom bombs?’ Beale replied that the report  ‘was completely false. No arrangement has been made for Australia to use the guided weapons testing range or any other part of this country for the testing of atom bombs…The report was utterly without foundation.’

But less than three weeks later the American columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop predicted in the New York Herald-Tribune that a British atom bomb would be tested in Australia within a year. ‘For the British to test a bomb which cannot either be made or delivered in quantity amounts to a very costly psychological gesture’ to dispute that ‘their island has been transformed into a mere ‘airstrip No. 1′ for the Americans’ now that ‘the capacity to deliver bombs from the American atomic stockpile now squarely depends on overseas bases.’

Menzies’ hapless Minister  of Supply Beale was still denying the plans to test in Australia because, according to an internal telegram of the British, he had not been informed. Perhaps it was time, the British suggested, ‘that he was brought into the picture.’.


On December 27, 1951 Menzies was officially informed by the new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that the  British atomic bomb would be developed in Australia.


Kemp doesn’t go beyond domestic politics to look at the regional pressures on Australian governments. We need a new historiography of twentieth century Australia that manages to include not only the atomic weapons tests and thermonuclear trials that Menzies permitted but recognises that he pursued the acquisition of at least tactical nuclear missiles before Britain pulled out of the region.

Perhaps the Menzies Research Centre could sponsor a re-analysis of Menzies’ role in permitting the detonations of not only Britain’s atomic bombs but also the developmental trials of its thermonuclear H bomb that was detonated off Malden Island in May 1957. This needs to be done urgently before the relevant files have been withdrawn from the British National Archives. It would of course also involve opening the scores of as yet unopened files in the National Archives of Australia. But until this and other external pressures are examined, any history of Australian Liberalism and its times in government must be skewed and incomplete. It would be an appropriate way to mark the seventieth anniversary of British testing in Australia in 2022.

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