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Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Farmer Who Freed Australia’s Economy

John Hyde never let political party affiliation get in the way of doing the right thing.

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like. — Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).

Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause — that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions, and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

The subject of the tenth essay in this Heroes for Liberty from Around the Globe series is a man I was fortunate to meet in person in Perth, Australia, in March 2017. His name is John Hyde. His story, related here by Mannkal Economic Foundation executive director Andrew Pickford, reminds me of the famous statement that adorned the Oval Office desk of President Ronald Reagan: “There’s no limit to how far a man can go if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”

— Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education

If you aspire to leadership in the Australian Parliament and meet John Hyde to get an insider’s advice, you will likely trigger a discussion about the “greasy pole.” You can climb that greasy pole and move upwards, he’ll advise you, or you can take a principled stand, forcefully argue for free markets and classical liberal positions, and give up on political advancement. It’s one or the other.

The main reason John deserves this label is his central role in helping dismantle the “Australian Settlement.” John was very much in the latter camp — principled, eloquent, and focused on what was right, not cutting corners for power or personal gain. Despite considerable skill, intellect, and capability, as Federal member for Moore for nine years, he was never to hold an official position while his party was in power. Yet he achieved much more than any senior minister and most Prime Ministers. John moved the direction of the country and its economy for the better.

True leaders take risks and promote ideas and positions, not simply the acquisition and maintenance of power. They also have a longer perspective than most. They see beyond media and election cycles, with little concern about how the crowd feels at the moment. That’s John.

In Australia, “hero” is a term often overused. It has become common in sports and across many other fields. For John Hyde, who turned 82 on February 2 (2018), it is an entirely suitable description even if he would strongly resist its application to himself, which he always does. The main reason John deserves this label is his central role in helping dismantle the “Australian Settlement.”

For those who were ambitious and entrepreneurial, the system was an intellectual and economic straitjacket. The Australian Settlement

When the six British colonies federated in 1901 to become Australia, the new nation adopted a set of policies which would define it for most of the 20th Century. The political elite at the time agreed on what has become known as the “Foundation” or the “Australian Settlement.”

In his 1992 book, The End of Certainty: Power, Politics and Business in Australia, the prominent Australian political journalist Paul Kelly identified five key pillars of the Australian Settlement. They included “White Australia” (restrictive immigration policies); “Industry Protection,” “Wage Arbitration,” “State Paternalism,” and “Imperial Benevolence” — all of which were entrenched through laws, institutional structures, and political conventions. A key aspect of this Settlement (especially the economic policies) was that for most of the 20th Century, they were accepted by all mainstream political parties. Few people thought they could ever be undone.

As early as 1930, in a book titled Australia, historian Keith Hancock described the prevailing attitude of these arrangements and how deeply they permeated the culture:

“Protection in Australia has been more than a policy: it has been a faith and dogma. Its critics, during the second decade of the twentieth century, dwindled into a despised and detested sect suspected of nursing an anti-national heresy.”

The policies that formed the Australian Settlement resulted in a closed and inward-looking economy. The nanny state, especially for protected industries, became integrated into the psyche of the business elite and the political class, who enjoyed a cozy and mutually beneficial arrangement at the expense of everybody else.

Within these tariff walls and restrictive regulations, it was possible for some to work within the system and live a relatively comfortable life. For those who were ambitious and entrepreneurial, or simply wanted to succeed or fail based on their own abilities, the system was an intellectual and economic straitjacket.

The Lonely Fight

Enter John Hyde, a man who objected to the system and wanted to do something about it.

Born on February 2, 1936, John experienced the stifling impact of the Australian Settlement early on in his working life. Growing up in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia, he became a successful wheat and sheep farmer.

John was elected to the federal seat of Moore in 1974 as a member of the center-right Liberal Party. His first involvement in politics came when he became a councilor of the Shire of Dalwallinu, the deputy-President. John lost his right arm in a farming accident and survived due to the actions of his wife, Helen. Throughout his time in politics, and later in think tanks, during the many ups and downs of policy battles, Helen worked side-by-side with John.

After time in local government, John was elected to the federal seat of Moore in 1974 as a member of the center-right Liberal Party. At that time, the Liberal Party still followed the parameters of the Australian Settlement. The preference by the overwhelming majority of elected Liberal members for the status-quo of tariffs, industry protection, and cartel-like arrangements would be the cause of numerous intra-party clashes which John was inevitably involved in.

When he arrived in Canberra (our capital) and began learning the ropes of being a politician, John was not the first Liberal Party member in Parliament who championed free markets and deregulation. The only other person in that very lonely camp was Bert Kelly, another farmer, who was the federal member for the South Australian rural seat of Wakefield 1958–1977. As an agricultural producer, Bert had experienced the costly government restrictions that made machinery and other imports more expensive.

John would only overlap in Canberra with Bert for three years. However, the influence of Bert was significant. When John veered away from principled, free-market positions, Bert would quietly chide him for “saying things he did not really believe.” Being plainspoken farmers and unlike most modern politicians, schooled in practical businesses, both were able to easily convey to the general public their views and positions on needed economic reforms. Bert and John wrote 898 and 745 articles, respectively, for various state and national papers over their careers. In the era before the internet, this had a significant impact on the public understanding of economic reform and the parameters of what would occur during the pivotal 1980s.

The Dries

John Hyde’s success was due to his focus on ideas rather than political affiliation. In Parliament, John formed and led a small backbench group that included Peter Shack, Ross McLean, Jim Carlton, Murray Sainsbury, Lloyd Lange, David Hamer, and Don Hayward. While few in number, they carried on the efforts of Bert Kelly, who retired from politics in 1977.  They were known as “the Dries.” This informal collection of like-minded individuals frequently reached out to sympathetic academics and commentators, as well as others who would help amplify their message. John was the driving force of this group, even if he was not always its most publicly-visible member.

Within Parliament and through the media, the Dries promoted free-market policies, sound public finances, and smaller government. They vigorously opposed many of the socialist economic policies of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s center-left Australian Labour Party. Those socialist policies were soundly rejected with the Whitlam government’s loss in the 1975 elections. But under the succeeding Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, the Dries were routinely disappointed with timid and paltry economic reform. So they focused their attention on shifting the views of fellow party members.

In his speeches, articles, and general advocacy of economic reform, John worked hard to end the two-airline duopoly as well as the numerous subsidies to aircraft, shipping, and car industries. The sheer perseverance of these efforts helped change what policy analysts now refer to as the “Overton Window.”

Pursuing a moral position at odds with tribal loyalties is a rare phenomenon amongst elected officials. The “moderate” Fraser government lost the next election, but such was the change in general attitudes that in 1983, many of the very substantive economic reforms John and the Dries were advocating occurred under a center-left government. Floating the Australian dollar (replacing the fixed-rate regime), deregulating the economy, privatizing assets, and implementing other aspects of the “Dry” agenda occurred in large part due to the quiet work of John Hyde and his colleagues. Their persuasiveness and perseverance changed the country, and it didn’t matter to them which party was the one to get the job done.

John Hyde’s success was due to his focus on ideas rather than political affiliation. For example, when the opposition Labour Party under Whitlam cut tariffs 25 percent across the board, he supported the move though it was unpopular with a large section of his own party. Good policy and sound economics were always more important to him than petty partisan politics, and he made many friends on both sides of parliament.

Pursuing a moral position at odds with tribal loyalties is a rare phenomenon amongst elected officials. It normally places one on the outs with colleagues and limits one’s advancement in the power structure. But that’s what John did as a matter of course. It’s his nature.


After his service in Parliament, John created the Australian Institute for Public Policy in Perth, Western Australia, to continue promoting the benefits of freer markets and less government involvement in the economy. It later merged with the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs in 1991. Always respectful, John’s good nature meant that while many would disagree with his views, few could ever fault him for being nasty or condescending.

In discussing pivotal moments in his career, John is extraordinarily humble. Instead of following the well-worn path of a political memoir, John wrote a guidebook for the next generation of economic reformers. Published in 2002, Dry: In Defence of Economic Freedom emphasized the key battles during the Fraser years which were pivotal in dismantling the Australian Settlement. John understood that his experience may help someone in the future because the battle of ideas is as much an art as it is a science.

In 2002, John joined the board of the organization where I now serve as Executive Director, Mannkal Economic Education Foundation. We are a Perth-based think tank that develops future leaders who will defend and advance freedom and free markets. Founded by Australian businessman Ron Manners, Mannkal enjoys a close partnership with the Foundation for Economic Education, sending students to FEE events and interns to work at FEE’s Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters. FEE president Lawrence Reed dedicated his 2016 book, Real Heroes to Ron and his wife Jenny as well as the late Wisconsin businessman Edwin Gallun and his wife Elfie.

In discussing pivotal moments in his career, John is extraordinarily humble. He downplays his role. But because of what he did to change Australia, I and many others think of John Hyde as a hero, even though he will never call himself that.

We at Mannkal will launch a new project this year to archive and catalog John’s papers. Capturing the insights of this real hero, who never held an executive position in government, will hopefully inspire the next reformer who decides to avoid the greasy pole.

  • Andrew Pickford is the Executive Director of Mannkal Economic Education Foundation. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, including Project WA: A Growth and Productivity Agenda for the Next Government, which he co-wrote with John Hyde.