Libertarianism gets a loudspeaker in David Leyonhjelm

Libertarianism gets a loudspeaker in David Leyonhjelm

November 12, 2014

At 1pm every Thursday, David Leyonhjelm and his wife, Amanda, set off from their home in Sydney’s inner west on a five-hour drive west to their farm in the hilly, rocky terrain of Hargreaves, near Mudgee in NSW. The 465-hectare farm is an excuse for the libertarian Senator-elect for NSW to get out of Sydney, breathe fresh air and hunt pigs, rabbits and foxes.Amanda, who Leyonhjelm met through mutual friends three decades ago, sets the deadline for their departure. But time may have to bend a little when Leyonhjelm takes his Senate seat next July, and legislation bearing on big government and personal ­liberty and responsibility – touchstones for the Liberal Democratic Party he represents – is being debated.These debates will be chances for Leyonhjelm to sell the minor party’s ideas to the Australian public “so that at the next election we won’t be relying on being first on the ballot or name confusion or anything”.

Libertarianism, the idea that government should confine itself to a few basic functions such as defence, registering births and ­marriages, and keeping the peace, is not a prominent philosophy in Australia’s political landscape. A libertarian member of the Australian Parliament is an even rarer bird.

But now Leyonhjelm is one of eight senators from whom the Abbott government will have to extract six votes to pass bills opposed by Labor and the Greens after July 1.

The Abbott government and the country are on a journey of discovery. What will the Liberal Democrats’ principles on taxes, ­regulation, paid parental leave and gay ­marriage mean in practice? Leyonhjelm and the other members of the party’s national executive are on their own journey, working to apply their bedrock principles – low taxes, less regulation, and individual rights and responsibilities – to policies that come up or to questions from a curious media.

Leyonhjelm came to libertarianism by a circuitous route. He says he was a “squishy socialist” at Melbourne University, where he studied to become a veterinarian. He became suspicious of government when they introduced conscription during the Vietnam War. The prosecution of abortion rights campaigner Bertram Wainer and police mistreatment of young people, their parties and marijuana smoking also raised his hackles. He travelled overland from London to Johannesburg in the late 1970s, and observed that blacks in countries that oppressed them – but practised capitalism such as apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia – seemed materially better off than those in independent socialist countries. He worked for drug companies, becoming ­marketing manager at Merck’s MSD AgVet agricultural chemicals unit, and learned business made the money, and that governments could make “very silly” decisions, such as banning a 100-year-old sheep dip because it contained traces of arsenic. He joined the Liberal Party.

Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series made a big impression. When the Howard government banned semi-automatic rifles, he quit the Liberal Party and threw his lot in with the Shooters Party. He fell out with them – an episode that betrays a stubborn streak he laughingly concedes – and was removed as chairman in 2005. He took over a small libertarian party with friend Peter Whelan. They built it into the Liberal Democrat Party with more than 3000 members.

A market for individual freedom

Leyonhjelm is convinced there’s a larger constituency for the libertarian ideals that he and the Liberal Democrats stand for. He’s also well aware of the widely held view that he fell into one of the sweetest public offices in the land by gaming the voting system, ­having the good luck to draw first place on the ballot in NSW, and a party name that political naifs could easily confuse with the Liberal Party. But now that he’s a senator who the government will have to deal with on key priorities, he has the perfect platform to persuade more Australians that libertarianism – at least the Liberal Democrats’ version of it – has something to offer them.

“We have values and principles that we want Australians to become familiar with and in some cases agree on,” Leyonhjelm tells AFR Weekend. “I am chief salesman.”

The chief salesman is a person of moderate personal habits. He doesn’t smoke ­marijuana or cigarettes, drinks little and ­disapproves of “the gay lifestyle”. The difference between him and many other Australians of his era (he’s 62) is that he has no desire to impose those stances on anyone else.

But some media reports have said the chief salesman advocates sweeping libertarian ideas – decriminalisation of all drugs and of incest, for example – that would be a very hard sell. Yet a more complex picture emerges from interviews with Leyonhjelm by AFR Weekend and on Sky News’s Agenda two weeks ago. He’s for decriminalisation of marijuana, for example, but not hard drugs, though he does believe the current policy of prohibition backed by heavy-handed enforcement by “men in black suits” isn’t working. He says the party has no policy to decriminalise incest, an idea that would put it far out of the mainstream. “That’s just an invention,” he says.

He opposes Abbott government policies such as paid parental leave funded by a tax slug on the largest companies. That’s using one group of people’s money to pay for another’s choices – a favourite government lurk of which he strongly disapproves. If it came in a package with tax cuts that produced a lower tax burden overall, he would take a “utilitarian” view based on delivering the greatest good to the largest number of people according to libertarian lights.

“PPL is an unreasonable impost on ­people who don’t have children or who have children and don’t work,” he says. But if the trade-off was “a significant reduction in tax that would benefit far more people than PPL would disadvantage”, that would be acceptable, he says.

Cutting corporate taxes is a priority for Leyonhjelm, who runs a small agricultural consulting firm with a staff of just four including Amanda. Business, especially small business, is the “engine room of the economy” and would be very quick to employ more people if allowed to keep more of its profits, he says.

Slashing industrial relations red tape would be another way to boost jobs, he says, adding there are people on the dole who want to work but its not worth the minimum wage – $16.37. Somewhere between that and the unemployment benefit of about $7 an hour is a wage at which people who could work would, and which em­ployers would happily pay. Leyonhjelm says the minimum wage and other rigidities boost youth ­unemployment especially, and could be eliminated on a piecemeal basis.

Penalty rates and creeping ­credentialism – for bartenders, childcare workers and so on – also in his sights. They build expectations of higher salaries and raise costs for employers, he says. The government needn’t interfere at all.

Scarred by WorkChoices, the Abbott ­government has ruled out changes to industrial relations in its first term. Leyonhjelm says they needn’t be so timid. “There is scope to improve things and all they have to do is not take a big government approach to it – take a small government approach to it and say ‘we are not going to tell people what to do, we are going to leave it to them’. They’d probably be successful. They could chip away at it – little fixes, not one big fix.”

Passionate about hunting

Leyonhjelm learned to shoot rabbits as a kid on his parents’ farm at Heywood in western Victoria. They later moved to Melbourne and he attended Dandenong High, in those days “a good school”. He became a shooting enthusiast, winning his grade – small-bore pistol metallic silhouette targets – in NSW for several years. When semi-automatics were banned, he had to give up six or seven rifles and some pistols.

When he took up the cudgels on behalf of his fellow gun owners, he found libertarianism a handy prop. “You don’t have to approve of something to believe that it’s not the government’s business. It’s personal choice,” he says. “I found that useful in talking to people about guns.”

It applied, for example, to gay marriage and marijuana, two issues on which fellow Shooters Party members didn’t back him. He was “amazed” at shooters who talked about rights to own guns but were intolerant of marijuana users and gays.

His efforts to convince the Shooters to become a broadly libertarian party and contest federal elections ended in acrimony. He blames John Tingle, the former broadcaster who represented the party in the NSW upper house for a decade, for engineering his removal as chairman in 2005. Tingle did not want to share the limelight but got no pro-shooting laws enacted in NSW, he says.

Tingle says he didn’t seek the limelight and did a lot for shooters, securing funding for shooting ranges. He says Leyonhjelm was removed by an overwhelming vote because o f “total dissatisfaction” with his autocratic style.

“He was for gay marriage and everything. What he never understood … was that it was silly for us to try to have a policy on everything because we did not have the expertise.”

Now Leyonhjelm represents a party that can have a policy on everything, expert or not. He sees only a minimal role for government in marriage, setting a minimum age and registering. He and Amanda see ­themselves as married, but never formally tied the knot. “I don’t need a piece of paper from the government to tell me I am married,” he says.

He believes Australians should be able to carry weapons to defend themselves, and not be expected to retreat first before repelling an attacker in self-defence. Speed limits should be set at the 85th percentile of average driving speeds. ­Asylum seekers should be allowed through the front door for $50,000 down, a price he believes would put people smugglers out of business more effectively than Labor or Liberal policies. The Commonwealth should leave more things to the states, a stance the Abbott government supports but won’t honour, he fears.

Leyonhjelm says he’s fielded calls from four or five Liberals wishing him well. He thinks they agree with him on many things, but their voices won’t be heard in the party. Libertarianism jumbles up conventional left and right political analyses.

“We have even had journalists tell us they are confused,” he says.