Australian Government Honours Free-Market Champion – Lessons to be Learnt in South Africa

Open-Ed

In January 2023, the Governor-General awarded the Order of Australia Medal to free-market champion Mr John Hyde for service to the community in a range of roles. Mr Hyde is an author, former politician and farmer, and recently-retired think-tank director.

Mr Hyde’s intellectual rigour saw him challenging Australia’s many prevailing restrictive and protectionist policies and the accepted economic status quo of the 1970s.

Hyde observed that in the early 1950s Australia had been among the richest nations on earth. But, he noted, by the late 1970s it was some 20 percent below European living standards.

Hyde ascribed that relative decay to the facts that Australia experienced high levels of regulation of trade, labour, transport and agriculture.

Hyde also ascribed the decay to the facts that Australia experienced high levels of public ownership of utilities offering electricity generation and other services. In every sector, the state instrumentalities enjoyed protection from competition, in many cases outright monopoly.

Mr Hyde observed that economic theory encouraged the expectation that such circumstances would be associated with excessive costs, poor productivity, poor economic growth and capture by organised workers and other vested interests. He found that the theory was conspicuously borne out by events.

He fervently argued against rent-seeking, the manipulation of the political environment for the benefit of a favoured few vested interests, which results in misallocation of resources, reduced wealth creation and heightened income inequality.

As Mr Hyde remarked, a capitalist economy will not deliver prosperity with an overextended government. Nor with such a government will a society deliver opportunity, security and justice.

In 1974, Hyde was elected to the federal Parliament as a member of the Liberal Party.

As a member of Parliament, Hyde fought against government involvement in the economy in general, and in particular against statutory monopolies, government subsidies, state ownership of business undertakings, and protection of favoured industries.

Hyde believed that good policy should transcend party lines.

But his opinions were, ironically, rejected by the centre-right Liberal governments of prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and John Howard.

John Hyde’s beliefs were eventually implemented by the centre-left Labor Party governments of prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.  They introduced the necessary reforms which led to a golden age in Australia’s economic growth. The economic reforms which Hyde championed paved the way for far-reaching economic improvements.

Hawke argued to the party caucus that Labor’s spending priorities had to be education, health and welfare, rather than capital injections for government-owned businesses.

After Hyde’s political career, he became executive director of a number of free-enterprise think tanks.

Mr Hyde is a prolific author. He has written over 800 articles for the think tanks, which are still accessible. During the 1980s and ’90s he was a columnist for the national broadsheet daily The Australian and for the Financial Review. He was a television and radio commentator in the 1980s–2000s.

Hyde championed free trade. A competitive market is the essential condition for economic efficiency, he wrote. Private ownership is a necessary condition of a competitive market, but it is not a sufficient one. To privatise state-owned utilities and undertakings without also stripping them of their statutory monopolies would be to deny to the public most of the potential benefit of denationalisation. It is just as important to recognise the potential rights of alternative supplies and of buyers, including final consumers. Deregulation is at least as important as privatising ownership, he declared.

Mr Hyde identified as an Australian “Dry.” The original Dries were those members of the cabinet in Margaret Thatcher’s government of the United Kingdom in the 1980s who unwaveringly supported her radical free-market policies. In contrast, the British “Wets” were those cabinet members who were so-called “moderates” in that they opposed her policies as being too extreme.

John Hyde authored the 2002 book, Dry: In Defence of Economic Freedom. The saga of how the Dries changed the Australian economy for the Better.

Hyde is a racy, straightforward and prescient writer. In his book he wrote, “Much of the world is still horrible, but during the final quarter of the 20th Century lifespans greatly increased almost everywhere, especially in the once-poor countries of East Asia. The economic order that achieved these momentous gains is now threatened by ‘anti-globalisation’.”

In 2018 John Hyde won the Australian Libertarian Society’s lifetime achievement award.

The formal citation which accompanied the 2023 award of the Order of Australia Medal to Mr Hyde expressly recounted all his accomplishments, including the Libertarian Society award.

In South Africa, the President can confer honours similar to the Order of Australia awards.

The President can confer the Order of the Baobab to recognise a person’s service in the field of business or the economy. He can confer the Order of Luthuli to recognise a person’s contribution in the field of human rights or nation-building.

Related news: Eskom riddled with unsustainable debt and corruption 

It seems unlikely that any such South African honour will be conferred on a champion of free markets at the present time.

It is unlikely that such an honour will be awarded to a promoter of privatisation and competition in the field of electricity generation, until after Eskom is privatised and the electricity-generation market is deregulated, and the inevitable benefits materialise.

Author: Gary Moore

Gary is a practising attorney for 30 years, is a Senior Consultant at the Free Market Foundation. He has written extensively on the legality of state action and the meaning of statutes.

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