Who was Bert Kelly?

Charles Robert (Bert) Kelly (1912–1997) was a farmer from Tarlee in South Australia. His farm had been in the family since the 1870s. Bert loved farming and the friendships which life on the land fosters. Although reluctant to give up farming he was persuaded to run for preselection for the Liberal Party for the federal seat of Wakefield in the 1958 election, a preselection he won easily. Wakefield was then a blue ribbon seat and so Bert became a federal politician at the age of 46.

Bert’s father Stan Kelly had been a lifelong opponent of the protectionism which had corrupted Australian politics since federation. Protection, and its twin sister, compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes, had become so entrenched in Australian life that to criticise them was regarded by a wide sector of public opinion as being ‘unAustralian.’

Stan Kelly urged Bert to take up the antiprotectionist cause and after finding his feet in the Coalition party room Bert began his lonely battle against the very powerful interests that lived off the great transfer of wealth which tariffs generated.

Bert was sustained in this lonely struggle by his family (his wife Lorna was often the only person in the visitor’s gallery when he made a speech on the latest tariff scandal to a virtually empty House), a small band of devoted friends, and his Christian values. Bert was derided by party colleagues for his “Methodist zeal”, but that zeal led him to oppose protectionism because he believed it was wrong, and it was wrong because it created a situation in which governments, in the person of ministers or officials, granted arbitrary and capricious favours to some, who were thus greatly enriched, at the expense of others, who were at best impoverished and at worst, ruined. Bert was the great embodiment of Edmund Burke’s dictum that “politics is morality writ large.” If the application of the moral principles which had been inculcated into Bert from childhood also led to economically sensible conclusions, that was an additional benefit.

The Hawke-Keating Government, with the support of the Coalition, began phasing out tariffs soon after winning office in 1983. This reform transformed the Australian economy, but the man who made it possible was Bert Kelly, the modest farmer from Tarlee in South Australia.

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