Written by MRC Executive Director Nick Cater
At 9.15 pm on a Friday evening in May 1942, Robert Menzies delivered a radio talk that was to define post-war Australia.
As he spoke, Australian troops were fighting in the Pacific to halt the advancing Japanese. Public bomb shelters were being prepared in Sydney and private boats were being moved from Rushcutters Bay.
Yet Menzies spoke not of war but of peace. He described his vision for a nation in which individuals would be empowered to fulfil their dreams through education and hard work.
For its time, the speech was distinctly politically incorrect. The Australian war effort had been organised, necessarily, by government decree; it was funded with borrowed money; Australia would end the war massively in debt.
That Australia would be run after the war by the same central planning was taken as read by much of the political class.
Menzies profoundly disagreed. He dreaded the prospect of an all-powerful state ‘which will dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy’; a state which would ‘nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us’; a state, in other words, which would rob its people of freedom.
He warned that people denied the reward for personal endeavour were destined to become slaves.
‘The truth is that no great book was ever written and no great picture ever painted by the clock or according to civil service rules,’ said Menzies. ‘These are the things done by man, not men. You cannot regiment them.’
The post-war Australia Menzies advocated would be driven by personal ambition. Drawing on the lessons of his own upbringing in remote country Victoria, Menzies believed that when individuals thrived, the nation would thrive.
‘Frugal people who strive for and obtain the margin above these materially necessary things are the whole foundation of a really active and developing national life,’ he said.
Who were the people on whom the nation’s future would depend? Not the rich, the powerful or unionised labour. They were ‘the great sober and dynamic middle class - the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones.’ These were Menzies’ Forgotten People.
The Menzies Research Centre is staging a re-enactment of Menzies’ best known broadcast on the 75th anniversary of its original broadcast. We do so not to revive a dusty historical record but because it speaks as clearly to today’s challenges as it did to those three quarters of a century ago.
The centrally planned economy in which individuals were forced to surrender to the state was the model pursued in the communist bloc for 45 years. It failed miserably. Yet the belief that a technocratic state is better placed to order our affairs than we are persists, driving many of the policies of the so-called progressive left.
Dangerously, they have come to believe their own script, forgetting that the only source of wealth is private enterprise, large and small. They ignore the obvious truth that wealth must be created before it can be redistributed. As Menzies put it, ‘the idea entertained by many people that, in a well-constituted world, we shall all live on the State is the quintessence of madness, for what is the State but us? We collectively must provide what we individually receive.’
The conceit that the government knows best extends beyond the economy.
In recent years we have witnessed the rise of the busy-body state, in which the government presumes to poke its nose into our lives in the cause of engineering a better society.
Menzies believed that people should be left to run their own affairs with the minimum of interference from the state. He would be horrified at the many rules and restrictions we face today; he would have seen through the shallow excuses used to seize even greater control of our lives.
Undoubtedly he would have objected to the policing of language - and ultimately thought - that has become de rigueur in modern universities. He would have seen it for what it is: an attempt by a vocal minority to impose its morality on the majority.
Menzies’ rallying call for the Forgotten People resonates in today’s turbulent political environment. The successful societies of the future will not be those in which the state assumes controls, but those where governments trust their people. They will be those in which human dignity is valued and collectivism is viewed with suspicion. In the words of Menzies: ‘That each of us should have his chance is and must be the great objective of political and social policy.’
The MRC is holding a gala dinner on 22 May 2017 at Old Parliament House, Canberra to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the greatest oration in Austalian political history - Sir Robert Menzies' Forgotten People Address. Click here for more details on this pivotal event.