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Robert Menzies' forgotten people: a good reminder for today's politicians

Friday, 19 May 2017

Robert Menzies' forgotten people: a good reminder for today's politicians
Robert Menzies believed Australians must embrace freedom in all its forms. Source | AFR

Original article by Paul Ritchie in the  Australian Financial Review:

Australia's longest serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, wrote shortly after his retirement that he did not believe "in the verdict of history, only in its sense".

The old man of Australian politics saw the multitude of voices, the differing perspectives, and the gulf between those who make decisions and those who live them out, to know that a definitive account of one's actions and their consequences is difficult.

However, as the decades pass, the "sense of history" has become that Menzies was the compass that set Australia's course for the second half of the 20th century.

Next Monday, May 22 marks the 75th anniversary of Menzies' "Forgotten People" broadcast. It was one of Australia's hinge-points in the 20th century. Not that it appeared so at the time.

Robert Menzies, left, with Winston Churchill in London during the early part of World War II. These were not normal ...
Robert Menzies, left, with Winston Churchill in London during the early part of World War II. These were not normal times with the war in the Pacific raging and the Nazis threatening the existence of Britain. Keystone

In 1942, Menzies was a freshly minted former prime minister who believed that for his own career "everything was at an end".

He had been prime minister for a crucial two-and-a-half years and had led Australia into World War II. Though gifted and articulate, he was not without weaknesses. His critics were relentless about a wartime leader who had not served in World War I; he presided over a party room that was divided, and he led a fractious minority government. Late in life he admitted that during his first prime ministership he had been "aloof from my supporters" and had "yet to acquire the common touch".

During mid-1941, the walls were closing in on the young and arrogant prime minister. His colleagues whispered about his leadership, his opponents stood waiting for its end and the united purpose that Australia needed was suffering as a result.

Jumping before being pushed

In August 1941, Menzies resigned the prime ministership. He jumped before anyone decided to push. As the Liberal Party's historian, David Kemp put it "Menzies' resignation was the act of a man sickened by political manoeuvring and division on his side at a time of supreme national peril".

As Menzies put it, 'To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent ...
As Menzies put it, 'To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motive for public service – these are the maladies of modern democracy in particular.' R.L. Stewart

Within months, the minority government that he was part of fell and Menzies contemplated political life from Opposition.

These were not normal times with the war in the Pacific raging and the Nazis threatening the existence of Britain. It was during these times that Menzies started giving weekly radio broadcasts and spoke about the essence of Australia and the values that must underpin democratic, liberal, free and prosperous nations. In time, the broadcasts would be published in a book, The Forgotten People.

His framework was clear: mutual respect, because the nation is but the sum of our human relationships; personal responsibility "because the best things are done by man, not men"; civic mindedness because "intelligent citizenry" is the best defence against tyranny; parliamentary government because only it can deliver the rule of law; and the advancement of Australia based on reward for effort.

Australians, he believed, must embrace freedom in all its forms because "the real freedoms are to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to be independent, to be industrious, to acquire skill, to seek reward. These are the real freedoms, for these are of the essence of the nature of man."

Yet this required a different Australian culture than the one that permeated the 1930s.

Menzies' belief was that despite engaging in a war against fascism and militarism that was requiring great sacrifice, the character of the nation was weak instead of strong. During the 1920s and 1930s, Australians had increasingly turned on each other rather than to each other. Class wars, sectarian hatreds and a distrust of others had taken their toll as Australians focused on what they could get from the nation rather than what they could contribute to it.

As Menzies put it, "To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motive for public service – these are the maladies of modern democracy in particular. Yet ambition, effort, thinking and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government, but are the essential conditions of its success."

More choice, more freedom

The essence of The Forgotten People is the belief that Australia future prosperity was to be found in giving the middle class more choice, more freedom and more reward.

Menzies' world of freedom and choice did not mean he wanted a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world. Far from it, he despised class war and "the disease of thinking that the community is divided into the rich and relatively idle, and the laborious poor, and that every social and political controversy can be resolved into the question: whose side are you on?".

He hated "base politics" that sought to incite anger at other Australians with the goal of political gain, not realising that it silently weakens the bonds between us all. To him, it was as bad as its political cousin "pragmatic politics", which governs by the compromise of vested interest rather than being guided by national interest.

To Menzies, the foundation of Australian life was always found in "homes material, homes human and homes spiritual". He grasped that politics was more than a fistful of dollars, or the advancement of one group over another. It has a deeper purpose, which is to create the right settings for Australians to lead happy and meaningful lives.

In a time of war, he saw that the foundation of patriotism and sacrifice was a desire to protect our own home and kin. For "the life of the nation is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, for what their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race".

In his eyes, the advancement of Australia needed a shift in thinking. What was needed was not more dependence on government, though government should provide solace to "those whose fate has compelled to live on the bounty of the state"; rather Australia needed a "fierce independence of spirit" that would propel the nation.

However, that fiercely independent spirit must first be nurtured and encouraged. This meant changing the mindset from taking to giving, for "the great vice of democracy – a vice which is extracting a bitter retribution at this moment – is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody's wealth and somebody else's effort on which we could thrive".

New era of risk

Seventy-five years have passed since Menzies put forward the values that shaped what became the Liberal Party, and in turn, the Australia that he led for more than 16 years.

Today Australia faces a new era of risk: extremists who despise democracy as much as the fascists of his age; activists who fan into flame new sectarian and class divisions; non-government entities that prize vested interest over the national interest; and a culture of demand that is putting new burdens on all of us.

The temptation for Menzies' party is to answer these challenges through the politics of the immediate. Yet history shows us that no enduring solace will ever by found by riding the choppy political waters of either "base" or "pragmatic politics". Instead, Menzies' party must renew the values that underpinned its original political advancement: mutual respect, reward for effort, economic independence, and a deep faith in the ability of Australians to make the best decisions for their own lives.

This is the lesson of Menzies' Forgotten People.

Paul Ritchie was senior adviser and speechwriter to Tony Abbott during his prime ministership.

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