The Liberal party, celebrating its 70th anniversary this week, was a product of passion; particularly that of Robert Menzies. The party was founded out of deeply held beliefs, and organized to achieve those beliefs. While many contributed to its formation and its ideas: people such as Elizabeth Couchman of the Australian Women’s National League, and those at the newly formed Institute of Public Affairs, it is almost certainly the case that without Bob Menzies, there would have been no Liberal Party.
Menzies provided the drive, direction and organisational principles for the new party, and the name ‘Liberal’ expressed a long-held dream within the Menzies family circle to find a new vehicle to express Australia’s historic Liberal tradition. Bob’s father–in-law J.W. Leckie had been instrumental in establishing a short-lived Australian Liberal Party in the 1920’s.
Menzies’ passion can be clearly heard in his famous 1942 radio talks published as The Forgotten People, and is at its most intense when he talks of his deep faith in the right of people to build their own lives, and in a society based on ‘a fierce independence of spirit’. ‘This’, said Menzies, ‘is the only real freedom, and it has as its corollary a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility’.
Menzies saw the dreams of individual people to express their own values – the foundations of national progress – being stifled on the one hand by selfish business, farming and union interests grabbing for privilege and power from the state, and on the other by the utopian fantasies and class war attitudes of many in the Labor and Communist parties (and their fellow travellers in the intellectual class) who sought to replace individual initiative with government planning.
Neither of the political parties in which he had spent his early years in politics, the Nationalist Party led by Stanley Bruce in the ‘twenties (against which his father-in-law had rebelled), nor the United Australia Party led by Joe Lyons, had held out to Menzies any real hope that these destructive forces could be resisted.
Each of the inter-war parties had been built on the ruins of Deakin’s Liberal Party. As short-term expedients to ‘win the war’ and prevent repudiation of Australia’s debts each was successful in its day, but the weak organization of these parties left the resulting governments vulnerable to special interest pressures, especially as neither had a clear guiding philosophy.
Menzies wanted a party that would govern according to principle and the rational analysis of policy, and was financially and politically independent of powerful interests that sought to distort policy in their favour against the public interest.
His was a classical and idealistic view of politics that went back to Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, with deep roots in the moral independence of his Scottish heritage.
The Liberal party would collect its own finance, and through its platform would be committed to certain guiding principles: the rule of law, freedom of choice, parliamentary government, freedoms of speech, association, religion, enterprise, and a welfare safety net. Party discipline around a coherent philosophy would allow members of parliament to resist special interest pressures.
Menzies wondered whether he had the ability to evoke an echo in the electorate, or would the political contests of the future be between Labor and the Communists? In 1949 he found the echo and the gates to the re-liberalisation of Australia swung open.
The passion, fortunately, was not his alone. Seventy years later, the political culture has been transformed. While there are still those who wish to impose their own opinions on others through a stifling political correctness, Australia is a more tolerant, freer, prosperous, dynamic and creative society than it was – indeed, one of the most successful countries in the world – significantly thanks to Menzies and his party, and to the principles on which it was founded.
Fortunately, there are many Australians who still passionately defend these principles.
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