Three-quarters of a century ago, with the Second World War raging in the jungles and high seas of the Pacific, an ex-prime minister sat down to articulate the aspirations for a nation in its gentler years of peace. Having witnessed the ailing United Australia Party he had once led become captive to the sectional interests of corporate elites, Menzies turned to formulate a political credo that would speak to the interests and values of the broad Australian mainstream. Determined to repudiate the old politics of sectionalism and class warfare, his Forgotten People radio broadcast of 22 May 1942 was a pitch to ordinary Australians and their families who belonged neither to the rich and powerful, nor the mass of organised labour.
Seventy-five years on, Menzies’ Forgotten People has survived as not only an eloquent manifesto of Australian Liberal thought but as a parable for modern politicians on how to purposefully cultivate a broad and enduring support-base.
In its eloquent enunciation of liberal ideals, the Forgotten People represented the blueprint for the philosophy that would give birth to his Liberal Party of Australia in 1944. In this speech, Menzies identified a ‘forgotten class’ of professionals, artisans and small business people who represented the ‘backbone of this country’. Amid the clamour of voices from the sectional interests of big business and powerful trade unions, Menzies argued that the aspirations of the vast Australian middle-class had been overlooked. His new Party, by contrast, would seek to champion the interests of every citizen who aspired to live a ‘full and good life’.
While not wishing to deny the fair place of either the privileged class or the working class in society, Menzies maintained that the middle-class needed to recover its voice as its people provided the essential ballast to the economic, spiritual, cultural and intellectual life of the nation. As a child of the Scottish Enlightenment, Menzies held that the key to unlocking this great potential of the ‘forgotten people’ was the stimulation of free enterprise and the provision of education. In a sign of things to come under his post-war prime ministership, he saw the establishment of new high schools and universities as critical to ‘feeding the lamp of learning’ amongst the middle-class.
With Australia buffeted by the turmoil of war and the spectre of an ever-expanding state, Menzies was convinced that the key to the nation’s success lay in harnessing classic middle-class virtues. Together with combining ‘dependence upon God with independence of man’, Menzies affirmed the values of family life, personal responsibility, enterprise, reward for effort and civic unselfishness.
What was so instructive about this speech was that Menzies consciously chose to define one’s class primarily by moral virtue rather than socio-economic status. In so doing, he eschewed the class distinctions of the Old World to embrace a fresh Australian conception of citizenship. In this new citizenry, a person’s standing was determined not by the postcode they lived in, the school they attended or the salary they earned but by their personal character. It mattered not whether an individual worked as a barrister or a bricklayer, a surgeon or a shopkeeper; Menzies’ broad ‘middle class’ was open to all who practised the virtues of integrity, industry and civic duty.
Indeed with his own experience of social mobility, journeying from the son of a Jeparit storekeeper to an eminent Melbourne barrister in less than two decades, Menzies understood first-hand that it was not a person’s birth or ‘class’, but the ‘intelligent ambition’ of men and women that provided the ‘motive power for human progress’.
While Menzies had broadcast his Forgotten People message to an Australia where microwaves and mobiles remained the stuff of science fiction, it holds important lessons for today. It first of all testifies to the iron law of politics that leaders forget the interests of their constituents at their peril. With the UAP disintegrating before his eyes, Menzies saw the Party he once led as paying the high price for abandoning the aspirations of its support base. With Menzies and his successors resolved to avoid a similar fate for themselves and their party, they have frequently sought to calibrate their message to Australia’s broad and inclusive bourgeoisie, whether that has been characterised as Howard’s ‘battlers’ or Gillard’s ‘working families’.
In an age where our civic culture is racked by the identity politics of division and self-interest, Menzies’ Forgotten People is a timely reminder that politics should never be seen as a grubby pursuit to better one’s self-interest at the expense of the community, but as a noble calling to enrich the lives of all. Believing that all individuals mattered, Menzies’ message was about ensuring that the potential for every man and woman to flourish remained ‘the great objective of political and social policy’.
As we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Menzies’ paean to the ‘forgotten people’, it bears remembering that the interests of the Australian mainstream are not served by a preoccupation with identity politics or by celebrity-driven campaigns for fashionable causes. On the contrary, the fabric of the nation will be enriched by a national vision that seeks to encourage individual initiative, support small business, strengthen families and remind us not simply of our own self-interest, but of our social obligations to our neighbours. If we take to heart Menzies’ 1974 aphorism from the Apostle Paul that we are all ‘members of one another’, then it will be difficult for our body politic to again forget the forgotten people.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and editor of the forthcoming book, Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches, being published by Connor Court next month.
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