While the Canberra leadership game evolves, for the rest of us it can pay to look at the only thing we can change – ourselves.
Boris Johnson, when examining Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight [them] on the beaches” speech, said that Churchill spoke with a “wonderful vagueness” about what he wanted. While Churchill spoke of “a general sense of benignity and happiness and peace and the preservation of the world he grew up in,” notes Johnson, there also existed “a wonderful vagueness about his teleology.”
Like Churchill, there was a sense of vagueness to Robert Menzies – founder of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest serving prime minister – when it came to the individual. For example, Menzies spoke of the great values he saw in the Australian people – thrift, enterprise, courage – but not how they might play out in someone’s life.
I sense that’s because Menzies knew that values in themselves were ‘individual matters’ – it was not his business to dictate to people how they should conduct themselves. But perhaps for one to know better so one could do better.
So why do we need to hear from Menzies now? Aside from the leadership woes Liberals should never lose sight of the forces shaping social cohesion in our age of identity politics – safe spaces, cry closets, micro-aggressions and, yes, even emotional support animals. The grievance industry is in full swing, animated by a desire for dignity found in all the wrong places.
Whether staring down Hitler or Hirohito, or building a nation starting from scratch, Menzies knew that individuals were not only the counterpunch to hard times but also the foundation stone of national success. “The acceptance of risks, the encouragement of adventure, the prospect of rewards,” he famously said, “are all individual matters. There is no Government department which can create these things.”
So what values did Menzies praise in everyday people? In his famous The Forgotten People lectures Menzies spoke a great deal about “Courage, humour, tenacity, and resourcefulness”.
As Tony Abbott’s former speechwriter Paul Ritchie writes in The Forgotten People: Updated: “Menzies said that the best people, ‘are not those who leave it to the other fellow’, but those who through thrift and self-reliance, establish homes and bring up families and add to the national pool of skills and savings, and who simply aspire to sit ‘under their own vine and fig-tree owing nothing to anyone’.”
In observing our past, Menzies said that Australia’s success was “the result of the sweat, thrift, virtue and enterprise of Australia’s middle class.” And when it came to vices like the consumption of alcohol he said that “the ultimate cure for the abuse of drink is to be found in the character of the individual and his capacity for moderation and self-restraint, self-discipline.
In fact, one of the lowest blows Menzies could land “was to say that a person was ‘lacking in character’,” according to Paul Hasluck. “And I interpreted the meaning of ‘character’ as … moral strength, dependability, and regard for honourable conduct.”
But one of the chief observations made of Menzies by John Howard was his resilience. “A lesser person would have been weakened and diminished, if not broken, by the indignities that were heaped upon him by some treacherous colleagues,” Howard wrote in The Menzies Era. Importantly, Howard adds that while these failures “strengthened and informed him” Menzies also “learned from his mistakes and past travails.”
Indeed, learning from failure is a great point, and one that anyone can apply in their endeavours. “Losing,” as one famous sportsperson recently commented, “makes you think in ways victories can’t.” And Menzies, despite his likely never-to-be-beaten reign as our longest serving prime minister, certainly knew about losing.
In today’s self-help literature we hear of the 10,000 hours of practice principle and the 20 years of devoted effort it takes to become ‘world class’, from fighter pilots and surgeons to top musicians and engineers. The key point often made is not just for hard work but this capacity for ‘deliberate practice’ – to constantly receive feedback, sort through the unpleasantries, improve performance and find ways to get better.
Menzies, I sense, wasn’t beyond this. He was not only someone that thrived under pressure – being “charming, cheerful, expansive and ingenious”, according to the journalist Alan Reid – but he was, despite his thundering performances, also a shy man. “As I studied him,” wrote Hasluck, “I saw behind the façade a very shy man, a man who was loth to expose himself and slow to give away even to those close to him his inmost feelings.” Indeed, it is a humanising and relatable element for someone so seminal.
Lastly, Menzies signed off The Forgotten People lectures with a timeless installment on ‘The importance of cheerfulness’. For all our social problems and leadership crises Menzies would likely draw us back to appreciate that we still negotiate our problems under a system of open democracy. “The Fuhrer of Germany goes to address his people surrounded by guards and bayonets,” he noted, “and the only interruption that is allowed is drilled and disciplined applause.”
And, with more than a slight nod (and perhaps wink) to current circumstances, he adds that “The Prime Minister of Australia has no guard, and his speech is interrupted by the raucous humour of a score of disrespectful interjectors.”
Sean Jacobs is the author of Winners Don’t Cheat: Advice for young Australians from a young Australian published by Connor Court.
Illustration: Australian Parliament House.
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