Returning to hallowed ground of Liberal folklore, Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week chose Albury as the place to reinvoke the principles of Menzies to a new generation of Australians. For it was in this Riverina city that Robert Menzies and his colleagues birthed the Liberal Party of Australia at a Conference in December 1944.
With recent leadership turmoil beleaguering the party, sparking yet another bout of soul-searching for the values it should stand for, the new Prime Minister did what all wise leaders do which is to rediscover their movement’s roots for vital clues as to its renewal in the present day.
By perusing through the recorded speeches, treatises and policy manifestos of Sir Robert Menzies, Morrison would not have laid eyes upon some dusty and archaic musings belonging to an era of Glenn Miller and the Pontiac Torpedo. With their perspicacious observations of both human nature and democracy, the pronouncements of Menzies, to the contrary, have a timeless quality that speaks directly to the issues facing Australia today. Like Morrison in 2018, Menzies in his time was wrestling with the task of re-engaging the centre-right of Australian politics with the people it pledged to represent.
With the Liberal Party founder in the 1940s successfully transforming an out-of-touch major party beholden to corporate elites into a grassroots, community-based movement enjoying close links with small businesses, local schools, clubs, charities, churches and voluntary associations, it is little wonder Morrison has turned to the political “master” for inspiration as he attempts to reorient the compass of the party.
Given the topical issue of religious freedom, Morrison appreciated that the best place to start was “to talk about the importance of freedoms, of faith, of religion, of speech, of association”. Freedom, of course, was the touchstone of Menzies’ own Liberal philosophy. In what surely stands as a perennial definition of freedom, Menzies held that “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”.
Second, with today’s identity politics resembling the sectionalism of Menzies’ time, it was timely for Morrison to reaffirm the Liberal Party’s commitment to the dignity of the individual, over and above the collectives of class and race. Last week, Morrison told his audience that Menzies’ vision “began and started with the individual…the inherent virtue of every single human being”. Juxtaposing the Liberal worldview with that of socialism in 1944, Menzies remarked: “I see the individual and his encouragement and recognition as the prime motive force for the building of a better world”.
Like Menzies, Morrison affirmed that the primary sphere for nurturing the individual is not the state but the family. In Albury, Morrison said, “The first building block of any successful country, community [and] society, is family”. This essentially echoed Menzies’ observation that “In a free community, the family and the family spirit are not only the foundation of society but also the best guarantee of its quality and endurance”
Recognising that individuals and families are not ends in themselves but units of a healthy community, Morrison reminded his audience of the importance of community to dispel any notion that the “hyper-individualistic” centre-right is somehow indifferent to such sensibilities. Again, Morrison channelled Menzies who told his radio audience in 1953 “The most important thing in any centre of population is to develop a sense of community and of community service”. Both prime ministers understood that concern for others is the centripetal force of communities. Morrison’s call today for Australians to “look after our mates” is simply a more folksy iteration of Menzies’ oft-repeated aphorisms that we are “our brother’s keeper” and “members of one another”.
Busting yet another myth that the Liberal tradition overlooks the dignity and rights of workers, Morrison spoke about the importance of Australians having a “stable job and good pay”. Determined to foster an enterprising yet civilised capitalism in post-war Australia, Menzies had said that “in a just world no business can be allowed to be successful except on terms that it pays proper wages, that it affords civilised living conditions, and that it contributes adequately to the social security of its employees”.
For both Morrison and Menzies, this was necessary for harmony to exist between employers and employees. Having no truck with the socialist rhetoric of class struggle, Menzies told a 1946 election rally that “The first answer to this foul doctrine of the ‘class war’ is to do all we can in a positive way to show both employers and employees that they work in a common enterprise, in which neither can succeed without the other”. Over seven decades later, Morrison spoke about the importance of “employers and employees being on the same page”.
Believing that life is about the spiritual as well as the material, both Morrison and Menzies share a faith in providence. The secularist commentariat may sneer at Morrison’s recent “call to prayer” for drought relief, but it reflects Menzies’ perfectly respectable worldview that “human nature is at its greatest when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man”.
Finally, in an age of social media-driven self-absorption, Morrison affirmed Menzies’ conviction that selflessness is the key to national greatness and human flourishing. In Albury, Morrison said, “As Australians, our goal is to makes a contribution, not to seek one”. Menzies likewise spoke of the need for citizens to be on the list of contributors and not simply that of beneficiaries. At a small-town civic welcome in 1961, he observed that “You will test the civilisation of any community by finding out how many men and women there are in it who are prepared to do something, unselfishly, for other people”.
In the lead up to the next election, the mission for Morrison and his colleagues to heal a hurting party will be nothing short of herculean but reiterating the principles of Menzies for today and “fighting for those things until the bell rings” is a promising place to start.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow for the Menzies Research Centre.
Illustration: Australian Parliament House.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.