Flat White

Menzies, Malcolm, misogyny and merit

13 March 2019

3:57 PM

13 March 2019

3:57 PM

Malcolm Turnbull—our now disgruntled former prime minister—believes that that the Liberal Party “absolutely” has a woman problem. And, somewhat unsurprisingly, Turnbull argues that the answer is to adopt the Labor Party policy of having a 50-50 male-female split on preselection panels. According to The Guardian:

Turnbull said that when the Liberal party had been founded by Menzies and others, it united several women’s organisations under the Liberal banner, of which resonances still existed: in some divisions, there was constitutional provision for male and female vice-presidents of divisions or branches.

“I think we are going to have to, in the Liberal party, start to institutionalise [changes] – you know, perhaps pre-selection panels must be 50-50 men and women. Without taking away the autonomy of members, we’ve got to make a much bigger effort.”

Now, I’ve known for quite some time that both Julia Baird and Peter Van Onselen were out of their depth theologically, but what has become increasingly obvious is that they’re as similarly ill-informed politically as Malcolm Turnbull sadly is when it comes to Liberal Party history. Just take their recent comments regarding Sir Robert Menzies position upon the subject of ‘gender quotas’.

Van Onselen believes that the Coalition has strayed so significantly from Menzies’ progressive principles of championing the cause of women that they run the risk of becoming obsolete. Whereas Baird goes even further and argues that Sir Robert Menzies had even introduced ‘gender quotas’ to ensure the equal representation of women on the ABC website:

When Robert Menzies established the modern Liberal Party in Albury in 1944, he had to negotiate with some powerful conservative women in order to secure the support of their legion followers.

The leaders of the Australian Women’s National League, which had more than 50,000 members at its peak, lobbied hard in the heat of the summer of 1944, and secured a promise from Menzies that quotas would guarantee them equal representation on the governing bodies of the party.

Menzies, then opposition leader, was unequivocal: “Women are unquestionably destined to exercise more and more influence upon practical politics in Australia,” he said.

They had been so effective, he said, that he was able to declare that “all distinctions” of gender were gone.

I contacted Baird directly and—unlike when I questioned Van Badham on the same subject—she promptly gave me an answer. Apparently, the reference was to be found in John Howard’s biography, The Menzies Era (Harper Collins, 2014) where he states:

In Victoria, the National Women’s League of Australia (NWLA) had been a powerful force on the non-Labor side of politics for many years. Menzies respected its influence and worked to ensure that the NWLA was folded into the new Liberal Party. The Victorian Division of the Liberal Party systematically provided for equal representation of both sexes in all sections of the Party. From the inauguration of the Liberal Party, Menzies took care to ensure that it had policies that were appealing to women.

Howard is right. The support from the women’s organisations was absolutely critical to Menzies, which is why the party still has a federal female vice president and why the state divisions have women’s councils with their heads on state executive and a representative of the whole also on the federal executive.

What’s more, ever since Menzies, politically conservative women have played a vital role in the success of the Liberal Party. However, “systematically providing for equal representation” is not the same thing as the introduction of “gender quotas”, especially for parliamentary positions, which is a nuance which many left-leaning journalists continue to miss.


Baird also told me that she relied on a 2016 The Sydney Morning Herald article by Anne Summers, who said:

It was Menzies, when the modern Liberal Party was being formed, who insisted on quotas so women were guaranteed equal representation on the party’s governing bodies.

When I asked Summers what was her evidence for making such an assertion she gave me the following reply via Twitter:

But, once again, while women have held key positions, such as vice presidents in local branches, this is not the equivalent of introducing gender quotas for those pre-selected to sit for parliament. The underlying problem with the approach of Van Onselen, Baird and Summers is that none of them ever quote from the original sources of what Menzies actually said.

Significantly, David Furse-Roberts has recently published Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches (Jeparit Press, 2017). And in it, he has an entire chapter on the ‘Status and Role of Women’. It begins with a full transcript of the broadcast titled, ‘Women for Canberra’ given on January 29, 1943. Furse-Roberts summarises Menzies thinking as follows:

As the founder of the Liberal Party, he sought to put his ideas into effect by encouraging the Australian Women’s National League to mobilise women into the organisational wing of the Party to then create a talent pool of potential female candidates to enter the political arena. At the same time, however, he distanced himself from the views of affirmative action feminists who argued that women should be promoted merely by virtue of the fact that they were women. To Menzies, such as attitude was deficient because it overlooked the personal merits and talents of the individual female candidate.

While Furse-Roberts is entirely correct in his summary, it is best to listen to Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister speak for himself on the subject:

Of course, women are at least the equals of men. Of course, there is no reason why a qualified woman should not sit in Parliament, or on the bench, or in a professional chair, or preach from the pulpit, or, if you like, command an army in the field. No educated man today denies a place or a career to a woman because she is a woman.

But there is a converse proposition which I state with all respect but with proper firmness. No woman can demand a place or a career just because she is a woman. If it is outmoded and absurd to treat a woman’s sex as a political disqualification; it seems to me equally absurd to claim it as a qualification in itself…

For myself, I declined to vote for any woman just because she is a woman, but I will vote for her with no prejudice and with great cheerfulness if I am satisfied that she is, in the homely phrase, “the better man of the two”. For, like most electors, I am not half so interested in the sex or social position or worldly wealth of my representatives and rulers as I am in the quality of their minds, the soundness of their characters, the humanity of their experience, the sanity of their policy, and the strength of their wills.

Years later, in a subsequent ‘Address to the Conference of the Headmistresses’ Association of Australia, Melbourne (September 1, 1958), Menzies re-affirmed and developed his thinking even further upon the issue. What follows is an extended quote in which Menzies develops his thinking on the issue even further:

Yet it is equally true that over these many years women have played a small part in Parliament. We have had a few women in Parliament; not very many compared to the great body of Parliament. It has been a small part and you may say to me, “Why does that happen?” Some of you headmistresses accustomed to discipline will say to me, “That is the fault of men. They won’t have women in Parliament”. To which I reply: “There are more women on the rolls than there are men in Australia, and if women are not in Parliament more than they are, it is because women don’t vote for them!”

Now why? Well, I think it is explainable. I have myself, on more than one occasion, listened to a woman candidate for Parliament who stood up and made it her great policy speech to say, “I am a woman. The woman’s point of view ought to be represented.” If I were to stand up and say in Kooyong (which through sheer animadvertence does me the honour of returning me to Parliament), “I am a man and the man’s point of view ought to be listened to”, they would think I had become a little odd. I have frequently had to say to my female political friends, “Look, don’t ask people to vote for you because you are a woman. Ask them to vote for you because you are the best man in the field. You are the one to represent them. You are the one who will understand public problems”. But to say, “I think the woman’s point of view should be represented, the woman’s point of view being, with infinite respect, as elusive as a man’s point of view, since who knows it – there are thousands of different points of view. That kind of statement is not an expression of equality, because if equality ought to be expressed there would be no occasion to say either, “I am a man,” or “I am a woman”. It is rather an expression of nervousness and uncertainty.

Menzies goes on even further, but I’m sure you get the point. Clearly, championing the cause of ‘gender quotas’ was completely antithetical to Menzies’ political philosophy. Because while he was certainly no misogynist, Menzies constantly reaffirmed selection for public office based exclusively on merit. What’s more, even during his own lifetime, he was deeply concerned as to how the left had started to infiltrate the party he had founded. As Maurice Newman wrote in The Australian:

Lest there be any doubt about Menzies’ philosophy, it is clearly expressed in a 1974 letter ­lamenting that the “State executive is dominated by what we now call Liberals with a small l — that is to say who believe in nothing, but who believe in anything if they think it is worth a few votes. The whole thing is tragic.

Clearly, Menzies loathed identity politics in general and rejected the strategy of gender quotas in particular. By the way, quotas for representation of women in parliament, as we know them today, stem from the creation of Emily’s List by the Labor Left in 1994 – half a century after the foundation of the Liberals.

So, how can Turnbull, Van Onselen, Baird and Summers continue to assert that Menzies had ‘progressively’ promised that “quotas would guarantee them equal representation on the governing bodies of the party”? It simply does not fit with the evidence as to what Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, and founder of the Liberal Party, actually said.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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