Premier Barry O’Farrell is a proud follower of Robert Menzies (1894 to 1978), the founder of the modern Liberal Party.

O’Farrell believes Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is a follower of John Howard, the second longest serving prime minister – after Menzies. It’s just that Howard regards himself as a follower of Menzies as well.

The issue flared up last Sunday. Interviewed on Sky News’ Australian Agenda program, O’Farrell was asked whether he or Abbott was closer to Howard.

O’Farrell responded: ”I’m a Menzies man, Tony’s a Howard man.” Yet, as Abbott makes clear in his book Battlelines, he too is an admirer of the Liberal Party founder.

At the federal level, the political conservatives have had four long-serving prime ministers who came to office after inflicting substantial defeats on incumbent Labor governments. First, Joseph Lyons in 1932 under the mantle of the United Australia Party. Then, after the formation of the Liberal Party in the mid-1940s, Menzies in 1949, Malcolm Fraser in 1975 and Howard in 1996. Abbott may, or may not, become part of this tradition on September 14.

For all their differences, Lyons, Menzies, Fraser and Howard had certain characteristics in common. All combined policy conviction with a certain pragmatism. Lyons died in office in 1939 and Menzies and Howard retained their views into life after politics. Fraser changed some of his positions after his defeat in 1983. However, during most of his time in office, he held strong views but was a pragmatist – as are all successful modern democratic leaders.

It is now nearly half a century since Menzies retired on Australia Day, 1966. In the last five decades, the interpretation of the Liberal Party founder has changed. In the early 1950s, it was not uncommon to read the slogan ”Menzies Means War” on billboards near railway lines. Now, however, there is a suggestion that Menzies embodied what might be described as a kinder, gentler Liberal Party leader. This is an unreliable memory.

Initially, Menzies was UAP prime minister between April 1939 and August 1941. During this time, he declared war on Germany and committed the Second Australian Imperial Force to combat in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Menzies also banned the Communist Party of Australia on account of its support for the Nazi-Soviet pact and its opposition to the war effort.

When Menzies returned to office in December 1949, the Cold War was under way. He sought, unsuccessfully, to ban the Communist Party of Australia since he judged it, correctly, to be an agent of the communist dictators in Moscow.

During Menzies’ prime ministership, the Coalition committed Australian military forces to action in Korea, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation and Vietnam. Menzies also introduced conscription for overseas service.

In the early 1960s, concerned about what he termed the continuing communist threat to Australia, Menzies presided over the implementation of tough national security legislation, via amendments to the Crimes Act.

It is true that Menzies was not much of an economic reformer. After all, in the aftermath of the Pacific War, the Australian economy was strong. But Menzies did introduce a very tough budget in 1951. Moreover, one of the early acts of his government was to privatise the Commonwealth Oil Refineries. I summarised this side of Menzies in my 2008 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture titled ”Why Menzies Matters”.

It should also be remembered that Menzies remained a fervent advocate of the monarchy. Also, it was only after Menzies stepped down that immigration minister Hubert Opperman began the dismantling of the White Australia Policy – with the support of the new prime minister, Harold Holt.

It is only fair that Menzies be judged by the standards of his time. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was bipartisan support for White Australia.

In an article in the November 2008 issue of The Monthly, historian John Hirst suggested O’Farrell was unique to the modern Liberal Party in that he was a moderate disciple of Menzies. Hirst is a fine historian. However, until Howard’s time, he was known to be a supporter of social democratic parties such as the ALP. It seems after his political conversion Hirst looked back on a Menzies that never really existed.

It is fair to say that both Fraser and Howard, in their different ways, followed the Menzies tradition. As has O’Farrell in office. And as Abbott is likely to if he wins in September.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.