If Malcolm Turnbull had led the Coalition to a convincing victory in the July 2016 election, it is unlikely his address to the Policy Exchange think tank in London would have caused such controversy back home.
It’s just that the Prime Minister’s majority of one in the House of Representatives, along with the fact that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has four senators, has led to continuing tension on the right of centre in Australian politics. Not helped by the fact that the Coalition consistently trails the Labor Party in Newspoll.
Turnbull’s supporters and critics alike became excited about the reference to Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies in the Policy Exchange address. He quoted Menzies as saying in 1944: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
This quote comes from Menzies’ 1967 book Afternoon Light, published a year after he stepped down as prime minister. As I pointed out in my 1994 book Menzies’ Child, in Afternoon Light he set out to distinguish the Liberal Party of Australia from the “Liberal Party in the United Kingdom”. He made no reference to the British Conservative Party.
There has never been a mainstream conservative party in Australia. However, before 1944, there were Liberal parties in some states, including Victoria. Also there was a Liberal Party government at the federal level, led by Joseph Cook, between June 1913 and September 1914. It was formed out of the Fusion government that followed the coming together of Alfred Deakin’s protectionists and George Reid’s free traders in 1909.
As there was no precedent for a conservative political movement in Australia, it was not surprising Menzies chose the name Liberal when forming the new party in 1944. It’s also possible he was conscious that the Conservative-Labour divide in Britain reflected the class system in that country. But, he never consciously distanced himself from the term conservative or such leading Conservatives as Winston Churchill.
Writing in The Australian on Wednesday, Peter van Onselen commented that “were Menzies alive today, his world view would reflect the times and his approach to capturing the political centre highlights that he would have been progressive rather than a reactionary conservative”. Van Onselen says Menzies would have allowed a parliamentary vote on same-sex marriage rather than put the matter to a plebiscite.
How would van Onselen know? As former Liberal NSW premier Barry O’Farrell tweeted on Wednesday evening: “If Menzies were alive today — he’d be 123 years old; we’d all be following his lifestyle tips.”
Menzies can only be judged by reference to what he did and said. He committed the Second Australian Imperial Force to the war against the Axis powers in 1940, at a time when John Curtin’s Labor Party opposed deploying Australian forces overseas. When prime minister between 1939 and 1941, Menzies made the Communist Party of Australia illegal.
After leading the Coalition to victory against Labor in December 1949, Menzies attempted to ban the CPA. His legislation was declared unconstitutional by the High Court and he narrowly lost the September 1951 referendum aimed at giving the commonwealth government power to ban the CPA outside of wartime.
In 1950, the Menzies government committed Australian forces in support of the UN- sanctioned and US-led military action to drive communist North Korea out of non-communist South Korea. In the early 1960s, Menzies committed forces to support the British-led campaign against the communist insurgency in what was termed the Malayan Emergency. Not long after, the Coalition committed forces to support the British-led military action against the confrontation of the recently formed Malaysia by the nationalist Sukarno regime in Indonesia.
In 1964, Menzies announced the implementation of conscription for overseas military service. He was the first, and only, prime minister to do so. Conscription was introduced to reinforce the military during the Confrontation. But conscripts fought in Vietnam after Menzies sent combat forces to that conflict in 1965.
In the 60s Menzies, concerned about the influence of the CPA during the Cold War, tightened the national security provisions of the Crimes Act. None of the responses by the Menzies government to the communist threat overseas or at home were regarded as “progressive” at the time.
It’s true, as Turnbull said in London, that Menzies saw himself governing from the centre. That is also true of such Liberal prime ministers as Malcolm Fraser, John Howard, Tony Abbott and now Turnbull. Let’s not forget Turnbull was a senior member of the Abbott government.
Yet it is also true that Menzies held strong positions. He was opposed to communism and socialism and he resisted Australia following postwar Britain down the path of cradle-to-grave welfare. Menzies was no economic reformer but he was generally supportive of big, medium and small business.
Moreover, he disliked Liberals who presented themselves as small-l liberals or moderates including the Victorian Alan Missen and Billy Snedden.
Towards the end of his life, Menzies was so disillusioned with the party he had founded, then in the grip of self-proclaimed moderates, that he appears to have given his first preference vote to the anti-communist and social-conservative Democratic Labor Party, probably when the Liberals were led by John Gorton, William McMahon and Snedden. But Menzies resumed being a Liberal voter in 1975, when Malcolm Fraser defeated Gough Whitlam.
From a Coalition perspective, the most important point about Menzies is that he won government from Labor in 1949 and prevailed in the subsequent elections of 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963 before retiring. If the modern Liberal Party were anywhere near as successful, it is unlikely that Menzies would be so widely discussed today.