Robert Menzies, who founded the Liberal Party of Australia in late 1944, was born in 1894. He retired from politics in January 1966, having been prime minister since December 1949. Menzies also was prime minister between April 1939 and August 1941 as the leader of the governing United Australia Party (whose name was appropriated in recent times by Clive Palmer’s political movement).

Menzies died in May 1978, close to a half-century ago. So it came as some surprise to read the following subheading in Nine’s Sydney Morning Herald on Monday: “The Liberal Party’s founder would detest the way his name is being used to justify ideologically extremist positions.”

This comment appeared under an article by George Brandis headed “Stop taking liberties with Menzies”. Brandis was attorney-general in the Coalition government of recent memory before serving for four years from April 2018 as Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom. He currently holds a position at the Australian National University.

Brandis’s contribution was a somewhat angry addition to the current debate within the Liberal Party as to its policy direction following its devastating defeat in the election in May. His essential gripe is that “we have seen right-wing elements attempt to conscript Menzies’ name and memory to justify positions which are actually antithetical to his beliefs, and to the purposes for which the Liberal Party was founded”.

Brandis’s substantial complaint was directed at participants in the Conservative Political Action Conference, which was held recently in Sydney. He wrote that the “star turn at the conference was the chief Brexit rabble-rouser Nigel Farage” but does not cite him as quoting Menzies.

According to Brandis, the “only sitting Liberal politician given a speaking slot was an obscure South Australian backbencher in the Cory Bernardi mould”. Apparently Brandis is so full of contempt for the person that he would not name names. It was senator Alex Antic. But there was no reference to Antic as having quoted Menzies. Likewise with Bernardi, a Liberal senator for South Australia before founding the short-lived Australian Conservatives party. Brandis refers to someone whom he describes as “a federal vice-president of the Liberal Party” who told the conference “we should rejoice” that several Liberal seats had been lost to Labor and the teals. The person was Teena McQueen. Brandis wrote that those seats “included MPs like Tim Wilson, Trent Zimmerman and Jason Falinski”, whom he described as “classical Liberals in the Menzies tradition”.

It is true that McQueen made this statement at CPAC. But there is no report that she evoked the memory of Menzies in this instance. In any event, her views have been rejected by Liberal Party leader Peter Dutton. Moreover, McQueen made her statement after the election.

Former Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull did much more damage to the likes of Wilson with his devastating critiques of the Morrison government before the election, primarily on the ABC Radio National Breakfast program. They were widely reported in the mainstream media. This is documented in Aaron Patrick’s book Ego: Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party’s Civil War (HarperCollins, 2022). Brandis has not criticised Turnbull, a political ally, for his intervention in this year’s election.

Many of the Liberal Party MPs who lost their seats in May – the trio mentioned by Brandis plus the likes of Katie Allen, Josh Frydenberg, Celia Hammond and Dave Sharma – identified as moderate or modern Liberals and, on occasions, spoke or wrote favourably about Menzies. Particularly Frydenberg, who held Menzies’ seat of Kooyong in Melbourne and is close to Menzies’ daughter.

However, current Liberals who identify as conservatives also embrace the Menzies tradition. Former prime minister John Howard is a big fan of the Liberal Party founder. In his latest book A Sense of Balance (HarperCollins, 2022), Howard writes that “certainly, the attitudes of Robert Menzies … reveal a mixture of conservative and classical liberal views on a wide range of subjects”.

Howard points out that “in recent years, it has been a constant refrain of some small-L Liberals that theirs is the true Menzies tradition”. Brandis is part of this unofficial movement. But Howard says “in invoking the name of Menzies in this way, they have attributed to him attitudes not supported by many historical facts”.

Howard recognises that “Menzies and all of those who have followed him as leader have held fast to classical liberalism as their broad philosophical base” and have “valued the individual ahead of the collective and … embraced free enterprise and supported freedom of speech, worship and association”. But he points out that “Menzies governed in very different times, and in many specific ways he was both an economic and social conservative”.

Brandis condemns unnamed Liberals he criticised in his article in Nine newspapers as “political charlatans” who sometimes misappropriated the name of the party’s “great founder to justify ideologically extremist positions he would have plainly detested”. This may well be the case, but Brandis does not support his assertion with evidence.

What we do know is that, when prime minister, Menzies banned the Communist Party in 1940 and attempted to do so again in 1951. He also introduced tough-minded amendments to the Crimes Act in the early 1960s that upset the civil liberties lobby of the day.

We also know Menzies was a strong believer in national security who forged close friendships and alliances with Britain and the US. During his time as prime minister, Australia committed armed forces to World War II in the European theatre, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, Konfrontasi (Indonesia’s aggression against the newly emergent Malaysia) as well as to the Vietnam War (in support of the non-communist South Vietnamese government).

For a man of his time, Menzies was both a liberal and a conservative. But the Menzies era was a long time ago. We know what the Liberal Party founder believed and did in his lifetime. But no one knows what a person who died nearly a half-century ago would think today.