Only four Liberal Party leaders have taken the Coalition into government by defeating Labor from opposition.
In order of their years of tenure in office, they were Robert Menzies (1949), John Howard (1996), Malcolm Fraser (1975) and Tony Abbott (2013).
Viewed in this light, it’s easy to see why so many contemporary Liberals associate themselves with Menzies and Howard, including Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
The Prime Minister threw the switch to Menzies when addressing the Liberal Party’s Victorian state council meeting in Melbourne last Saturday.
Coming off the back of a successful week in parliament, during which the Coalition achieved its company tax cut plans for the next three years, Turnbull told delegates the Liberal Party founder was a man of the “sensible centre”.
As Turnbull put it: “Menzies rejected the populism, authoritarianism of both left and right. He knew that the future … was in the sensible centre … not reactionary but liberal, proudly liberal.”
The reference to liberal was in the British or American usage, where liberal is contrasted with conservative. The Prime Minister went on to say that “above all you build from the centre, bringing people together, and that is our commitment”.
He added that enterprise lay at the heart of the Liberal Party’s core — where could be found businessmen and businesswomen and, above all, small business.
It is true that immediately after the failure of the United Australia Party government Menzies led between April 1939 and August 1941, he focused on what he termed “the forgotten people”. The reference was to “salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. In other words, what was termed the middle class at the time. This definition excluded what Menzies termed the rich and powerful.
However, it is ahistorical to depict Menzies as a liberal and nothing else. This is not how he was viewed during his first period as prime minister during the early years of World War II or during his prime ministership between December 1949 and January 1966 during the Cold War. And it is not how he viewed himself.
For example, in 1940 Menzies banned the Communist Party of Australia. He did so for sound national security reasons. After all, it was the time of the notorious pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and Australian communists — on the direction of their leaders in Moscow — were intent on disrupting the war effort.
Certainly, Menzies was into appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. But so was Labor Party leader John Curtin and virtually all of Australia’s leading politicians with the exception of one-time Labor leader Billy Hughes, who joined the conservative side of politics during the World War I.
In any event, as prime minister, Menzies dispatched the Second Australian Imperial Force into action against the Axis powers in Europe and North Africa. At the time, Curtin’s Labor Party was opposed to the commitment of Australian military forces overseas.
Following Menzies’ return to prime ministerial office in late 1949, he attempted to ban the Communist Party again. This legislation was overturned by the High Court and the Coalition narrowly lost a referendum to outlaw the CPA in September 1951.
This was not the action of a man possessed of only small-l liberal values.
Subsequently, the Menzies government committed Australian forces to assist the US-led UN force to drive communist North Korea out of non-communist South Korea. There followed Australian military involvement in the Malayan Emergency (in defence of Malaya against a communist insurgency) and Confrontation (in defence of newly formed Malaysia against Indonesian nationalist aggression).
Then there was the Menzies government’s decision in 1965 to send combat forces in defence of South Vietnam against communist-led North Vietnam. Around this time, Menzies turned the focus to national security when he toughened the provisions of the Crimes Act during the Cold War.
Certainly, Menzies did not embrace economic reform. After all, he had little reason to do so. The economy grew through most of the 1950s and early 60s and there was virtually no unemployment.
Menzies’ essential economic legacy is that he did not embrace economic socialism, along with cradle-to-grave welfare, which afflicted postwar Britain and New Zealand.
The Menzies government allowed Britain to test its nuclear weapons on Australian territory. And he was the only prime minister to introduce peacetime conscription for military involvements well beyond Australia’s shore. The Curtin Labor government was forced to introduce conscription during World War II but it applied only to service within a small designated part of the southwest Pacific.
The first real glimpse Australians had of Menzies came when his daughter Heather Henderson (no relation) edited the collection Letters to My Daughter: Robert Menzies, Letters, 1955-1975 (Pier 9, 2011). The correspondence revealed a softer side to Menzies but one not without bite.
For example, in October 1967 Menzies complained that he had been lied to and treated unprofessionally by the ABC concerning a This Day Tonight interview for his book Afternoon Light. He decided to “now return to my old decision never to do a TV appearance for the ABC”. In June 1974, Menzies complained to his daughter about the public broadcaster’s inaccurate report about visitors to his house. A reluctant apology was made by the ABC but Menzies remarked to his daughter: “What can you expect of the ABC!”
Certainly, the left intelligentsia never regarded Menzies as a liberal. They saw him as, at best, a conservative and at worst a dangerous right-winger. For example, the Manning Clark described Menzies as a “tragedy writ large”.
Stuart Macintyre depicted him as the embodiment of “provincial philistinism”.
Sure, Menzies was more than an ideological conservative. But he was also more than a pragmatic liberal.
The important point was that — support or oppose him — most Australians knew where Menzies stood. On social and economic issues as well as on foreign policy and national security.
In this sense, Menzies’ strength lay in his ability to avoid political labelling.