Could the historical Robert Menzies be anywhere near as good as the Robert Menzies that exists in everybody’s minds?
Last week, Tony Abbott told a Sydney Liberal branch that the Liberals could win power if they embraced Menzies’ lessons – small government, and free markets.
This was, of course, a few days before he announced the super parental leave scheme, which will impose a substantial special tax on Australia’s most profitable businesses, in order to fund the middle class welfare policy to end all middle class welfare policies.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor quickly damned the Abbott scheme, claiming that the opposition leader should have at the same time “apologised to the spirit of … Robert Menzies”, for abandoning his free enterprise ideals. To which The Australian quickly replied that Menzies was himself a big supporter of the welfare state.
During the Howard years there was an endless stream of columns claiming that John Howard had “betrayed the Menzies vision”. Or “abandoned his legacy”, as if Menzies would have crossed the floor against Howard, if only the passage of time had given him a chance.
Menzies is either a stick to be wielded against the modern Liberal Party, or a divining rod for seeking its future direction. But like a divining rod, those who use Menzies’ legacy are revealing more about themselves than about Menzies.
Nevertheless, when Bob Brown states on Twitter that “Tony Abbott’s new front bench makes Sir Robert Menzies look pink”, it’s a fair point. Menzies does look a little pink these days.
The post-war Menzies government was centralist enough to be a blank slate upon which anybody can impose their ideal vision of the past. Well, at least it was centralist by the standards of the time. With the hindsight of half a century, the Menzies government was a protectionist government, supportive of high levels of regulation, restrictive industrial laws, and, most damningly, the White Australia Policy.
So if Menzies really was a free marketeer, he certainly hid it well. The Australian economy in the middle of last century had levels of interference that would make the Greens blush.
The Menzies government was better than its predecessor, which tried to outright nationalise the banking system. But the conservative victory in 1949 was no breakthrough for free-enterprise, despite the subsequent myth making.
Trade policy is an obvious indicator of a government’s philosophical beliefs. And on free trade, Menzies looks very bad. With the possible exception of 1950 and 1951, when import controls were temporarily lifted in response to American demand, Australia’s markets were tightly regulated by the federal government, with import licensing and quota restrictions meant to protect industry from dastardly foreign competition.
After more than a decade of conservative government, those import restrictions were lifted in 1960, and the work of micromanaging the economy was left to tariffs. But it was Gough Whitlam, of all people, who started the real work of opening the Australian economy to the world, when he cut tariffs 25 per cent across the board.
We have a habit of thinking that being right equates with success, and being wrong equates with failure.
But just because some certain political leader was successful – and Menzies certainly was successful, if measured simply by years on the job – doesn’t mean they are an idol against which we should measure our values. If right-of-centre Australians want to evoke the spirit of their philosophical ancestors, they’d do better to remember their glorious failures.
Take the nineteenth century politician Bruce Smith, Australia’s answer to the great British liberals Richard Cobden and John Bright.
Smith wrote Liberty and Liberalism, a manifesto of free trade and small government, which the Australian Dictionary of Biography helpfully describes as ‘anachronistic’ because he believed in limiting state interference in the economy. (Economic liberty is so just so … old-fashioned.)
Smith fervently opposed the White Australian Policy, arguing that the “foundation of the [Immigration Restriction] bill was undoubtedly racial prejudice”. Smith’s liberalism was remarkably modern: “I venture to say that a large part of the scare is founded upon a desire to make political capital by appealing to some of the worst instincts of the more credulous of the people.” He should have just said “dog-whistle”.
Smith was a big supporter of business. He helped found and direct the Victorian Employers Union in 1885 and the New South Wales Employers’ Union in 1888, as a response of business to the growing trade unions.
Or we could consider George Reid, who was the first and only Free Trade Party Prime Minister. Or Bert Kelly, the “modest member” who was a dedicated supporter of free trade within Menzies’ government, and anticipated the liberalisations of the 1980s and 1990s.
Modern political parties are welcome to celebrate the achievements of their former leaders. But if they need philosophical inspiration – and they do – they’ll have to look elsewhere.