The view from Billinudgel

The mythical Menzies
The anniversary of Menzies’ forgotten people speech is a plea by the conservatives to get back to their roots

For much of last week the Liberal Party was creaming its well-tailored trousers over a speech made 75 years ago by the party’s founder.

Actually he was not the party’s founder at that stage; he had been rejected by his former colleagues and by the electorate at large and was generally given little chance of redemption. But this was perhaps the point; the whole exercise was about myth making, so the historical fiction was entirely appropriate.

Robert Menzies’  “Forgotten People” speech is usually described as the turning point of his revival and a credo from which he fashioned the ideology of the modern Liberal Party some years later. Like almost all such documents it can be, and has been, interpreted by anyone who seeks to use it for advantage.

The current anniversary is a plea by the conservatives to get back to their roots, or rather the roots cultivated by Menzies three quarters of a century ago. These, like the Ten Commandments, are considered irrefutable – holy writ.

They are, the crusty old Tories aver, as relevant today as they were in 1942. They embody the wisdom of the ages and if only they could be imposed on present-day Australia, all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. At the time, much of what Menzies said was unexceptionable. But times change. The American Declaration of Independence began with the claim that all men were created equal, but it was in fact penned by slave owners. Menzies’ “Forgotten People” manifesto was written in what may now be seen as similarly dark ages.

White Australia was a given, women’s rights were barely a dream and gay rights not even a passing fantasy. Aboriginal Australians were, for practical purposes, non-existent – terra nullius in action. Loyalty to the mother country – Menzies’ mother country – was unquestioned: Menzies once described himself as “British to the bootstraps”, although even then such accoutrements were seldom heard of.

He resisted television to the end and when he was forced to confront decimal currency, he wanted to call the dollar the Royal. Australians were, with the monarch’s permission, sometimes accorded imperial honours – at least Menzies was prevented from offering a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh.

And this was the morning – barely the dawn – of Menzies’ reign. Later it drifted into his memoir, or what he called his memorandum, Afternoon Light – Tennyson’s country of the lotus-eaters where it was always afternoon.

Today’s conservatives prefer his other Tennysonian exhortation from the same poem, “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” But while the great man did his share of striving, the aims for which he strove would hardly be familiar to the voters of 2017.

Sheltered behind tariffs and other protective measures insisted on by the then Country Party, with an enduring postwar economic boom, almost full employment and a shattered Labor Party, Menzies ruled an Australia in which most problems – even the close-run 1961 election – were temporary and manageable. It need hardly be said that Malcolm Turnbull is not in a similar position.

It is all very jolly for his troops to indulge in nostalgia and sentimentality, but they should realise that those times are gone forever. Few Australians were even alive to remember them and the rest of us don’t want to, except in black-and-white movies.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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