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Rediscovering the liberal progressive vision of Menzies

By David Furse-Roberts - posted Thursday, 11 May 2017


Like southern Baptist preachers posing the rhetorical question 'what would Jesus do?' self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives argue incessantly about the application of Menzies' political philosophy to the burning issues of today.

The assertion of Peter Van Onselen in the Weekend Australian (18 February 2017), that Menzies was a progressive who would be fighting for same-sex marriage if he were alive today, is one of the more audacious attempts to plant the Menzies flag on a political terrain vastly different to that of half a century ago.

"We took the name 'Liberal' because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary" wrote Menzies. With scant regard for the historical context in which it was penned, Van Onselen transposes this famous line from Menzies' 1967 memoirs to the political milieu of today.

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While Van Onselen deserves credit for reminding readers that Menzies was both a liberal and a progressive who shunned the politics of reaction, he barely acknowledges the process of linguistic evolution which has altered the meaning of 'liberal', 'progressive' and 'anti-reactionary' over time.To cherry-pick these terms and impose a contemporary construction on them is an exercise in historical revisionism that distorts beyond recognition the values of the founder of the Liberal Party

To be sure, Menzies was an avowed liberal with his philosophy firmly planted in the soil of English Whig liberalism, dating back to John Locke. It is true that he seldom used the word 'conservative'. His close colleague, Paul Hasluck, observed that Menzies saw himself as the political heir to William Gladstone, the 19th century Liberal prime minister of Britain. Humane and reforming yet deferential to the Crown and the constitution, the Whig-derived Liberals of Victorian England had a laudable track-record in advancing the cause of human dignity and freedom. Accordingly, when Menzies took the word 'Liberal' for his new Party in 1944, he consciously assumed the mantle of the old English Liberals to realise the same ideals of individual dignity, freedom and opportunity for Australians in the twentieth-century.

The explicitly liberal creed of Menzies, however, at no time implied any rejection or disdain for the inherited traditions, institutions and customs of the past. This was the prime minister who spoke for a nation when he said to the Queen:

All I ask you to remember in this country of yours is that every man, woman and child who even sees you with a passing glimpse as you go by will remember it, remember it with joy, remember it - in the words of the old 17th century poet who wrote those famous words, "I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.

As the philosophical descendent of Edmund Burke, who similarly identified himself as a Whig rather than a Tory, Menzies saw no tension between advancing the cause of individual freedom and progress whilst safeguarding traditions such as the British Crown and Westminster democracy, the Australian Constitution, the Judeo-Christian ethic, the natural family, private property and the rule of law. Like Burke, Menzies believed that the maintenance of these institutions provided the essential precondition for personal liberty to flourish and social progress to follow.

Given this instinct of Menzies' liberalism to conserve the best of the past, there was little need for him in his day to qualify it with the label 'conservative'. Nor would he have met the threshold of moral correctness required to join the progressive camp today. Unlike today's progressives, Menzies saw no conflict between scientific, economic and social progress. For classical liberals they are mutually dependent.

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With his fondness for quoting the Bible, the Presbyterian Menzies would have wrestled with the secular, postmodernist worldview that defines modern progressivism. While he did not believe in letting the market off the leash, he was sceptical of the levellers' demands for aggressive income redistribution and big-spending government programmes favoured by today's progressives. As for the progressive causes of identity politics, carbon pricing, same-sex marriage, a bill of rights and an Australian republic, they would have been anathema to him.

For Menzies, a progressive was somebody who sought to advance the social and economic wellbeing of the nation. Economic progress could not be driven by government spending since governments have no money of their own. The motive power of progress was individual initiative, free enterprise, free trade and the expectation of reward in return for risk.Menzies' brokering of the 1957 Australia-Japan commerce agreement just 12 years after the end of WWII was controversial in its day but vital for developing markets for the productive economy.

Social progress, meanwhile, was not about attempting to weaken and re-engineer age-old institutions but about nourishing the existing social bonds of families, communities and voluntary associations to produce a more stable and cohesive society for all. The Menzies' government's Matrimonial Causes Act of 1959 was an example of socially progressive legislation with its stated aim to promote the stability of marriage.

Given Menzies' own notion of 'progressive', it followed that his view of 'reactionary' also differed from that of contemporary parlance. Today it is little more than a smear-word used by the Left to malign conservatives. For Menzies, reactionaries were to be found in movements that were intent on dismounting the great pillars of Western civilisation. According to Menzies, the most reactionary people in the country were not cultural or religious traditionalists but socialists and communists armed with radical policy.

At the other extreme, the second group of reactionaries in Menzies' sights were the apologists for a selfish capitalism who wished to return to a 'dog-eat-dog' society and reverse humane liberal reforms to protect the poor. With the liberalism of Menzies proposing to 'march down the middle of the road' between socialism and laissez-faire capitalism, the Liberal Party would be 'in no sense reactionary'.

The so-called reactionaries of today, the conservatives who honour traditional institutions as the foundation for freedom, prosperity and human flourishing, would be recognised by Menzies as the bedrock of his 'Forgotten People' and worthier heirs to Menzies' legacy than Van Onselen admits.

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About the Author

David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and editor of the forthcoming book, Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches, published by Connor Court.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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