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Australia from 1949 and into the future

By Brendan Nelson - posted Friday, 22 April 2005

Today, in this the inaugural Dame Pattie Menzies oration, we seek in our own inadequate way to honour a remarkable Australian, woman, mother and wife.

A political movement reveals itself - its values and beliefs, not only by those it elevates to lead in its highest offices, but by those whom it honours. Some people lead from position, others by principle. Pattie Menzies did both. The debt owed to her legacy by the Liberal Party of Australia and the country we serve, is one we can barely understand, let alone repay.

Where then should the Liberal Party head in the 21st century? Australia faces different horizons and different challenges from those of Dame Pattie’s era. The one hundred segmented markets that characterised the world when Sir Robert and Dame Pattie moved into the Lodge in 1949 have coalesced into three principal trading blocs. So too the agrarian, land and labour intensive industries of our past - agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and manufacturing have undergone enormous transformation. Some are dying.


Whereas in 1949 agriculture was 21.3 per cent of the nation’s GDP, it is now 3.4 per cent. When I finished school in 1975, manufacturing represented 21.4 per cent of our economic activity, it is now 11.9 per cent.

In contrast Australia last year earned more from exporting education than wheat and wool. At 4.2 per cent of GDP and employing 241,000 Australians in 22,000 businesses, information communication technology surpasses many traditional industries in value. So too tourism ranks alongside mining in economic value to our nation, representing 4.2 and 4.4 per cent respectively of GDP.

From the early 70s however, we saw churches and ethics based organisations progressively marginalised from public debate. The value of parenting as a fulltime occupation was diminished, volunteering was considered the domain of the “do gooder” and young people felt they were being pushed to the zeniths of educational achievement - frequently beyond their natural abilities and heartfelt preferences.

In elevating gambling to the status of a religion and having some arguing euthanasia on the basis that death is an acceptable escape from insufferable physical and emotional pain, we saw by the mid 90s the price paid by young Australians.

It wasn’t so much the peak in young male suicide at 27 per 100,000, nor illicit drug use by teenagers approaching a majority experience. We had reduced the toll taken by disease and car accident, but failed to have any impact on that exacted by despair.

When John Howard came to government a culture had emerged in which many young people felt that they had little to believe in other than themselves. When 2,600 year eight students were surveyed for the Victorian Centre for Adolescent Health’s “Gatehouse” longitudinal study in 1999, the results were disturbing.


40 per cent could identify a person whom they felt knew them well - favourite music, best friend, dreams and deepest fears. However, only a quarter could name a single adult whom they felt they could trust. Not a parent, teacher, neighbour, doctor. No one.

The problem perhaps is not that many young Australians have not learned our values: it is that they have. So what does all this have to do with articulated national vision? Everything.

Young people must have a stable and loving relationship with at least one adult, preferably a parent. They must secondly be a part of a school community in which identity is built. It is important they are known and understood as individuals. But thirdly, young people must grow in a community and nation that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. The growing pilgrimage by young Australians to Gallipoli is but one manifestation of their search for meaning.

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This is an edited version of the Dame Pattie Menzies oration, given by Brendan Nelson on April 18, 2005. The complete speech can be found here.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson is a former federal Minister for Education, Science and Training and is the Liberal Member for Bradfield (NSW).

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