The Forgotten People

There is much our current leaders could learn from the views of Australia’s longest serving prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies about how to make Australia a better place, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono NewsThe Forgotten People, 17 August 2017.

The Forgotten People, Pro Bono News, 17 August 2017

Recent events in Australian politics have focused attention on internal divisions within the Liberal party and how differing ideologies play out in government policy.

When it comes to conservative politics, Sir Robert Menzies has been referred to as the father of the modern Liberal party. Menzies was a great communicator. After being forced into the political wilderness as an ex-prime minister in 1941, he began his comeback towards becoming prime minister again in 1949 with weekly broadcasts on Macquarie radio.

His speech through this medium in May 1942 was considered so significant that this year there have been numerous 75th year anniversary dinners to mark what was titled the Forgotten People speech. Some argue this was his signature speech, the speech that set the foundations for his comeback as a politician. As part of the commemorations, there has been an intense discussion amongst some conservative politicians about what this speech might now mean for Australia, for the modern Liberal party.

Many of the values outlined in the Forgotten People still resonate in modern Australia.  Revisiting these speeches, I was struck by how they have been interpreted over the years in ways that I think miss some of the political appeal of the Menzies approach.

To begin with, Menzies did not see a role for governments in protecting the interests of the multinationals and the wealthiest in our society. In the Forgotten People speech when talking about the middle class being the backbone of the nation, he excluded the rich in the following way:

“I exclude at one end of the scale the rich and powerful: those who control great funds and enterprises, and are as a rule able to protect themselves – though it must be said that in a political sense they have as a rule shown neither comprehension nor competence. But I exclude them because in most material difficulties, the rich can look after themselves.”

There is no “make the rich richer and we will all benefit” argument here. Nor is there any support for organised labour. Menzies similarly argued they did not need protection by government.

Menzies championed home ownership, describing it as enabling the middle class to have “a stake in the country”.  

The longest section of the Forgotten People speech focuses on the importance of home ownership to the middle class and how this informs our values.

Menzies also praised the middle class for actively supporting education, the arts and other intellectual pursuits:

“The middle class provides more than perhaps any other the intellectual life which marks us off from the beast: the life which finds room for literature, for the arts, for science, for medicine and the law. This middle class maintains and fills the higher schools and universities, and so feeds the lamp of learning. What are schools for? To train people for examinations, to enable people to comply with the law, or to produce developed men and women?

“Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly – the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary?”

Menzies railed against the populism of his day: “One of the great blots on our modern living is the cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause. A world in which a comedian or a beautiful half-wit on the screen can be paid fabulous sums, whilst scientific researchers and discoverers can suffer neglect and starvation, is a world which needs to have its sense of values violently set right.”

What would Menzies make of the Bachelor or a reality TV US president?

Menzies did not support the socialist view of the world and argued against everyone being equal and dependent on the state:

“I do not believe that we shall come out (of the war years) into the over-lordship of an all-powerful state on whose benevolence we shall live, spineless and effortless – a state which will dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy; where we shall all have our dividend without subscribing our capital; where the government, that almost deity, will nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us; where we shall all be civil servants, and all presumably, since we are equal, heads of departments.”

At the same time, Menzies argued there was an increasing role for government. He did not support the “let the market decide – competition solves everything” approach:

“If the new world is to be a world of men, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of people whose motto shall be ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. Individual enterprise must drive us forward. That does not mean that we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. The functions of the state will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.”

Australia’s longest serving prime minister’s views of the world as expressed in his early speeches suggest that he was not pro big-business or the rich; not in favour of the economy being the main benchmark of our progress; housing and homeownership were central to his understanding of national security; he was anti-union and opposed the notion of equality of outcomes, he did not believe government should just get out of the way and let the market decide. Most importantly, Menzies believed in all of us striving to be better people – not just richer or more famous – but better educated, more creative and confident.

In many ways, it seems the Menzies of the Forgotten People would have supported the goals outlined in the CCA Australia We Want first report of focusing on our values.

If there is a lesson for the Liberal party of today in the Forgotten People speech, it might be to look beyond the economy and the big vested interests and think about the values our country enacts. To follow Menzies would be to ensure Australians not only have opportunities to succeed, but also to nurture the intellectual and the artistic, to pursue education and self-realisation, and to create a spirited free Australia.

Menzies was a genuine leader at a critical time in Australia’s history. There is much our current leaders could learn from his views about how to make Australia a better place. If only.

View article on Pro Bono News: