Though Whitlamite nostalgia can be a poor guide for contemporary public policy, it is at least understandable that Labor’s true believers remember those years fondly. But when they start indulging in Menzies nostalgia something very odd is going on. In his first speech to Parliament after becoming leader, Kevin Rudd said:
…this modern Liberal Party, is that it is not the Liberal Party of old. If you go back and read what Bob Menzies had to say about social responsibility and social justice, there is no way that Bob Menzies would fit into the world view that we are now being offered. You see, the member for Kooyong recently delivered a speech on Bob Menzies?? legacy within the Liberal Party on these questions of social responsibility. It is quite clear when you read that clearly that there has been an ocean of change between that Liberal Party and what it stood for, despite our criticisms of it and our disagreements with it at the time, and the market fundamentalism which has overtaken the current Liberal Party.
It’s another example of the strange meme that recontructs the conservative Robert Menzies as some kind of left-leaning social democrat. In a fiscal fact-checking exercise sadly lacking among those making this claim about Menzies, today I visited the economics library at Melbourne University to see just how the Menzies government’s spending levels compared with that of John Howard’s government.
I used the last Menzies Budget, 1965-66. To get a realistic comparison, I used the RBA’s inflation calculator to convert all spending levels into 2005 dollars, and divided by the population to get a per capita figure. Overall spending per person under Howard in 2005 was 204% higher in real terms. But in the ‘social justice’ areas the increase was much higher. Education spending was up 866% per person. Health spending was up 803%. In social security there was comparative spending constraint – only 433% higher. From the amazing list of rural rorts running in the mid-1960s I expect we spend less per person on that kind of thing now, but Menzies’ overall record would, in contemporary terms, make him not a social democrat but a more radical neoliberal than anyone at the current-day CIS or IPA.
While in the library, I thought it would be interesting to do a comparison with Gough Whitlam as well. He doesn’t qualify as a radical neoliberal, but Whitlam’s per capita spending record in the 1975-76 Budget is enough for me to indulge in some Whitlam nostalgia of my own. For education, spending per person was 18% lower under Whitlam, health was 45% lower, and social security was 59% lower. Overall spending per head was 39% lower. Howard the canny conservative social democrat has taken taxpayers’ money and Labor’s agenda, without many of either group even noticing.