Menzies exhumed again

When will poor old Robert Menzies be left to rest in peace? Time and time and time again this crusty old conservative is brought back to life as a more liberal Liberal than John Howard. Former Victorian Liberal politician Robert Dean gives the argument yet another run in (where else?) The Age this morning.

As with previous such accounts, there are some strange views of what happened in the past:

His passion for equality of opportunity was nowhere more evident than his belief in free education. He called for a 10-fold increase in university entrants.

While the Menzies government did provide scholarships to some university students, it did not introduce free university education, which came with Whitlam’s government in 1974. I’m not sure that he called for a 10-fold increase in university students, but it certainly didn’t happen during his term. Numbers actually fell in the early Menzies years, and eventually peaked at about 20% of current numbers.

And in criticising the government over Iraq, Dean says:

But on the notion of a democracy engaging in a “pre-emptive invasion” these words [from Menzies] are instructive. “Democracy has proved itself a friend of peace. No fully self-governing country has provoked a war within a century’s memory, and … no aggression by any democracy led to the present war.”

But of course it was Menzies who declared war on Germany in 1939, a country that has never committed an act of aggression directly against Australia without us first declaring war on them, in response to Germany invading Poland, a country of no strategic significance to Australia.

Even when people get their history right, the Menzies precedent is of at most limited use, because Menzies was wrong about many things, and even where he was right at the time circumstances are so different that careful examination of the current situation is more useful than historical analogies.

Many of the criticisms Dean makes of the Howard government are, however, plausible enough in their substance, which raises the question: why filter the argument through the words and deeds of a long-dead former Prime Minister? Arguments like Dean’s get their rhetorical relevance through Howard’s admiration for Menzies, but despite what Howard’s critics used to say before they were themselves swept up in 1950s nostalgia he has never advocated going back to that era. Howard’s policies may be wrong on some points, but he is not a hypocrite for not following Menzies.

And of course one should be careful about inviting historical comparisons. Menzies lived where he said he lived and did not get removed from the electoral roll – unlike, of course, Robert Dean.

41 Responses to “Menzies exhumed again

  • 1
    Dave Bath
    August 8th, 2007 16:07

    I agree with Dean that Howard has moved far from the smaller-l-liberalism of the Menzies thru Gorton and Fraser years, and I consider this a Bad Thing. However, Andrew is right to deflate Dean’s encomium of Menzies, at least on the rule of law. Menzies was quick to twist it when politically convenient: as AG in the 1930s he tried to stop a lefty european’s lecture tour by administering the “language of the British Isles” test in Scots Gaelic. Details at APO

    Andrew’s also right to say Howard isn’t a hypocrite because he has moved the party away from Menzies’ lines (although Howard is a hypocrite on many other things, and IMHO dissembles nearly everwhere else).

    The left giving post-mortem absolution to Menzies is weirder than warming to Big Mal (who at least has been “redeeming” himself in the eyes of the left).

    If the Liberal Party faithful find Howard so objectionable, then they’ve had many years to do something about it. It’s not like the small-l-liberals have thought they’d get any of the policies through a Howard government, so they had nothing to lose by trying their darndest to topple him.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    August 8th, 2007 16:21

    “I agree with Dean that Howard has moved far from the smaller-l-liberalism of the Menzies thru Gorton and Fraser years, and I consider this a Bad Thing.”

    Dave – I don’t think even that is sustainable overall. Menzies after all presided over the White Australia policy, conscription, institutionlised discrimination against women, far more censorship than we have today, the attempted banning of the Communist Party, a much smaller welfare state than we have today, and made divorce very difficult to get.

    In a post unfortunately lost in one of the Catallaxy server crashes, I tried to draw a distinction between absolute and relative social liberalism, ie perhaps your argument could be rescued by saying that while in absolute terms Howard is much more of a social liberal than Menzies, relative to contemporary ‘progressive’ opinion he has a larger gap. But even that is stretching it, I think.

  • 3
    Jason Soon
    August 8th, 2007 16:33

    By the standards of today, Menzies was a troglodyte Hansonite fascist.

  • 4
    JC
    August 8th, 2007 17:47

    “I agree with Dean that Howard has moved far from the smaller-l-liberalism of the Menzies thru Gorton and Fraser years, and I consider this a Bad Thing.”

    Maybe I talking about the wrong PM, but wasn’t it Howard who tried labor reform, the most important reform since federation? A reform so important that the opposers had to lie about the effects.

    Howard is no libertarian but to suggest he wasn’t a reformer is as big a lie as the dishonesty market reform.

  • 5
    JamesP
    August 8th, 2007 21:39

    Dean, who did not have the intelligence to enroll to vote correctly, was also one of the most useless Opposition Treasury spokesmen ever.

  • 6
    Bring Back CL's blog
    August 9th, 2007 07:43

    yes you are wrong JC.

    It was Keating that brought reform to the labour markets.

    It was Howard that brought 1600 more pages of legislation to it

  • 7
    derrida derider
    August 9th, 2007 11:42

    “But of course it was Menzies who declared war on Germany in 1939 …”

    [pedantry] Menzies didn’t declare war at all – the British king had declared war and that therefore all the king’s subjects were at war. The Australian government had no say in it, just as in 1914. [/pedantry]

    The interesting thing is that I suspect there is no reason the legal position would be any different today. If the queen was to issue a formal declaration of war on someone we’d be in a state of war with them. In practice, of course, we’d accept or ignore it as we wished.

  • 8
    Leopold
    August 9th, 2007 13:01

    Always find this stuff mildly entertaining. Banning the Communist Party was as unpleasant and absurd a political tactic as Howard’s war on boat people, but Bob Menzies was so much more honourable and decent than the little chap. Like the people on my side who remember pragmatic populist Whitlam as a principled visionary.

  • 9
    JC
    August 9th, 2007 15:34

    Whitlam as a principled visionary. My backside is was…..

    Oh Yea Whitlam was a visionary alright.

    “Asylum seekers: These days Whitlam constantly lectures at large about the rights of refugees. Yet no incumbent prime minister – not even John Howard – worked harder to keep genuine asylum seekers out of Australia when he had a chance to demonstrate fairness and empathy.

    The Gough Fan Club has never disputed Clyde Cameron’s account in China, Communism and Coca-Cola (1980) about how Whitlam told cabinet in 1975 that he was “not having hundreds of f—— Vietnamese Balts coming into this country”. The Whitlam government’s excessively harsh policy to potential asylum seekers is documented in Hal G. P. Colebatch’s recent PhD thesis at the University of Western Australia.”

    During Whitlam’s prime ministership, Australia formally acknowledged the Soviet Union’s sovereignty over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – a policy that was reversed by Malcolm Fraser’s government. These three Baltic States were incorporated into the USSR as a consequence of the notorious Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939.

    “In a paper delivered at the Australian National University in September, 1978, Whitlam said he doubted “all the stories that appear in the newspapers about the treatment of people in Cambodia”. In other words, three years after Pol Pot’s killing fields began operations, Whitlam remained unconvinced that the communist Khmer Rouge regime was into mass murder – in the face of all evidence.”

    In 1976, Whitlam supported the idea that Labor should seek money (in secret) from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial Baath Socialist Party to fund the previous year’s election campaign. The incredible story is documented in Laurie Oakes’ Crash Through or Crash (Drummond, 1976). Whitlam was subsequently rebuked by the ALP national executive for a “gross error of judgment”. In a rare concession, The Leader told Faulkner that he was “culpable” in not scotching the idea “at the outset”. You can say that again.

    http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/12/02/1038712881421.html

    Please compare and contrast Howard to Whitlam “the visionary” or dumb nihilist at it’s best.

  • 10
    Jeremy
    August 9th, 2007 15:51

    Leopold,

    What ‘war on boat people’?

  • 11
    jc
    August 9th, 2007 15:57

    I got so pissed about this revisionist dumb junk that i didn’t edit…. sorry

    …….. My Backside he was…..

    ………Dumb nihilist at best…………………..

    Jeremy.

    I think the “war on boat people” Leopold is referring to was the visionary’s (Gough’s) war on boatpeople.

    That’s about the sanest thing it could be.

  • 12
    Jeremy
    August 9th, 2007 18:16

    Thanks jc. I think Leopold is just trying to provoke us.

  • 13
    Terje (tay-a)
    August 9th, 2007 18:28

    Homer – does your 1600 pages account at all for the dismantling of the multitude of award details that predominated previously?

  • 14
    JC
    August 10th, 2007 01:25

    Terje

    Homer goes around telling people it is re-regulation without really understanding what it means. Best to ignore him.

  • 15
    Terje (tay-a)
    August 10th, 2007 09:19

    JC – I’ve met Homer and I like and respect him. So I’m never likely to ignore him. Even in instances where I think he is essentially wrong. In any case I have more to say to those that are wrong than to those that are right. I hope he answers the question.

  • 16
    derrida derider
    August 10th, 2007 11:14

    JC, read Leopold’s comment again; he never claimed Whitlam was “a principled visionary” – exactly the opposite in fact. So you then rant on for several hundred semi-literate words about the iniquities of Whitlam in a thread about Menzies.

    Sheesh.

  • 17
    Bring Back CL's blog
    August 10th, 2007 11:48

    yes it does.

    any small to medium business needs the advice of their association more than ever under the new legisaltion. Under de-regulation you would need this advice less as in NZ which as less than 100 pages of legislation.

    I have met Terje and he is a great guy despite our differences.

  • 18
    JC
    August 10th, 2007 11:55

    DD
    You’re confusing typos with literacy. You always seem confused, don’t you?

    I would also suggest that you don’t bring your bad feelings over to other sites. It’s called showing courtesy to the host.

  • 19
    Terje (tay-a)
    August 10th, 2007 12:06

    Homer,

    What do you mean by “advice of their association”?

    In my own business we employ people under common law contracts and there is no relevant award so my experience of awards and AWAs etc is not first hand. In fact the only reform that seems to have effected us was the rules on dismissal and sick leave.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  • 20
    Leopold
    August 10th, 2007 12:39

    Howard (as well as Reith and others) linked boat people to terrorists and the war in terror in the 2001 election campaign, both subliminally and in explicit terms. It was an absurd proposition. ‘War on boat people’ was an overly simplistic phrase I grant.
    I was making the point that Menzies and Howard were both ruthless and pragmatic politicians, to whom the truth and civil liberties came second to winning elections. Much like Gough. But we regularly hear from people that Menzies was a ‘small-L’ liberal where Howard is a nasty conservative, and/or that Whitlam was a man of principle who ‘stood for something’, unlike the modern ALP.
    All clear?

  • 21
    Jeremy
    August 10th, 2007 13:55

    “‘War on boat people’ was an overly simplistic phrase I grant.”

    It wasn’t overly simplistic, it was completely inaccurate.

    “Howard (as well as Reith and others) linked boat people to terrorists and the war in terror in the 2001 election campaign, both subliminally and in explicit terms.”

    I’d love to see how you would go about proving the government’s ‘subliminal’ linkage of boat people to terrorists. Has someone invented a multiple-mind-reading machine?

    As far as I can recall, Howard and Reith said that, because many of the refugees were from Afghanistan, there was a possibility that some of them could be terrorists, or linked to the Taliban. Although the suggestion is distasteful and the connection it draws is highly improbable, this statement is not exactly drawing a one-to-one relationship between the two.

    Leopold, I suspect that something as simple as your own choice of words is weakening your argument.

  • 22
    Bring Back CL's blog
    August 10th, 2007 14:29

    Terje, simply the employer association they might belong to.
    Employer Associations are finding the IR legislation a great marketing tool.

    You have to inform all your employees of the New IR laws Terje as well as giving them the one page downloadable from the website. Fantastic about deregulation

  • 23
    Leopold
    August 10th, 2007 16:07

    Well, I think most people who read my comments understand what I’m saying. To rephrase: there was a sustained effort to turn national security (fighting terrorists) and border security (stopping boat people) into a single vote-switching issue. This was a false conflation of two essentially separate issues. The purpose was in large part to make Labor seem to be supporting unpopular groups (‘reffos’, Muslims etc) while Howard stood up for ‘ordinary’ Australians; I believe Menzies’ efforts to ban the Communist Party were a very similar strategy.
    And if you link terrorists and boat people, and are fighting a war on terror, then it’s not such a far stretch to ‘war on boat people’, though I do regret using the phrase, as it has muddied my argument.
    My main point though is simply that Howard and Menzies aren’t all that different, except insofar as they represent different eras in Australian politics and the Liberal Party. I mentioned Whitlam only to indicate that rose-tinting of past leaders in comparison to the modern ones is a cross-party phenomenon.

  • 24
    Jeremy
    August 10th, 2007 16:55

    “And if you link terrorists and boat people, and are fighting a war on terror, then it’s not such a far stretch to ‘war on boat people’,”

    Uh-uh. It remains a long stretch.

  • 25
    Geoff Robinson
    August 10th, 2007 17:16

    I spoke about Menzies on the ABC recently and made the point that I am convinced by Martin’s argument that Menzies was ambivalent about banning the CP. On one level arguments from history are silly, the past is another country. But we do see in Australia today an attempt by the hard right to create a US style conservative movement and make the Liberals a populist conservative force like the US Republicans (see Tony Fabrizio’s recent poll of GOP voters). Where is the Liberal resistance to this push likely to come from? hardly from the paper tigers of Australian libertarianism (too busy swooning over Mark Steyn and Charles Murray) but from the Liberal equivalent of what Fabrizio calls ‘heartland Republicans’.

  • 26
    Club Troppo » Friday’s Missing Link - on Friday!
    August 10th, 2007 20:32

    […] Norton is ever so slightly over the continued (mis)appropriation of Sir Robert Menzies by various political […]

  • 27
    Terje Petersen
    August 10th, 2007 21:35

    Terje, simply the employer association they might belong to. Employer Associations are finding the IR legislation a great marketing tool.

    Thanks. I’ve been an employer for 9 years and I don’t think my industry has one of those. Or at least not one I know about or have ever bothered with.

    I do think that AWAs represent a vast improvement over awards. Although I agree that the need to register such agreements is bureaucratic madness. So far as I’m concerned consenting adults should be able to enter into agreements without an official watching over them or a stack of obscure conditions or requirement defined in law. Of course if somebody makes an agreement willingly and then fails to honour the agreement they should get their ass kicked.

  • 28
    Jeremy
    August 11th, 2007 10:05

    I’m sorry everybody, I’m turning into a grump, but …

    Geoff,

    The ‘hard right’, the ‘paper tigers of Australian libertarianism’, the ‘Liberal equivalent of heartland Republicans’ – who ARE these people? Can you fill out the labels with any names?

  • 29
    Jason Soon
    August 11th, 2007 10:26

    The alleged ‘paper tigers’ of Australian libertarianism are not members of the Liberal party. Some of us despise it even more if not as much as the Labor party – why is their ‘duty’ to resist the turning of the Libs into a populist conservative force?

  • 30
    Jason Soon
    August 11th, 2007 11:35

    What Geoff calls ‘populist conservatism’ has anti-statism elements anyway. The US Republicans never really had any libertarian leanings till Goldwater and the first Goldwater Republican to gain the presidency (actually the only when you think about it) was Reagan. Similarly Howard is a genuine flaming libertarian compared to a vile authoritarian Tory-socialist Menzies like safeguarded the Settlement with his Labor mirror-images.

    There is no conscription under Howard and there was under the alleged ‘good old days’ of the Menzies Liberals and there was no more vile restriction of freedom than conscription. if taxation is theft, conscription is slavery.

    Before say, Hewson, the Liberals were as much the enemies of freedom and the classical liberal viewpoint as Labor, and both underwent a seachange under Hawke/Keating in Labor and Hewson/Howard in the Liberals.

  • 31
    David Rubie
    August 11th, 2007 12:35

    Jason Soon wrote:

    Similarly Howard is a genuine flaming libertarian

    John Howard the actor? The politician is very busy being a socialist at the moment Jason, didn’t you notice?

  • 32
    JC
    August 11th, 2007 17:40

    Please David.

    Stop obsessing that Howard is a socialist. If he was you would like him more.

    He’s opened the labor market to some extent which is the biggest reform since federation. It will quite possibly lose him the election.

    He isn’t running deficits like the state socislists during a time of the biggest economic expansion in our history.

    Want to know what a socialist deadender looks and sounds like. Julia Chavez fits the mold perfectly: a no nothing authoritarian dope.

  • 33
    Russell
    August 11th, 2007 20:29

    JC – which state socialists are running deficits? WA ? Queensland ? Victoria ?

    One reason you don’t appreciate why Saint Gough is such a great man is that you don’t understand his sense of humour.

    “not having hundreds of f—— Vietnamese Balts coming into this country” is Gough having fun with words. Poor Gough, his sense of humour has made him a very misunderstood prophet.

  • 34
    conrad
    August 12th, 2007 07:45

    “JC – which state socialists are running deficits”
    I could write a list of countries here if you wanted. The problem with the socialist countries is that if your revenue sources contract for some reason or other (like a recession), it becomes very hard to reduce spending (its even hard for non-socialist governments where there is more felxibility). That probably wouldn’t be a fuss if these governments ran countercyclical budgets, but none do.

  • 35
    David Rubie
    August 12th, 2007 11:08

    JC wrote:

    a no nothing authoritarian dope.

    So removing the right to bargain collectively isn’t authoritarian? Five hundred pages of legiislation about Aboriginals including compulsory land acquisition and no debate time isn’t authoritarian? I have no idea why the right is so blind about JWH – his words never match his actions and he’s been fooling you all for the best part of eleven years. It’s hard to know who to be more disgusted about, Liberal desperation in the face of a monumental defeat, or the cynical hand-sitting that Labor is doing hoping they don’t screw it up. On a more personal note, I know JWH might not see himself as a socialist, but he sends me your tax money every fortnight just for breeding! It’s unprecedented in our history, just because he uses the tax system to do it doesn’t mean it isn’t welfare.

  • 36
    jc
    August 12th, 2007 16:33

    So removing the right to bargain collectively isn’t authoritarian?

    Not , true. Workchoices never removed that right. That’s just you believing any union propaganda they dish out.

    ———————

    Five hundred pages of legiislation about Aboriginals including compulsory land acquisition and no debate time isn’t authoritarian?

    Is that contained in workchoices? You believe anything they tell you, don’t you?

    ————-

    I have no idea why the right is so blind about JWH – his words never match his actions and he’s been fooling you all for the best part of eleven years.

    Yep. We need the left to set us straight about Howard.

    ——————————–

    It’s hard to know who to be more disgusted about, Liberal desperation in the face of a monumental defeat, or the cynical hand-sitting that Labor is doing hoping they don’t screw it up.

    I think its labor telling everyone they agree with Howard. It’s pretty sickening when you think bout it.
    ——————————-

    On a more personal note, I know JWH might not see himself as a socialist, but he sends me your tax money every fortnight just for breeding! It’s unprecedented in our history, just because he uses the tax system to do it doesn’t mean it isn’t welfare.

    That his weak side, I know. He shouldn’t be sending people like you any money as you obviously seem to be able to afford having kids.

  • 37
    David Rubie
    August 12th, 2007 16:48

    JC, no need to be so grumpy. Family tax benefit is payed to an awful lot of people who don’t need it (the income thresholds start near $100,000). It’s very easy to qualify if your wife is home with the kiddies.
    WorkChoices did remove the right to bargain collectively under some circumstances, go check it, don’t believe what the BCA tell you.
    The aboriginal intervention is a perfect example of authoritarianism, along with other bits and pieces like the terror legislation. Is less freedom something libertarians are only concerned about when the left are in power?

  • 38
    JC
    August 12th, 2007 17:26

    JC, no need to be so grumpy. Family tax benefit is payed to an awful lot of people who don’t need it (the income thresholds start near $100,000). It’s very easy to qualify if your wife is home with the kiddies.

    Me grumpy? No bloody way! Lol.

    Thanks for the advice, but I’m too old to qualify and roundly advise people not to have any becasue by their teenage years you began to see the error of your ways.

    ———————-

    WorkChoices did remove the right to bargain collectively under some circumstances, go check it, don’t believe what the BCA tell you.

    Thanks for the qualification there, David. I think it was ( the qualification) necessary too.

    ——————–

    The aboriginal intervention is a perfect example of authoritarianism, along with other bits and pieces like the terror legislation.

    Whatever. I just found it homorous how you put workchoices together with the Aboriginal actions.
    ——————–

    Is less freedom something libertarians are only concerned about when the left are in power?

    Damn straight. The left are always talking about freedoms ….only their kind. They make a mockery of most freedoms. See the Victorian socislists attempt to stifle free speech with the way they went after the two Christian pastors. See how the Vic Supreme court threw the accusations and Bracks Blasphemy laws out the window.

  • 39
    Terje Petersen
    August 12th, 2007 21:46

    Family tax benefit is payed to an awful lot of people who don’t need it (the income thresholds start near $100,000). It’s very easy to qualify if your wife is home with the kiddies.

    It’s not really like there is any choise about whether you get it or not. If you qualify and you fill in a tax return then you get it. I willingly spend the refund but it is a horrid system filled with perverse incentives.

  • 40
    Bring Back CL's blog
    August 13th, 2007 13:40

    over 90% of families get it so either Australia is going to the dogs or it is middle class welfare.

    Very bad social policy. good idea, very bad implementation particularly the $600 a kiddie so people rarely have to pay the money back.

  • 41
    Geoff Robinson
    August 15th, 2007 16:20

    Interesting discussion. I have recommended it to my students.