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.