Remembering the Menzies we forgot (a review of The Forgotten Menzies)

Robert Menzies is, of course, far from forgotten. Despite his death in 1978 he remains a live presence in Australian politics. The Liberal Party he helped found lauds and fights over his legacy. Even Labor politicians invoke Menzies.

Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish’s book title, The Forgotten Menzies, nicely plays on the name of Menzies’ famous ‘forgotten people’ radio talk while alluding to one of their own key points. Australia’s longest-serving prime minister’s political achievements are well-remembered, but his worldview has faded from memory. It no longer aligns neatly with contemporary beliefs, complicating attempts to enlist him in current political debates.

Menzies was, as we all are, a person of his time. He was born in 1894 in Jeparit, a Victorian country town. His family were shopkeepers and evangelical Presbyterians. Chavura and Melleuish describe this as a world of ‘cultural puritanism’, in which independence, sturdiness, freedom, Godliness, duty and domesticity where all important values.

Cultural puritan beliefs have overlaps with liberal ideas, but the focus is different. Each worldview sees the individual as important, but cultural puritans emphasise duties and self-reliance rather than rights or self-expression. Chavura and Melleuish observe that Menzies’ defences of liberty were often preludes to calls for responsibility and duty.

While Menzies described himself as a liberal, according to Chavura and Melleuish this was not doctrinal. There is ‘little evidence of an interest in cultivating a deep philosophical understanding of liberalism’. ‘Liberal’ was a common self-description of the non-Labor forces in Australian politics, as David Kemp’s recent histories show. The ‘conservative’ label was not used.

As against socialist ideas on the Labor side Menzies was a liberal. But as against cultural trends during his second term as prime minister, 1949 to 1966, Menzies was a conservative. His monarchism, Britishness, Christianity, and emphasis on duty still enjoyed widespread support in Australian society, but they no longer had momentum.

At the University of Melbourne, which Menzies attended during World War I, he was part of an ‘idealist’ intellectual milieu. A key idea Menzies took from this period was that progress meant not just economic or technological improvements but also advances in Australia’s ‘moral and spiritual condition’.

Menzies’ idealism pushed against the political culture, against the utilitarianism of Australian democratic politics. In a much-quoted description, his university contemporary WK Hancock characterised Australians as seeing the state as a ‘vast public utility, whose duty it is to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number’. This was a materialist view of politics, fostering state dependence rather than self-reliance.

Menzies’ idealism informed his view of education. In the 1950s he began large-scale peacetime Commonwealth support to universities, partly reflecting his view that a humanities education for the country’s elites would balance the culture’s utilitarian tendencies.

Chavura and Melleuish suggest that Menzies had a ‘romantic’ view of universities, as about the ‘preservation of culture and civilisation in cultural humanist terms.’ But through Menzies’ second term in office universities were already transitioning from ‘conservers of culture to deconstructors of culture’.

Chavura and Melleuish fault Menzies for not pressing universities to charge higher fees, in line with his emphasis on self-reliance. It is true that his government could have introduced student loans rather than scholarships. But the criticism is not entirely right, as Commonwealth grants were linked to university income from state grants and student fees (the federal government did not regulate student fees until 1974). The University of Western Australia ended its no tuition fee policy to maximise its Commonwealth grant. Although most students had scholarships, fees rose significantly in the 1960s for those who did not.

Menzies’ moves to support private schools were more tentative than his push to fund higher education, but also more radical. All universities in the 1950s and 1960s had been established by governments with an assumption of public support; Commonwealth finance of state-founded universities and their students was an important but not controversial change (it already funded the ANU in Canberra). But government subsidies for denominational schools ended in all colonies between the 1870s and 1890s.

Denying public funding to church schools had, in part, been an (unsuccessful) attempt to undermine the Catholic education system. The policy contributed to the Protestant-Catholic divide that, before the late twentieth century, was one of Australia’s major social fault lines. Menzies’ decision to restore some financial assistance to private schools helped heal this rift. But it couldn’t resolve the underlying sectarianism in Australian society. This had evolved since the late 19th century but not disappeared, making government support of private schools a continuing source of public acrimony.

For a general introduction to Menzies’ thought in its historical context I recommend Judy Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. But The Forgotten Menzies picks up threads of intellectual history, especially around idealism, that I don’t recall reading about previously. The book is also a useful warning against summoning the ghost of Menzies to frighten off current political foes. Only very occasionally does what Menzies thought truly support a contemporary political argument.

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This review is cross-posted at GoodReads.

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