In order for political speeches to be most effective, they have to do a number of things at the same time; they have to include plenty of symbolism, they must be rich in content and they have to incapsulate the zeitgeist of the nation at a given moment. If political success is achieved subsequently, a few speeches make it into the history books and are seen to have been instrumental in bringing about lasting change.
The founder of the modern
and longest serving Prime Minister
has perhaps been the most effective in using radio as a political tool to reach a mass-audience throughout the nation, and, to his credit, he later adapted to television quickly as well. For Menzies, his frequent radio addresses helped him to plot his way back into the political arena, after he was dumped by his
in 1941. Perhaps the most famous of his speeches was the one on the
in which Menzies talked about and to the people who neither are themselves rich enough to have political power or influence, but were also too well off to be represented by Australian trade-unions. It is striking
how much relevance this speech still enjoys even today, since politicians of all persuasions go to great lengths to address this particular cross-section of the electorate; they have become the group referred to as the ‘aspirational voters’, and they make up a significant part of swing-voters in key marginals and will thus feature largely in this campaign too.
Facing possible defeat in the May federal election, the Coalition, particularly the Liberal Party, might want to take a leaf out of Menzies political playbook. Indeed, the most recent
written by journalist, writer and essayist
is a very timely one. Bramston
that, even though Menzies legacy is debatable, his philosophy and his style of practicing the art of politics still hold relevant truths for the political leadership today, and this is even more so the case for a Coalition government so bitterly divided; Menzies was probably the only person at the time who was capable of uniting the non labor forces under one umbrella; his liberal philosophy, always at great pains to stress that his Liberal Party was not a conservative one, his ability to communicate effectively both inside and outside the Canberra bubble, his respect for the civil service and his friendships across party-lines endeared him to friends and foes alike.
Even his policy achievements were remarkable and lasting. He expanded higher education, and his government instituted a wide range of scholarship programs, making higher education accessible to many Australians. He also was instrumental in developing the capital Canberra, and he succeeded in concluding the
signed in 1951, firmly aligning Australia with the US in geopolitical terms.
Yet, there is no need to put Menzies on a pedestal either. Frequently, the Great Man had astonishing lapses in judgement which led to major blunders both domestically and internationally. Menzies policy prescriptions, sharply contrasting with his political skills, were made for an era long gone-by and have little bearing on the Australia of the 21st century. For example, he was a staunch defender of the
and he could not accept and probably not even imagine any political role for Australia’s
One still wonders how Menzies reconciled his liberal beliefs with his obsessive desire to ban the
The High-Court later rendered the ban null and void, and the proposed ban was defeated in a referendum subsequently.
On the international stage, Menzies is not without blemish either. His affinity for the great powers got the bbetter of him when, in 1956, he supported the United Kingdom, France and Israel in their plotted invasion of Egypt. When the United States, Australia’s most important ally, turned against the conspirators, Menzies must have felt a profound sense of humiliation and disappointment. His support for the
and the military engagement of the US in
raise questions as to his true motivations; whether or not he acted in Australia’s national interest by committing the country to these risky military endeavours is a contentious point.
Maybe it was his strength and weakness alike that Menzies was a man of his time so deeply invested in the collective national mood which largely supported him even on such controversial matters. Like no other politician of his era, he spoke to an upwardly mobile, economically prosperous middle-class. For all his strengths, Menzies is no messiah for the Liberal Party of Australia, but his style of leadership represented quite a few qualities that, I suspect, many Australians find wanting in their political leaders of today.
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