Lessons from the past: What the Australian Liberal party can learn from its founder Robert Menzies.

Robert Menzies delivering a national radio broadcast on the outbreak of World War II on September 3d, 1939.

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

Australian Liberal Party

and longest serving Prime Minister

Robert Menzies

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

United Australia Party

in 1941. Perhaps the most famous of his speeches was the one on the

Forgotten People

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

Menzies biography,

written by journalist, writer and essayist

Troy Bramston ,

is a very timely one. Bramston

argues

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

ANZUS Treaty

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

White Australia Policy,

and he could not accept and probably not even imagine any political role for Australia’s

Indigenous People.

One still wonders how Menzies reconciled his liberal beliefs with his obsessive desire to ban the

Communist Party of Australia.

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

Korean War

and the military engagement of the US in

Vietnam

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.

For more on Australian politics read

this.

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