Speech: The Menzies Watershed Book Launch

The Menzies Watershed Book Launch

26 February 2024

The Hon Andrew Hastie MP

Shadow Minister for Defence, Member for Canning

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Good evening to you. 

It’s a great honour to speak tonight at the Canberra launch of ‘The Menzies Watershed’.

And, a double honour, to do it from this lectern here at Menzies House.

May I acknowledge Georgina Downer, Director of the Robert Menzies Institute, and Dr Zachary Gorman for the invitation to be involved tonight.

I’d also like to warmly acknowledge Mrs Heather Henderson, it’s a privilege to honour your father and his life of service and leadership to the country we all love.

‘The Menzies Watershed’ is a sweeping book, with each essay illuminating an aspect of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies and his political influence over the years 1943 to 1954.

It examines his foundation of the Liberal Party through to how he personally influenced and exercised political power.

It covers Menzies’s instincts on post-war economic policy, his handling of the thorny question of what to do about the Australian Communist Party, the political application of his liberal values and beliefs, his early achievements in foreign policy and education.

There is much to ponder in this book.

These essays can be read on their own, as I did on my flight yesterday, enjoying the chapters as I followed my curiosity. But taken as a whole, though, they form an exceptional book and I congratulate Dr Gorman for compiling it.

It brings together many observations about Australian history, the difficult art of politics and our post-war development as a nation. All these questions are pondered through the prism of Robert Menzies’ leadership.

This book is a superb addition to the Menzies’ scholarship, and I commend all of those involved in the project.

With so many thoughtful contributors in the book, it’s hard for me to add further light in my remarks.

I should also mention the excellent appendix written by my former colleague, the Honourable George Brandis KC, where he answers the question: Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister?

But I don’t propose to cover the same ground here.

Tonight, I want to highlight a few points that engaged me as a Liberal Member of Parliament, firmly anchored in the tradition of the party Robert Menzies founded.

The first is the historical context of Robert Menzies, and honouring his achievements in the proper context, without slavishly trying to replicate them in the present.

The truth is that Menzies was a man of conviction and strong values, but he also responded to the challenges of his time in a cultural context. Let me explain.

One of the things that I really enjoy is political biography. I enjoy making friends with leaders in the past. A good biography will draw you in like that. When you finish a good biography, it should feel like losing a relationship.

The attraction of good political biography is that it reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun.

In that truth, there is great solace, as we learn from the experience and wisdom of others who have gone before us. Had a bad day in Parliament? Well, read some biography.

Bad days in politics are part of the vocation, and all the great leaders had plenty of them.

Now three of my favourite English-speaking democratic leaders are Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Robert Menzies. If I had to host an AUKUS dinner party with leaders from the past, I would choose those three men – who stand out in their character, intellect and achievements.

They governed their countries at critical moments in war and peace. They had to endure failure. They enjoyed success. All were shaped by the Western canon, two of them having no formal education. But they all shared a common idiom honed by the cadence of the Scriptures and Shakespeare. They were all committed to the British idea of ordered liberty, and individual freedom.

Yet they were men of their times. We celebrate them in their historical contexts.

For if they returned to their respective countries today, I imagine they would feel like strangers in foreign lands.

Civilisational questions of identity, gender, and postmodernism would be utterly foreign to them. Many of their assumptions about knowledge, reality, economics and the common good are now in question across the West today. We must see them in their proper contexts.

In the case of Robert Menzies, I was struck by his post-war economic context. The prevailing economic consensus was distinctly Keynesian, something he did not seek to challenge in any meaningful way.

He was not a disciple of Hayek or Friedman or Rand, indeed the cold abstractions of the free-market ideologues today would be alien to him.

Nor was he a great economic reformer like John Howard, instead he continued much of the economic project that had been established by Chifley before him.

That is not to say that Menzies wholeheartedly embraced Keynes and Big Government – on the contrary! It was Prime Minister Chifley’s plan to nationalise Australia’s trading banks where we see Menzies’s economic instincts on full display. He picked and won the battle that mattered most.

The 1949 election victory settled the question of how Australia’s economy would grow in the coming decades: under Menzies, it would be the market economy rather than the socialist state guiding development.

The Australian people voted for his vision of prosperity built on individual liberty, free enterprise, and hard work. He banished the shadow of socialism for generations to come.

But Menzies did not believe in unfettered markets; he believed in good government as a necessary partner to a thriving market economy.

As Tom Switzer argues persuasively in his chapter ‘Liberalism Applied?’, Menzies ‘opposed a socialist state that wanted to control society, but he was not a proponent of a dynamic free-market economy.

Switzer quotes Menzies directly during his time in Opposition:

“Individual enterprise must drive us forward. This does not mean that we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. The functions of the State will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less. But what really happens will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic middle-class—the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones.”

Menzies was far more paternalistic than I’d first imagined.

And David Lee’s chapter on Menzies and Economic Management makes this very clear, in his embrace of the Keynesian macro-economic assumptions, his appointment of Chifley’s public servants in 1949 and his continuation—not deconstruction—of Curtin and Chifley’s economic policies.

He left in place the post-federation pillars of centralised wage fixing and high tariffs, the enlarged welfare state, the demand management philosophy at Treasury and nation-building development projects like the Snowy River Scheme. The National Development portfolio, led by Richard Casey, underscored this development ethos with its focus on fuel security, port infrastructure, mines and manufacturing.

William Stoltz’s chapter ‘A Prudent and Urgent Measure: The Founding of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service.’ shows the strategic imperatives that drove economic development. In it, we learn that Casey was lobbied by the founder of the CIA, Bill Donovan, to develop the Blair Athol coal reserves in Queensland, to provide a secure supply of coal to the growing Japanese economy, thus keeping post-war Japan out of the clutches of China and Russia. Geopolitics and statecraft, rather than economics, seemed to drive development under Menzies. 

Indeed, Menzies was no proto-Thatcher or Reagan, taking power with a supply-side handbook of economic reforms under one arm. On the contrary, the 1951 budget was a case in point. Menzies and his Treasurer, Arthur Fadden, had to tackle inflation.

They sought to dampen aggregate demand with aggressive increases on income and company taxes. They weren’t out to win hearts and minds.

But wait for it: there were also indirect taxes on non-essential goods, including excise on beer, wine, tobacco, spirits and cigarettes.

With that, even the Labor Opposition launched an attack on the budget!

It was straight out of the Keynes playbook.

I wasn’t surprised therefore to read that some true-believing young Liberal Members of Parliament—elected in 1949 and committed to pure economic liberalism—were despondent with the lack of reform, with the Sydney Morning Herald relating how the backbenchers were dismayed as they watched ‘party principle after party principle placed in cold storage or thrown overboard.’

The point here is not to make the case for modern-day Keynesian economics, nor to criticise Menzies for his lack of economic reform. This is not revisionism.

Rather, it is to recognise Menzies as a political leader who responded to the challenges of post-war Australia.

But it does pose this question for us all: how can Menzies – the man who invested so much in ‘Big Australia’ – with big government investment in energy, science and education – be the man who created a ‘liberal’ party?

What kind of liberalism is this?

And that brings me to my second observation in reading this collection of essays: Menzies—refreshingly—was not an ideological man. A man of conviction, yes. A man of deeply held values, yes. He believed in the individual, family, ordered liberty, the rule of law, reward for effort, in the Crown, in our institutions. But he was no dogmatist. He was pragmatic and, much like Lincoln and Churchill, was prepared to adapt his means to serve his ends.

I think Stephen Chavura and Greg Melluish’s work in ‘The Forgotten Menzies: The World Picture of Australia’s Longest-serving Prime Minister’ is helpful here. As they note, Menzies has been described as conservative, liberal, and even a civic republican. But all those terms are modern-day projections back onto a historical figure who likely would have quizzed such labels.

Menzies was not doctrinaire, and his writings on liberalism – as Chavura and Melleuish note—were largely ‘discursive and superficial’. He did not advocate for an ideological liberalism but instead built a movement that gave expression to the political principles to many Australians who shared his views on the individual, family and aspiration. This was a towering strength for Menzies.

Menzies had a big heart for a big country he sought to build the biggest possible political tent for aspirational Australians. His was a generous liberalism.

In this, I think Menzies was a master of political narrative rather than a proponent of political philosophy. Much like US President Franklin Roosevelt, famous for his radio broadcasts known as the fireside chats, Menzies understood how to capture the attention of regular Australians through the media of the time—in their language and through images that resonated.

The ‘Forgotten People’ address is a case in point: who can forget this line: 

“I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.”

Like Australians back then, we can picture the great luxury hotels – grand yet cold – and we can feel the warmth of the homes inhabited by those nameless Australians he so loved.

Anne Henderson, in her gripping chapter ‘Menzies and the Banks’, concludes by quoting from Menzies from ‘Afternoon Light’ where he wrote of Chifley’s defeat in 1949:

‘if one’s ideas are so rigid that they will not bend, the chances are that they will break.’

Put another way, in politics, you can pursue ideological purity and suffer defeats.

Or you can be guided by your principles and win victories.

Perhaps that is the secret to Menzies’s seven straight election victories.

Principled wins, rather than pure losses.

For us, it’s a reminder that compromise is a necessary reality in a parliamentary democracy like ours, especially in our time with fading moral and social consensus, and the rise of identity politics and tribalism.

Although Menzies appears in black-and-white to us through time, he was a man who understood how to navigate the grey of politics, and we can learn much from his mastery of the art.

This brings me to my final point: Menzies was a man of prudence who mastered the art of exercising political power across the Parliament, the public service, the Liberal Party and the Australian people. Troy Bramston has done us a great service in his chapter: ‘The Art of Power’, demonstrating how prudence was the key to Menzies’s success as Prime Minister.

In our age of limitless communication, shaped by President Trump and the excesses of social media, Menzies looks more like a marbled statesman from the classical era than the flesh-and-blood TikToking politician of today.

I think prudence and temperament is the difference, here. He learned from the failure of his first term as Prime Minister and became an astute observer of people and a master of political machinery.

Bramston notes his love of Shakespeare and relates an anecdote of Menzies losing an argument in Cabinet, retreating to his office for a time to read the Bard, then regathering himself and returning. This was also a habit of Lincoln, retiring to find solace in the plays of Shakespeare. He, too, was also another fine observer of human nature who understood what made people around him tick.

I think the connection here is that Menzies had a well-furnished interior life which informed his perspective, wisdom, and judgement. Honed by experience in the cockpit of politics, no doubt, but we cannot understate the importance of Menzies having a disciplined mind shaped by extensive reading across history and literature.

Perhaps that led to a more considered approach in leading his party, his parliamentary colleagues, and the country as Prime Minister? Perhaps, prudence rather than impulse, is the lesson we can take from his political leadership?

I had coffee a few years ago with Sir William Heseltine, Menzies’ Principal Private Secretary, who shared with me how Menzies dealt with thorny issues. He said that Menzies kept a safe, and he would often store unresolved paperwork in it.

It was Sir William’s job to clear it out every so often, and he would often recover unactioned documents that had been resolved through the passage of time. Menzies didn’t rush into things, and that’s a lesson for us, as we fight the cultural programming of instant gratification with all its swipes and endless scrolling.

The documents in the safe were, like Lincoln's unsent letters, signs of a practical man, who knew hot headed ideas needed to cool down, and most anger-fuelled thoughts need to quietly disappear.

In closing, ‘The Menzies Watershed’ is a superb contribution to our national history, and also an inspiration for future generations who carry the torch of the Liberal Party.

I’ve made three main points: one, Menzies was a man of his time who responded to events around him. Two, Menzies was a deeply principled man, but not an ideologue. He mastered political narrative and knew how to compromise. He had a big heart; a big mind and he built a big political tent for aspirational Australia. And three, Menzies was a man of prudence who mastered the art of political power.

Now tonight I’ve not done justice to all the authors or their essays. You’ll have to read them yourself—and I hope that you do! This is a fine collection of essays.

The mark of a good book is that it makes you want to read more about the subject: to mine the footnotes and bibliography, to follow the trails and continue learning. This book has done just that for me. I’ve learned much about Robert Menzies, I’m inspired in my own journey as an MP—I’ve grown a little fonder of Menzies—and I look forward to the next volume.

Thank you.

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