Menzies' orphan


Menzies' Child: the Liberal Party of Australia 1944-1994
By Gerard Henderson
Allen and Unwin, 1994. 382pp. (CD included), $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Frank Noakes

"Standing in front of a Union Jack, Menzies proclaimed that the Liberal Party had been founded 'as an instrument to combat communistic and socialistic influences which daily are making inroads into the lives of the people'." That was, well, yes you already know, 50 years ago. The odd bust or plaque was unveiled and orations were given with due solemnity — but for all that, given the occasion, the celebrations were muted.

Demoralised in opposition, still smarting from the fifth consecutive federal election defeat and unable to draw much solace from state wins in the '90s that were really rejections of disastrous Labor administrations, what does the Liberal Party of the 1990s have to celebrate? Indeed.

In Menzies' Child, author Gerard Henderson argues convincingly that the Liberals' current predicament is more than just a bit of bad luck and poor leadership, although it is often the latter.

"The essential problem with the party at the national level is that nobody runs it. And the history of the last decade and more demonstrates that, when engaged in national politics, Liberals tend to be outperformed by their Labor counterparts ... It suggests that the Liberal Party's problems are organisational and cultural — and will not necessarily be overcome by yet another leadership change."

Henderson, a former John Howard staffer and present head of a right-wing think-tank, with a frankness that often borders on brutality, insists that the party of Sir Robert Gordon Menzies "has weak organisation, little history, an absence of a tradition of debate and discussion and too many politically inexperienced parliamentarians". The party needs "to set about reform and reinvigoration with much the same verve as Menzies did fifty years ago — albeit in modern format", he suggests.

We return with Henderson to the days between federation and 1944, to a myriad of right of centre parties forming or fusing and bickering or dissolving. Three early leaders of these parties came from the Labor Party: Joseph Cook, Billy Hughes and Joe Lyons.

These parties, and later the Liberal Party itself, had a common point of reference. They were anti-ALP, and defined themselves as "non-Labor". Henderson uses former NSW Liberal leader Nick Greiner to explain the weakness of this starting point: "For much of the last half century, the Liberal and National parties have defined themselves essentially by their opposition to various ideas. They were agin communism, agin socialism, agin big government, agin centralism. They are often described as the 'anti-Labor' or 'non-Labor' parties. Such an essentially negative and reactionary world view is clearly no longer the basis for a successful party."

The result of the party's lack of any real ideological starting point became apparent to Henderson in his interviews with a number of leading Liberal lights. "It never ceases to amaze just how many Liberal politicians and party apparatchiks maintain that they are not really political", he rues.

The same phenomenon is becoming more apparent in the Labor Party as it moves further rightward, away from its traditional base of support.

"When ... we decided to call the new and united party the Liberal Party, we were adopting no analogy to the Liberal Party in the United Kingdom ... We took the name 'Liberal' because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea", said Menzies in his book Afternoon Light.

"Pity the Liberal Party of Australia which is neither truly liberal nor truly conservative", says Henderson.

Whilst Labor was the enemy, its political and organisational effectiveness were recognised and coveted by Menzies. The formation of the Liberal Party drew a number of non-Labor parties, some state based, into the first truly national right of centre party in Australia. Menzies' vision was of a mass party (of 1 million — it eventually reached 200,000 by around 1950) with branches, state councils and a federal council.

Due to the initial political weakness of the party, Menzies was not unhappy that early designs for rank and file policy input and a dominant federal structure did not eventuate. According to Henderson, these were the seeds of today's problems.

However, with Menzies in charge, the problems did not become immediately apparent. After his retirement in 1966, the rapid succession of dud replacements highlighted the dependence of the modern Liberal Party on a strong leader. And loss of the government benches exposed their dependence on government bureaucrats to develop policy. Much later, under John Hewson, the party contracted out policy development to a private company. Fightback! was the result.

Included in Henderson's book is a CD of Menzies' 1953 speech "The British Crown", given at the Trocadero in Sydney. It encapsulates the Menzies image: arrogant and paternalistic.

Menzies' greatest ability lay in being able to recognise and articulate the pulse of middle Australia, say his admirers. Whilst this is overstated, he did manage to win elections. Right-wing columnist and Menzies adulater David McNicoll says he put Australia to sleep for two decades because he knew it to be best for the people.

Paul Keating is harsher in his judgment. He quotes with approval veteran journalist Don Whitington when he wrote upon Menzies' retirement in 1966, "At short range, there seems to be no achievement to which history will point and say, 'That was his'".

Menzies led Australia into a number of unjust Asian wars, but as with everything else, his apologists claim he did this in the belief that it was in the interests of the Australian people. Phew: that's okay, then.

Malcolm Fraser's election and strong leadership qualities rocked the Liberals back to sleep. 1966 to 1975 had been an aberration; see, we were born to rule. A decade of Labor has shattered that. But the world has also moved on, and Australia is not the same place it was in the '50s and '60s.

Greiner in his Menzies Centenary Oration in October made the point that, despite the party's name, under Menzies it was "more conservative than liberal in its policies". He warned that "the concepts on which Liberalism relied to symbolise and express the unified social order, the monarchy and race, are no longer relevant".

The contest for the "middle ground" is on, says Greiner. "When the ALP finally and irreversibly dumped its socialist image and moved firmly to the right it was met with disbelief and/or a move further right by the Coalition. This refusal to accept that the competition has fundamentally changed is ... the classic inappropriate response ...

"The Liberal Party of the future must not be moved from its chosen ground in the name of differentiation ... it should adjust its policies to the dictates of changing circumstances ... Not only our position but our language and symbols must, as Menzies did, be redolent of the present, not the past."

Greiner for PM is gaining support. His blend of "dry" economics and social awareness gets the implied support of Henderson and Liberal federal president Tony Staley. But not all Liberals see the need for radical reorganisation and image adjustment.

The changes wrought at their 50th anniversary council meeting in Albury were modest and bring us to the "young fogy" Alexander Downer. Opinion within the party is that he has only months in which to prove himself. But "proving himself" under the current set-up means becoming a strong leader — something he'll never be. Downer is unlikely to lead the Liberals into the next election, unless they are caught by Keating with their pants down.

Moving out of the shadow's deep recesses is John Howard, who continues to describe himself as the Liberals' "most conservative leader ever". The new, improved and "socially inclusive" John Hewson is still in there too. It's far from settled.

Henderson has written a useful history book. It's political assumptions reflect the author's prejudices, and although these grate at times, Menzies' Child is a useful tool in understanding the Liberal Party.