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June 01st 2013 print

Ron Wilson

Margaret Thatcher at Monash

In 1981, Monash University was a radical campus. The divisiveness of the Vietnam War and the dismissal of the Whitlam government were relatively recent memories. What is more, student politics is always more virulent when conservative governments are in office. So we were not surprised by the reaction to the visit of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the university in October 1981.

It was an exciting time to be a Liberal student at Monash. The Liberal Club, in conjunction with the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, was sponsoring the visit of the most right-wing leader in the Western world to, in the minds of many, Australia’s most left-wing university. It was a challenge we revelled in!

The club faced many hurdles staging the 1981 lecture. Mrs Thatcher’s visit was opposed by the student union (the Monash Association of Students), the student newspaper (Lot’s Wife), the Clubs and Societies Council, an array of left-wing political clubs (including the Australian Labor Party Club) and a number of prominent and less-than-prominent academics.

Opposition to Mrs Thatcher’s visit was not limited to student and academic activists. The university administration was less than enthusiastic about the visit and on a number of occasions urged the Liberal Club and the Trust to hold the lecture off campus. This lack of support was evident when the Liberal Club attempted to book a suitable hall for the lecture. The Alexander Theatre, which seats about 500, was eventually made available. However, as interest in the lecture swelled, the need for a bigger venue was obvious and the only suitable venue on campus was the Robert Blackwood Hall, which seats 1400. The hall committee refused to co-operate, citing the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s booking of the hall for orchestral recordings as the reason. After much negotiation and with little confidence about our chances for success, the matter was finally settled when the Vice-Chancellor rang me at home to advise that, due to the intervention of the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, the Blackwood Hall had suddenly become available!

Security for the lecture, as with all aspects of Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Australia for CHOGM, was at a maximum and all risks were examined by the Victoria and Federal Police, ASIO and Britain’s own MI5. A security risk could have numerous political components or variations—anarchists, IRA sympathisers, single-issue fanatics, to name only a few. When political violence occurs, the cause or perpetrator is often a surprise, and therefore security for Mrs Thatcher’s visit covered every contingency.

The extremism associated with the opposition to Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Monash is well illustrated by quoting from a pamphlet circulated by the Monash Socialist Club. It read in part: 

of the trio fulfilling their oppressive Friedmanite dogma [Fraser, Thatcher and Reagan], Thatcher could well qualify as the most oppressive and also the biggest failure … Fraser, Reagan and Thatcher find strength from their unity—it is up to the victims of their regimes to unite in opposition …

On the evening of the lecture, over 1000 people turned out to protest or witness the protest. More than 500 police officers were in attendance and the noise was deafening when the Prime Minister’s entourage arrived at the Blackwood Hall.

As the lecture began, we had little idea that it would be of such significance in British domestic politics. Unknown to us, Mrs Thatcher had pointedly amended her speech to reflect the official response to criticism of her government’s policies by former Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath. The Thatcher response was front-page news in the British newspapers next day. The Times reported the lecture in detail, including the very memorable retort to Heath’s call for a return to consensus: 

To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes but to which no one objects. It is the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved merely because one cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause could have been fought and won under the banner, “I stand for consensus”?

To me, this remains Thatcher’s defining summary of her leadership.

In my thankyou speech to the Prime Minister, I attempted to capture the new-found confidence in and revival of centre-right politics, unquestionably due to the strong leadership and determination of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. To illustrate my point, I relied on a quote from the late Chairman Mao Zedong: “when dark clouds appeared in the sky, we pointed out that they were only temporary, that the darkness would soon pass and the sun would break through”. I suspect that this may have been the only occasion when Mrs Thatcher would have taken comfort in someone linking her with a communist revolutionary. Her tenure as Prime Minister did see the grey clouds and darkness disappear as the UK significantly repositioned its economic and military standings.

When I heard the news that the Baroness Thatcher had died I was deeply saddened that the world had lost a legendary leader. On the night I met Margaret Thatcher she was charming and engaging. Her lecture displayed her intellect and strength of character. No one left the Blackwood Hall with any misunderstandings whatsoever—the lady was not for turning.

As a postscript, two weeks after Mrs Thatcher’s visit to Monash I received a letter from Mr Ian Gow MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister. Mr Gow congratulated me on my thankyou speech and told me how much the Prime Minister had enjoyed her visit to Monash. The letter concluded with a generous invitation to visit him whenever I might be in London. That opportunity never presented itself to me—Ian Gow was assassinated by the IRA in July 1990.

Ron Wilson is chairman of the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust and was president of the Monash University Liberal Club in 1981. He has been a state MP and shadow health minister in Victoria. He is currently an executive in the private health sector.