There’s something strange going on in Australia. Federal government ministers unite to defend the freedoms of ordinary Australians against the overweening Chinese Communist Party and the underhanded corporations of Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, state government ministers unite to steal the freedoms of those Australians. A warden of her constituents—she only closed their businesses, banned them from attending church, and forbade them from attending funerals—New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the steadiest member of Australia’s political flakes, has managed to convince most of the media that she’s actually a sage. David Kemp’s A Liberal State shows you what a real political sage looks like. Anyone concerned about how quickly our freedoms are being lost should read this book and find out how slowly they were won.
Kemp’s book focuses on ideas, but in politics the success of an idea isn’t determined by its virtue but by the skill of its adherents. A man of great political wisdom, Robert Gordon Menzies had the ideas and the skills. A cigar smoker born in the nineteenth century, Menzies never used the word “conservative” to describe his politics and did more than anyone else to advance his country’s freedom and prosperity after the Second World War. During that war, he and his colleagues called their new party the “Liberal” party because, in his words, they were “determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea”.
This review appears in June’s Quadrant.
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In Australia, any political party that wants more government control over the people and the economy is a reactionary one. Menzies was the visionary among the hermits, opposing the Federation-era policies of protectionist tariffs, compulsory arbitration, fixed wages and state paternalism. Added to these restrictions were the White Australia policy, deemed to provide economic security for the average worker by precluding cheap immigrant labour, and communism, the believers of which thought the best way to make heaven on earth was to disrupt industries and sabotage Australia’s war effort against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Menzies’s fight against conventional thinking made him enemies: nobody liked him except the voters. (In this respect, he’s the opposite of the putative saint Gough Whitlam, who was dismissed not by the Queen but by the electorate, who gave his opponent Malcolm Fraser the biggest parliamentary majority in Australian history.) Menzies’s work started before he was a politician: as a barrister, he succeeded in having the lawless, communist-led Seamen’s Union de-registered, and publicly criticised the arbitration system, which didn’t create the industrial peace it promised. Representing the Nationalist Party, he became a state member for Victoria in 1928. Less than two years later, the effects of the Depression prompted opposing responses from Labor governments: Joe Lyons (acting as federal Treasurer in place of Ted Theodore, who was under investigation for financial misconduct) was committed to balancing the budget by cutting public spending and salaries and interest rates (later known as the Premiers’ Plan); the New South Wales Premier Jack Lang thought the Premiers’ Plan would make things worse, and announced the “Lang plan”, which Kemp characterises as a repudiation of Australia’s debts and an immediate shot of new money into the economy.
During these debates, Menzies was leading the “Young Nationalists”, who opposed policies that would further indebt Australia, and instead supported a reduction in taxes and tariffs to stimulate employment. In January 1931, Prime Minister Scullin reinstated Theodore (who supported increased government spending) as Treasurer. Lyons resigned from the Labor Party, and with Menzies’s Young Nationalists, formed the United Australia Party.
Later that year, the United Australia Party won the federal election in a landslide. Lyons, now Prime Minister, rejected Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies, and thought economic recovery should come from the private sector. He passed legislation forcing the New South Wales government to cut government spending and repay its debts. Lang refused, prevented the federal government from accessing the state’s bank accounts, and told the public service not to pay any money to the federal treasury. The New South Wales Governor Sir Philip Game judged that Lang was defying federal law and dismissed him from his post. Although not a socialist, Lang galvanised the socialist unions. Drilled socialist groups fought with police and stimulated the creation of a “New Guard” of ex-servicemen willing to defend the Constitution against violent revolutionaries. This split between revolutionary and non-revolutionary Labor would become much more serious some twenty years later.
Meanwhile, as the economy improved, Lyons increased defence spending, denounced “Langism”, and won the election in 1937, with Menzies becoming the Attorney-General and the Minister for Industry. In November 1938, the communist-led Waterside Workers’ Federation refused to load pig-iron (semi-processed iron ore) on a steamer destined for Japan. (The WWF said it was protesting against Japan’s invasion of China.) Menzies saw that the WWF was basically deciding Australia’s trade policy, and, after negotiations, he persuaded its members to load the pig-iron. (The same union persistently went on strike during the Second World War, hindering Australia’s resistance to Japan.) The unhappy strikers gave Menzies the name “Pig-Iron Bob”, meant as an insult but really a reminder of his success. After Lyons died in 1939, Pig-Iron Bob became Prime Minister.
He barely had time to decorate his office before the Second World War started. After the British evacuation at Dunkirk in May and June 1940, Menzies recognised that Australia needed to produce its own guns and ammunition, and established a new Munitions Department led by Essington Lewis, the head of an iron and steel company. Presciently, Menzies sent Richard Casey to the United States to ensure it would help defend Australia if the British were weakened in the Pacific. Menzies also wanted to establish a nationally unified government to make decisions about Australia’s war effort. The opposition leader John Curtin rejected this idea but agreed to join an advisory body, and they created the Advisory War Council, which made decisions about Australia’s war effort until 1945.
While dealing with troubles abroad, Menzies had troubles at home. The Communist Party of Australia supported the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and led strikes to impede Australia’s troops. In a hint of things to come, Menzies banned its publications and then the party itself. (Kemp is atypically vague here, but it seems the ban wasn’t rigidly enforced.) The election a few months later produced a hung parliament, and, lacking the support of his party and the press, Menzies resigned in August 1941. Arthur Fadden was Prime Minister for “forty days and forty nights” before two independents shifted allegiance to Labor, making John Curtin Prime Minister.
In the political outback, Menzies was still influential, and began broadcasting his magnificent Forgotten People talks. He praised middle-class values such as thrift, patriotism and independence and noted that these were threatened not only by the Japanese but also by Australia’s political culture:
To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives for public service—these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particular. Yet ambition, effort, thinking and readiness are not only the design and objectives of self-government, but are the essential conditions of its success.
Menzies attacked Labor’s infamous Statutory Rule 77, which gave any government minister power to direct any resident of Australia. After Labor’s huge election victory in 1943, Menzies became Leader of the Opposition, but soon formed a new party.
His Liberal Party started with a strong philosophical basis, and he noted:
if there has been a degeneration in the standard of politics, it is chiefly because we have tended to move rather blindly from expedient to expedient. In the long run there can be no high politics unless all parties have a sense of direction.
In the 1946 election votes swung to the Liberal Party, but Labor, under the leadership of Ben Chifley, won both houses. In October 1947, Chifley introduced a bill that, if it had passed, would have accomplished a long-held Labor goal: nationalising the banks. Menzies’s speech against it was one of his best:
This Bill will be a tremendous step towards the servile State, because it will set aside normal liberty of choice, and that is what competition means, and will forward the idea of the special supremacy of government. That is the antithesis of democracy. Democracy rests upon the view that the people are the rulers, as well as the ruled; that the government has no authority and no privilege beyond that granted by the people themselves; that while sovereignty attaches to the acts of the parliament, that sovereignty is derived from the people and has no other source.
Menzies mocked Chifley’s argument that “since the influence of money is so great” it should be controlled by the government: Menzies asked the listener to swap “primary production”, “transport”, or “opinion”, for “money”, and “there we have the entire totalitarian concept”. Despite Menzies’s oration, the Liberals didn’t have the numbers to block the bill, which passed but was declared unconstitutional by the High Court in 1948. In that year, Chifley was thwarted again when Labor’s referendum for government control of rents and prices failed. In 1949, Chifley was forced to order the army to work on coalfields in New South Wales after a communist-led strike immobilised half a million workers. Chifley’s final defeat came later that year in the federal election. The Liberal Party won, and Menzies was again Prime Minister.
His first period in government was dominated by the Cold War. While with Soviet and Chinese support North Korea invaded South Korea, Menzies’s government passed legislation banning the Communist Party. The Senate blocked it. Menzies called a double dissolution. In 1951, his government was returned with a majority in both houses and put a referendum before the people proposing the dissolution of the Communist Party. The referendum failed. It wasn’t the first or the last time that the Australian people would show more sense than their politicians.
This episode highlights the ironies of liberal politics. The first is the possibility that a free country can’t defend its values without restricting some freedoms. The second is that the referendum result was worse for Menzies’s opponent, the leader of the Labor Party, Dr H.V. Evatt, who had to prove, as he had claimed, that he could defeat the communists in the unions by constitutional means. This might have been possible were he not Dr H.V. Evatt. After the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov defected, Menzies established a royal commission to examine Soviet influence in Australia. At first, Evatt supported the royal commission, but later thought it was a conspiracy against him and the Labor Party. At the height of his madness, he asked Vyacheslav Molotov (the Molotov of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) if certain documents naming Australian communists, including members of his own staff, were genuine. Molotov said they weren’t, and Evatt trusted him while distrusting ASIO and the judges of the royal commission.
Evatt’s erratic personality hastened a split in the Labor Party. In the early 1940s, B.A. Santamaria had led a Catholic anti-communist group within Labor called The Movement. By the mid-1950s, Evatt accused The Movement and its associated Industrial Groups of disloyalty and attacked the “Menzies-Fadden-Santamaria fascist cell”. In 1955 the Labor Party split. The new Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) gave its preferences to the Liberal Party, supporting Menzies’s dominance of Australian politics. Catholics slowly moved from Labor to the Liberal Party, especially after Menzies’s decision to provide government funding to church-run schools.
Despite his support of individual enterprise, Menzies was always aware that people and governments had obligations to their communities and was committed to the idea of an educated public. He inaugurated a scholarship program and a huge expansion of Australian universities. Despite the credit squeeze in the early 1960s, Menzies’s governments oversaw a period of rising economic growth, rising home ownership, decreasing government debt, and the creation of what Alan Greenspan later called the “biggest middle class in the world”. Much of this middle class was born overseas, as Menzies oversaw a flow of immigration and an ebb of the White Australia policy.
Kemp rightly spends a lot of time on those who recognised that no free country could have race-based immigration or condescending policies to “protect” its indigenous citizens. He follows the noble careers of Paul Hasluck, William Cooper, William Ferguson and Jack Patten as they fought for indigenous Australians to have the same legal status as other Australians. The Civil Rights movement in the United States had a powerful influence in Australia and led to the removal of policies restricting and segregating the indigenous.
Contrary to popular myth, Australia abolished the White Australia policy not during the prime ministership of Gough Whitlam but during that of Menzies’s successor, Harold Holt. Kemp, however, doesn’t say that the earliest and strongest opposition to the White Australia policy and the earliest and strongest support for indigenous Australians came from the Communist Party. And how did immigrants, the New Australians, share in the country’s freedom and contribute to its bounty? Many of them worked on the Snowy Mountains hydroelectricity scheme, to which Kemp devotes one sentence. It deserves a whole chapter. What could be a better symbol of the energetic, ambitious, multi-ethnic Australia that emerged from the Second World War? What explains its absence from Kemp’s book? Possibly the fact that it was a Labor Party initiative.
Kemp’s book, otherwise so richly detailed, fails to acknowledge the achievements of the other side. It takes more than one party to run a successful country. Menzies knew that. Compared to most politicians, he was a sage, and his successors would do well to read this book and take heed of his wisdom. But not even he could see that his dream of a free and educated country would produce a public with so much schooling yet so little judgment.
A Liberal State: How Australians Chose
Liberalism over Socialism 1926–1966
by David Kemp
Miegunyah Press, 2021, 608 pages, $59.99
William Poulos is a poet and teacher who lives in Sydney