The Menzies legacy

Gerard Henderson, who has been described as a chief safeguard of the Menzies legacy, recently gave a speech on Robert Menzies which was re-produced in the latest edition of Quadrant Magazine. At the end of the article Henderson outlines the achievements of Menzies, which I thought I would score from a libertarian perspective.

1) Menzies believed in the family. Well, we all believe that families exist and are good things. But Henderson is presumably refering to distortionary government policies that subsidise or restrict various lifestyle choices. That’s 0/1 so far.

2) Henderson suggests that Menzies believed in private enterprise. However he goes on to clarify that he only really means small business (ie, if a business is too successful, it becomes bad) and he can only find one act of economic liberalism during his decades in power. The reality is that Menzies maintained the three pillars of insular Australia — protectionism, white australia policy and highly centralised industrial relations policy. The best thing that can be said (as with the Howard government) is that Menzies didn’t screw things up too much. Using that very liberal approach he gets half a mark, so that’s 0.5/2.

3) Menzies was a military interventionist and never saw a war he didn’t want to get involved in. Whether Korea, Malaya or Vietnam he was happy to increase the size and scope of government if it meant he could get involved in wars that we didn’t need to be involved in. Henderson is also proud that Menzies restricted civil liberties and tried to ban the Communist Party. Naughty naughty. That’s 0.5/3.

4) Menzies believed in economic growth. Wow. That is such a banal thing to mention I’m not going to score it.

5) And finally, Henderson proudly mentions that Menzies is responsible for undermining federalism by getting the commonwealth government involved in education though state aid to catholic schools. That has ballooned into billions of dollars of middle-class welfare and jurisdictional duplication. So that’s a total of 0.5/4… which is a fail mark.

The sad news is that this is the list of positives that could be found from one of Menzies greatest supporters.

Menzies was a conservative, not a liberal. Some conservatives hold him up as Australia’s greatest Prime Minister, and by their standards that may be true. However, by classical liberal (or libertarian) standards it is hard to see the appeal of Menzies.

21 thoughts on “The Menzies legacy

  1. He founded the Liberal Party! So must have been liberal right?!?!

    Actually I saw something on the ABC the other day saying that Menzies made a conscious and deliberate decision not to call the party the Conservative Party (even though it was). He knew the importance of branding.

  2. Menzies was not Doc Evatt or Arthur Calwell, so given the choices available he was pretty good. Against an ideal standard, like almost all pollies he was pretty bad.

  3. This is a guy (Henderson) who looks back misty eyed at the great war as if it was the achievement of the 20th century.

  4. Is there any Australian politician, currently serving in any government, who we would think of as the ideal candidate?

  5. Andrew touches on what I think is a significant issue within democracy. The problem with democracy in my view has less to do with how the public votes and more to do with the limited options on the menu. The menu is limited by product bundling and institutional barriers to entry. I actually think that democracy unleashed can be a quite useful force for positive change. The reason so many people are disengaged from democracy and policy debate (and hence uninformed) is to a significant extent a mere biproduct of the narrow menu on offer. Given the constraints imposed on the public there collective choices are usually make fairly sensible. The obvious problems we see have an awful lot to do with the way the choices are constructed.

  6. Of course, if many libertarians actually joined the Liberal Party it would be fairly easy to take over the operations of one or more federal divisions. Choose a reasonably safe one and you would have a member in Federal politics and several state members. Possibly also a Senate seat in the horse trading that goes on around that process.

  7. Cool, then they could be told off like Barnby Joyce every time they actually try and express their constituents worldview.

  8. Andrew — people have been saying that for decades, and the Young Libs is full of idealistic libertarians who are going to “change the party”. What are they waiting for?

    Of course, if all of those people (who are ignored and hidden) quit the Liberals and joined the LDP, then we would have a louder voice for free-market policies in Australia, and greater political choices.

    And the Liberals (like the ALP) does not allow individual members to voice their contrary opinions anyway. If we had a system like America (where both Dems & GOP tolerate a wide diversity of opinion) then I would agree that the majors are a good option.

  9. I am a Liberal and I tried to help the LDP on the down low. I never heard back from them. Why should I join that?

    It’s not that the LDP just doesn’t have enough members, it’s that the members are lazy.

    (Braces for the onslaught)

  10. Cool, then they could be told off like Barnby Joyce every time they actually try and express their constituents worldview.

    You are right Terje, it simply won’t work. Political parties are mainly working from the top down not bottom up. When the Workers Party was in existence I mentioned to a mate that I was interested in it and he managed to persuade me that the Country Party were ‘free enterprise’ also and i would be better to pursue my ideas with a larger group.

    The problem was that even when the group agreed with me, they still looked to the leadership for guidance and would vote against themselves if it contradicted the party line. The Nationals though were more of a cult than a party back in the Bjelke-Petersen days.

    A friend who was a Liberal asked me to put in a submission to a conference they were having on policy, but it didn’t get very far when they found the first part was an argument against the existence of a “common good, followed by one that rights were a negative concept, being the absence of violation of those ideals.”

    I felt at the time that it was a bit unusual to be asked as a member of the Progress Party to do it, but there were quite a few Liberals at the time who were willing to admit (privately) that our ideas were more like what they considered to be the real concepts of liberalism.

    I actually put a lot of work into it and our people loved it, but while the guy who asked me felt that should give some great food for thought, they apparently didn’t like it.

  11. I briefly thought about joining the Progress Party, sometime in 2001, but they seemed a weak force for change at the time. What happened to John Singleton’s involvement? What are his views now?

  12. I have not heard of the PP since we dissolved years before then, but some of them may have stayed together.

    John got the advertising contract for Labor when Hawke was PM but seems to have stayed out of politics since then. He seemed for a while to have a number of legal problems like some of the other leadership people in the party especially in the NT where the government set out to destroy our people.

  13. The PP seemed to be the State level, as I recall, meeting in a Doctor’s house in Sylvania- and all they seemed to be doing was handing out leaflets and booklets! And I don’t think they’re still around. Let’s hope that the L&D party can revitalise libertarianism! (Could we nickname the L&D party as The LaDs?)

  14. Most of the actual work was done here in Qld and the NT were very active. I was never quite sure what WA had but their main activity tended to be sending out photocopies of Amway ads.

    The NT were effectively gutted when the president was done over by the feds. He was a builder with a lot of government work which they stopped paying for and sent him a huge tax bill. His statement to them that ‘when you pay me, I’ll pay you,’ was interpreted as a refusal to pay and he was penalized. The following president was a restaurant owner who was subsequently heavied by the health department.

    When I was up there a bit later I contacted the new president who told me to keep my head down and not make waves, so I made my press releases as a spokesman from Qld and gave an NT address.

    Singo copped a lot of crap that wouldn’t have happened if someone hadn’t been taking a special interest in him.

    We didn’t tend to hand out booklets etc but did sell libertarian books from the US which were unavailable here.

  15. I am a Liberal and I tried to help the LDP on the down low. I never heard back from them. Why should I join that?
    It’s not that the LDP just doesn’t have enough members, it’s that the members are lazy.

    Unlike the Liberals, you mean?

    Isn’t it against Liberal Party rules to join another political party? Someone might dob you in to the rule Nazis.

  16. I was given a US paper, the Libertarian newspaper, which I haven’t seen since! I suppose Australia couldn’t afford a paper with a freedom bias- too few numbers to support it, and the cops would probably raid it for all the items in it about how to work around laws, minimize your taxes to zero, etc.

  17. The Liberals have many members who put in a lot of free time. They volunteer and work in campaigns. The LDP doesn’t seem to do anything.

    As for it being against Liberal Party rules to join another political party, it absolutely is I am sure. Thus the ‘down low’ part. I said support not join. If people in the LDP are stupid enough to not take a resource because it doesn’t have the perfect label, then they suffer for it. I want to help the LDP, unfortunately in my position I can’t start the activities though.

  18. True enough Sam… volunteer-only organisations sometimes aren’t perfectly organised. Undoubtably mistakes are made, and some issues aren’t addressed properly. I’m sorry we weren’t able to find an appropriate way to utilise your skills.

    Good luck in the Liberals. And when you realise that you will never make any positive difference to the Australian polity there… I look forward to seeing you in the LDP. 🙂

  19. In my experience the Libs had a vast majority of membership who did bugger all, and a small core of active members, mostly young, who were in many cases putting in the work in the hope of future preselection. These active members regularly burnt out, but were steadily replaced with new recruits.

    If the LDP had the same activity rate as the Libs, we’d have half a dozen active members. We actually do quite a bit better then that. Some members are lazy, like me, and some work hard for the party.

    Quite a number of LDP members are former libs who became disillusioned, again like me, so John is talking with some basis in reality here. If you are a real libertarian, the Libs will leave you with nothing but tears. Whereas the LDP has vacancies for those with enthusiasm and ideas. Just saying.

  20. Sam – quit the Liberals, join the LDP, go to the annual conference in January, get elected to the LDP federal executive, reform the party and change the world. If you have energy and time then it is all possible. If nothing else just turn up to the annual conference and take a look.

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