Opinion Pieces

Libs must learn from glorious past

The Australian 22 December 2017

Liberals have been negligent in ­recording and defending the ­contribution of the conservative and liberal tradition to advancing Australia.

We don’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve come from.

So many old policy issues are new again.

Memory is essential when we debate the merits of higher versus lower taxes, pro­tected versus closed economies and free­dom versus more state control of our lives.

The Liberal Party has been on the right side of so much of our ­nation’s history.

As we prepare for another year canvassing policy matters such as tax, trade and the role of the state in our lives, it’s time for a refresher on two long dead prime ministers.

Monday’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook provided $7 million to create the Menzies Library within the University of Melbourne — Sir Robert Menzies’ alma mater.

It marks a permanent marker for Australia’s longest serving prime minister, just as Labor ­funded a similar institution for Gough Whitlam in 2012.

Menzies has had a welcome ­revival of late. At a re-enactment of the “forgotten people” radio ­address this year, Tony Abbott rightly said: “Long may we ­remember Bob Menzies.”

Too few of us are aware of Menzies’ magnificent contribution to Australia.

He described his ethos in his farewell address to the Liberal Party that he created:

“As the etymology of our name ‘Liberal’ indicates, we have stood for freedom. We have realised that men and women are not just ­ciphers in a calculation but are ­individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government … We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression, to create a society in which rights and duties are recognised and made effective.”

Yet Paul Keating has spent decades pouring scorn on the man. As late as last week, this newspaper ran a piece from Keating accusing Menzies of being vacuous and weak.

There are three great things Menzies did that we ought to ­remember.

First, he presided over an enormous postwar migration program that transformed Australia. Under Menzies, non-British (southern European) people ­became the dominant group of migrants in the mid-1950s as millions of New Australians arrived.

Second, Menzies opened the door to trade with Asia. Menzies’ 1957 pivot to Japan occurred just 12 years after the end of World War II. Asia was not discovered by Whitlam in 1972.

The landmark 1957 Australia-Japan Commerce Agreement was opposed by the Labor opposition as well as by the strongest lobby groups of the day, such as the Chamber of Manufactures.

Deputy opposition leader ­Arthur Calwell wrote in a newspaper article of Labor’s opposition to the deal: “Of the three parties, Labor is the only one that can be relied upon never to give way to Japanese cajolery, bluff and blackmail.”

As Japan industrialised, it ­became a major customer for our iron ore, which would become one of our largest exports. The ban on exporting iron ore was removed by the Menzies government.

Without Japan, Australia would have experienced a much greater economic shock when Britain joined the European Common Market in 1973.

He was also the education prime minister. Many new universities were created and many people made it to university because of the Menzies scholarships.

My own father grew up in a house in Frankston, outside Melbourne, where, if the eggs were dropped on the way home from the shop, there would be no eggs for the week. He won a Menzies scholarship and an education our family could not otherwise afford.

This month also marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Harold Holt — a man who has become famous for being lost at sea. Yet there was so much more to Holt.

Two things in particular should be remembered. Holt dismantled the White Australia policy. The 1966 Immigration Act changes ­established equality in Australian law. As the National Museum said, Holt’s changes delivered “the same rules and restrictions with regard to acquiring visas, and (people) were eligible to become Australian citizens after the same waiting period of five years. ­Migrants to Australia were to be selected for their skills and ability to contribute to Australian ­society, rather than their race or national affiliation.”

Holt also ushered through the 1967 referendum that removed discrimination against indigenous Australians in the Constitution.

The commitment of Menzies and Holt to civil rights and open engagement with our ­region should be better known. Certainly, their opponents have been quick to claim credit for the big strides forward.

A contemporary example serves as a warning.

Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said this week “same-sex marriage happened despite the Turnbull government, not ­because of it”. This is exactly where the history wars begin.

Members of the Turnbull government should be proud of three important contributions to delivering another significant rights reform under a Liberal government.

First, the postal survey was conceived and efficiently and credibly delivered by Mathias Cormann.

Second, the Liberals and ­Nationals ran the only separately branded party-based campaign for the Yes vote, which delivered Yes majorities in 71 of 76 Coalition seats and generated $4.15 million in earned (free) media. This campaign was launched by Malcolm Turnbull on the day before voting began.

Third, Dean Smith created and shepherded the legislation to ­deliver marriage for all.

No other party can claim to have done anything as material on marriage reform.

Long may the nation and the Liberal Party remember this and what works for Australia: openness, competitiveness and liberty for all our citizens.

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