Published by Victor Perton as part of Australian
Liberalism: The Continuing Vision
Liberalism (A Resource of Liberal Materials from around the world including definitions of Liberalism)
...It remains true that it is more important to state precisely what it is that we are for rather than merely to rehearse a litany of what we are against, and this is the crucial task for liberals in 1986.
Certainty of policy and unity of purposes must be our touchstones.
Of course this is easier said than done, but I do not believe that the task is in any way too hard.
It is, I believe, time for the Liberal Party to restate and reproclaim those fundamental policies and principles which caused us to come together as a political party in the first place and which brought us unparalleled political success as the government of this country for the best part of three decades. What I want to do in the Party is get back to its genuinely liberal basics and cut out a lot of the dry rot with which we have become infected of late.
Above all, I want to restate and revitalise in contemporary terms the essentials of Menzian liberalism. I am an historian by training and I appreciate the wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes reminding us that "there is nothing new under the sun".
But you may ask why hark back to an era which started before most of us were born? The answer is threefold. In the first place because in harking back to our origins we can be made more aware of the purposes for which we came into being as a Party representing all and serving all Australians. Secondly because those policies and principles were accepted by the electorate and given support and approval. Thirdly as John Howard put it in his address to you on Monday, "history shows that the Menzies policies worked".
Philosophically Menzies was a liberal. Sir Paul Hasluck wrote this of him:
"Although a traditionalist, Menzies was not a conservative in any doctrinal sense. I do not know what part he had in choosing the name "Liberal" for the new party he formed and led but the name would certainly fit his political creed. His political thinking was in accord with the liberalism of Alfred Deakin and the liberalism of late nineteenth century England. His wartime attitude on such questions as conscientious objectors, censorship and personal rights and liberties was liberal - much more so than that of his successors - and his post-war innovations in education were in the liberal tradition."
Of that choice of the name "Liberal", Menzies himself explained:
"We took the name 'Liberal' because we were deter- mined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise..."
In 1964 he told Federal Council:
"We have no doctrinaire political philosophy. Where government action or control has seemed to us to be the best answer to a practical problem, we have adopted that answer..."
and in 1970 he told the WA. Division of the Party:
"In the working out of (that) problem, we should not be constrained by any pre-determined abstract theory for we know that practically every political problem is a human one...it is a cardinal error to think of human beings as mere figures in a calculation."
And what were the results of this Menzies approach? Again I quote John Howard's words to this Convention:
"his period as Prime Minister was distinguished by sustained economic growth, high profits and low unemployment."
So, when I see a Shadow Minister recently issue a press release; not one of sufficient quality to hit the headlines; which seeks to describe John Howard as "a great conservative leader who espouses truly conservative philosophy" I almost despair at this failure to understand the history of our Party or the fact that the real conservatives of modern Australian politics are those who currently inhabit the higher echelons of the ACTU. It is they who stoutly resist any attempts, which must be championed and spearheaded by liberals, to break down their positions of privilege, special protection, immunity from the law and adher- ence to everything which is retarding the full flowering of individual enterprise and our whole Australian economy.
When I said there was nothing new under the sun, I had especially in mind a number of issues addressed by Menzies in a way which has real contemporary relevance.
I take first "privatisation". Lest you think this is some new sort of phenomenon let me remind you that Menzies sold off the Commonwealth's share holdings in the Commonwealth Oil Refineries and Amalgamated Wireless. He disposed of its whaling and flax pro- duction enterprises and its share of the Tasmanian aluminium industry and got the Joint Coal Board out of actual coal-mining operations. However all of these things were done progressively and on a case by case basis, so, for example, the privatisation of TAA and the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories were considered and rejected. I lend my support to the privatisation of certain new areas now more relevant to our modern economy, but I reject privatisation as a blanket ideology. To elevate it to a high place in our political agenda is economically and electorally stupid and attacks upon those government-supported operations which also serve vital social functions in maintaining the unity and integrity of Australia as one nation where services ought to be available, even if they have to be subsidised, serve no purpose. Our fellow Australians who live in remote parts of this continent where they provide the backbone of our economy, produce the bulk of our exports, and contribute to the standards of living of we comfortable city-folk are entitled to our support and are entitled to access to decent facilities in transport, communication and banking I for one will resist attempts to sacrifice their interests on the altar of some half-baked intellectual self indulgence on the part of the ideologically pure.
I take superannuation as a second issue. We often forget that in 1939 Menzies resigned from the Lyons Government in protest at their attempts to dishonour promises on national superannuation, describing the National Insurance Act as "(the) greatest legislative achievement as a government, and perhaps the most important reform in (our) social services" I support the concept of national occupational superannuation for Australia's workforce. In principle it is right and proper; in practical terms it is our only hope of avoiding a financial crisis in the provision of social security in the first decades of the next century, a crisis which would be visited upon your heads. Properly, I repeat properly, handled and controlled this can be a step in the right direction; the more workers feel they have a stake in the success of their own companies and the economy generally, the better; the more wage increases are kept out of CPI calculations the better; the more Australian money is responsibly invested in our economy and indeed overseas the better; the more companies are encouraged to seek increased productivity the better.
...Finally let me come to another modern shibboletheth, the "small-government" fetish. Menzies said:
"The functions of the State will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less."
This remains the case.
...Let us then recall the purposes for which governments and political parties exist.
"Government" (wrote Burke) "is a contrivance of human wisdoms to provide for human wants Men have a right that these wants should be provided by this wisdom."
"The protection of the poor and the weak, and the elimination of the causes of poverty and weakness are undoubtedly the supreme business of politics. One can recognise that without in any way ceasing to insist that the first duty of every man is to do his utmost to stand on his own feet, to form his own judgments and to accept his own responsibilities."
Menzies was conscious of the need for liberalism to reflect the aspirations of those he called the "forgotten people" - our natural constituency.
...I see the role of a liberal government in much the same mould as the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.
The traveller, minding his own business, is set upon, robbed and wounded, through no fault of his own. The economic rationalists see his distress but pass by on the other side, after all it's the free market in operation. But the Samaritan stops - unbidden he helps, what's more he pays for the traveller's recovery at the inn and then he departs - promising to pay more if necessary and takes his leave unthanked. He has helped the traveller to stand on his own feet again, he has acted out of compassion, responsibly and with decency. I am sure that in today's climate he would have been roundly abused by some of my parliamentary colleagues as a "Tory interventionist".
Just as I have no difficulty defending such "interventionist" policies on the grounds of their inherent decency and continued relevance for Australia, neither am I ashamed of the Liberal past. I cannot tell you how much I deprecate those liberals who today seek to condemn Malcolm Fraser as the perpetrator of all evils. Worst offenders tend to be those who most strenuously fought for Ministerial preferment and advancement and now in Shakespeare's words, regarding the climber, who, once he has attained
"...the utmost round
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend."
We should be proud of the many achievements of Liberal Governments from Menzies to Fraser. It was upon these liberal principles that Australia's security was built, upon these our national defence and the ANZUS alliance were established; upon these we built one of the world's great education systems; upon these we had decades of economic growth and high levels of employment; we built a multi-cultural community of exceptional, almost unique tolerance; we protected our fragile environment; we made major advances in law reform and the protection of human rights; we developed a sensitive and caring social welfare system; we eliminated many areas of discrimination and disadvantage; we took pride in our united effort of building an Australian nation.
Are we now to be asked to turn our back on these achievements and this record, to deny it because government was too large and too interventionist?
...One commentator recently and rightly pointed out that we must never abandon our commitment to an ideology - the ideology of liberalism. To abandon idealism is to court irrelevancy. John Howard earlier this week proclaimed the pursuit of five goals:
Those are without doubt the right goals. They are liberal goals because they recognise the paramountcy of the individual, freedom, security, reward for effort, appreciation of excellence and compassion. They represent a restatement of our historical mission and the elements of our past success uncluttered by ugly new dogmas, slogans and proscriptions.
They represent above all an understanding that government is about people, not about systems or theories, or about "ideological binges". It is about the well-being, the rights and the security of our fellow human beings: nothing more, and certainly nothing less.
...Let us equally lay before the electorate our own liberal policies based on fundamental liberal principles and drawing upon the great success of past liberal administrations updated to insure their absolute contemporary relevance.
As Menzies recognised and reflected the hopes and aspirations of the forgotten people of his time, so must we. We must address ourselves to those excluded from the banquet table of the Hawke Government where the conservative forces of big unions and big business meet to feast.
Our constituency includes the enterprising individualists, the small business battlers, the high-tech innovators, the average families, the aged, the young, the unemployed, the unionists fully prepared to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay, those prepared to have less in order to give their kids more, the rural community, those who believe in reward for effort and honour for achievement, those for whom standards still matter and those far whom Nation, Flag and Crown are still matters of justifiable pride.
Let us recall that we seek government in order to be their servant, not in order to fit them into our brave new world, for to govern is actually to serve.
An address to the 18th Young Liberal National Convention 9 January 1986
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Re-edited 30 May 2000
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