Inside Story

But how liberal was he?

David Kemp’s multi-volume history of Australian liberalism continues into the Menzies era

Stuart Macintyre Books 4 March 2021 2000 words

Dominant figure: Robert Menzies (centre) in Greece in March 1955. Special Collections/Baillieu Library/University of Melbourne

A Liberal State: How Australians Chose Liberalism over Socialism 1926–1966
By David Kemp | Miegunyah Press | $59.99 | 608 pages

To read David Kemp’s mammoth history of Australian liberalism since 1788 — this is the fourth of five volumes — is to encounter a familiar landscape made unfamiliar. Kemp follows the conventional periodisation (penal settlement, self-government, federation, nation-building, depression and war), rounds up the usual suspects and evaluates how they applied themselves to the tasks of political leadership. The novelty lies in how he makes liberalism, a protean yet enduring doctrine, the dominant theme of national life.

The three earlier volumes presented the fledgling colonies first as pioneers of liberalism, then as pacesetters in removing obstacles to self-fulfilment, and finally as a social laboratory that took state experiments to excess. This latest instalment covers the forty years from 1926 to 1966.

A Liberal State opens with the failure of the conservative Bruce–Page government to curb profligacy and protect the national interest from sectional demands. An election at the end of 1929 brought Labor into office just twelve days before the Wall Street crash. The inability of the new government, led by James Scullin, to deal with the economic crisis precipitated a split between the moderates (“liberal socialists”) and extremists (“anti-capitalist utopians”), resolved when Joseph Lyons, the leader of the moderates, defected. The United Australia Party swept back into office under his leadership in December 1931 and restored prudent economic management.

Aspects of Kemp’s treatment of these events could be questioned. He sees nothing untoward in a group of Melbourne businessmen inducing Lyons to jump ship, nor in the clandestine conservative organisations that appointed themselves guardians of the nation’s honour. Given that the Depression engulfed even the most orthodox economies, attributing Australia’s predicament to a departure from economic orthodoxy is myopic and his explanation of how Australia recovered less than convincing. But left-leaning treatments of this profound economic and political crisis carry their own crotchets.

More idiosyncratic is Kemp’s juxtaposition of moderate Labor reformists and “anti-capitalist utopians,” with their false doctrine of class warfare. It’s a particularly inapposite term since Marx and Engels distinguished their own scientific socialism from the utopian socialism of predecessors such as Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, who offered only a moral critique of competitive individualism that failed to explain how capitalism created such divisions.

Nineteenth-century liberals sought to remove the restrictions that prevented individuals from enjoying a full measure of freedom, and to devise forms of government that would safeguard their liberties. In earlier volumes Kemp showed how Australians drew on the arguments of liberal theorists such as Bentham, Mill and Green. In this volume he uses Hayek, Friedman and Rand as equivalent guides in the twentieth-century battle to throw back the encroachment of the state and resist the malign influence of anti-capitalist utopianism. But they had little presence in Australia at this time. Although a local edition of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom appeared shortly after its publication in Britain in 1944, to claim it exercised “a profound influence” is gross exaggeration. Milton Friedman was little known before he toured Australia in 1975. Most Australians had no idea who Ayn Rand was until Malcolm Fraser declared his admiration of her work.

The lengthy summaries of these and other prophets of neoliberalism contribute little to the argument of this book. There is a roll call of influential Australian thinkers in the opening chapter — economists, political scientists, lawyers and historians — but they make rare appearances in the rest of the volume. The Sydney philosopher John Anderson, who inculcated a generation of students with his hostility to the servile state, is allowed a single sentence. Far-sighted businessmen fare better, but the outcome of the battle is determined by Robert Menzies, who dominates the narrative from his entry into politics in 1928 until his retirement in 1966.

Thirty years ago, when Judith Brett published Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, her close examination of Menzies’s celebrated evocation of liberal values, she remarked on the sharp differences in how our longest-serving prime minister was remembered. Some thought of him as the grand old man of the Liberal Party who bested the socialists and presided over the postwar boom with dignity and aplomb. For those on the left he was an opportunist who preyed on the gullibility of the Australian people, an instinctive authoritarian who feigned liberal convictions. A third and later view held by those who came of age in the 1960s was of an absurd anachronism who imprisoned Australia in timorous complacency. To these three positions can now be added a fourth, that of the great majority who have no memory of Menzies at all.

David Kemp subscribes to the first view; indeed, he admires Menzies — “one of the world’s most brilliant political leaders” — even more fervently than the former prime minister’s principal biographer, Allan Martin. After quickly exhausting the possibilities of state politics, Menzies entered federal parliament in 1934 as “the most articulate and passionate supporter of liberalism” and immediately joined the cabinet. But how liberal was he? On some questions of domestic policy, such as book censorship, he brought reform. On the burning international issue of fascist aggression, his support of appeasement extended to penalising maritime workers for refusing to load pig iron for Japan’s military build-up and chiding domestic critics of the fascist regimes.

The 1930s confronted liberals with what Kemp calls “the two deadly hatreds of the twentieth century: class and race.” Menzies’s rejection of class-based politics, both the domestic version he claimed was holding the community to ransom and the communist one of abolishing all other classes, was never in doubt. Nor was he tempted by fascism, with its exaltation of racial purity, elimination of dissent and glorification of violence — though Kemp gives a very generous reading of Menzies’s statement after a visit to Nazi Germany in 1938 praising “the willingness of young Germans to devote themselves to the service and well-being of the State.”

Kemp’s Menzies is a man of outstanding qualities: intelligence, eloquence, courtesy, courage and principle. A man who refused to engage in personal attacks, he endured extraordinary abuse from his enemies on the left who saw that he was the chief obstacle to their ambitions. If he had a weakness in the early part of his career, it was a lack of empathy with lesser mortals. As Kemp puts it, he determined his course of action on the basis of rational deliberation and saw no need to win over colleagues.

The missing element in this assessment is ambition. “When I am a man I intend to be prime minister,” the young Menzies told his school classmates. It was a burning ambition that brought no end of trouble in the first part of his career. As a neophyte in the Victorian parliament he resigned in protest at the expediency of the premier. As a senior federal minister in 1939, he tired of waiting for the easygoing Joseph Lyons to vacate the prime ministership, and resigned again.

With this impatience came an unfortunate habit of demonstrating his superiority by putting others down. When a well-meaning senator warned that “Your great trouble, Bob, is that you don’t suffer fools gladly,” Menzies snapped back, “And what, pray, do you think I am doing now?” “Ah, poor Bob,” remarked John Curtin, then leader of the opposition, “it’s very sad; he would rather make a point than make a friend.”

These weaknesses brought Menzies down just two years after he succeeded Lyons as prime minister in 1939. After losing the confidence of his party in August 1941, he spent the next eight years in the political wilderness. I don’t think Kemp provides an adequate explanation of what went wrong, for he moves immediately to the radio broadcasts Menzies gave during the following year, which were published as The Forgotten People and foreshadowed the renovated liberalism that supposedly restored his fortunes. In fact it took much longer for him to do that.

Menzies had barely set foot in The Lodge when the outbreak of the second world war imposed demands he was unable to meet. The new prime minister’s early declaration that Australia should maintain “business as usual,” later held against him as betraying a lack of resolution, is better understood as a determination to reconcile necessary war measures with a minimum of unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives. Yet the government’s restrictive economic measures antagonised business interests, just as entrusting Keith Murdoch with press censorship alienated the other newspaper proprietors. Disaffected rivals, meanwhile, accused the prime minister of not doing enough. In the end it was a failure to unite the country behind the war effort that brought him undone.

The road back was much bumpier than Kemp suggests. And despite a claim to the contrary, Menzies did the Labor prime minister Curtin no favours. Menzies was the sole dissident among the state and federal leaders who met in December 1942 to thrash out arrangements for postwar reconstruction. In March 1943 he formed the National Service Group, his own party within a party, and used it to undermine Artie Fadden, the leader of the opposition in the election later that year. This “stab in the back,” Fadden observed, marked “another betrayal in the series for which Mr Menzies has become notorious.” And at the beginning of 1944 he withdrew from the Advisory War Council, the bipartisan forum through which he had enlisted Curtin’s support earlier in the year.

As with the earlier volumes, A Liberal State draws on a mixture of contemporary sources, memoirs, biographies and specialist studies. Kemp has read a large body of research literature and is generous in acknowledging the work of scholars unsympathetic to his cause. The weakest passages come when he falls back on partisan nonsense. A striking example is the claim that communist-led unions kept up strikes throughout the war to disrupt war industries and deny Australian troops vital supplies.

Kemp relies here on a book by Hal G.P. Colebatch that is riddled with errors. It alleges a campaign of sabotage on the wharves, yet even in the first two years, when communists opposed the war, the time lost in industrial disputes was just a few hours per member per year. The majority of strikes occurred in the mining industry, as they did in Britain and the United States, but these were unofficial pit stoppages that communist union leaders opposed. So far from disrupting the war effort, communists restrained the militancy of workers who were fed up with long hours, rationing and shortages of consumer goods, wage-pegging at a time of full employment, and government regulations preventing them from taking better-paid jobs.

With Menzies back in office at the end of 1949, we are in more familiar territory. The following seventeen years are allocated less than a third of the book’s 500,000 words and contain fewer surprises. The international and domestic cold war absorbed much of the government’s attention until its resounding re-election victory in 1955 released “a great period of policy success” for Australian liberalism as growing prosperity allowed greater public outlays on services that enhanced freedom of choice.

Even then, it is noticeable that the Menzies administration retained financial controls, tariff protection and industrial assistance. The prime minister, we are told, preferred to let protection come under challenge than remove it, just as he waited on white South Africa to realise that apartheid had to go. White Australia, meanwhile, was allowed to run down. Disliking identity politics, the prime minister was quite happy for women to enter parliament, but only on “merit,” and kept the marriage bar on women in the public service out of a conviction that its disappearance needed to be gradual. This is hardly the stance of a paragon of liberalism, more the final destination of a pragmatic conservative.

The most striking feature of Kemp’s painstaking history of Australian liberalism is its inclusion of what used to be called Aboriginal policy. As in his chairing of the Australian Heritage Council, this recognition of the illiberal regimens that operated throughout this and earlier periods is a welcome departure from the history wars of the past. •