Saturday, December 2, 2023

Review – The Forgotten Menzies

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The Forgotten Menzies

The World Picture of Australia’s Longest-Serving Prime Minister

Authors: Stephen A Chavura and Greg Melluish
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2021

9780522877687 (hardback) 9780522877694 (ebook)

Buy through Booktopia


The introduction to the book sets the theme throughout of looking at Menzies as who he really might have been, rather than as an idealised or detested idealogue:

What needs to be recovered is an understanding of Menzies in his own terms rather than as a pawn in a modern ideological war within the party he started. Menzies saw himself less as an ideological warrior than as a defender of a tradition embodying both ideas and a way of doing things that he feared was being killed off by a number of cultural, economic and political developments that he believed would come to characterise the twentieth century. He lived through some of the most terrible years in modern history. If anything, he believed—at least late in life—that the age of ideologies was over. Like a good nineteenth-century liberal, Menzies seems to have associated liberalism with good government, not with an ideology.

What is crucial about Menzies is not only that he was on the political landscape for so long but also that he summed up, in his writings and speeches, a set of beliefs and values that were representative of his age. He was not a profound or agile political or cultural analyst; his thinking was not particularly original, nor did he attempt to be so. Nevertheless, there is a solidity in Menzies’ ideas that has its roots in common sense and the accepted principles and ideas of his age. Part of this, no doubt, comes from his training in the law. But it means that Menzies possessed a real gift for formulating ideas in a way that was striking for its simplicity. It was his style that made so much of what he wrote and said memorable; he could inspire.

The authors regard Menzies as somewhat of an internationalist seeing Australia as an integral part of ‘Greater Britain’  and by extension the Commonwealth and by further extension, the community of nations. In this sense, Menzies is an idealist. Seeing good government, run well with equanimity towards all its citizens and strengthened by an objective legal system, as the ideal through which harmony amongst not only the citizens of a particular country but also between nations could be achieved.

In the words of the authors:

The following study describes both cultural puritanism and British idealism and shows that, during Menzies’ most formative years, these traditions were at the height of their cultural power in the Australian province of Greater Britain. The book then goes on to examine Menzies’ thought and language in the context of these intellectual traditions, first by a study of Menzies’ famous 1942 ‘Forgotten People’ speeches, then by looking at his subsequent social ideas more generally. On our interpretation of Menzies, an appreciation of the nature and influence of cultural puritanism and idealism shows Menzies’ thought and career to be a valiant, albeit failed, attempt not so much to restore liberalism or conservatism to Australian society in an age of rapid social change as to reinvigorate the virtues of cultural puritanism, a tradition of which Menzies was Australia’s last great exemplar and defender.

The authors view Menzies’s cultural puritanism as a belief in the very traditional ‘British’ virtues such as sturdiness, independence, freedom, self-scrutiny, Godliness, duty, and domesticity which were common themes in the Australia of Menzies’ youth. Added to those might be a belief in due process, the rule of law, representative democracy, constitutional monarchy, educational opportunity, social mobility, industry and commerce – all things with which Menzies and his governments were associated. In some respects, the more the authors claim Menzies was not an idealist but a cultural puritan, a practical man, not to mean a political pragmatist, which carries with it negative connotations, it seems that in many ways that very adherence to a belief in practicality was an ideology within itself. An ideology through which Menzies believed he could govern well and improve the lives of his fellow Australians, themselves believers in the ideology of practicality.

Chapter One – Cultural Puritanism in Young Menzies’ Australia

The authors then proceed to place the young Menzies within the context of contemporary politics and its origins.

The dominant political strain in early Australia was protestant liberalism. The main political protagonists, despite differences in nuance, were generally liberal and primarily protestant. The secular state run education system owes its beginnings to this tradition. Citizenship involved responsibility and duty, not rights and entitlements, self-reliance and not dependency. Independence was signified in universal suffrage through the secret ballot and in property ownership. There was a desire to spread property ownership as widely as possible. Menzies himself came from rural Victoria – the town of Jeparit in Victoria. An individual should be free to make their own moral choices in life – although tempered with the need to act responsibly – once again a very protestant approach. The Labor Party’s ‘pledge’ was a diametrically opposite proposition. Created by the New South Wales party in 1894, ‘the pledge’ required that the majority view of the party had the right to dictate the conscience of its individual members.

Jeparit, Victoria, c.1925. Source: Museums Victoria

Property ownership provided a platform for independent individuals to agree together on how best to manage a community. For a liberal society to succeed much depended upon co-operation between these independent individuals rather than coercion.  Many voluntary organisations were created in colonial Australia – building societies, friendly societies, even the boards which ran local hospitals.

Menzies took up these themes in his ‘Forgotten People’ radio broadcasts of 1942, as well as countless occasional speeches to all kinds of audiences, from church congregations to political rallies. Notably, Menzies believed both men and women of all classes had the ‘spirit’ to do good in the world.

The authors point to the strength of cultural puritanism in the Melbourne in which Menzies went to university. Menzies was an heir of the tradition of Deakinite liberalism which has its home in Victoria. The authors highlight various writers and philosophers, such as T.G. Tucker, Henry Bournes Higgins, Frederic Eggleston, and the University of Sydney Principal John Woolley, whose works would have influenced the Deakinite tradition and hence Menzies.

The real issue is that for Deakin, as for other cultural puritans, ‘personality’, as idealists used the term, mattered and was central to their vision of liberalism. They desired to be statesmen, not just grubby politicians. The same is true of Robert Menzies, and this can be seen clearly in the memoirs he wrote after retiring from politics.


Deakinite liberalism can thus be characterised as the embodiment of a particular disposition and attitude, ‘aristocratic liberalism’, rather than as a set of specific liberal policies to be adhered to in a dogmatic fashion.

In these descriptions we can see the essence of Menzies which the authors wish to convey.

The counterpoints to cultural puritanism were the larrikinism of the Bulletin and the bohemianism of artists such as Norman Lindsay.

Menzies’s cultural puritan milieu

The authors highlight Menzies’s upbringing in a Presbyterian family headed by a small business owner instilled naturally a degree of cultural puritanism in addition to the overall culturally puritanical direction of society.

The chapter then goes into some detail describing the importance of the puritans and the mythology surrounding the puritans, and their focus upon the importance of education, in the development of politics and opinions in Menzies’s formative years at Melbourne University during World War One.

Thus, the puritan ideals of sturdy independence, the sanctity of domesticity, labour and thrift and the duty-centric foundations of democracy were common cultural puritan tropes during Menzies’ childhood and early career.

Chapter Two – The Idealist Milieu

The authors move on to pointing out that Menzies combined cultural puritanism with a more idealistic element. Reference is made to the idealistic philosophy promulgated by T.H. Green and, at Melbourne University, Henry Laurie. The idealised nature of cultural puritanism survived in Menzies’s Melbourne whereas in Sydney it was undermined by the efforts of John Anderson at the University of Sydney.

University of Melbourne, 1914.

Menzies would stress this distinction between material—technological and economic—and moral improvement from his earliest writings in the Melbourne University Magazine until the end of his political career.

The harsh realities of World War One replaced the exuberance of Deakin for the values of cultural puritanism with a more pessimistic age, hanging on more grimly to those same beliefs. Optimism is replaced by opportunism and cynicism – exemplified in the character of Billy Hughes.

Idealism and the young Menzies

Even though World War One had shaken British ideals, the fact that Britain and her allies had prevailed meant that God had not forsaken them in their struggle against what Menzies the university student described as ‘a system of deception, violence and servitude’ as ‘in all the spiritual forces which alone can bring about a lasting peace, Great Britain has been and is, superior to her enemies’.

In contrast to many in the modern day Liberal Party, Menzies did not see university as a place merely for training students to perform mechanical tasks. Rather, he saw university as a place where students could strive to learn the truth, to explore philosophically. Universities were not to perform the utilitarian function of supplying fodder for industry but rather be places looked upon by the world as a source of inspiration:

Anticipating observations he would make throughout his political career, Menzies condemned the philistinism of his age, in which ‘we find that so many look on the education of our youth as the acquisition of so many rules and so many formulae—just so many as will enable them to fill some niche in this workaday world’. He went on, ‘we somehow fail to see that in this way the true ideal of Education is almost as completely negatived!

One has to ask how Menzies might have viewed the transformation of the Australian university system from an elysian field training Australia’s youth to become imaginative well-rounded leaders with a foundation in the classics and filled with a spirt of obligation to their country into a purely money making exercise seeking to extract funds from the families of middle class international students and prepared to accommodate its standards in order to maintain that flow of funds.

The idealism of Menzies can be traced to the origins of the Colony of Victoria with its strong tradition of liberal democracy. As the authors note:

Indeed, there were two prime ministers in Australian history who showed strong idealist tendencies in their thought and language: Sir Alfred Deakin and Sir Robert Menzies. Deakin and Menzies were also the first two Australian prime ministers to attend Melbourne University, both during its idealist phase.

The emphasis in this ideology was on civic duties and civic virtues, a society made-up of reasonable citizens voluntarily striving together for a common good and taking personal responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, this ideology appears to have been overtaken in modern Australia by that which Menzies’s ideology most strenuously opposed – utilitarianism and its associated concepts of dependency on the state and state-determined entitlements. A change driven as much by the party Menzies founded as the parties he opposed.

The authors provide detailed background on the philosophers from whom Menzies would have drawn his inspiration – Arnold, Trevelyan, T.H. Green, John Smith, Sir Walter Murdoch, F.W. Eggleston and W.K. Hancock who wrote when expounding his vision of the British Commonwealth:

‘It is a programme which grows out of our own history. The guiding thread in our history is liberty. It gives the clue to our past achievement, it explains the unity which makes us strong to-day and the service which we are rendering and shall render to the welfare, freedom and security of all peoples.’

For reasons which they do not explain, the authors make the following comment :

In the final analysis it was a utopian dream that can be placed alongside the other utopian dreams of the twentieth century: capitalism, communism and fascism. It was always doomed.

The authors appear to be overlooking the reality that the Commonwealth of Nations, as it is known now, because it has evolved, as it always would, given the ideology upon which it was based, is still in existence, is still active and has 54 members and includes two countries which had no history of connection to the British Empire or any current member of the Commonwealth – Mozambique and Rwanda. Far from ‘doomed’ the ‘utopian dream’ is alive and well.

The authors then go on to make the equally unbridled statement :

It can surely be no accident that the death knell of the British Empire coincided with that of puritan idealism.

Given that many people in society, both within Australia, and internationally, still adhere to the principles which the authors ascribe to ‘cultural puritanism’, that many schools and churches still extol similar virtues, and that what remains of our system of parliamentary democracy still makes vague claims to the same heritage, this statement appears to be more political than historical.

Whilst the authors refer to statements by both Hancock and Smuts lamenting the passing of the spirit of cultural puritanism (as the authors, not the philosophers, call it) they seem to miss the point that Menzies did not seem to share that despair. Menzies appeared to believe that, even if his ideology was under stress, he, as a leader, could revive the ideology and simultaneously revive the Australian nation by espousing that ideology in his speeches and implementing that ideology in his policies.

Chapter Three – The Forgotten People Speeches

The best and strongest community is not that in which everybody looks to his neighbour hoping for something from him, but that in which everyone looks to his neighbour, willing and able to do something for him. In brief, we achieve the good of man when we help and encourage him to be a man—strong, self-reliant, intelligent, independent, sympathetic and generous: Menzies, ‘The task of democracy’.

The authors now appear to recognize that Menzies did see the opportunity to confront what he saw as a crisis of civilization by reference to the ideology which had worked in the past which stressed such things as personal responsibility, individual exertion and the willingness to ‘do one’s duty’. Far from seeing his ideology as doomed, Menzies saw it as a guide book for the future.

Independence was a key theme for Menzies. Independence would mean that citizens were not only able to support themselves but also able to support others. I am not sure I can agree with the authors’ description of duties :

In that sense the virtue of independence was a negative duty that allowed the sturdy citizen to perform his positive duty to the community.

They both appear to be positive duties, both are calls to arms – be independent! Support others!

Menzies believed that moral rectitude and an appreciation of individual freedom were based on a very English experience, the whole history of England having refined over centuries the relationship between the individual and the state in a way quite different from that in other societies.

Britishness and duty

Menzies looked to the middle class as the source of salvation. Independence, self-reliance, family, the home – these were the features of the middle class. They would provide the stability which the nation required in order to prosper. The philosophical basis of this appears to be the Roman concept of ‘pietas’. Homes and families were meant to produce individuals who possessed piety and recognised their responsibilities to those around them.

Menzies saw Britain as continuing to provide Australia with the philosophical basis of its political and legal system:

“The truth is that ever since the wise men gathered about the village tree in the Anglo-Saxon village of early England, the notion of free self-government has run like a thread through our history. The struggle for freedom led an English Parliament to make war on its King and execute him at the seat of government, confined the kingship itself to a parliamentary domain, established the cabinet system and responsibility, set in place the twin foundation stones of the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law on which our whole civil edifice is built.”

The authors describe Menzies’s concept of freedom, often being linked to that of duty stating:

Menzies is uncomfortable dwelling on the freedoms as individual liberties and quickly reminds his audience that these freedoms are for others as well as themselves and that, as such, our freedoms involve a duty to allow others to enjoy theirs.

Individualism, individuality and citizenship

The ‘individual’ and ‘individuality’ rather than ‘individualism’ were common themes of Menzies. Menzies was searching for a middle ground between ‘selfish’ laissez-faire capitalism and suffocating state socialism. Citizens needed to develop an individual ‘spirit’. Menzies saw the lack of ‘spirit’ as the greatest threat to Australian democracy. Citizenship must be trained. The universities were to be the providers of a trained citizenry.

Menzies described ‘the idle and false doctrine that the Government owes us everything while we owe the Government nothing’. The ‘independent man’ was to be set against his anti-type; that is, those who ‘clamour for their so-called “rights”’ and who ‘dodge every civic responsibility’; such are ‘poor democrats’. Via the ‘spirit of sturdy independence’ the ‘great middle class’ would reconsecrate an increasingly individualistic society.

The problem of materialism

The authors point out that Menzies was concerned as much about capitalism as he was concerned about socialism. Capitalism needed a moral basis, to be responsible to the community. Materialism alone was not sufficient to prevail in war or in life more generally.

Unlike many modern day politicians, Menzies was opposed to using hatred as a motivator – ‘It is, in my opinion, poor policy to try to persuade people to despise the Japanese’. Menzies did not want to see genuine patriotism replaced by hatred.

Menzies extended his moral view of society to alcohol. Not that he was a wowser but ‘There must be a compulsion to frugality and when we have frugality, intemperance and extravagance will automatically be subdued.’ So, Menzies restricted access to alcohol.

Chapter Four – Christianity, Democracy and Civilisation

This chapter commences with a re-statement of much of what has been said previously by the authors:

His project was one of cultural restoration, even if the culture he sought to restore never really typified all Australians or Britons in the first place. But certain expressions of this cultural puritanism, as we saw above, cohered nicely with conservative and liberal approaches to society and politics.

The authors make the following statement in regard to one of the reasons why Menzies adopted the name ‘Liberal’ for his new party:

There was no precedent in Australian political terms for adopting the label ‘conservative’; in fact to do so would be political poison.

This statement appears to overlook the fact that the two predecessors to the Liberal Party – the Nationalist Party (at one time led by Billy Hughes as Prime Minister) and the United Australia Party (of which Menzies had been leader as Prime Minister) were both in essence conservative parties.

Source: National Archives of Australia

The authors are correct in describing Menzies as a non dogmatic liberal with ordinary individuals and their families at the centre of his philosophy. Menzies in his ‘Forgotten People’ speeches, made in 1941 whilst the war was raging and with the ALP in power, targeted the middle class – the people with ‘a stake in the country’. Not rich, not poor. ‘My home is where my wife and children are. The instinct to be with them is the great instinct of civilised man; the instinct to give them a chance in life—to make them not leaners but lifters—is a noble instinct.’

The ideal individual in Menzies’ eyes was far from being someone who maximised utility. His vision of the individual came from religion; his Scottish heritage, which placed a great emphasis on education; a desire to excel and achieve; and a belief that individuals have a responsibility to use their talents and capacities to benefit others. It is the vision of the professional—and Menzies was of course a talented lawyer— rather than that of the businessman or the economist. In the Australian context, this form of liberalism.

The authors correctly point to Menzies being part of the long tradition of ‘aristocratic liberalism’ where representatives act in the best interests of the whole community and not as directed by the party machine – as was the case with the Labor Party.

Menzies and the art of politics

The authors quotation from the writings of William Hearn, appointed as professor to the University of Melbourne in the 1850s, in his work on English government could well be a moral for the dilemma of modern politics:

Quite bluntly, if you want paid agents, hired men, bound to do your bidding even when they know or believe that you are wrong, anxious at all costs to keep your favour, their eyes turned always towards the next election, then you will get a Parliament of the spineless and democracy will disappear. For political systems have much more frequently been overthrown by their own corruption and decay than by external forces.

Clearly, this was not what Menzies wanted ‘The true function of a member of Parliament is to serve his electors not only with his vote but with his intelligence. If some problem arises in Parliament about which he has knowledge and to which he has devoted his best thought, how absurd it would be—indeed how dangerous it would be—if he should allow his considered conclusion to be upset by a temporary clamore by thousands of people, most of whom in the nature of things could not have his sources of information and have probably in any event not thought the problem out at all’.

Menzies regarded politics as an honourable profession to be elevated into statesmanship and statescraft. Politics is not just about economics, it a a form of art, whereby people of principal persuade individuals to be led by them. Speeches, written personally, not merely read, were crucial to Menzies. Speaking to constituents, dealing with questions and interjections, are all part of being an effective politician. One wonders how Menzies would have felt about modern day political leaders supported by an array of media advisors and speech writers.

Menzies was also a true democrat focused on the essential good of the individual ‘So it is that, while Fascists and Nazis concentrate their efforts upon the power of the State, regarding the citizen as the mere minister to that power, democrats must concern themselves with what they see to be the true end and final justification of the State; the chief end of the State becomes man—man the individual, man the immortal spirit.’ One wonders where enforced lockdowns and the closure of Australia’s borders to its own citizens might have figured, or not, in Menzies’s agenda.

Bridging the sacred and the secular

Menzies synthesized his religious beliefs into his political thought. As the authors describe it:

Unlike his father, Menzies was no enthusiast, and his private travel diary written during 1935 reveals a mildly liberal Christianity.


Menzies’ religion was moral and aesthetic, with little reference to credal dogma. His understanding of Christianity is of a spiritual force immanent within the British people and expressing itself in their way of life. Liberal Anglicanism, building on the fact that the Church of England was defined less by a creed than by its practices as set out in the Book of Common Prayer, had accentuated this tendency, especially as the English grappled with the place of religion in a world that was being shaped by Enlightenment modernity and by the discovery of the plurality of world religions. In these circumstances, for many intelligent people, ethics and piety came to count for much more than the verbal formulations that they recited as an affirmation of their belief.

Despite his lack of enthusiasm for organized religion, Menzies abhorred the Australian tendency to separate the spiritual from the secular, maintaining his belief in the inherent ‘spirit’ within individuals.

Spirit and democracy

Menzies regarded democracy in the modern sense as almost sacred – the means by which good things could be brough into the world driven by people with a ‘spirit’ based on Christian principles, commencing with the Reform Act in 1832 in the United Kingdom.

If that spirit becomes weak then democracy becomes ill:

What Menzies called the ‘sickness of democracy’ was essentially short-sightedness, selfishness from citizens, and cowardice and opportunism from politicians responding to the dynamics of electoral politics.

One wonders how ‘sick’ Menzies would see Australian democracy being today.

Menzies believed that clever youth should be trained to be educated and wise, in order to become the ‘aristocratic liberals’ with ‘spirit’ able to think of what is best for the country as a whole and to lead its citizens well.

Menzies saw great danger in materialism.

But where was spirit to be found? Menzies’ answer revealed the true Enlightenment man that he was. Salvation was to be found in education; an education system that was open to science and technology but resisted the corrosive effects of scientism and commericalism. In particular, Menzies turned to the institution that had been the keeper of the human spirit for centuries, the university.

Chapter Five – Educating for Spirit

In Australia, since the 1860s, a system of secular state schools was established in each of the colonies. The Roman Catholic Church established a parallel system of religious schools.

The authors make the following extraordinary statement:

The establishment of a school system was one of the first major administrative achievements of Australia. The one great failing was its inability to accommodate Catholic Australians.

This is a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the secular state school system. A Roman Catholic was free to attend any state school. There was no ban on Roman Catholics attending state schools. The fact is that the Roman Catholic Church refused to be accommodated by the secular state system. The failure was on the part of the Roman Catholic Church and its insistence on controlling the education of its youth. This statement also overlooks the many private schools of a variety of persuasions which were also not within the secular state school system. This is not a matter of failure on the part of the secular state system, it is a matter of choice made by individuals deciding to establish their own educational systems teaching their beliefs and principles.

As discussed previously, Menzies had a well developed philosophy of education, seeing it as the way in which to train future leaders.

Menzies’ liberalism was closely tied to his views on education and the belief that education was a means of ensuring that human beings progressed and developed and were able to transcend their failings and weaknesses. Material progress by itself, argued Menzies on a number of occasions, can lead to barbarism and all the terrible events of the twentieth century. It needed to be complemented by some sort of moral and spiritual progress, and a key factor in that progress was to be a humanities education.

The authors then introduce John Anderson, the dour Calvinist philosopher from the University of Sydney. Anderson in many ways represented the antithesis of Menzies. A communist for a period who then rejected all authority describing himself at one point as an anarchist, an advocate of religious and sexual freedoms, a libertarian, who was in regular conflict with the University Senate.

Where Menzies and Anderson agreed was in the role of the universities in preserving society from materialism and the dominance of science.

Menzies’ idea of a university

A humanities education would ensure that democracy in Australia remained on the straight and narrow and was not corrupted by the possible vices that material progress could encourage. It would perform the following tasks:

• create good democratic citizens who would not be trapped by their narrow provincial concerns

• ensure that material progress did not again lead to barbarism of the sort that had already scarred the twentieth century

• provide the appropriate elite leadership required by a democracy, a leadership that would be marked by intelligence and moral responsibility

Menzies ensured that national development became the core philosophy of Australia. In order to create secondary industries, Australia required a skilled and educated workforce. The role of the university was to ensure that education did not become corrupted by materialism and socialism and that society moved in the direction of civilization and not barbarism.

Liberalism in Australia believed that individuals could be uplifted through education. Their lives improved materially and, as importantly, morally and intellectually. This philosophy was expressed in F.W. Eggleston’s Search for a Social Philosophy published in 1941.

Moreover, for idealist liberals, progress would lead to the creation of a world in which autonomous individuals would develop a strong sense of social cooperation, thereby enabling them to work together willingly for the common good.

Menzies did not wish to influence what the universities decided to teach. His role was to provide the funding to enable them to do so. In many ways, he was somewhat naïve when it came to trusting the universities to provide the sort of education which he envisaged.

There can be little doubt that Menzies sought to create an elite that would be intelligent, with an enlarged moral sense, who would ensure that Australia was well governed. It would be an elite based on merit, an expression of the ideals of aristocratic liberalism, in which the best had authority. Menzies was undoubtedly a democrat, although he also recognized the need for a democracy to produce educated leaders who possessed a broad vision.

Unfortunately for Menzies, the universities were starting to challenge government rather than work with it. They were starting to see conflict rather than co-operation as the natural order. The universities were turning from being parts of the conservative establishment into being sources of radicalism and protest. Culture was to be de-constructed by applying the methodologies of Marxist criticism, not preserved as part of a liberal ideology.

Menzies’ education policy

Menzies saw that education was critical to Australia making progress in the world. Education was critical also to ensure that democracy functioned properly. He warned that “when citizens ‘abdicate the responsibility of judgement in favour of somebody else’, over time they become ‘servile’”.

Once again, one wonders what view Menzies would hold in regard to the habit of modern day politicians where they abdicate readily responsibility to the bureaucracy, such as, in recent times, to the health bureaucracy.

Menzies saw the benefit to society of the religious, moral, element in denominational schools so commenced a programme of slowly but surely providing support to the denominational school system. This programme commenced with allowing some tax deductibility of school fees, moved onto funding for science blocks and culiminated in 1964 in the offering of 10,000 Commonwealth Secondary School Scholarships to students at all schools, state and non-state, across the country.

But Menzies’ great fear was of an education system without ethics, science without humanity, ‘means without ends’. Such a system was deeply inhuman….Science was simply not enough to save civilisation from materialistic selfishness.

Menzies was confronted with the problem of a reluctance on the part of the states to invest in education whilst the population was growing. Education being a state rather than a federal area of responsibility.

However, the universities were in somewhat different position and so Menzies started courting the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC). In 1956, Menzies established the Committee on Australian Universities, known as the Murray Committee, headed by Keith Murray.

Sir Keith Murray. Source: Wikipedia

The Murray Committee was the first national and wide-ranging investigation of Australian university education. Its report, issued in 1957, revealed acute inadequacies in the standard of university education, such as overcrowding, poor facilities, a high dropout rate, and poor research levels.

However, the authors take a dim view of the Murray Report, principally it would seem as there were no economists or financial specialists on the committee. However, there were a number of distinguished members, including Sir Ian Clunies Ross, Chairman of the CSIRO. Murray himself was a distinguished public servant. It seems a little unfair of the authors to describe the committee as a ‘lobby group’  and likening them to children being let loose in the lolly shop.

The authors appear to be quite unimpressed with the recommendations of the committee based as they were on a doctrine of national development and a philosophy of education which mirrored that of Menzies and a British model of the university. I find this odd in the authors approach as the universities which did exist in Australia at the time of the report has been based on the British model for around a century. The authors make the comment:

In particular, the report supported the idea of academic autonomy and of academics being left free to follow their inquiries wherever they might lead.

As though this is a problem!

The authors are critical at the failure of the report to discuss raising fees or finding alternative funding models (without suggesting alternatives which might have been feasible in the Australia of 1957), at the recommendation to increase academic salaries (without recognizing how low those salaries were in 1957) and that Treasury had been sidelined from the process (without recognizing that Treasury would have become involved once budget allocations were to be made) and no estimates of future expenditure by the Commonwealth were provided (which was incorrect, see below).

Looking at the committee’s report, rather than taking the authors at their word, one sees that Chapter VIII of the committee’s report, entitled ‘The Need for an Australian University Grants Committee’ establishes a mechanism for determining the provision of funding to universities and Chapter IX of the committee’s report, entitled ‘The Immediate Financial Needs of the Universities’ goes into some detail in regard to the finances of the universities and their requirements.

The authors then take-off on an escapade of describing universities as a form of ‘middle class welfare’ (due to being publicly funded to an extent) and that if Menzies had been true to his image of the middle-class as being self-reliant, he should have placed upon them the burden of funding their own university education. The universities became compliant ‘rent seekers’ in the view of the authors. Although this contradicts their earlier observations that the universities went in a radical direction, unforeseen by Menzies, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The authors then move on to suggesting that Menzies’s second great ‘conformity revolution’ in education was the introduction of state aid for independent, often religious, schools.

The authors again raise the claim that the education revolution of the mid-1800s ‘left the Catholics out of the tent’, which is demonstrably incorrect. The philosophical decision not to provide public funding to any religious schools, not just Roman Catholic schools, was common in the nineteenth century. If the Roman Catholics decided not to sit inside the tent, that was their own decision, not a decision of government.

The authors at least do acknowledge that Menzies had a noble vision for education:

He was, as this chapter argues, in many ways an old-fashioned liberal with a philosophy grounded in idealism. It is true to say that Menzies had a vision of a harmonious organic society for Australia. A harmonious society was one composed of independent individuals who could come together and cooperate, recognising the benefits of being good citizens. They would elect leaders who equally worked for the public good; a good democracy required an educated and ethical elite to lead


What one can say is that his educational policies were motivated by a generous vision about the future of Australia. One could wish that his generosity had been matched by those who were the beneficiaries of the changes that he brought into being.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies at the Official Opening of Kodak Factory in Coburg, 1961. Source: Museums Victoria

Conclusion : Australian Liberalism and the Forgotten Menzies

Menzies was a practical rather than a theoretical liberal. He understood freedom as a reality, preserved by good government by an educated elite, rather than an ideal to be sought after.

What freedom meant was not understood in a theoretical or ideological manner. It was not the liberty of an academic treatise. It was the possession of a people who instinctively knew how to behave in a manner befitting those who had been granted the precious gift of freedom. It expressed itself through such institutions as Parliament and the workings of the law. Unlike Americans, Australians had had no reason to question their British heritage or to universalise their political and legal concepts. They trusted in themselves rather than mechanisms and documents to protect their freedom. Menzies understood this principle perfectly: ‘In short, responsible government in a democracy is regarded by us as the ultimate guarantee of justice and individual rights. Except for our inheritance of British institutions and the principles of the Common Law, we have not felt the need of formality and definition.’

The authors then go on to consign Menzies’s vision to the dustbin of history:

There is a strong connection between the British Commonwealth, as the empire was understood in dominions such as Australia, and cultural puritanism, which was closely aligned to Britishness as a form of civic religion. The real issue was whether this loosely connected set of values and ideals could survive once the British Empire had dissolved. The answer turned out to be no. World War II created the circumstances for the end of the empire. In retrospect, the fate of the empire can be seen to have been sealed at Munich in 1938 when the British made a massive miscalculation in not opposing Germany because of fear of the Soviet Union. The war exhausted Britain. The Britain of the 1930s that Menzies had idealised was no more.

Society and politics in the years immediately after the Second World War appeared to be much the same as they had been before. However, as the 1960s unfolded :

The threads that bound the Commonwealth disentangled. It was also the decade when secularisation quickened in Western countries, thereby dissolving older religious sentiments and practices. One might well consider that the decline in material power was matched by a decline in what might loosely be termed spiritual power.

It is possible that Menzies’s retreat from public life might hint at a sense of disillusionment. In his memoirs, Menzies spoke little of politics and politicians, preferring to focus on what he saw as the degeneration of the Commonwealth into being driven by ideologies and politics, rather than being a club.

It is also worth noting that Menzies had no fear of government per se; he believed in the capacity of government to work on behalf of Australia and do good for it. His period in office coincided with the golden age of the mandarin in Canberra with such figures as Roland Wilson, Frederick Wheeler and Arthur Tange.

Modern politics, focused as it is on personal advantage and conflict, would have been anathema to Menzies.

Menzies’s retirement signalled the end of an era, the end of a political and social belief system which had served Australia well. In many respects, chaos followed. Some of the causes of this were – secularisation, affluenza, professionalism and the decline of manufacturing and multiculturalism.

The authors then add this especially depressing, and inaccurate, statement which in one sweep overlooks the continuation of many of the structures created by Menzies, the expansion of the private school system and the results of several federal elections, not the least being the decisive rejection of the Whitlam government at the election held in 1975:

Buried with cultural puritanism was Menzies’ own legacy. Whitlam embodied the post–World War II shift towards conceptualising citizenship in terms of rights and benefits rather than duties, fully embodying Hancock’s state-as-public-utility—everything Menzies found objectionable about Labor.20 In hindsight we can see Menzies’ career as a hopeless attempt to defend a dying dream against inexorable secular trends eroding it: economic, technological, demographic and international. Thus, despite the difference of six years between Menzies’ retirement and Gough Whitlam’s accession to the office of Prime Minister, Whitlam’s language of rights and equality retains relevant to this day, while Menzies’ stress on independence and duties is obsolete and archaic.

However, the authors do conclude with this grudgingly admiring finale :

Seen in this light, even Menzies’ critics might concede that the failure of his vision is not wholly to be celebrated. Perhaps even the members of the ‘party of progress’ will consider that ‘progress’ meant something different to Menzies than it does now. Perhaps in our tribalised and self-righteous age honest—even solemn—self-scrutiny among political and ideological partisans is the most fitting and truly progressive way to pay respect to Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister

End Note

Overall, an interesting but not a terribly uplifting, and, at times, inaccurate, book. I am not convinced that the authors have managed to run a strong argument in support of their concept of ‘cultural puritanism’. In many ways similar to the Marxist critics they mention, their purpose is anachronistic. They are attempting to read the past through a prism developed post the events they are analysing. They are attempting to demonstrate that Menzies was the proponent of an ideology which he himself would not have recognised – not least of all because, as the authors themselves repeat often, Menzies was not an idealogue.


This book will be of interest primarily for those studying the life and times of Sir Robert Menzies.

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