Menzies 2.0 – a party waiting to be reborn
Political parties do not last forever – they must be re-created, born, and fought for
31 August 2022
In 1944-45, Robert Menzies hosted three conventions to unite fourteen existing political parties and four non-party associations in the Liberal Party of Australia.
The first was a three-day conference in Canberra on October 13-16 1944. It was held in a community hall, with hard wooden seats, within walking distance of the Old Parliament House, with 77 delegates. The second, which focused on organisational details, took place in Albury, NSW. The third event was a public launch at the Sydney Town Hall on 31st August 1945.
Menzies deemed the main non-Labor party in Australia at the time (the United Australia Party) to be moribund. Why did he think that?
The UAP suffered a massive defeat in the 1943 federal election which exposed its many structural and cultural flaws, rather like the 2022 defeat for the Liberal Party earlier this year. The UAP had minimal party organisation, and outside New South Wales and Victoria, it had no extra-parliamentary administration. It relied on external funding, and business interests dominated its policy-making. Menzies wanted a national self-financing organisation that was based on its membership.
But he also wanted a party that could lead the nation. He judged that the UAP was no longer capable of national leadership. It had withered internally, even though it had still been a viable electoral instrument through the 1930s. At certain points in their history, political parties stagnate and die. That time had come for the UAP in 1944.
Three things about Menzies’ process for replacing it with something new are interesting when viewed from the political disarray and leaderless confusion of 2022.
First, political parties stagnate. They do not last forever. When they exhaust themselves, they either slowly fade from prominence, or they are replaced with something new. In the 1990s, the French Socialists and Republicans were parties of government: by 2016 both were reduced to insignificant minor parties, each polling less than 5 per cent of the national vote. Neither has yet been replaced by something new. In 1944, Menzies sought something new to preempt a path of UAP decline.
Second, political parties do not just fall from the sky. They have to be consciously created. People have to be brought together, in conventions, and fashioned into a working team. In Menzies’ time, political parties were not run by staffers – they were still voluntary associations in which people from diverse walks of life joined out of civic duty. Today’s Liberal Party is a dog wagged by its tail – it is run by operatives and staffers, not the membership – which had been Menzies’ explicit intention.
And third, Menzies’ goal in 1944-45 was national leadership. It wasn’t management, of either institutions or economics. Menzies was not a neo-liberal, he wasn’t particularly interested in economics – his primary interest was in what we would now call ‘civil society’ – the health of families, communities, small businesses, and voluntary associations.
The purpose of his new Liberal Party was to represent the forgotten people in society, not to ‘manage’ things. This is the distinctive feature of Menzies’ project that is now quite alien to today’s Liberal (and Labor) apparatchiks. Consider these words from Menzies’ often cited but widely misunderstood speech, The Forgotten People, in 1942:
‘I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.’
No politician in Canberra today would dare contemplate saying – in public – that the ‘health’ of the home ‘determines the health of society’. They would say that their governments determine the health of society, by managing things. Managerialism is the shared ideology of Liberal and Labor in the post-Menzies era. A quick glance at a representative sample of indigenous families, working-class families, and immigrant business families today would show the folly, and falsity, of this managerial delusion.
This doesn’t mean Menzies was right in everything – he was blind to the problem of the ‘career politician’ which lies at the root of the malaise today in Labor and Liberal. Career politicians have now captured both parties, and, as their grassroots members and donors age and die, the career politicians and machine men steadily deepen and extend their control.
In 2022, it’s now clear that the Liberal Party has come to the end of its life cycle. The generation of dutiful, civic-minded, and frugal Australians born in 1944 are now passing, and Menzies’ party is passing with them. The Teal triumph in Kooyong, Menzies’ own seat for so long, marks this historic moment.
The question now is who will bring together ‘fourteen parties and four non-party associations’ to create a new political force to defeat the Labor-Green-Teal Independent ascendancy?
If the primary purpose of a mainstream non-Labor party in Australia today is to defeat this LGTI ascendancy, culturally as well as electorally, then we must conclude that the Liberal Party of 1944-45 is no longer fit-for-purpose.
For so long as conservatives in Australia think Peter Dutton is the ‘hope of the side’, they will continue to flounder.
Dutton cannot speak about culture. He cannot explain the rise of Woke managerialism let alone counter it. He doesn’t know what the term ‘civil society’ refers to. He is a statist, in instinct and conviction, as most ex-military and ex-police officers are: their lives have been spent deferring to authority and issuing orders to underlings. Statist authoritarianism has its place in military and law enforcement institutions, but not in our culture or society.
There are three critical things for conservatives to do in this period of re-alignment and re-conceptualisation of a non-Labor political force for our time.
The first is to discover civil society, as the essential pre-condition for winding back Woke managerialism. Without a language with which to conceptualise the importance of civil society including family, community, faith, reciprocity, and service, conservatives fall back into the language of managerialism. And once you start using the language of managerialism, you lose. This is the language of bureaucrats and managers, and it invariably devours its users.
It ends in the ignominy of Robo-debt, now quite properly the subject of a Royal Commission into how conservatives came to use state power to humiliate low-income families and drive more than a few to suicide. As a 21st century formulation that encapsulates the antithesis of the Menzian sensibility, the ghastly term ‘Robo-debt’ cannot be bettered.
The second imperative is to reject the politics of managerialism. The Morrison, Turnbull, and Abbott governments had nothing to say except ‘let us manage the system’. This is just a few breaths short of a quiet death. Politics is not management. Managing the tertiary education system, or programs in elite sport, or handouts of taxpayers’ money to your preferred energy oligarch, is not the business of conservatives. The managerial delusion is both cause and effect of the rise of career politicians in our parliaments. If politics is not management, then we do not need career politicians. Not only do we not need them, removing them from our Parliaments is the first order of business for conservatives.
The third task follows the revival of civil society and the rejection of managerial politicians. Conservatives need an electoral instrument that can defeat the Labor-Teal-Green ascendancy – the political and cultural capture of public institutions and governance by ‘Woke’ managerialism. Undoing this capture cannot be done by alternative exponents of managerialism. Managerialism, in its operational dynamic, destroys conservative sensibilities and inherited patterns of life and work, and replaces them with technocratic and market-social liberalism. You cannot, no matter how hard you try, take the ‘Woke’ out of managerialism. Today we are governed by tech capitalists, market liberals, and social progressives all at once because this package is what managerialism looks like in our time.
The Liberal Party has become a managerial party. It cannot be made an instrument for anything else. It cannot reform institutions like the ABC or universities or NDIS. It will return to Robo-debt in new formats. As an instrument for defeating the ruling managerial class, the Liberal Party is unfit for purpose.
The question now is what does Menzies 2.0 look like?
Vern Hughes is Director of Civil Society Australia and Convenor of The Sensible Centre.