It is interesting to ponder what Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies would have likely thought of Malcolm Turnbull and his Prime Ministership. Turnbull liked to compare himself to the giant of Australian and Liberal Party politics seeing himself as within the mould of Menzies “progressive Liberalism”. But would Menzies have approved of being equated with Turnbull much less on the basis of a shared anti-conservative, “progressive liberalism”?
We can get an insight from his famous Forgotten People speech of 1942 in which he outlined the values, political ideology and natural constituency that would later underpin his founding of the Liberal Party.
First, it is fair to say that Menzies would not have regarded Turnbull as a natural member of the Liberal Party. We can adduce this by virtue of Menzies excluding from the Liberal base the “rich and powerful: those who control great funds and enterprises, and are as a rule able to protect themselves”. Malcolm Turnbull certainly fits into this category.
Second, Menzies was deeply sceptical of the political acumen of said “rich and powerful” people, stating: “in a political sense they have shown neither comprehension nor competence”. This seems to pretty much sum up Turnbull’s Prime Ministership to me.
Third, Menzies held with disdain what he termed the “cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause”. Malcolm Turnbull not only epitomes these “false values”, he relied upon them to seize the leadership of the Liberal Party.
His appeal to a craven and vacuous party room largely succeeded because they falsely equated Turnbull’s net wealth and the fawning notoriety and applause he received from the ABC and Fairfax crowd with political leadership, judgment, competence and integrity.
Considering that Menzies considered these false values “one of the great blots on our modern living” it would be fair to conclude he would have likewise considered Turnbull to be “one of the great blots” on the Liberal Party.
Fourth, Menzies sensibly believed that to be successful in politics one had to understand the people and conversations inside the “homes” of the middle class. The sanctity of the home and family life in the aspiring middle class was where the sensible centre resided.
Menzies rejected outright “that the real life of this nation [could] be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs”. High on the hill in Point Piper, overlooking the harbour, Turnbull rarely ventured outside the “fashionable” eastern suburbs of Sydney.
Rather than heeding the words of Menzies he instead fortified himself in the “fashionable” eastern suburbs taking his political cues from the trendy, elitist hash tag crusaders, all the while clinging to the delusion that catching the ferry from Rose Bay to Circular Quay (drivers at either end) gave him the common touch of a public transport user. Menzies would doubtless consider this a fail.
Fifth are the straight policy and political contrasts, just some of which include:
i. Menzies was informed by ideology and hence political and economic theory. Turnbull believed agnostic pragmatism and a transactional approach to politics was a virtue.
ii. Menzies was against bank nationalisation. Turnbull quasi nationalised the banks with special levies and embedded government regulators.
iii. Menzies was a nationalist and unilateralist. Turnbull a globalist and multilateralist.
iv. Menzies represented the “forgotten people”, the over taxed, neglected middle class. Turnbull (also take a bow Textor) campaigned on forgetting them anew. They “had nowhere to go”.
v. Menzies created the “Liberal Party” brand. Turnbull as leader junked it and campaigned under “Team Turnbull”.
vi. Menzies fought for the “thrifty over the thriftless”. Turnbull retrospectively taxed their super and called it “social fairness”.
vii. Menzies established Commonwealth funding for independent and Catholic schools. Turnbull resurrected Gonski redistributing funds to government schools in the name of “social equity”.
viii. Menzies prioritised military defence capability. Turnbull turned defence into a 30 year work for the dole scheme (20th century subs “manufactured” with 17th century windmill powered factories).
ixi. Menzies believed in small government because it better protected freedom. Turnbull believed in big government / global technocracy (a “benign autocracy” as Menzies put it).
x. Menzies promoted the exploitation of our natural resources. Turnbull sought to regulate and tax them out business to save the planet.
xi. Menzies built the US alliance. Turnbull undermined it at every opportunity.
In summary, I think Menzies would have seen the Turnbull experiment as a betrayal of practically everything he stood for in public life. He would have viewed Turnbull as a man lacking ambition – ambition for the nation that is, and not for oneself – a Prime Minister lacking in political “comprehension or competence”, a “[slave] to greed, to fear, to newspapers, to public opinion” (good call re. Newspoll!) and “one of the greatest blot’s” in the life of the Liberal Party.
In fact I would go so far to say that if Menzies were alive today he would have resigned from “Team Turnbull” and started up his own party all over again.
After all, a Liberal Party that has forgotten the forgotten people will soon find itself the forgotten party in Australian politics.