Published in The Australian, 22 May 2017
We read and reread great speeches not just for what they say about other times, but for what they say about ours. Great speeches don’t just speak to their own day, but to all days. Even if not all their facts are relevant, their values most certainly are.
When Robert Menzies made his “Forgotten People” broadcast 75 years ago today, he was an ex-prime minister; not without a role (he was an MP and on the Advisory War Council), but most likely without a political future. He was said to be lobbying to become chief justice of Victoria. As a former national leader, though, he had a voice and was resolved to make it heard on the great issues of the day.
In the course of 1942, he gave a series of 37 radio talks that were subsequently published as a book named after the most notable one. Many of them focused on contemporary issues but the Forgotten People speech itself was about the individuals whose efforts, largely unsung, build a country and shape a nation. Putting aside wealthy people who could look after themselves and the unionised workforce who had organisers to look after them, Menzies pledged himself to all those striving to get ahead.
These days, it might be said that he was appealing to the middle ground. And yes, in 1942, Menzies’ “forgotten people” were often caught in a vice between big business and big labour. But this wasn’t about splitting the difference between two sides and calling it a good compromise. A few years later, for instance, the forgotten people didn’t support nationalising just some private banks rather than none of them at all. The values that Menzies ascribed to the forgotten people were mainstream and decent but they were also, in his judgment, right, true, and always worth standing up for.
This was the speech that Menzies made when his fortunes and those of his side of politics were at their nadir. He could have chosen an easier life as a barrister to the big end of town but he turned his thoughts to our country’s future rather than his own. It wasn’t the routine rhetoric of a party leader or a minister running through a checklist of worthy initiatives or simply an attack on the motives and competence of the other side. It was his attempt, in the words of Tennyson that he quoted: “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
Every element of the speech repays pondering, especially now, when about 50 per cent of households pay no net tax. Take this passage, for instance: “The great vice of democracy … is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if … there was somebody else’s wealth and somebody else’s effort on which we could thrive.”
Seventy-five years on, what are we, who are Menzies’ political successors, to make of this, his most famous speech? It is our country’s most resonant speech from the conservative side of politics so what are we to learn from it today?
First, know who you represent.
As a former wartime prime minister, Menzies knew successful leaders had to appeal to the nation, but he also knew they had to do so on the basis of values. His people — the people whose interests and instincts he was striving to advance — were “salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on … the middle class … the backbone of the nation”. They were, he said, “not leaners but lifters”. These days, they might be described as everyone who’s “having a go” rather than waiting for others to make things happen.
Second, know what your values are.
In Menzies’ case, these were family, country and the conviction that “self-sacrifice … frugality and saving” will produce not just a richer world, but a better one.
And, third, never shirk a fight in a good cause.
What would be the point of winning the war, if in the process we lose our character? Again and again, Menzies stressed the value of the individual and denounced the inroads made on personal responsibility in the name of equality of outcomes. Given the conventional wartime wisdom that the reach of the state was bound to increase, this showed both conviction and courage.
In his 14 years in politics up to that time, he lamented, “there have been many instances” where “the votes of the thriftless have been used to defeat the thrifty”. “To discourage ambition, to envy success … (and) to distrust independent thought … these are the maladies of modern democracy”, he said, “and of Australian democracy in particular”.
Menzies was entitled to sound embattled, but he wasn’t to know what the future held. Just as well for all of us, he didn’t give up. That is the point of the Liberal Party he founded: to promote individual freedom and personal responsibility and to resist attempts to degrade them. Our challenge is to be as indefatigable in these times as he was in his.