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Address to Menzies Research Centre, 'The Forgotten People' 75th Anniversary Dinner
Alan, former Prime Minister John Howard, Janette Howard, Tony Abbott, my many ministerial colleagues and Parliamentary colleagues, dear friends, admirers of Robert Menzies one and all – and above all, Heather. I was reading again, the letter your father wrote to you. His wit and his affection for you and his love for you, the dedication he showed over all those years, inspire us today. So we’re so honoured that you’re here with us tonight.
Menzies gave these radio talks in 1942 and the most famous one, the ‘Forgotten People’ which we shall shortly hear, was given on this day, this evening, 75 years ago.
This was a time that Churchill described as the ‘hinge of fate’, 1942. It was as though one catastrophe was being piled onto another. Pearl Harbour had been bombed, the pride of the American Navy had been sunk or disabled, save its aircraft carriers mercifully. Singapore had fallen. 22,000 Australian soldiers were prisoners of the Japanese. Those that weren’t, were in the most part in the Middle East.
The Japanese seemed as irresistible and just two weeks before Menzies gave this broadcast which we’ll hear tonight, there was the Battle of the Coral Sea. For the first time, the hinge of fate started to turn. Australians and Americans of the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, serving together under a joint command, succeeded in turning back the Japanese.
So on this day 75 years ago, Australians could begin cooly to consider, in the absence of bravado, that the tide had turned. This speech we’re going to hear tonight of Menzies’ is not the first. But more than any other, it summoned up all of his characteristically eloquent and principled vision for Australia beyond the war.
Liberal democracies in those years seemed caught between the hammer of fascism and the anvil of communism, each offering the vision of the mighty all-knowing State. So as Menzies spoke in the broadcast, and in the other 36 broadcasts he did so with the sound reason of a generous and liberal mind.
He spoke up for the foot soldiers in Edmund Burke’s small platoons, equally forgotten in the boardrooms of the mighty corporations and in the back rooms of the Trades Hall.
With a common sense that resonates right up today, indeed this very night, he dismissed those who try to wage a hate-filled class war and divide Australians and turn them on each other. He steered resolutely to the centre ground and put his faith in the good will, the common sense and the enterprise of his fellow Australians.
Menzies believed, as we his successors believe today, that the task of government is not as Labor would say, to tell Australians what is best but rather to enable them to do their best.
To increase their opportunities. Expand their horizons. So that they can pursue their dreams for themselves and for their children - like the Scottish ploughman and the Scottish farmer of whom we will hear in just a moment.
Menzies had not long lost the Prime Ministership. Politically this was his wilderness period, but there is no rancour or bitterness in his broadcasts. He is as calm as he is considered, as elegant as he is erudite.
His humour shines through. In one broadcast, asked whether so much war and destruction showed Christianity has failed, he suggests we should try practising it first.
He resisted populism when state premiers were condemned for challenging in the courts the federal takeover of income tax, he defended their constitutional right to do so and spoke up for the rule of law.
Security under the law, in Erskine’s phrase he said: “is not something precariously dependent upon the whim of a mob. It is that security to which a man may confidently and calmly appeal, even though every other’s hand may be against him. The law's greatest benefits are for the minority man; the individual”.
And when he introduced as Prime Minister in the previous year, the national security bill that gave sweeping powers to the Government to control the economy, he did so with this sober warning;
“The greatest tragedy that could overcome a country, would be for it to fight a successful war in defence of liberty and lose its own liberty in the process.”
In April 1942 - before the Battle of the Coral Sea - Menzies in another broadcast spoke about hatred. He decried a government campaign that he felt was designed to encourage Australians to hate the Japanese. This is what he said;
“It is an offence to an honest citizen to imagine that the cold, evil and repulsive spirit of racial hatred must be substituted for honest and brave indignation, if his greatest effort is to be obtained.”
“Peace may be all sorts of things - a real end of war, a mere exhaustion, an armed interlude before the next struggle. But it will only be by a profound stirring in the hearts of men that we shall reach goodwill.”
“In short, when this war is over, we all hope to live in a better world in which both Germans and Japanese - violently purged of their lust for material power - will be able to live and move in amity with ourselves.”
What does it say about the character of a man that could write such generous words in such hard days?
And as John Howard has described as one of his greatest achievement in government, the 1957 Commerce Treaty with Japan. An extraordinary act of reconciliation.
In another broadcast he talked reassuringly about our new American ally, a complement to our unbreakable bond with Britain, not a threat.
“Now, I am like you,” said Menzies, “dyed-in-the-wool British, and have a firm belief that the courage, humour, tenacity and resourcefulness of our own race never shone more brightly than now.”
“But it is a great thing for us to have such allies as these Americans.”
“We are together now for the urgent saving of the safety of the world.”
"When that task is over, I hope we shall remain together for the keeping of that safety for ever and ever.”
In anticipation, perhaps of what was to become the ANZUS Treaty and the bedrock of our security ever since.
The last of his broadcasts was in November 1942 and it was on the importance of good humour which he analysed as between the Irish, Scots, English and French. He also noted that the Germans lacked humour entirely, but his conclusion on the importance of humour generally and in politics, was entirely consistent with his liberal values of individualism.
“The real explanation,” Menzies said, “of the sovereign importance of humour is that it is an individual thing.”
“No Government department regulates or distributes it.”
“It is neither rationalised nor nationalised, nor socialised, nor organised, nor finalised.”
“No politics based upon gloomy fanaticism can succeed with us, for to our eternal salvation, we shall always laugh at the wrong time - which will probably turn out to be the right time.”
Thank you very much.