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The forgotten party: Liberal historians finally tackle the grand legacy of Menzies and Howard

2 August 2014 No Comment

IN Australia, Labor has been much better than the Liberals at remembering its history and, in the process, denigrating its opponents. Witness the sustained historical work of leading leftist historians, the prolific Professor Stuart Macintyre and Dr David Day — which in part at least has effectively undermined previous conservative governments, especially those of Robert Menzies and John Howard.

This is despite the fact that since the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944 the Coalition has been in power for two-thirds of the time — in particular, Menzies from 1949 to 1966; Malcolm Fraser from 1975 to 1983; Howard from 1996 to 2007; and Tony Abbott since 2013.

But with the Liberal Party this year celebrating 70 years of existence, there is now a renewed interest among Liberals (and to a lesser extent their Coalition partner) about Australia’s conservative political history. Among the Liberals’ parliamentary ranks this has been largely due to the work of former senior cabinet minister David Kemp; the attorney-general and minister for the arts Senator ­George Brandis and the highly talented MP for Menzies’ blue-­ribbon seat of Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg.

The Prime Minister recently referred to Dr Kemp — a key member of the Howard government and president of the Victorian Liberal Party — as the party’s “trusted guardian and historian. In part this refers to Kemp’s The Liberals — A Short History of Liberalism in Victoria and Australia, and to his recent fine introduction to Menzies’ speeches, the reissued Forgotten People, as well as to the fact Kemp is writing a history of liberalism in Australia.

Kemp’s work is complemented by the historical writings of Brandis, who gave a stirring Alfred Deakin Lecture at the University of Melbourne in October 2009 and who, since then, has written extensively about liberalism and, in particular, the ideas of John Stuart Mill and his classic text On ­Liberty.

In promoting Liberal Party history and the philosophy of liberalism, Kemp and Brandis have been especially aided by Frydenberg — the Liberals’ first ever Jewish member of the House of Representatives. Parliamentary Secretary to the PM, Frydenberg has also written and spoken extensively about the Liberal Party and its history. This includes his promotion of two recent illuminating books by Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson — A Smile For My Parents and Letters From My Father — as well as last month in Melbourne launching Anne Henderson’s revisionist history Menzies at War, which deals with Menzies’ difficult time as PM from 1939 to 1941. Unlike Allan Martin’s highly empirical two-volume Robert Menzies: A Life published in the 1990s, Henderson’s book is easily accessible to the general public. Indeed, renowned historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey said at the launch on July 18 that while Martin’s is an excellent political biography in which Menzies “is present in every page, he does not come alive. In contrast, Henderson’s latest book has, Blainey said, “made him a living man, with all his emotions, his feeling, his pride (and) his enormous capacity. Menzies was, Blainey concluded, “one of the most intelligent men in Australia in his time.

Significantly, Henderson’s Menzies at War followed on from her important biographies of ­United Australia Party prime minister and so-called “Labor rat Joseph Lyons and his formidable wife, Dame Enid Lyons.

As part of a conservative historical fight-back, the political troika of Kemp, Brandis, and Frydenberg have recently ensured the photographic portraits of all the Liberal leaders and their predecessors — from Edmund Barton to Abbott — were not only properly framed, but given their correct titles, dates, and the seats that they held during their time in federal parliament.

Appropriately, all these portraits of Australian conservative leaders, launched by John Howard on February 13, 2012, are now on display in the Liberal Party room in Parliament House, Canberra.

As part of their defence and advocacy of Liberal Party history, its achievements and its contemporary relevance, these three historically inclined Liberals have also publicised the scholarly work of the Sydney Institute’s Dr Gerard Henderson — columnist for this newspaper and author of Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia. First published in October 1994, Gerard Henderson’s history was launched by Heather Henderson on the actual date of the 50th anniversary of the decision in Canberra to form the Liberal Party of Australia.

As a result of the advocacy by Kemp, Brandis and Frydenberg of historical work about the Liberal Party, there is now a clear line between the work of the three Hendersons (Anne and Gerard are no relation to Heather) and the wider conservative reading public.

As it happens, on August 14 at the state parliament of Victoria, Frydenberg will deliver the annual Sir Robert Menzies lecture. His speech is likely to focus on the relevance of Menzies’ philosophy to the modern-day Liberal Party, stressing Menzies’ achievements in building Australia’s ties with Asia.

That Frydenberg has been selected to give this year’s Menzies lecture is a great honour for someone not yet in Abbott’s cabinet. This is highlighted by the fact that previous Menzies lecturers include Sir Garfield Barwick, Margaret Thatcher, John Howard and Abbott himself.

When Gerard Henderson — whose early political allegiance was to the Democratic Labor Party — delivered the 2008 Menzies lecture on “Why Menzies Matters, he recommended that the Liberal Party room should contain photographs of all federal conservative leaders.

That this suggestion was taken up with alacrity by Kemp, Brandis and Frydenberg, with the active encouragement of prominent federal Liberal MPs including Christopher Pyne, is now a matter of history.

Emeritus Professor of history and politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir MY NAME IS ROSS.

The Weekend Australian, August 2-3, 2014, Inquirer p 24.

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