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Embracing a national path to individual freedom

4 February 2021 74 views No Comment

David Kemp,

A Liberal State : How Australians Chose Liberalism Over Socialism 1926-1966

Miegunyah Press, 601 pp, $49.99 (HB)


There are moments in Australian history when we might have gone down a more radical path.

In the fourth volume of a landmark five-volume Australian Liberalism series,  David Kemp explains how and why we largely rejected it.

A Liberal State: How Australians Chose Liberalism Over Socialism 1926-1966 explores the rise of political liberalism in Australia.

Kemp highlights the sweeping political triumphs of the conservative coalition during the time that Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978) founded the Liberal Party of Australia, and eventually became our longest-serving prime minister.

As Kemp explains, it was Menzies, who after serving as attorney general in Victoria, “became the major voice for liberal thought in the nation’s political life and the primary force in reconstructing liberal and conservative politics.”

Kemp gives a fine account of a crucial period in Australian political history, ranging from the Depression to the mid-1960s.

This book has benefitted from Kemp’s time as a federal MP from 1990 to 2004, especially when, under John Howard, he was a minister overseeing employment, education and the environment. Previously Kemp was professor of politics at Monash University. These varied experiences gave him the opportunity to refine his “understanding of how ideas govern institutions and influence policies and can sometimes lead to outcomes that express those ideas.” 

Kemp’s time in academia and in parliamentary politics has clearly helped to formulate key questions about policy-making and hence to further his understanding of the political debates of the period up to 1966, which are so well-documented in this revealing book.

A Liberal State explores the factional struggles within the Australian Labor Party, arising from its adoption of a Socialist Objective in 1921; radical New South Wales state Labor premier Jack Lang’s advocacy of the socialization of industry in the 1930s; and of what Kemp terms “the domestic and international advance of utopian socialist ideology during World War II and the Cold War.” 

Menzies was opposed to the Soviet Union and to what he regarded as its minion – the Communist Party of Australia. In particular, he loathed “thfoul (Marxist -Leninist) doctrine of the class war.”

Kemp evaluates Menzies’ relationships with the leader of the United Australia Party, Joseph  Lyons. An influential former member of the ALP, Lyons was prime minister from 1932 until his death in 1939. Menzies then rather unsuccessfully took over the nation’s highest office until he resigned as prime minister in 1941. (His stint as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 was much more successful.)

Kemp sheds light on Menzies relationships with the ALP’s John Curtin, prime minister from 1941-1945; Ben Chifley, prime minister from 1945 to 1949; and unstable Labor leader Dr H.V. Evatt, who was a major cause of the Labor Split in the mid-1950s.

He perceptively assesses Menzies’ important “Forgotten People” statements of liberal ideas which in 1941 and 1942 he broadcast weekly throughout Australia. 

He also explains how, after Menzies was re-elected as prime minister in 1949, he quickly learnt from past mistakes and built a politically powerful approach to national and international policy. Menzies became the most dominant force in Australian political history until he retired in 1966 to be succeeded as prime minister by Harold Holt.

According to Menzies, liberalism was based on what he regarded as “the supreme importance of the individual”. He strongly believed that “the test of civilization is freedom, freedom of the spirit and of the mind and of the body”.

As this book makes clearMenzies was a dyed-in-the-wool monarchist on whom the Queen had a striking effect, especially from her first royal tour of Australia in February 1954 onwards.

Previously, Menzies had said that the British monarchy elicited in Australians “the most profound and passionate feelings of loyalty and of devotion.” He claimed that “the common devotion to the throne is part of the very cement of the whole national structure.”

In 1963 when the Queen again visited Australia, she “unexpectedly conferred on Menzies a knighthood in the Order of the Thistle.” Although some critics jeered, “even The Sydney Morning Herald was gracious.” 

Some of us can vividly remember when, during the 1963 royal tour of Australia, Menzies quoted the 17th-century words of Thomas Ford: “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.”

Menzies consistently regarded the crown as the key to the unity of the Commonwealth and to Australia’s special relationship with the Britain.

As Kemp concludes, Menzies “unashamedly enjoyed the symbols of the connection, as he did in 1965 when the Queen appointed him Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, in succession to Sir Winston Churchill.”

Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald’s most recent book is a memoir ‘Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, published by Hybrid in Melbourne. 

The Australian, February 4, 2021, p 10.

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