- What we collect
- Preserving our collections
- Building our collections
- Selected Library collections
- Collection statistics
- History of the collection
- Processing and describing our collections
A lecture by Harold White Fellow, Ian Hancock, at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1994
The Liberal Party of Australia has recently become very interested in its own history. This interest is driven, not so much by curiosity or a desire to make contact with happier times, but by the concurrence of two anniversaries. First, 1994 marks the centenary of the birth of Sir Robert Menzies, the party’s most successful and longest-serving Federal parliamentary leader. Secondly, the year also marks what the party calls its 50th birthday. There is the minor difficulty that no one is quite sure which day in 1944 to commemorate or, for that matter, which month or which occasion—the Canberra conference in October and the Albury conference in December being the principal claimants. Pedants, like myself, who point out that the party was formally launched in the Sydney Town Hall on 31 August 1945 can, however, be safely ignored. For Canberra and Albury—together or separately—are encased in the Liberal memory. Besides, it would be a pity to spoil the symmetry; the year 1994 offers a double excuse for honouring the past and firing up the faithful.
The politicians have their own reasons for re-visiting the party’s roots. Some draw solace from their vision of Menzies recovering from the devastating defeat suffered by the United Australia Party (UAP) in 1943. Never mind that it was a wizened old rogue—Billy Hughes—and not Menzies who notionally headed the scattered forces of the UAP in that election, or that Menzies led the Liberal Party to its lowest-ever share of the popular vote in 1946. Unlike Labor’s leaders and followers, Liberals—of all ranks—have never known their own history. Not surprisingly, therefore, the occasional forays into their past are accompanied by errors, misconceptions and inappropriate parallels.
Yet the past exists in order to be selected, manipulated and invoked. And for the Liberals, undertaking a ‘fresh start’ in 1994, important lessons and omens lie in the late 1940s when a re-born non-Labor party recovered from humiliation to achieve the notable victory of 1949, the foundation of 23 years of federal rule.
I want to look at those years of recovery and eventual triumph to show what kind of Liberal Party assumed the leadership of non-Labor politics. In doing so, I am principally concerned with the organisation rather than the parliamentary party. My thesis is in two parts: first, that the Liberals fused postwar idealism with traditional values and preoccupations, and prospered by introducing a more professional and national approach to politics than any of their predecessors had ever attempted; and, secondly, that in achieving success the Liberals left unresolved several issues of principle and organisation, some of which—to their cost—they have never managed to settle. Underlying both arguments are the assumptions that, by trawling their early past, modern Liberals might learn that they have inherited some unfinished business, and that historians might learn that they haven’t started the business of taking the early Liberals seriously.
* * * *
The immediate point to make about the re-birth of the major non-Labor party is that it was attended with enthusiasm but delivered with mild discomfort.
When the UAP was destroyed by the federal election of August 1943, most of its supporters realised that they must create a new party. After all, the UAP had no extra-parliamentary organisation outside New South Wales and Victoria; the organisations in those two states hardly functioned outside elections and were dependent for funds on external, and interfering, business committees; there were separate Country parties in four states; and a number of minor non-Labor parties had emerged during the early war years, each claiming a stake in the anti-socialist cause. It was widely understood that this situation could not continue. Bob Menzies, among many others, argued for a new nation-wide party, a self-financing and enduring national organisation, and for mechanisms involving all party members in developing policies to win back power from a triumphant Labor Party.
Despite considerable misgivings inside New South Wales, it was also understood that Menzies was the one person capable of leading this new party. Restored to the parliamentary leadership of the UAP, he negotiated with various bodies across Australia in the lead-up to the Canberra and Albury conferences, helping to unify all save the Country parties into a single non-Labor organisation. Menzies succeeded, largely because his purpose was commonly sought and approved.
The Liberals left Albury in December 1944 with a provisional federal executive, a draft constitution, a vague set of principles, and boundless vitality. Within nine months they managed to launch six state divisions, approve and implement a federal constitution, hold a federal council meeting and elect a federal executive, form 761 branches and enrol some 94 500 members (of whom probably a majority outside of South Australia had no previous party membership), establish and finance a federal secretariat and, in August 1945, formally launch the Liberal Party of Australia.
An obvious reason for its early success—and a factor in determining its character—was that the new party quickly attracted droves of postwar idealists determined to make their country a better place. The Victorian provisional chairman said in June 1945 that he wanted a party whose members were ‘actuated by altruistic motives and a sincere desire to contribute a service to the community’. Returned servicemen, with a sense of public duty, provided the recruits and the energy. Allen Missen recalled in 1970 how, as a university student, he had attended a UAP branch meeting in Kew, Victoria, where decaying ‘old men—to me very ancient men—[were] sitting in sparse numbers, and discussing without noticeable enthusiasm the political affairs of the day’. By contrast, Missen likened the formation of the Kew Branch of the Liberal Party to a Billy Graham revival meeting as men and women came forward to proclaim their new faith. Some were motivated by a fear of socialism and communism, but Missen felt that more were thinking of promoting ‘freedom of individual action’. What they all wanted, was a new party, untainted by the past, a view which angered older UAP types who objected to being treated as cast-offs when they came forward to join.
Two of the new Liberals shared a surname. John Anderson, a young army officer, spent two years after the war recuperating from appalling injuries in Heidelberg Hospital. There he read everything he could about politics, including the works of Marx and Lenin which convinced him to join the new Liberal Party. Within five years, he headed the Victorian Division which he helped nurture back to good health in time to exploit the Labor split of 1954–55. William Hewson Anderson, an older man, a Shell Company executive and federal president between 1951 and 1956, frequently quarrelled with the one he disparagingly called his ‘young namesake’. ‘W.H.’ had joined what he called a crusade to save Australia for free enterprise. As state president, he told the Victorian Division in February 1946 that the Liberals were not a party of independents. They were ‘a strong united party of men and women with one purpose’: to defeat socialism. To that end, they must sink their personal and political differences. Anderson’s reminder to his fellow crusaders was timely. And it reminds us that the party’s first ‘fresh start’, which was more obviously idealistic than the recent version, was similarly infected by the ambitions, jealousies and internecine wars of normal politics.
Inevitably, the party had attracted those with more than one purpose. A number saw a political career. An army major, serving with allied intelligence in the south-west Pacific in 1945, solicited Menzies’ help. He presented his credentials: he was very keen, he was the son of an old Ballarat merchant family, an Old Boy of Geelong College and a member of both the Royal Melbourne Golf Club and the Australian Club. Menzies, recognising talent and enthusiasm, promised to mention his name in Ballarat circles; in 1949 the young man just missed pre-selection. He was certainly better qualified than the selected candidate for a New South Wales seat in 1949, who was forced to withdraw after revelations that he was a convicted thief and had falsely claimed officer rank in the RAAF. And he would have been less embarrassing than another New South Wales candidate in 1949 who turned up to meetings smelling strongly of whisky and shouting abuse, and whose arrears of house rent had to be met by the state division.
The new men who were elected to the enlarged House of Representatives in 1949 included both the careerists and the idealists. More importantly, they exemplified many of the features of postwar liberalism. The President of the Victorian Liberals called them ‘a fine team ... young and vigorous, with great all-round ability’. Just four of the 38 had been born in the nineteenth century, all save three were Australian-born, their average age was 43 and 12 were under 40. Twelve had university qualifications, and 29 were returned servicemen. Not surprisingly, they came to regard themselves as a separate and special group; those who had come to Canberra to thwart the progress of socialism and ‘iron government control’, and to advance the cause of freedom. In 1972 Magnus Cormack, who stood unsuccessfully in 1949, emphasised another common characteristic:
‘I have come to the conclusion that what it was that directed me into politics in that year  was men who had undergone the social struggles that evolved as a result of the great economic depression from 1930 and onwards, plus the fact that nearly all the men who entered Parliament that year were men who had served their country amid the flames of war’.
Women also flocked to the new Party back in 1945. The Australian Women’s National League, a major contributor to non-Labor politics, especially in Victoria, turned over its funds and material assets. In return, women in Victoria were given equal representation on all committees and councils, with the result that some formidable figures—notably, May Couchman and Edith Haynes—exercised a considerable influence over the Victorian Division. The other divisions each established separate women’s sections, and the party formed the Federal Women’s Committee (FWC) whose chairman, as she was known, was an ex-officio member of the Federal Executive.
Tom Ritchie, the first federal president, told the Inaugural Federal Council in 1945 ‘that too much importance cannot be placed on the role which women must play in politics’. Successive party officials, however, saw this role mainly in terms of women of talking to, and about, women, and actively discouraged women’s sections from passing resolutions on foreign policy or the economy. Instead, they were expected to advise the party on policy matters affecting women, to educate women in political and national questions, to maintain the active interest of women in the branches and coordinate women’s work in the state divisions. Nevertheless, when Eileen Furley was elected vice-president of the party in 1949, through a process which would now be called Affirmative Action, she wondered why the party did not advertise that it was the one for women to support, and that no position in the party was beyond their reach.
What did the new party stand for, and how was it different? When Menzies said at the party’s launch in August 1945 that ‘Liberalism proposes to march down the middle of the road’, he took an important step in re-defining the location and direction of non-Labor politics. Although the Liberals would continue to oppose Labor’s commitment to centralisation and control and to support federalism, they recognised that all governments had a responsibility to foster and maintain full employment by stimulating economic activity and supplementing the work of private enterprise. The time had gone, Menzies reminded his party, ‘when social justice should even appear to take the form of social charity’. Rather than begrudge assistance to the needy, Liberals wanted to extend the safety net, while relying on economic development to create the right conditions for a long-lasting sense of security. The traditional elements were still present: the importance of the British connection, the centrality of the family and of the individual, the role of private enterprise as the principal source of wealth creation, the virtue of self-help and the justice of rewarding individual endeavour. But the modern party had embraced Keynesianism, rejected laissez-faire, would not allow monopolies to do as they liked, and would guard Australia against the recurrence of a depression. Liberals believed in a liberalism which was both individualistic and caring, and saw no conflict between a commitment to one nation and a view of the Australian people as ‘7 000 000 individuals’ and not a ‘mere mass’ to be ordered and legislated about. According to Menzies, Liberals believed that only from ‘genuinely free, diligent and encouraged individuals can a really powerful nation be built’.
The proceedings of the Federal Women’s Committee tell us how senior Liberal women combined the very modern, the idealism of postwar reconstruction and the very traditional. They had, for some time, been dissatisfied with the brief statement in the 1946 federal platform on what was called the ‘status of women’: one short sentence proposed that there should be ‘equal opportunities, liberties and status’ for the two sexes. Invited in February 1947 to suggest amendments, the Queensland Women’s Section wanted to commit the party to equality of opportunity in employment, equal pay for equal work, the recognition of ‘the economic value of [women’s] work in the home’, the introduction of uniform marriage and divorce laws, the encouragement of women to stand for party pre-selection, and the appointment of ‘capable women’ to serve on commissions and councils, especially where such organisations were involved with the well-being of families. Above all, the Queensland women wanted to stimulate public opinion ‘in favour of raising the status of women as an instrument to further human rights and high moral standards’. A modified version of this Queensland proposal was adopted for the party platform in 1948.
The FWC had identified public health, social services, the divorce laws and the political education and status of women as issues of special interest. Many of its recommendations presupposed substantially increased expenditure on welfare, including pensions, immunisation programmes and anti-TB campaigns, infant health and pre-school training, and primary, secondary and tertiary education. In the process, the committee envisaged a greatly expanded role for the Commonwealth of Australia, which other Liberals found unacceptable.
Clearly, to some extent, the FWC in the late 1940s was ahead of the party. Yet the committee also embodied and reinforced a number of conservative values. It assumed that women had a primary responsibility as nurturers and moral guardians of the nation. There were the ritual denunciations of socialism, and the demands for a reduction in the size and influence of the Commonwealth Public Service, despite wanting to expand its functions. The FWC wanted to maintain Australia as an English-speaking bastion of the Empire; hence in June 1946 it resolved that foreign-language newspapers be required to print complete English translations in adjacent columns, and in July 1948 urged the government to bring in British migrants. In September 1947 it supported a Queensland proposal to assist rural women because ‘a happy, progressive home with every practical facility for work and leisure’ would do much to stop the drift to the cities. Rural life, after all, was ‘the backbone of Australia’. Above all, the FWC saw its role in terms of protecting the Christian family. In January 1949 it passed the following motion brought from New South Wales:
That the Liberal Party, when in power, shall review all existing legislation which places so-called de facto wives on the same basis as legal wives, as this recognition of illegal unions strikes at the whole foundation of our social structure.
So, equality and charity would not extend to those who defied God’s law, a view which found favour in the 1940s well beyond the membership of the Liberal Party.
One article of faith drew all the early Liberals together. They believed that their party was national and not sectional, inclusive and not exclusive. It was a party for all Australians, irrespective of class, region or religion. Class was the sensitive issue. Tom Ritchie insisted that the Liberals did not merely represent capital, and that all Australians were ‘working men and women’. But the bluff engineer lacked a certain political finesse. Menzies chastised him in August 1945 for speaking of raising £1m for federal funds. Given that party membership cost 2/6 per annum, Ritchie had inadvertently raised the spectre of big business investing in, and controlling, the Liberal Party. Menzies accused him of endangering the Liberal cause, possibly alienating voters who, though not socialists at heart, had considerable apprehension about ‘the power of money’. Menzies added the cutting remark that Ritchie’s business associates were not ‘politics conscious’. Ritchie was equally frank, pointing out that he, not Menzies or the parliamentary party, was more in touch with public opinion. Besides, Ritchie and all the senior officials throughout Australia understood the importance of cutting the ties with the business committees which had pulled the strings of the UAP. Even if the federal and state Liberal organisations continued to rely upon the business houses for donations, at least they now collected the monies directly and controlled their disbursement. But it was impossible to eliminate, overnight, an image fostered by earlier associations between the UAP and big business, one which Labor eagerly exploited through the late 1940s. In any case, the rhetoric of a party for all Australians sounded hollow when the state organisations could barely establish a presence in the working class suburbs of the capital cities.
They had more success in tackling the image of representing exclusively urban interests. From the outset, the Liberal Party sought a complete amalgamation of the anti-socialist forces. Given that the state and federal Country parties rejected any form of fusion, the Liberals in the four affected States—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia—had to decide between directly challenging for Country Party-held seats, or accepting Country Party rights to certain seats and concentrating mainly on Labor-held rural areas. The militants, led in New South Wales by Bill Spooner, the first state president, presented the Country Party with a shot gun proposal: ‘Marry or Fight’. When the New South Wales Country Party rejected marriage, Spooner went to war, backing rural Liberals who had opened branches in Country Party strongholds. Their defence was straightforward, and unanswerable: the Liberals could not become a truly national Party unless they represented all regions of Australia.
Spooner’s approach, supported by the Victorian Liberals, brought him into conflict with R.G. Casey who had succeeded Ritchie as federal president. While Menzies was overseas in late 1948, Casey tried to persuade the recalcitrants that the priority task was to oust the socialists. After Spooner persuaded the New South Wales Executive to maintain the challenge, Casey, and then Spooner, threatened to resign. Despite these difficulties, which existed at a state rather than a federal level, all sides agreed to a temporary truce in the common cause of defeating Labor in 1949.
Tackling the Country Party was easier than overcoming another entrenched prejudice. The overwhelmingly Protestant party made no effort to recruit Catholics, and few joined. Andrew Aird, a Presbyterian and a prominent member of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, suggested to Menzies after Albury that the new party should try to catch the largest floating vote—the Catholics—who were violently opposed to communism. He pointed out that, although ‘decent’ Catholics (among whom, he presumably included his own wife) had no time for Labor, they had been rejected and attacked by the anti-Labor parties for some 50 years. Menzies agreed about the prevalence of sectarianism and said he had done his best to discourage it. He said it was ‘perfectly stupid politically’ because ‘the one Church that consistently fights the Communists and may therefore have a very big influence in the politics of the next ten years, has for too long been made to feel ... not wanted by the anti-Labor forces’. Telling Aird that he wanted to enlist prominent Catholic laymen, Menzies admitted that quite a few of his own people wanted to force all the members of the Church into the Labor ranks. Even in 1949, when Liberal officials freely acknowledged that an archbishop and the Catholic vote had helped them to win, it never occurred to them to redress the party’s image of exclusive Protestantism which it had inherited from its predecessors.
* * * *
Launching this Liberal Party during 1945 was a remarkable achievement, given the problems which had to be overcome. Personal and ideological antagonisms were rife in New South Wales, the Liberals split in Victoria and were subsequently humiliated in a state election, two parties in Queensland contested the right to become the state branch, and the Tasmanian organisation had tried to dump their parliamentary leader. Ritchie fought with Menzies over the role of the organisation in making policy. The Victorian Division fought Ritchie over the right of federal officers to raise funds from sources already used by the states. And, by opening branches in, and threatening to contest, Country Party seats, Liberals in four states fought Menzies who wanted the party to concentrate on those rural areas where the Country Party was not strong.
I have already mentioned Menzies’ speech at the party launch in August 1945 in the context of a new direction. No one, at the time, took much notice of another speech made a few days earlier at the inaugural meeting of the Federal Council. Tom Ritchie pointed out that all the organising work so far had been done inside individual states without any suggestion of national cooperation. He attacked the ‘state-mindedness’ of the state executives, accusing them of lacking an ‘Australian’ approach to the problems facing the party and the country. Ritchie had been alarmed to discover during his travels around Australia that ‘our Liberal Party has not yet engendered the complete confidence of any section of the community’. The main reason for this lack of confidence was that the formulation of the party’s policy was proceeding at the pace of ‘a slow motion picture of an international chess final’. Not that Ritchie wanted a policy thrown together just to remove the present government; he insisted that the Liberals must not barter the ideals of individual freedom for the sake of political power, that they must jettison ‘the most reactionary Tories to be found outside Wall Street’ who had assembled under the party’s banner, and that members of the Federal Council must examine themselves in the hope of ‘discovering the soul of our party’.
In fact, many things had gone very wrong. An internal federal investigation in November 1945 found a general state of apathy among the membership. The report pointed out that the party still lacked a federal policy and platform, that it still consisted of six separate entities and that, overall, it was a ‘weak and spasmodic’ organisation which lacked ‘the attractiveness, development and cohesion which [was] absolutely essential ... to achieve anything like permanence on a scale comparable [to the Labor Party]’. There was also, according to the report, ‘an urgent need for the inculcation of a true sense of loyalty ... within the ranks of the party’ towards the parliamentary and organisational leaders. Loyalty, it said, must ‘be the very core of the party’s activities’.
Within ten months of this report, the party had lost a federal election. In September 1946, after hurriedly assembling several policies and making what Chifley called ‘glittering promises’, the Liberals won just 32 per cent of the popular vote. Labor retained clear and absolute control over both houses. The Liberals now confronted the possibility of permanent opposition under expanding socialist rule. Within days they were turning upon themselves, finding everything and everyone to blame. Some, particularly in New South Wales and South Australia, repeated the canard that ‘You can’t win with Menzies’. More blamed the selection of substandard candidates, like the Perth man who had stage fright and could not attend any public meetings held on his behalf. Most attacked the quality of the Secretariat’s advertising and general public relations. One conclusion, drawn by the instinctive centralists, was that the party would not become truly national or effective until the Federal Executive had greater power over the states, including an authority over pre-selection. The opposite conclusion, drawn by the instinctive federalists and democrats, was that the party would not become truly national and effective until the autonomy of the state divisions was fully acknowledged and the ordinary members influenced policy and pre-selection. Meanwhile, Ritchie was quietly fuming: he thought the Liberals would never succeed if the parliamentary party continued to ignore the organisation’s policy suggestions. At least everyone could agree on one thing: unseemly battles with the Country Party were counter-productive.
So, at the end of 1946, a dispirited party was in government in just one state. Albury had seemingly come to nothing. Yet within three years the Liberals had added two more states and captured the prize of Canberra.
Several windfalls assisted the turn-round federally: the Chifley government’s decision in August 1947 to nationalise the private trading banks, the coal strike of July–August 1949, the continuation of petrol rationing. It also helped that the Liberals in 1949 confronted an eight-year-old government identified with the maintenance of wartime controls.
Perhaps, in terms of the party’s own confidence, the bank nationalisation issue was the turning-point. As Boris Schedvin has argued, it enabled non-Labor to grasp the high moral ground for the first time since 1939. From August 1947, the Liberals could claim that, by denying customers the bank of their choice, the government was threatening the liberty of the individual, and what John Howse in Parliament called ‘the British, or the Australian, way of life’. The high moral ground had other advantages: it presented the Liberals with a state election victory in Victoria and a first-ever lead in a Gallup poll. It also paid a financial dividend, as the banks and the business community poured donations into Liberal coffers. Unwittingly, Ben Chifley had sponsored the largest fighting fund enjoyed by any non-Labor party since Federation. The banking issue, therefore, revived the Liberals’ electoral and financial fortunes, gave them a renewed sense of purpose, and an opportunity to attack socialism in practice.
The renewed confidence of the membership was matched by the increased professionalism of the organisation, itself a further defining factor of the new Liberal Party.
It was generally agreed that the Liberals were out-smarted by Labor’s advertising in 1946. Casey, as federal president, responded by hiring Labor’s public relations firm. Being an honourable man, he asked Ben Chifley beforehand if he might approach the Hansen Rubensohn Company. Chifley, too, was a gentleman: he appreciated Casey’s action, and wished him well.
Casey first met Rubensohn in June 1947, and soon developed a rapport with the man he described as ‘a not very Jewish looking Jew’. Rubensohn won Casey’s respect by remarking that, upon reading the federal president’s ideas about public relations, he had never before encountered ‘such an intelligent and rational approach from anyone connected with any political party’. For his part, Casey was reassured to discover that the principal company officer dealing with politics was a Catholic who was ‘outraged’ by the banking legislation, and that Rubensohn’s staff were untroubled about working for the Liberal Party. Other Liberals were unhappy, questioning whether the party should be using Labor Party ‘fixers’ who had previously assisted businessmen wanting favours from the Chifley government. Several state divisions also feared that the appointment of a federal public relations firm presaged interference in their own publicity arrangements and insisted upon their right to withdraw at any time from Rubensohn’s all-Australian program.
Central to the new strategy was Casey’s idea of a long-term radio campaign to attack the government while gently drawing listeners to the Liberal cause. The outcome was the ambitious ‘John Henry Austral’ program launched in July 1948: a 15-minute segment broadcast on 81 commercial stations adding up to 155 sessions a week. Commentaries on topical issues, general talks and the strains of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ aimed to make the propaganda ‘indirect’ and ‘palatable’. Casey regarded ‘Austral’ as his great triumph, though he did admit that the commentaries became excessively negative, and thought of enlisting Gwen Meredith of ‘The Lawsons’ and ‘Blue Hills’ to add a woman’s touch. Less ambitious, and less satisfactory, was the ‘Country Quiz’ which set out to entice the rural vote. The quiz show, where ‘experts’ answered New South Wales technical questions for country listeners, was pronounced amateurish and boring, and the propaganda was so subdued that only those listeners who stayed the course heard that the program was sponsored by Liberal Party supporters as ‘a gesture of friendship’ to assist ‘the man on the land’ to enjoy greater prosperity.
Another and cheaper longer-term strategy was introduced after January 1949. Rubensohn had pointed out that, although the non-Labor parties would have won a workable majority in mid-1948, a snap election in early 1949 would produce a draw. Chifley’s recent tax concessions and social security benefits had caused the change. Electoral success in the following eight to ten months would depend on the Liberals’ capacity to counter government generosity.
Two things were essential. First, anticipating objections from the state divisions and drawing upon his experience of running Labor’s earlier campaigns, Rubensohn stressed that all advertising must be centrally controlled: otherwise, the effectiveness of topicality and manoeuvrability would be lost, and uncordinated advertising would merely help Labor’s campaign of exploiting real or imagined signs of disunity.
Secondly, Rubensohn suggested that the election could be won or lost on the question of leadership. He warned, however, against concentrating exclusively on Chifley’s shortcomings. The Prime Minister was fixed in the public mind as the ‘honest-to-God Australian’ type: appearing to be homespun, a little eccentric, even given to misery, but always ‘solid’. Chifley was not tarred with the dubious ethics of some of his colleagues, and every Australian felt that he or she knew him. In that sense, agreeing with him or not scarcely mattered. On the other hand, despite the fact that Menzies was brilliant and possessed every qualification which Chifley lacked, and was ‘a man of known probity and one genuinely devoted to the welfare of Australia’, very few people—especially the younger ones—felt that they knew Menzies. The public, therefore, must become more familiar with ‘the real Mr. Menzies’. He should be seen as interested in the things which interest other men. Rubensohn concluded: ‘the illusion that he is the champion of the “moneybags”, the aloof somewhat enigmatic cynic could, we think, be dispelled by a discreet, well-conceived public relations campaign of a personal character’.
The party already knew that Menzies represented one of its principal difficulties. The New South Wales Division considered him such a handicap that it excluded him from the official campaign for the state elections in 1947. Even some business supporters saw Chifley as more persuasive with the electorate than Menzies. Yet any attempt to boost Menzies’ image faced the problem that the leader was a reluctant candidate for a public relations campaign. When John Carrick, the New South Wales General Secretary, suggested that the party might issue a coloured pictorial of Menzies’ life, the Federal Director, Don Cleland, although arguing that an idea should not be condemned simply because it was novel, raised several financial objections, and one other: the proposal, he said, ‘would be out of keeping with the character of Mr. Menzies’.
Armed with Rubensohn’s advice, Casey won Federal Executive approval for the appointment in February 1949 of Stewart Howard as a special public relations adviser to Menzies, to boost him as a statesman with a human face. Every state general secretary, and senior Liberals in South Australia, promptly announced their opposition to a focus on a personality rather than on policies, and questioned the wisdom of spending £5,000 a year on a journalist who had known Labor associations. Nevertheless, the appointment proceeded and the campaign extended through to September, when Howard adjudged the build-up to be complete. By then, the party had prepared 330 000 copies of its own booklet—How Well Do You Know This Man?—portraying Menzies as a self-made man of the people, the grandson of a miner, a family man of simple tastes who loved sport, who had sacrificed health and comfort for his country, who had never ‘squibbed’ a fight and was an international statesman.
It must be stressed that the Hansen Rubensohn Company did not control the general direction of the party’s advertising. For one thing, party officials were convinced that public relations firms worked well to a brief but lacked the political know-how to compile one. For another, the states engaged their own companies and ran much of their own advertising. Rubensohn was thwarted—so was the Federal Secretariat—because the divisions resented intrusion. Even so, the state general secretaries met members of the secretariat for two crucial conferences during 1949, to exchange ideas for the campaign, to identify the issues and to make some common plans. By pooling experience in this manner, the organisation across Australia adopted a national approach of a kind which non-Labor had never before achieved, and improved the performance in areas ranging from registering postal votes and canvassing to speakers’ notes, research and publicity.
Perhaps, however, the most professional thing about the Liberal Party in the late 1940s was the policy speech which Menzies delivered on Thursday 10 November 1949. Significantly, it was a joint policy speech, being the first occasion since the entry of the Country Party into federal politics when one party leader spoke for both the principal non-Labor parties. A second departure from 1946 was that Menzies focussed more on expounding his central theme than on a detailed exposition. A third innovation was that the Federal Secretariat issued two versions of the speech: 30 000 copies of the full speech and 610 000 copies of a shorter, ‘popular’ edition, of which over half were distributed in New South Wales.
Another important feature was the involvement of the organisation in its preparation. The organisation’s Federal Rural Committee drafted the rural sections of the speech. Various state subcommittees reported to the Joint Standing Committee on Federal Policy—where the parliamentary party and the organisation had equal representation—which then formulated the detailed promises. The Standing Committee rejected any policy suggestions which took Liberal principles far too seriously for the party’s political good. For example, it ditched a Victorian proposal to reinstate federalism by abolishing uniform taxation. Similarly, the committee dumped a plan to announce publicly that any future health scheme must, ‘in the first place’, be acceptable to the medical profession. Nevertheless, although members of the organisation still complained about their lack of influence, this was the first and last occasion during the Menzies leadership when they were substantially consulted on the formulation of policy.
Menzies devoted a quarter of the policy speech to what he called the ‘high and real conflict of principles’. For Liberal Party members believed that the election posed a choice between free enterprise and socialism. A decision, Menzies said, could be avoided in 1946 when it was reasonable to suppose that Labor was a party of reform rather than of socialisation. It had to be confronted in 1949 because Labor, acting without a mandate, had effectively converted a distant goal into an attempt to establish ‘socialism in our time’. Menzies described what he saw at the end of the ‘socialist road’; namely, ‘the master state’ where ‘as in the monstrous totalitarian states which have disfigured the history of the twentieth century, all free choice will have gone’. Echoing the party’s sentiments, Menzies argued that the case against socialism was ‘a deadly one’, affecting ‘the spiritual, mental and physical future of our families’. Socialists, he said, created the illusion of prosperity; caused a fall in incentive and production and therefore in the standard of living; destroyed people’s savings by inflating the currency; reduced the ‘real’ human freedoms to worship, think, speak, choose, and to be ambitious, independent, and seek rewards; promoted ‘the politics of decay and dependency’; weakened the Imperial connection, and induced cynicism about spiritual values. The infection and deadly growth of socialism must be destroyed ‘while there is still time’.
At this point, Menzies reiterated some of the themes he had enunciated in earlier Liberal forums: the commitment to full employment, the emphasis on avoiding a depression, and opposition to the notion of a ‘class war’. He then delivered the Coalition’s promises: to order secret ballots before strikes, to ban the Communist Party, release more petrol for private and business consumption, repeal the Bank Nationalisation Act, encourage existing voluntary health schemes, develop a contributory system of national insurance for sickness, widowhood and old age, introduce universal military and physical training, use public works and increased production to maintain full employment, encourage profit sharing and incentive payments and the pooling of ideas to improve industrial relations, stabilise rural industries by guaranteed minimum prices, build up coal reserves, raise development loans to the value of £250m, administer the repatriation scheme with speed, and financial and human justice, and to support immigration while maintaining the White Australia Policy, ‘well justified’, said Menzies, ‘on grounds of national homogeneity and economic standards’.
It was a powerful speech which encapsulated the Liberalism of the ‘fresh start’: the influences of the Depression and the Second World War; the commitment to a fairer society and a mixed economy; the belief in one nation and in a nation of individuals; the sense of leading a crusade to save Australia from socialism and communism and to deliver prosperity and a better standard of living under the banner of free enterprise. To this end, the young Alan Missen, for whom individual rights were everything, the John Anderson who was already successful in small business and for whom integrity and service were central, the W.H. Anderson who moved among the corporations and whose economic thinking belonged in the 19th century or the 1980s, the May Couchman who ran her own feminist causes unaware that she was ‘unsound’ with reference to the past, the present and the future: all of them—Protestant and middle class—could act ‘with one purpose’ in 1949. The Liberal Party has never enjoyed a more fulfilling moment.
* * * *
I should like to make four brief points in conclusion. First, the Liberal Party of the late 1940s has little of direct value to offer the Liberal Party of the 1990s. For one thing, the party then confronted a sitting and identifiable target in the form of a socialist government; for another, it is impossible to recreate the conditions of postwar Australia where liberalism could attract and reflect the idealism of a particular generation. Secondly, there might, however, be a general lesson for the modern party. It is advantageous to approach an election at a time when the party as a whole is equipped with an intense moral conviction as well as self-centredness, a combination which has been missing since 1975 and which was fundamental to the campaign in 1949. Thirdly, there is a specific lesson. The failure in the late 1940s and thereafter to resolve issues—the relationship with the Country Party, the relationship between the parliamentary party and the organisation, and the federal–state relationship within the Liberal organisation—suggests that either they can never be settled, or that they should be addressed once and for all. Certainly, the original dream of creating a truly national and inclusive party has never been fulfilled, and is becoming even harder to achieve. Finally, we should all better understand our total past if we include the Liberal Party as one of those institutions worth knowing from the inside. That way, unlike the Liberals themselves and their opponents, not to mention the fourth estate, prime ministerial speech-writers and modish academics, we can do better than merely perpetuate old myths.