Menzies is dead. It’s time for the Liberals to forge a new path

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After every election loss, seemingly half the commentariat pen obituaries for the vanquished major party.

Most of the time, ubiquitous calls for urgent renewal and change are significantly overblown. But now – given the scale of the Liberal Party’s challenges – there is a genuine, indeed pressing, need for an intelligent discussion about the way forward for our movement.

The name Robert Menzies is a frequent refrain at Liberal Party meetings.Credit: Rocco Fazzari

A common trope of these reflections is the originalist question: “What would Robert Menzies do?” It’s as if the only path to electoral redemption is the reanimation of the political corpse of Ming the Merciless. Weekend at Bob’s, anyone?

So nostalgic are some for the good old days that no Liberal preselection or meeting of State Council is complete without more references to the “Party of Menzies” than there are balding heads in the room. As party members, we are great theologians, poring over his orations like Nicaean clergy.

However, both more nuance and breadth are needed. Surely, we can revere our party’s founder while acknowledging that not every idea of a man born in the late 19th century withstands modern scrutiny. Neither should it form the sole basis of a 21st century political movement.

I was galled to read an article by Queensland Liberal National Dan Ryan, who employed Menzies’ name to argue the Liberals’ path to glory was via less immigration. Immigrants, he said, “strain the social fabric by culturally transforming suburbs”. We should run a mile from such obvious – and odious – race-baiting. Former prime minister Tony Abbott has also invited Liberals to ponder the question, “what would Menzies do?”.

Alternatively, Simon Welsh from the RedBridge Group has urged the Liberal Party to veer left, embracing higher taxes on the wealthy. The choices seem to be a return to the 1950s, or a turn to the left. There must be a third way.

Menzies, and his ideas, did much good. They moulded the Australian centre-right into a powerful governing force. Much of his legacy is to be celebrated – one of stability and growth, albeit the White Australia Policy was only dismantled after he left office.

But he achieved comparably little economic reform, likewise his progeny who occupied the Lodge between 2013 and 2022. Unlike the bold government of John Howard and treasurer Peter Costello (and those of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating), Menzies, Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison all squibbed on opportunities for structural change and outsourced nation-building to Labor. You can add Malcolm Fraser to that sorry list.

Our party is fortunate to enjoy a robust intellectual inheritance – a uniquely Australian hybrid of the liberalism of John Stuart Mill and the conservatism of Edmund Burke – that Menzies contributed to significantly. If we misunderstand our broad intellectual heritage as purely based on the wit and wisdom of one man, we will be condemned to ongoing opposition with a platform that is insufficiently modern and inclusive.

Former prime ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Instead, we should seriously reflect on how to take the best of our inheritance and make a compelling, new case to the Australian people that Liberal governments can make their lives better.

Sure, in some parts of the world the centre-right is moribund. The Tories in Britain are bereft of energy and mired in sleaze. The American Republicans are both increasingly illiberal and batshit crazy.

Yet, the National Party of New Zealand is pursuing tax reform, welfare reform and deregulation of the clean energy sector to boost investment, based on its values. The Canadian Conservatives have rightly identified housing reform as a way to apply centre-right values of individual empowerment and strong families in a modern context.

The internet age has spawned a new generation of liberal thinkers, each putting forward strong policies thoroughly in keeping with our tradition.

The work of thinkers like Jerusalem Demsas on housing shortages, Shoshana Weissmann on occupational licensing reform, and Kimberly Clausing and Scott Lincicome on trade and globalisation should all form part of a New Liberal agenda.

Here in Australia, there are numerous specific problems that the ideas of New Liberal thinkers could be put to work fixing: waste and public debt, failing public services, the regressive regime of state taxation, housing unaffordability and Green/Teal NIMBYism that denies Millennials access, justice systems that traumatise and criminalise the most vulnerable members of our community, and falling educational standards.

Clinging to the legacy of a government first elected 84 years ago is not a viable strategy for winning elections and governing. Neither is simply aping our opponents.

There is a third way: to remain true to liberal values that have stood the test of time; then to apply them to today’s challenges to create a New Liberal agenda that is modern, inclusive, and mainstream.

Matthew Bach is Victoria’s shadow minister for education, the shadow minister for child protection, and the deputy leader of the opposition in the Legislative Council.

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