Just about the last thing Malcolm Turnbull did before leaving Australia last week was to inveigh against his colleagues navel gazing.
The public was not interested in politicians talking about themselves, the Prime Minister declared. And having cleared that up, he went off to give a major speech that produced headlines blazoning an agenda apparently designed to bore the public rigid.
Most of it was the usual stuff – fight terrorism, secure borders, more free trade – more freedom generally, as long was we don’t talk about specific policies which might be mildly embarrassing. But in the middle of this jollity, our Prime Minister detonated a landmine: the Australian Liberal Party, was not a conservative party.
He quickly doubled back on that proclaiming yet again, that the party was a broad church, but the damage was done. Making this the centrepiece of the speech (as he must have known it would be) was obviously perverse, but the context was frankly bizarre: Turnbull was speaking to accept the Disraeli prize at a gala dinner hosted the British Tory Policy Institute in London, half a world away.
If he was to issue the sort of ideological challenge he clearly intended, surely it would have been more sensible to do so at home. After all, he had only just addressed the schism-riven New South Wales party conference., an ideal venue for a barney. Admittedly, if he had thrown down the gauntlet in Sydney he would probably have been attacked with chairs from half the delegates, but it would have been a more courageous stance.
As it was, he has been accused of hiding as well as provocation. Perhaps he thought the distance would protect him, but more likely he was relying on the thought of Chairman Menzies, the infallible doctrine could not be gainsaid, and Menzies once said that he had deliberately picked the name of Liberal rather than Conservative to keep its platform inclusive, even a touch progressive.
Well, maybe he did, but Menzies said a lot of things, and as Tony Abbott, among many others knows, the devil may cite scripture for his purpose. In nanoseconds the airwaves were filed with furious reactionaries from Newscorp and Foxtel insisting that the great man had been verballed and traduced; their Knight of the Thistle, the Warden of the Cinq Ports, had never entertained a progressive thought in his life. Liberal was spelled with a big L, not a little l and if Turnbull didn’t like it they would find a leader who did. Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson instantly offered to fill the gap. Turnbull, once again, had revealed himself a traitor to the cause and an apostate against the one true dogma.
Interestingly, almost all of the most vocal critics would not have been born when Menzies retired more than 50 years ago; even those who were would have been unlikely to have had much to do with the man who had cordially despised and avoided the media for most of his long career.
For example, the Liberal party fawn, Nick Cater, who runs the propaganda unit that bears the founder’s name, had probably never heard of the man until he immigrated from England a couple of decades ago; nonetheless the fawn set up his Ouija board to channel the spirit of the leader and declare unequivocally how unhappy he would have been about the current pretender to his legacy. This kind of rewriting history is of course, both partisan and futile but it is an essential part of the current struggle and will continue until one or both of the contestants collapses in defeat.
The point about Menzies is that he was man of his times, and his times were a long, long time ago. Menzies was a Victorian, in the same way Turnbull now claims to be an Elizabethan. He was born in the 19th century, and remained a creature of it all his life. He was not only an unwavering supporter of White Australia; within that context he was, an Anglophile, a monarchist, British, as he once said, to his bootstraps.
He might tolerate other Anglophones in the United States, Canada and, notoriously South Africa, where he became a supporter of the apartheid regime. But he was uncomfortable with most ethnic groups and would have rejected totally and immediately the idea of the multicultural Australia Turnbull now celebrates. And as for same sex marriage – the very thought would have been an abomination.
For what it is worth I am ancient enough to have grown up under Menzies and I even met him a couple of times, and it never occurred to me that he was anything but a big C Conservative. Apart from his zealous cold war anticommunism and economic protectionism, his social attitudes were even behind his own times: he had an instinctive attraction for censorship in every field and resisted the advent of television for as long as he could. When decimal currency was finally introduced shortly before he left office, he tried to rename the Aussie dollar the Royal – shades of Abbott’s knighting of the Duke of Edinburgh.
Menzies would not have been an enthusiast for Turnbull’s exciting times, for innovation and agility. It was left to his successors – Harold Holt, and more particularly John Gorton – to attempt to haul his party into the 20th century. Turnbull is now attempting to move it on to the 21st, without a great deal of success.
Being an Elizabethan sounds good – the first Elizabethan age has been renowned as a time of stability and success, and indeed it was. But there was price: it was also a time of brutal repression, where the Catholic terrorist boat people of Spain and France was waiting to invade at any opportunity. The queen’s chief enforcer, the security supremo whose role Peter Dutton now covets, was a ruthless spymaster named Francis Walshingham, who dealt in summary justice brutally and efficiently; there was a joke in continental Europe that English coffins were made shorter than normal, because there were few heads left to put into them.
Presumably Turnbull hopes and expects to move on. perhaps to become a Carolingean, but that name also has some unfortunate connotations. He may do better to stick to Oz, shut up about his dysfunctional party and try and get on with the job and revert to the real core belief of the Liberals. They and all their right-leaning predecessors within the broad church cleave to the one, single, unswerving ideology: keep Labor out of office.
Forget about conservatives and progressives, go for the fight fans. Some of the public at least might start paying attention.