The contortionists have hijacked Menzies' legacy

If you found yourself these days in the quiet of the evening in the vicinity of the Prime Minister's Memorial Garden in Melbourne's General Cemetery you might be persuaded you could hear former Liberal prime ministers rotating in their graves.

Here lie buried Robert Gordon Menzies, John Grey Gorton and John Malcolm Fraser, all Victorians. Not far away from the Memorial Garden is the grave site of James Scullin, Labor prime minister from 1929-1932.

  Robert Menzies was not afraid to use the word "progressive". Photo: Stuart MacGladrie

Robert Menzies was not afraid to use the word "progressive". Photo: Stuart MacGladrie

If you ventured across town to St Kilda Cemetery you would come across the grave site of Alfred Deakin, prime minister on three separate occasions and arguably Australia's finest PM, certainly the most intellectually gifted.

If Menzies and Fraser are rotating in their graves, Deakin would be spinning in his over what has become of the movement he inspired at the time of federation.

Deakin was the father of Australian liberalism politically speaking and an inspiration to this day for Melbourne liberals even if his legacy is subjected to negative judgment through a neo-liberal prism.

Deakin's protectionism was a product of his times.

What would Deakin and Menzies make of their handiwork today, given that both sought to straddle conservative and liberal wings of their respective movements?

The short answer and given limitations of space is that both would have trouble recognising the Liberal Party of today, riven by factional disputes, unsure of its destiny and prey to one of the most toxic personality conflicts in Australian political history.

Not least of the Liberal Party problems in this particularly troubled phase in its history is the so-called 'big tent' of the John Howard era has deflated.

Liberals interviewed for this column on both left and right agree on one thing – and not much else: the party is in a mess and unless its takes hold of itself William John Shorten will be the next prime minister of the Commonwealth of Australia.

For many Australians, and not simply those on the right, this would be a troubling outcome.

What is clear is that the party of Menzies in the 75th year of its founding is unmoored, unsure of its ideological and philosophical underpinnings, antagonistic towards "progressive" viewpoints, and fearful of an Australian Tea Party movement on the right some of whose adherents have infiltrated the party itself.

Are we observing the death convulsions of a liberal party, or a conservative party, or a liberal-conservative party, or a conservative-liberal party, or simply a party of reaction?

Is this the party of Deakin or Menzies, or the liberal conservative Edmund Burke, or the libertarian John Stuart Mill?

Or, none of the above!

In the homages to Menzies on the 75th anniversary of his "The Forgotten People" speech delivered on May 22, 1942, what is being overlooked, and conveniently, it seems, is the modern founder's liberalism.

In the words of a prominent Melbourne Liberal, Menzies' legacy is being "contorted" to serve partisan interests within the party.

What might be useful is to go back to Menzies' own words not in his The Forgotten People speech, but in his slight memoir Afternoon Light, published a year after his retirement.

In that memoir he had this to say:

We took the name 'Liberal' because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments; in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise …

There's that word "progressive", cause of paroxysms among critics on the right of so-called "progressives".

A few weeks ago I interviewed Tony Abbott in Sydney for a book on Australian populism. In that conversation Abbott used the phrase "centre right" on several occasions.

This prompted the following question: "I noted that you have used that phrase 'centre-right' a number of times, would Menzies have used that phrase himself?"

"No, Menzies was not someone who used labels to describe our side of politics; he used labels to described the other side of politics," Abbott responded.

I then asked: "Is it a rebranding exercise on your part to call it centre-right."

Abbott's response: "No, I am just using today's terminology."

That be as it may, but if you believe words matter that exchange would seem to sum up the Liberal Party's problematic trajectory in an environment in which the centre-right believes, for better or worse, it represents the party's orthodoxy in contradiction to Liberal centrists.

If that means scepticism about efforts to mitigate climate change, a corresponding antagonism towards renewables, resistance to marriage equality, among other socially progressive issues, then so be it.

This is not necessarily where the country has come to rest.

By any reasonable definition this is not "progressivism" in the Menzies description of 1967 of a party "willing to make experiments", and cleave to the centre ground.

Not only, it seems, are the Malcolm Turnbull forces faltering in their efforts to re-centre the party, they are also getting beaten up in a bar-room brawl. Maybe, it's time for them to toughen up.

Turnbull could do worse than visit Melbourne's General Cemetery, where a slightly elevated tombstone honours the cremated Menzies and his wife, Pattie, to remind himself of wellsprings of Victorian liberalism and a centre ground worth contesting.