Robert Menzies

Robert Menzies’s ‘The Forgotten People’ speech is a touchstone for conservatives, the source of Joe Hockey’s recent lifters and leaners rhetoric, for instance. The faithful return to it, decades after the world it described passed into history. It could use some updating, and Menzies, a politician who wasn’t afraid of a little populist social engineering, would be just the man to do it.

Quite recently, an Imam wrote a blog post for a great daily website, but being an Imam, they chose not to publish it. Instead, Buzzfeed picked up his post, about the importance of doing justice to the devout. He sought to divide the people of Australia into classes of belief.

Now, the last thing that I want to do is to commence or take part in a jihad of this kind. But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class, those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones.

Who are these forgotten people?

They are sometimes called the ‘elites’ by the envious and resentful, but they are not themselves the rich and powerful. They are not the true elites who control great funds and enterprises, and who protect themselves via their ownership of the entire political process. I also exclude at the other end of the scale the growing mass of the underclasses who, glassy-eyed and vacant, can be pacified with subsistence rations for the belly and pogroms against some undifferentiated Other for the soul.

These exclusions being made, I am left with the kind of people I myself represent in Parliament: simple wage earners, start-up founders living on 2 Minute Noodles and mad hope, the makers of inexplicably popular crafts on Etsy, professional men and women with crippling student debts, farmers whose lands have baked and whose crops have withered as our climate turns on us.

These are my people. They are for the most part unorganised and unselfconscious. They are not rich enough to have individual power like Mr Murdoch. They are taken for granted and yet, as I have said, they are the backbone of the nation.

Now, what is the value of this middling, unassuming class, so defined and described? First, they have skin in the game. With naught to offer but their skills and energy they struggle daily to make something of themselves for their families. I do not care what those families look like, be they the tenth generation of some Anglo-Celtic clan transported to the colonies, the first boatload of new arrivals from the teeming peoples to our north, or some admixture of all the many tribes who have washed up on these shores. I do not care if these families take the traditional form of man and woman, or some new arrangement of two men or two women, as long as the home is founded on love and that home is a rock solid foundation on which society as a whole can rest.

The home is where love resides. The instinct to be with those we love is the great instinct of a civilised people, and the greatest element in a strong people is a fierce independence of spirit. This is the only real freedom, and it has as its corollary a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility, for our actions, of course, but also for each other.

The second great value of the middle class is their considered ambition. To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achievement, to distrust independent thought – these are the maladies which often find expression in dividing one against the other. The tradesman against the professor. The truck driver against the artist. White against black, or yellow or brown. Country against city. Old Australia against new.

Yet ambition, effort, thinking, and the readiness of all to help all are the essential conditions of a nation’s success. Where do we find these great elements most commonly? Among the predatory super-rich? Among the underclasses who constitute the human tailings of the never-ending effort by the super-rich to strip mine everything for themselves? Or among the ever-shrinking middle class? The class which provides more than any other the intellectual life which marks us off from the beasts. This is the life which finds room for literature, for the arts, for science, for medicine and for the law. A true conservative conserves these fragile flowers of civilisation. A true conservative would never attack them for squalid political advantage.

Consider the case of literature and art. Could these survive purely as a department of State or at the whim of blind market forces? Are we to publish our poets only according to political colour, or returns on investment? Is the State to decree surrealism because surrealism gets a heavy vote in a key electorate? Will the market decide that only those works appealing to the lowest common denominator shall thrive or even survive?

The artist, if she is to live, must eventually have a buyer; the writer an audience. She may find them among frugal people to whom the margin above bare living means a chance to reach out a little towards that heaven which is just beyond our grasp, but if she has time and means only to struggle for the very basic necessities of living, what art will she ever produce?

One of the great blots on our modern living is the cult of false values, a repeated application of the test of money, notoriety, applause. A world in which a teller of rape jokes can be paid fabulous sums, whilst scientific researchers and true artists suffer neglect and starvation, is a world which needs to have its sense of values violently set right.

Is most of our policy mindful of these self-evident truths? Is our policy designed to lift up the nation, or grind it down? I have been actively engaged in politics for many years and in that period I cannot readily recall many occasions upon which any policy was pursued which was designed to help the average person, when helping them conflicted with serving the needs of some billionaire or entrenched interest.

On the contrary, there have been many instances in which the power of the few has been used to defeat the interests of the many. The real elites, the owners of vast media empires and huge mining concerns, are served like valued members of an exclusive club by the butlers and handmaidens of the major parties. We have talked of income from modest wages as if it possessed a somewhat discreditable character compared to franked dividends or the contents of offshore bank accounts. We have taxed the average man and woman more and more heavily, to pay for the indulgences of the super-rich who lord over them as new feudal masters.

That we are all, as human souls, of like value cannot be denied. That each of us should have her chance is and must be the great objective of political and social policy. But to say that the industrious and intelligent daughter of self-sacrificing and saving and forward-looking parents has the same just desserts and even material needs as the dull offspring of stupid but grotesquely wealthy parents is absurd.

Men and women without hope readily become slaves. Indeed, there is much more hopelessness and slavery in Australia than most people imagine. How many millions of us are slaves to braying marketers, to fearmongering newspapers, to manufactured opinion – representing the accumulated views of one or two billionaires?

I do not believe that we shall come out into the dictatorship of an all-powerful State and a rapacious market on whose doubtful benevolence we shall depend, spineless and effortless.

If the new world is to be a world of free souls, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of people whose motto shall be, ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ Individual enterprise must drive us forward even as we carry those who fall behind. We will not return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. Our obligations to each other cannot be legislated or outsourced. There may be more law, not less; more control of unfettered power, not less.

But what really happens to us will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic class: the refugee striving to build a little business, the gay women planning not just a wedding but a long and fruitful and productive life together, the husband and wife turning to their children’s homework after long hours at their own toil, ambitious for their offspring and the shared future before them. Before us all.

This project was made possible by support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund