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Turnbull is right to link the Liberals with the centre – but is the centre where it used to be?

Malcolm Turnbull’s speech reminded his Liberal colleagues that he has not stolen the party and his leadership is legitimately Liberal. Reuters/Hannah Mckay

Turnbull is right to link the Liberals with the centre – but is the centre where it used to be?

It is a sign of how serious the divisions have become in the Liberal Party that speaking the truth about Robert Menzies is now depicted as making a provocative attack on the Liberal right.

Yet that is the situation in which Malcolm Turnbull found himself after giving his Disraeli Prize speech in London. As Turnbull pointed out in that speech, Menzies intentionally avoided calling the new party “conservative” in case that gave rise to misconceptions. Rather, Turnbull cites Menzies’ statement that they:

… 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 right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.

As the leading academic expert on Robert Menzies, Judith Brett, has pointed out, Menzies recognised when the party was founded in 1944 that there was a strong public sentiment in favour of building a progressive, new post-war society that was far better than the old.

In other words, it was a party that pledged to reject socialism, but wouldn’t necessarily stand in the path of social progress.

In short, Turnbull is attempting to reclaim both Menzies and the Liberal Party he played a key role in founding, for a centrist rather than reactionary position. He is gently taking issue with Tony Abbott and those conservatives in the party who have focused on undermining, rather than working with him, regardless of the damage this might do to the party’s electoral prospects.

I say gently because, as even the arch-conservative Eric Abetz acknowledges, Turnbull also cites Tony Abbott’s earlier phrase that the “sensible centre” is the place to be. Nonetheless, Turnbull is reminding such conservatives that he has not stolen the party, and his leadership is legitimately Liberal.

There is a long tradition of attempting to appeal to the centre in Australian politics, not least in the hope that centrist politicians will be able to harvest votes from both major parties. Turnbull can legitimately argue that many of the “small-l” liberal positions he is associated with (despite his more recent concessions to the right) are in line with popular opinion. Same-sex marriage is an obvious case in point.

There was also a vibrant small-l liberal tradition on issues such as homosexuality in the party in the 1970s, prior to John Howard’s conservative ascendancy.

Nonetheless, there were some elephants in the room in London when Turnbull gave his speech.

It is open to debate what a modern “Menzian” position would be in regard to issues such as same-sex marriage or racial equality. After all, Menzies, like Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley before him, continued to support the White Australia Policy. Male homosexuality was illegal under state law for all of Menzies’ prime ministership.

Turnbull refers to Menzies’ “forgotten people”. However, the famous speech in which Menzies articulated that concept assumed (as Curtin and Chifley also did) that employees would continue to be predominantly male, and women would largely be in the home.

Turnbull clearly assumes that a modern “sensible centre” position would have kept pace with changing social attitudes. But at least on some issues, other Liberals will disagree.

The bigger elephant in the room is the issue of Menzies’ economic beliefs at the time the Liberal Party was founded, and what a modern day centrist position on economic policy would be. After all, contemporary Australian voters seem to be concerned about their economic futures, the power of big business, and cuts to social services.

Turnbull does briefly acknowledge in his speech that, by modern standards, Menzies:

… was hardly an economic liberal. He believed in a highly regulated economy with high tariffs, a fixed exchange rate, centralised wage fixing and generally much more Government involvement in the economy than we would be comfortable with.

Indeed, Menzies was more of a Keynesian economically, not a market liberal like Turnbull.

Furthermore, Menzies characterised the middle class as the “forgotten people” partly because he believed that unskilled workers were not forgotten but were already well-protected by unions and had “their wages and conditions safeguarded by popular law”. Meanwhile, the rich were “able to protect themselves”.

While strongly supporting individual endeavour, he argued that the new politics should not “return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire”. Rather, “our social and industrial laws will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.”

Menzies was strongly anti-communist and anti-socialist, but he was not a neoliberal.

Voters could be forgiven for thinking that at least some of Menzies’ words sound more like those of the contemporary Labor Party than the modern-day Liberal Party. The Liberal Party itself acknowledges that a belief in “social equality” was one of the principles on which the party was founded.

However, despite some concessions in this year’s budget, Turnbull may have his work cut out trying to convince centrist voters that his economic liberalism can adequately address today’s scourge of rising inequality. Keynesian-influenced solutions are on the rise again in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Turnbull argued in his speech that the terms “left” and “right” had begun to lose all meaning. However, there is another, more unpalatable truth that he may need to face. It may be more that “left” and “right” are moving conceptually, because the “centre” has shifted too.

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