The Menzies Provocation: Turnbull’s failed trap

23rd July, 2018

In London, on Monday the 10th of July 2017, between 6:00pm and 7:30pm, an event was held at the “One Birdcage Walk” building in Westminster. At this event Malcolm Turnbull was presented with an award by (then) UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd, an ideological fellow-traveller who, for example: supports shutting down all coal-fired power stations by 2025; wants to imprison anyone who views what she calls “far-right” propaganda; and has been accused of hiding documents from a public inquiry into the UK’s elite paedophile rings.

At 3:00pm, three hours before this event started (12 midnight AEST), the Australian media publicly released the text of Turnbull’s prepared speech along with related, pre-prepared political commentary. The text of the speech was given to the media by Turnbull’s staff.

This version of the speech began with the following:

“In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new centre right party a conservative party – rather he described our party as the Liberal Party which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics. He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional conservative parties…”

Turnbull went on to say that fascism, communism, and classical liberalism all had no appeal in 1944, when Menzies founded and named the Liberal Party. He added: “The sensible centre was the place to be. It remains the place to be.”

Although he never states it explicitly, Turnbull seems to be saying that Menzies didn’t intend the party to be conservative. If you read it carefully though, the text itself is ambiguous on this point.

Nevertheless, the media headlines said things like “The Liberals are not conservatives, says Malcolm Turnbull” and “Malcolm Turnbull slaps down Liberal conservatives“.

This is exactly what Turnbull wanted.

When he delivered the actual speech three hours later, at 3:00am AEST, there were important differences and additions that, had they been in the version initially released to the media, would not have facilitated such headlines. The story though, by this time, already had unstoppable momentum, and the newspapers, complete with commentaries, had already been printed for the following morning.

The additions included an explicit acknowledgement of John Howard’s thesis that the party includes the conservative tradition. Tony Abbott’s name was also added as being the source of the phrase “sensible centre”.

Senator Cory Bernardi explained this oft-used trick:

“The Prime Minister’s office…know exactly what they’re doing when they put out briefing notes. And if they gave notes to journalists it was designed to convey a particular impression… When the actual speech is delivered there’s the plausible deniability, but the whack has already been dealt through the media.”

It is obvious this was a scheme concocted with the purpose of embarrassing conservatives by causing in them a hasty, angry retort, the substance of which could later be easily debunked. Thankfully, conservatives in the party were wise enough hold back. Instead, Turnbull was widely condemned, including by some of his own sycophants. I have listed some of the criticisms below (sources are linked via names).

“…[The speech] was delivered in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

— Niki Savva


“I’m not sure it’s that smart…I think Mr Turnbull probably has made a mistake.”

Laurie Oakes


“It just frustrates me, and it must frustrate so many of our Liberals, that unlike Menzies and unlike Howard…Malcolm hasn’t been able to meld the different views within the party…He’s actually poured petrol on the fire…We might find that the Prime Minister is saying the middle ground is the way to go, but sadly so much of what we have done in recent times is not the middle ground, it’s not the Liberal way…we are attacking some of the fundamental institutions on which this party was established in 44..”

— Fmr Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett


“…he ­appeared to claim the mantle of being a modern-day Menzies. If that was Turnbull’s intention, he wears it poorly, like a suit that is far too big for him…And Turnbull’s cheeky wink to Abbott searching for the “sensible centre” is equally disingenuous. Abbott is an unashamed social and economic conservative. He used the term “sensible centre” in the lead-up to the 2013 election for one purpose. “We will bring the workplace relations pendulum back to the sensible centre,” Abbott said, retreating at breakneck speed from Howard’s Work Choices…”

Janet Albrechtsen


“Centrism is not a political philosophy. Centrism doesn’t tell you which direction the country should go. It doesn’t tell you whether the size of government is too big or too small. It doesn’t tell you what we should do on any policy area…the sensible centre just means nothing.”

Simon Breheny


“If you think back to great political leaders, none sought out the centre. They created the centre…In practice, for centre-right parties appeals to the centre have meant taking policies from a left-wing play book…”

— Matthew Lesh

This plot was too clever by half, and it went down in flames.

Even John Howard weighed in, without explicitly directing his comments to Turnbull:

“I recognised that on some ­issues the right approach was not the mid-point in the argument…Margaret Thatcher didn’t have a mushy middle when it came to handling the miners’ strike and her assault on trade union power, which was long overdue. It was the same with Reagan on some issues.”

Turnbull probably did, however, succeed in another purpose. Given that the entire media were repeating, throughout the day, the falsehood that Menzies didn’t want the Liberal Party to be conservative, much of the general public may have absorbed this nonsense.

And it is nonsense.

Menzies’ policies and attitudes included:

– Ardent monarchism
– A rejection of secular-pagan education
– Heavy immigration restrictions
– Pro-Colonialism (eg; in PNG)
– Banning the Communist Party
– Antipathy towards the United Nations
– Antipathy to the ABC
– Resisting the cradle-to-grave welfare state
– Supporting conscription
– Sending troops to war against communism
– Opposing South Africa’s expulsion from Commonwealth
– Calling arch-‘progressive’ Gough Whitlam a ‘deplorable communist‘.
– Rejecting new breed of ‘progressive’ Liberals (even voting DLP)

These are not considered ‘progressive’ policies and attitudes now, nor were they in Menzies time. Indeed, he was attacked for these policies whilst in office.

So why did Menzies call the party ‘Liberal’? It largely comes down to marketing and the semantic peculiarities of the time. Gerard Henderson writes:

“As there was no precedent for a conservative political movement in Australia, it was not surprising Menzies chose the name Liberal when forming the new party in 1944. It’s also possible he was conscious that the Conservative-Labour divide in Britain reflected the class system in that country.”

Veteran journalist Jim Middleton makes a similar point:

“You’ve got to remember that Menzies was confronting a successful, interventionist, leftist Labor government. He needed to dislodge votes from the Labor party to win back power…to do that of course he was not going to talk about conservatism, he was going to talk about liberalism, and talk about inclusion and those sorts of things…”

Menzies was conservative by our modern definition of that word, indeed he was ultra-conservative by today’s standards, but he was even conservative by the standards of his own day.

From a leftist-‘progressive’ point of view, we see longtime Canberra Press Gallery journalist Mungo MacCallum writing, albeit deridingly:

“Menzies was a Victorian…He was born in the 19th Century and remained a creature of it all his life…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…his social attitudes were even behind his own times”

In Menzies’ day many of the policy positions that today define a ‘conservative’ were ubiquitous societal norms. Hence, back then, the word “conservative” meant something somewhat different. It had connotations of the old, strict British class system that ‘New World’ colonials were less enthusiastic about.

Nor was the word ‘progressive’ used in the same way in Menzies’ time. To demonstrate that we need only look at Menzies’ speech to the Liberal Party’s Federal Council meeting on the 12th of April 1965. In that speech Menzies describes the following three policies as “progressive”, “innovative” and anti-conservative:

– Attracting foreign capital for resource development
– The ANZUS treaty
– Funding for Catholic & independent schools

Today the ANZUS treaty is considered conservative, and opposed by arch-‘progressives’ like the Greens and the left-wing of the Labor Party. Attracting foreign capital for resource development is also opposed by those same forces, just look at their attitude to mining. On schools, Turnbull himself just cut federal funding to Catholic & independent schools.

So you can see how the evolutionary nature of the language can create opportunities for diabolical operators who seek to confuse. In his provocative speech in London, Turnbull cited the following quote from Menzies:

“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, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”

(On a side note, Turnbull exposes his sloppiness here by claiming this quote dates from the time of the party’s founding. In fact the quote is from Menzies’ 1967 book ‘Afternoon Light’.)

This passage is endlessly quoted by left-faction members of the Liberal Party as a justification for their existence, whilst they ignore Menzies’ policies and almost everything else he wrote. John Howard, who authored the 720-page book titled ‘The Menzies Era’, says:

“These words are quoted ad infinitum…I have never interpreted that phrase as a repudiation of conservative values…And the suggestion that Menzies wasn’t conservative in many respects is absurd. Of course he was.”

Menzies said of the National Party (then called the Country Party) that they were “our close and almost indistinguishable ally”. That quote is telling because the National Party are, explicitly, a conservative, Christian party. Their federal constitution proclaims:

“The objects of the Party shall be to promote within Australia a society based on Christian ethics and loyalty to the Crown…[and] ensure the continued development of the Party as an independently organised conservative political force…”

Finally, I should point out that even Turnbull himself has admitted that Menzies was an ardent conservative. When Turnbull was a journalist for the Nation Review he wrote:

“The population expects Liberal leaders to be grey-suited Tories of the bluest stamp. Askins, Menzies’ Boltes win elections. Gortons, Sneddens and Lewises are likely to lose them.” 1

On that point, Turnbull is right. “Liberals” like himself have a tendency to be electoral losers. Backbench take note.


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1. Turnbull, M. (1975, Jan 23). Nation Review.