Menzies, Myth and Modern Australia

Menzies, Myth and Modern Australia, by Jonathon Pincus.

In his comment in the Australian newspaper on John Howard’s ABC TV documentary, Troy Bramston claimed that Howard had failed “to support its central thesis that Menzies played ‘the fundamental role’ in ‘the building of modern Australia’ “; instead, “it was not an era of policy innovation or modernisation…There is a huge gulf between the economic, social and foreign policies of the Menzies government then and the Liberal and Labor parties today.”

What Bramston failed to notice was the huge gulf between the economic policies of the Menzies government and those of his Labor opposition.  Although there is much to criticize in Menzies’ strategy for Australian economic development, especially with the benefit of hindsight, it seems indisputable that Labor’s alternative would not only have been disastrous at the time, but also would have long sent the economy in directions quite opposite to modernization.

Labor’s post-war vision was of an economy planned and centrally controlled. The success of a wartime regime of ‘command and control’ reinforced Labor’s long-held beliefs. In 1948, Chifley attempted to make permanent the wartime power over rents and prices. Menzies saw the proposal as part of Labor’s plan of complete socialisation—and certainly Labor’s ambitions for economic centralization and control went much further.

The ‘socialisation’ plank of Labor’s platform was then far from the shibboleth it became: Labor strongly believed in extensive ‘nationalisation’, starting with, but by no means limited to, the banks, steel industry and aviation. Menzies successfully frustrated Labor’s efforts to seize the banks.  He preferred private enterprise to nationalisation, even if, as with aviation, the industry was heavily regulated.