Malcolm Turnbull horrified conservatives by claiming Liberal Party founder Sir Robert Menzies was a progressive leader, but experts say the Prime Minister’s summation of the party foundations is right.
During a speech in London on Monday (UK time), Mr Turnbull highlighted the importance of the “sensible centre” – a phrase first used by his predecessor Tony Abbott – and went on to claim the LNP was “not conservative”.
“The sensible centre, to use Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be. It remains the place to be,” Mr Turnbull told the Policy Exchange think tank.
“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,” Mr Turnbull said.
Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University, John Nethercote, said Mr Turnbull’s speech accurately referenced Sir Robert.
It was true Sir Robert had “expressly distinguished liberalism from conservatives”, he said.
“I don’t think we can call this a clanger,” Professor Nethercote told The New Daily.
“Menzies was mainstream, and believed in the mainstream, believed in the community and a middle class.
“So the Prime Minister has given the Menzies philosophy a bit of a contemporary twist.”
James Walter, Professor of Political Science at Monash University, agreed.
“Turnbull’s summation was reasonably accurate,” Dr Walter told The New Daily.
It is a great pleasure to be in London on my first bilateral visit as Prime Minister. There is no country with which Australia’s history is more entwined than the UK. I was honoured to walk with PM May from London Bridge to the Borough Market to pay our respects to those who died and were injured in the senseless and wicked attack last month. I was moved to meet with some of the first responders who went to the aid of the victims, including Australians. We later discussed the strength and closeness of the Australia-UK relationship across the full range of issues, including national security, trade and business.
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In February, Dr Walter wrote for The Conversation that “all exponents of Liberal Party values lay claim to the ‘Menzies’ tradition”.
“The most vehement contemporary claimants are on the party’s right wing.”
But their push for more budget austerity, climate change scepticism, immigration restriction, market fundamentalism and regressive taxation reform was a departure from many of Sir Robert’s principles, Dr Walter said.
In his speech to the Policy Exchange in London, Mr Turnbull said Sir Robert avoided conservatism.
He quoted Sir Robert: “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 right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
Mr Abbott appears to have first used the term “sensible centre” as opposition leader in 2012 to claim workplace relations laws had gone too far under Labor and needed to be more flexible for employers.
Senator Cory Bernardi, who defected from the Liberal Party to form Australian Conservatives, said Mr Turnbull was trying to re-write history and called the speech “a dark day for conservatives”.
“What it’s sent is a very strong message to conservatives in Australia [that] you’re no longer welcome within the party of Menzies,” Senator Bernardi told 7.30 on Tuesday night.
“And I suspect if Sir Robert Menzies was alive today he would be considering an alternative because the party that he founded no longer seems to represent the interests upon which it was founded.”
Former prime minister John Howard declined to comment when approached by The New Daily.
Senator Bernardi and Mr Abbott have been approached for comment.