To understand the threat posed to the Coalition government by unruly senators Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir, it’s necessary to go right back to where the Liberal Party started: the famous ‘forgotten people’ speech Robert Menzies gave in 1942, two years before calling a national meeting to found the new party.
The speech is a font of inspiration for both sides of politics. Both Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten have drawn on it in speeches, but it is especially holy to Liberal MPs.
It was written mid-WWII because, Menzies explained, though Australia was fighting in an epic war, it also had to be ready to play its part in shaping peace when it came.
And since totalitarianism (but especially communism and its socialist offshoots) threatened to dominate the post-war era, Menzies’ speech must be read in that historical context.
Against the fashion of the time, Menzies’ rhetorical achievement was to avoid championing ‘the oppressed’ against the ‘ruling class’, but to dismiss both extremes and speak about a ‘middle class’ of forgotten people.
Here are three excerpts (in order) that sketch out the position:
“We offer no affront -- on the contrary we have nothing but the warmest human compassion -- toward those whom fate has compelled to live upon the bounty of the State, when we say that the greatest element in a strong people is a fierce independence of spirit.
“... ambition, effort, thinking, and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government but are the essential conditions of its success.
“... Where do we find these great elements most commonly? Among the defensive and comfortable rich, among the unthinking and unskilled mass, or among what I have called the ‘middle class’?”
Much later, by the middle of the Howard years, that middle class had expanded dramatically and had become much more affluent.
John Howard, as prime minister, played to that changed electorate very successfully, drawing in the ‘battlers’ and ensuring they enjoyed all the rewards of upward social mobility.
For those that criticised this expanded middle class’s most affluent members, Howard reserved the phrase “politics of envy”. In good times, that was a lethal takedown for old lefties who did not like either the big end of town, nor the newly affluent ‘cashed up bogans’.
And this is why we need to go back further, to revisit Menzies’ speech, to understand what is influencing Lambie and Muir, who have broken away from their vendetta-driven boss Clive Palmer.
Lambie and Muir are something new. They are neither bleeding-heart socialists driven by the ‘politics of envy’, nor theory-driven ideologues attempting to prove, at whatever cost, that the neoliberal agenda pushed by the Abbott government actually works.
They are, despite their plentiful shortcomings, real people, for which we might also substitute the term ‘forgotten people’ (Who let real people into parliament, September 10, 2013).
Lambie’s bugbear has been flatlining wage growth in the Australian defence forces, her previous employer for ten years.
While some have defended this years’ wage ‘increase’ (actually a pay cut in real terms) as being no different to the pay rise most public servants are receiving, Lambie does not see them as being just like other public servants. (Just as well, given a damning article on slack work practices at the ABC published by Fairfax papers yesterday.)
Muir, drafted as a patsy to carry forward the dubious political intentions of the Motoring Enthusiast party, is similar. While his agenda (indeed most of his thoughts) are secret because of his low media profile, there are some things we do know.
Muir was plucked from the obscurity of a Gippsland timber mill. The one standout fact of his political career has been the relentless mocking he was subject to by the political-media class of this country. In effect, he was told, via newspaper headlines and sneering broadcasts, that “people like you don’t get to rule”.
Or do they? If Menzies were still with us, I doubt he would name the “politics of envy” as being a core part of his ‘forgotten people’ speech.
Rather, it was the ‘politics of outrage’ for which he was building a new conduit in the mid-1940s.
And what, in this country at this time, would excite outrage?
For years it was carbon pricing, the NBN, debt and deficit, and boats.
They were important debates during the Rudd and Gillard years, but not debates heard with any kind of balance. As Menzies averred in his speech: “In a war, as indeed at most times, we become the ready victims of phrases ... How many hundreds of thousands of us are slaves to greed, to fear, to newspapers, to public opinion - represented by the accumulated views of our neighbours!”
And so while distracted by carbon, NBN, debt-and-deficit and boats, much bigger building blocks of Australian society were crumbling.
Menzies championed the family home as key to our way of life: “... one of the best instincts in us is that which induces us to have one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours; to which we can withdraw, in which we can be among our friends, into which no stranger may come against our will.”
That instinct is being frustrated in a new generation of young Australians, who need more of that “frugality and saving” to achieve that dream. They need something he disdained – namely the reliance on the gifts of the older generation.
Menzies wrote in terms than now seem quaintly nostalgic: “The Scottish farmer ponders upon the future of his son, and sees it most assured not by the inheritance of money but by the acquisition of that knowledge which will give him power; and so the sons of many Scottish farmers find their way to Edinburgh and a university degree.”
But today’s sons and daughters face a future of university fee increases at the best institutions, and declining teaching standards at the low-fee campuses.
And young Australians are growing up being told by their elders that the way to get ahead is to game the tax system as thoroughly as possible, particularly through loss-making, negatively geared investments and the laundering of income through the superannuation system. And to hell with the hard-working forgotten people who never receive that advice.
But those forgotten people are finding a foothold in parliament. Lambie and Muir, like their crossbench co-conspirators John Madigan and Nick Xenophon, have plenty of outrage flowing in their veins.
Madigan, previously a Ballarat blacksmith, has more experience of sheer hard graft than most politicians, and Xenophon, as founder of a law firm specialising in workplace injury claims, has worked with ‘forgotten’ types for years.
And the people they instinctively channel are being told, again and again, that night is day.
Conflicted remuneration doesn’t hurt anyone! A carbon bureaucracy is better than a carbon market! An NBN that maintains Telstra’s dominance is fine! A free market for uni fees will make uni more affordable! The Barrier Reef isn’t threatened, silly! We’re cutting welfare to make it fairer! We’re cutting the ABC budget to make it stronger! Economists are wrong to say the national debt is manageable! Vehicle leasing isn’t a tax rort!
And so it continues. When forgotten people break free of party allegiances in parliament, they pick apart such statements any way they choose; the orthodoxies produced by the too-intimate relationship between politicians and the press gallery start to unravel.
For the Abbott government, these are dangerous days indeed.