It is sometimes said that we Liberals pay too little tribute to our historic figures. There is some truth in this. The exception is Sir Robert Menzies.
Alongside Menzies’ philosophical commitments to enterprise and initiative, to the incentive to prosper and create, was a commitment to social justice. A commitment embracing a better distribution of wealth, and giving people protection against misfortune, a protection consistent with their independence and dignity as democratic citizens. He saw government as playing a central role in achieving these ends.
Today, social justice is not a phrase on the lips of every Liberal. A recent work by the Menzies Research Centre is a case in point. The Menzies Research Centre is "a national policy research institution dedicated to the liberal philosophy of Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister." Its first publication is a book called "Social Justice: Fraud or Fair Go".
Many of the essays undertake a critique of the idea of social justice, affording scant attention to the fact that social justice was a key part of Menzies’ philosophy. The Director of the Centre describes social justice as a "propaganda tool" which does not "pay any attention to human nature". Others see it as coercive, antithetical to individual justice and corruptive of the welfare ethos.
Menzies saw social justice as an issue of rights rather than charity. "The purpose of all measures of social security," he said, " is not only to provide citizens with some reasonable protection against misfortune but also to reconcile that provision with their proud independence and dignity as democratic citizens. The time has gone when social justice should even appear to take the form of social charity."
Menzies was committed to an active and progressive role for government as the servant of the people, not its master. Government, he said, has "great functions to perform which are far beyond the scope of private enterprise".
Menzies commitment to social justice was not mere rhetoric. In 1939 when the Lyons Government failed to proceed with the National Insurance Act providing extended social welfare benefits, Menzies resigned from the Cabinet.
As Prime Minister, Menzies translated his commitment to social justice into innovative policy achievements that have shaped the character of both this nation and the Liberal Party for decades.
He oversaw the rapid introduction of child endowment for the first child, free pharmaceutical and medical benefits for pensioners, and a national health scheme.
Menzies recognised the importance of education as a means of promoting citizenship, personal development and social mobility, as well as the national economy. Under his leadership, the government inspired and supported an unprecedented expansion of education in areas that had traditionally been the preserve of state governments. New universities were established, as was a generous Commonwealth scholarship scheme, placing tertiary education within reach of those who could not otherwise have afforded it.
Over the past thirty years the notion of social justice has come under intense and systematic attack from various quarters, among them social libertarians, economic liberals and social conservatives. The dimensions of this attack are many.
The first dimension, sees social justice as a Trojan Horse. These critics argue that social justice is designed to disguise with attractive, acceptable language, the new socialist objective of equalising individual incomes and possessions.
This is an edited extract from the 1999 Menzies Lecture.
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