The University of Melbourne is planning to establish a Robert Menzies Institute (RMI) to promote the life and legacy of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, an archconservative. The plans have been met with outrage from staff and students.
The institute’s purported aim is to “uphold and promote Sir Robert’s legacy and vision for Australia as a country of freedom, opportunity, enterprise and individual dignity.” It will support lectures, exhibitions, public forums, and visits from schools.
Menzies served twice as Australia’s prime minister, first from 1939 to 1941 and then in a much longer stint from 1949 to 1966. He played a central role in founding the Liberal Party, which currently governs in coalition with the National Party, with Scott Morrison as prime minister.
The Australian right celebrates Menzies as a champion of Australian liberalism. However, neither the coalition nor Menzies are liberals in the usual sense of the term. Like the Liberals of today, Menzies was a ruling-class crusader and a racist authoritarian who was implacably hostile to workers.
Pig Iron Bob
Menzies’s own words undermine the myth of his commitment to liberalism. In 1938, he traveled to Nazi Germany. He was impressed, writing that the “abandonment by the Germans of individual liberty . . . has something rather magnificent about it.” As Menzies put it in a letter to his sister:
The Germans may be pulling down the churches, but they have erected the state, with Hitler at its head, into the sort of religion which produces a spiritual exaltation that one cannot but admire and some small portion of which would do no harm among our own somewhat irresponsible population.
Menzies subsequently became a committed advocate of appeasing the Nazi regime. When Britain declared war on Germany, he only agreed to commit Australian forces to the war effort with reluctance.
Germany was not the only dictatorship that Menzies wanted to appease. In November 1938, waterside workers at Port Kembla banned the export of pig iron to Japan in protest of the Japanese invasion of China. As attorney general, Robert Menzies viciously retaliated, using draconian industrial legislation to force the wharfies back to work in January 1939. This episode earned Menzies the nickname “Pig Iron Bob,” which would haunt him for the rest of his career.
Menzies was a committed monarchist, even by the standards of his time. He famously described himself as “British to the bootstraps.” At a function attended by the Queen at Canberra’s Parliament House in 1963, Menzies wistfully quoted the Elizabethan poet Thomas Ford: “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.” Queen Elizabeth II rewarded his sycophancy with a knighthood the same year.
The Liberal leader was also a firm supporter of the White Australia policy. When asked to respond to accusations of racism, Menzies simply replied: “If I were not described as a racist, I’d be the only public man who hasn’t been.”
In the early 1950s, his government had sought to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), passing an act that banned membership in the CPA and empowered the governor general to proscribe “communist-affiliated” bodies, including trade unions. The Australian High Court found the legislation to be unconstitutional. In response, Menzies called a referendum that was narrowly defeated after a mass campaign led by the Australian Labor Party, the union movement, and the CPA.
Menzies showed the same commitment to Cold War anti-communism on the international stage. In the 1960s, he sent Australian soldiers to take part in the US war in Vietnam and conscripted nearly twenty thousand young men to fight.
Universities Under Siege
The political life and legacy of Robert Menzies should be condemned rather than celebrated. But there are also other reasons to oppose the Menzies Institute.
Students, academics, and unions have condemned the institute’s approach to staffing and its broader purpose. It forms part of the Liberal Party’s plan to transform higher education and push it to the right.
Three decades of deregulation and funding cuts by both Labor and coalition governments have left universities heavily reliant on full fee-paying overseas students. When the pandemic began, international student enrollments plummeted, slashing university budgets.
Instead of bailing out universities, the Morrison government seized the opportunity to step up its long-term war on higher education. The coalition denied public universities access to the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. This crippled Australia’s third-largest export industry, worth AU$34.9 billion. More than 7,500 university workers lost their jobs in the state of Victoria alone.
Education minister Dan Tehan then pushed through the highly unpopular Job-Ready Bill, which cut overall funding and doubled fees for many courses. These reforms are supposed to encourage enrolments in courses with “good employment prospects.” In reality, they will cause long-term economic damage by burdening students with ballooning debts. The reforms will also reduce universities’ ability to combine teaching with research, especially in science and engineering, further degrading the universities’ core purposes.
A Jobs Guarantee (for Failed Liberals)
The publicity announcing the RMI describes it as:
a joint venture of the Menzies Research Centre and the University of Melbourne. It is governed by a board of distinguished Australians and funded by public support, including a generous contribution of $7 million from the Commonwealth Government.
In the context of massive staff layoffs and a sectoral crisis, the coalition’s generosity seems to be limited to academic ventures that venerate its political forebears.
The RMI has obtained a further $500,000 worth of funding from conservative ideologues. These include Sky News commentator Alan Jones, former Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger, millionaire Janet Holmes à Court, and Amanda Vanstone, a government minister under John Howard.
The Menzies Research Centre (MRC), cofounder of the RMI alongside the University of Melbourne, is a think tank affiliated with the Liberal Party. The institute’s staff and directorate are also deeply tied to the conservative establishment. Its CEO, Georgina Downer, is a two-time Liberal election candidate whose father is the former Liberal leader Alexander Downer.
The RMI’s proposed board includes Peta Credlin, a media pundit and former chief of staff for then–prime minister Tony Abbott. Credlin notoriously blamed Melbourne’s 2020 COVID-19 outbreak on poorly “assimilated” South Sudanese migrants. Many of her fellow board members hail from the same political quarter, from Geoffrey Hone, chairman of right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, to David Kemp, another erstwhile member of John Howard’s cabinet, and Leigh Clifford, chief executive of the Rio Tinto mining corporation.
Georgina Downer assured The Age that the institute will be a nonpartisan, independent body, allowing students and the public to explore the legacy of one of Australia’s “most prominent politicians.” Downer also promised that the institute would not shape university curricula. This contradicts the RMI’s own website, which states that one of its functions will be to “host visits by schools and develop curricula.”
Downer compared the proposed institute to other prime ministerial libraries and institutes, including the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University. However, the Whitlam Institute has rejected this comparison. Its director, Leanne Smith, stated that the Whitlam Institute has “no formal relationship with the Labor Party” and “sought to keep itself arm’s length from the day-to-day of politics.” Although it is chaired by former Labor senator John Faulkner, the board includes former NSW Liberals leader Peter Collins.
The RMI has far more in common with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization, whose objective is to build the hard right’s intellectual credibility and counter so-called “cultural Marxism.” In the words of Tony Abbott, the Ramsay Centre set out to be “not merely about Western civilization but in favor of it.”
The RMI will share this basic purpose, albeit with reference to Australian political history. As Henry Kerr, president of the Melbourne University Liberal Club, admitted:
Centre-right people feel very outgunned within the academic world . . . so I don’t think it’s that unreasonable for an institute like this to be more partisan than the other [prime ministerial libraries].
Even some of the RMI’s architects are criticizing its partisan nature. Tom Harley, former director of the MRC, has suggested that the institute’s current board would be improved by a member with ties to the Labor Party.
University of Melbourne staff and students are now waging a dedicated campaign against the RMI. An open letter has garnered more than five hundred signatures. The University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) has also thrown its support behind the campaign, with a rally planned in August.
Opposition to the RMI is gaining momentum and attracting significant media coverage. Recent history shows that campaigns like this can win: in 2018, a coalition of staff and students successfully blocked plans to establish the Ramsay Centre at the Australian National University.
If Melbourne University staff and students can replicate this success, it won’t merely block the establishment of a resting house for failed Liberal politicians. It will also represent a much-needed victory for trade unionists and activists in higher education.