Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tenancy culture studies: Robert Menzies' 'The Forgotten People' (part 1)

While we've been observing the centenary of the New South Wales public housing system, another important anniversary passed us by: the 70th anniversary of the broadcast of Robert Menzies' seminal radio speech, 'The Forgotten People'. As far as we can tell, this anniversary also went unobserved in the media – forgotten, as it were – which is a shame, because the speech is one of the founding texts of a major political party and a significant piece of Australian political history and culture. (There are echoes of it in the speech delivered by current Liberal leader Tony Abbot to last week's Federal Council, but no express acknowledgement of the anniversary.)

(Robert Menzies)

The historian Judith Brett published a comprehensive critique of 'The Forgotten People' twenty years ago; we'll not attempt anything like a replication of her work here. For our own purposes, over this and a second post we'll consider the significance of 'The Forgotten People' in narrower terms – those of housing. The speech presents a number of points from which to reflect on housing policy, both during Menzies' prime ministership and now.  


On 22 May, 1942, Robert Gordon Menzies delivered 'The Forgotten People' as one in a series of radio speeches for broadcaster 2UE. It was not a great time for Menzies. Previously, things had gone very well for the golden boy from Jeparit, in country Victoria. While still in his twenties, Menzies made constitutional law as counsel in the Engineers Case; in his thirties, he commenced his parliamentary career (first with the Nationalists in the Victorian Parliament, then with the United Australia Party in the Federal Parliament), rising swiftly to the office of Attorney-General (1934); at the age of 44 he was Prime Minister of Australia (1939).

Things started going wrong after the 1940 election, when the UAP was returned with a minority government. In August 1941, bitter at disarray in his own party and in its coalition with the Country Party, Menzies resigned as Prime Minister. The government (under a Country Party Prime Minister) fell seven weeks later, replaced by John Curtin's Labor Party. With the UAP preferring a Country Party Opposition Leader to Menzies, he resigned the party leadership.

So in 1942, Menzies really was starting over. (He'd go on, of course, to found in 1944 the Liberal Party of Australia, win government again in 1949, and serve as Prime Minister again, and again and again and again, until 1965). And as he looked to restart the parliamentary organisation of the interests of property and enterprise, and restart his own career, 'The Forgotten People' is what he had to say, particularly to define and create a constituency.

Here's how he begins (we'll let Menzies do the talking, not least so you get a feel for the language and tone of the speech):

Quite recently, a bishop wrote a letter to a great daily newspaper. His theme was the importance of doing justice to the workers. His belief, apparently, was that the workers are those who work with their hands. He sought to divide the people of Australia into classes. He was obviously suffering from what has for years seemed to me to be our greatest political disease - the disease of thinking that the community is divided into the rich and relatively idle, and the laborious poor, and that every social and political controversy can be resolved into the question: What side are you on?

Now, the last thing that I want to do is to commence or take part in a false war of this kind. In a country like Australia the class war must always be a false war. 

But – there is a 'but':

But if we are to talk of classes, then the time has come to say something of the forgotten class - the middle class - those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false class war; the middle class who, properly regarded, represent the backbone of this country.

Menzies defines this middle class first by exclusion: it does not include 'the rich and powerful, those who control great funds and enterprises' (says Menzies, 'the rich can look after themselves'); nor does it include 'the mass of unskilled people, almost invariably well-organized, and with their wages and conditions protected by popular law'. Then he gives examples: those of the middle class are 'salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers, and so on' ('the kind of people I myself represent in Parliament'). But to really define and characterise the Forgotten People, Menzies employs a powerful metaphor: that of 'homes'.

The middle class 'has responsibility for homes - homes material, homes human, homes spiritual.' Says Menzies:

I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of organized masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.
As Brett observes, there's a bit of a slip here, as it appears that Menzies is about to give us a three-part class scheme described in terms of housing, but when he gets to the workers, he refers instead to their 'officialdom', not their housing. Brett says 'it is as if the working class do not also have wives and homes and children; or rather, in as much as they do have them, they are invited to see themselves as middle class.'
This is Menzies' unspoken project in 'The Forgotten People': to open up the domestic sphere to politics, and set a conservative liberal agenda there.

Menzies works on that agenda as he goes on to elaborate what he means by 'homes material, homes human and homes spiritual'. His themes run across the headings, but like Menzies we'll consider each in turn. First, 'homes material':

The material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving "for a home of our own". Your advanced socialist may rage against private property even while he acquires it; but 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.

If you consider it, you will see that if, as in the old saying, "the Englishman’s home is his castle", it is this very fact that leads on to the conclusion that he who seeks to violate that law by violating the soil of England must be repelled and defeated.

National patriotism, in other words, inevitably springs from the instinct to defend and preserve our own homes.

We won't spend too long dealing with Menzies' connection of home ownership to patriotism, which we think is specious: after all, at the time of his speech, about half of Australian households rented and we're inclined to think (though we have no figure on this) that the typically young males enlisted in the armed services were less likely to be home owners than tenants or occupants of the parental home. For very many servicemen, home ownership came after their service, through the assistance of the War Service Homes scheme. More on that in a second.

We take the main point here to be that for Menzies, the material home should be one that is saved for, acquired and owned by the individual as their private property. Home ownership is one of our 'best instincts', says Menzies - and later, when in government, his housing policy would support and reinforce that instinct.

As we've observed previously, state support for home ownership was a feature of social liberal government since the turn of the century, preferred over public housing even by progressives. Australia's largest state program of direct assistance for home ownership was the War Service Homes scheme – not conceived by Menzies, but continued by him. Commenced in 1919, the scheme financed the construction of 310 000 dwellings to 1970 – 265 000 of them in the period after 1945. The scheme lent ex-servicemen funds for housing on very generous terms (in 1971, the interest rate was 3.75 per cent, over 45 years).

The distinctive contribution of the Menzies Government to support for home ownership came in through its changes to the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement (CSHA).

The first CSHA, commencing 1945, had inaugurated Commonwealth funding of State public housing authorities and, relatively speaking, hugely increased their share both of house building – in New South Wales, the Housing Commission built on average about 18 per cent of dwellings completed in the decade from 1945 – and of the total housing stock – in New South Wales, from a mere 0.2 per cent in 1945, to 3 per cent in 1954.

The 1956 CSHA, on the other hand, diverted 30 per cent of Commonwealth funds to co-operative building societies, permanent building societies and, in some cases, state banks, to subsidise finance for home ownership. In the subsequent decade, public housing's average share of completions declined by a similar proportion (in New South Wales, to about 12.5 per cent).

Moreover, public housing authorities also could sell much more of what they built – something Menzies and the State Premiers had been looking forward to for some time. (After a conference with the premiers in 1953, Menzies is reported to have said 'I do not want to see a state of affairs in Australia – and I am glad to gather that the premiers do not – in which governments are the universal landlords. I think that is a shocking position for governments to get into.') In 1956-57, the NSW Housing Commission built 3030 dwellings – and sold 3197. By 1969, the Commission would end up selling one-third of all the dwellings it had ever built (that is, 32 193 dwellings sold from 93 817 built to that date).

From our experience of talking with people about housing, the historical role of public housing in facilitating home ownership in Australia is not much remembered these days. One wonders how many of the present generation of politicians and policy makers who have run down public housing, have parents who bought their first home from the Housing Commission.

Back to 'homes human and spiritual' in part 2.

1 comment:

  1. About the anniversary: it was not altogether forgotten. NSW MP Scot MacDonald remembered:


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