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On remembering the forgotten

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In his initial speech as leader of the Liberal Party Peter Dutton committed himself to care for the forgotten voters. These are small business owners and voters in outer suburbs. They were contrasted with Big Business. The reference to the forgotten suggested a change from the priorities of the previous government in which Dutton had been a leader. It was also an act of remembering. It echoed a foundation document of the Liberal Party: Robert Menzies’ speech after an electoral defeat in 1942. The political shift from Menzies to Dutton and the deep cultural resonances of forgetting and remembering associated with it merit reflection.   

Remembering and the fear of being forgotten touch deep places in the human psyche. Never Forgotten, Always Remembered and similar phrases appear frequently on gravestones. Monuments to the Unknown Soldier both bring out the pathos attaching to names that are lost and enact a vicarious remembering. In the Middle Eastern Biblical books and the Greek literature central to Western culture the desire to leave a lasting name and the fear of being forgotten are prominent themes. The climactic scene in Luke’s Gospel presents the plea of a bandit crucified with Jesus to ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’ and Jesus’ response: ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’  The scene was politically subversive. For the Romans the beating, scourging and nailing to a plank of wood of naked human beings was designed precisely to destroy their memory as persons and its influence. It was an act of forced forgetting. Jesus promised a remembering that defied Roman power and human fear. It represented the resurrection of the forgotten.

One of the most engaging BBC crime series in recent years has been Unforgotten, in which the discovery of human remains led police to investigate murders that had occurred many years ago. Their investigations were an unforgetting, and so a reverencing, of persons who had disappeared from memory. The pathos of the investigations lay in their effects on people connected with the murders who had suppressed the memory of their actions and who were now forced to deal with its effects on their lives. Remembering does not simply restore but also recasts relationships. It looks backwards and forwards.

I doubt that Peter Dutton had any of these subtleties in mind when he appealed to forgotten Australian voters. But he was certainly looking back. Robert Menzies also spoke of forgotten people shortly after an election loss to point the way forward for the new party. The phrase was central to a re-imagining of Australian society in a way that placed the forgotten people in the middle with big business and his political opponents at the poles. In his view the Labor Party saw Australia as marked by a simple duality between the wealthy big business and the poor, between Capital and manual workers. Menzies portrayed both groups as well provided for: the former by wealth and the latter by the strength of unions. The group excluded in this schema were the Middle Class of professionals, mind workers, people in small business etc. These were the forgotten people who were the soul of Australia – self-motivated, educational achievers, entrepreneurial, frugal, family-centred, with simple aspirations to own their family home, and high traditional values. Menzies’ rhetoric mirrored Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic paintings of United States suburbia. They were the deserving, the future on which a prosperous and decent Australia must be built. In another resonant phrase, they were the lifters as opposed to the leaners.


'Since the capture of both major parties by neo-liberal economic assumptions and by reliance on big business to provide services, the Liberal Party has become the Party of Big Business and has contributed to the redistribution of wealth to the very wealthy.'


In his speech Menzies decried the class conflict, which he claimed was endorsed by the Labor Party, between the upper class and working class, but did so by fostering a new tension between both groups and the Middle Class. In calling them the forgotten Australians he enabled everyone who felt themselves disadvantaged in society relative to others to feel resentment at their exclusion.

The effect of the speech was also to remove from memory other groups of forgotten Australians, including the unemployed, the mentally and physically ill, the homeless, the single mothers and children, prisoners, who lacked opportunities for education. One paragraph of the speech suggests that Menzies had little personal acquaintance with these groups or sympathy for them. Speaking of his experience in public life from the beginning of the 1930s, a period which included the unemployment, humiliation and penury of the Depression, he says,

In that period I cannot readily recall many occasions upon which any policy was pursued which was designed to help the thrifty, to encourage independence, to recognise the divine and valuable variations of men's minds. On the contrary, there have been many instances in which the votes of the thriftless have been used to defeat the thrifty. On occasions of emergency, as in the depression and during the present war, we have hastened to make it clear that the provision made by man for his own retirement and old age is not half as sacrosanct as the provision the State would have made for him if he had never saved at all.

This is not to condemn Menzies’ speech, which endorses high values and offers a potentially inclusive vision of society. But in remembering one group of virtuous Australians as forgotten he appealed to resentment that would inevitably encourage them to forget other groups of Australians depicted as less virtuous. In decrying hostility based on class he left the way open for other forms of hostility based on race, religion or gender against people who, in John Howard’s phrase, were not like us.

This is the background of Peter Dutton’s turn to the forgotten voters, comprising small business people and the people in the outer suburbs. He distinguishes them from big business and from people in the inner suburbs. If this echoes Menzies’ pitch in implicitly forgetting other groups such as civil servants and people in inner suburbs and rural areas, there are significant differences. Menzies spoke of forgotten people, Dutton of forgotten voters. Menzies made an ethical and cultural claim for his forgotten people, grounding it in the values seen to represent the best of Australia. Dutton does not. His distinction is based in geography and in occupation. It does so without being clothed in values.

That of course does not mean that his vision is lacking in values nor that in future speeches he will not develop them. In that development it will be particularly interesting to see what weight he gives to Menzies’ dissociation of the Party from big business. Since the capture of both major parties by neo-liberal economic assumptions and by reliance on big business to provide services, the Liberal Party has become the Party of Big Business and has contributed to the redistribution of wealth to the very wealthy. In comparison to the Menzies era workers, who have grown exponentially in service industries, have lost protections against exploitation and the bargaining power once conferred by unions.

This has increased the number of people who will be forgotten. As under Menzies they will include those who can’t vote, people who seek protection, are unemployed, prisoners, people who seek protection, those who can be deprived of permanent visas, for some. But they will be joined by university teachers, civil servants, part time workers, health workers and the mentally ill who congregate near the cities. Their numbers will grow unless the systems of taxation, regulation of big business, protection of workers and of the unemployed are adjusted. Policies must be directed to shaping a more equal society in which wealth and power are more evenly distributed.

Such measures, of course, will be opposed by Big Business and those who benefit from the present economic and policy settings. The choice facing Peter Dutton’s Liberal Party will then lie between remembering the forgotten and forgetting the memory of Menzies’ ideal society.





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Peter Dutton ahead of a press conference at Parliament House. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, AusPol, Menzies, Peter Dutton, LNP, Forgotten People



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Existing comments

Vindictiveness is the old Dutton.

Jan Wright | 10 June 2022  

Many great empires have crumbled in the dust, just like the statue of the once mighty Ozymandias and all his works in the Shelley poem of the same name. Jesus was very emphatic that he was not a worldly Messiah but had come to reestablish his Father's kingdom in full measure. Particularly at the Crucifixion, this seemed nonsense. The Romans probably thought they had seen an end to it. Christian Civilisation - with all its faults - arose on the ruins of Rome. The last great party for Elizabeth II may be the swansong not just of the former Empire, but of England. We live in tumultous times. I think it is often forgotten that the late Sir Robert Menzies came from a small business background and was also strongly affected by his Methodist religion and education. He was, I believe, affected by Christianity in many ways. Peter Dutton is, I believe, Catholic. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve. A merely materialistic Australia will crumble in the dust. Many Australian values, like mateship, are a secularised form of Christian Love. Without deep spiritual roots, this nation will perish I am certain.

Edward Fido | 10 June 2022  

Why is the leader of the senior party of the Coalition still in the news after it lost the election? Is it because the media are still fighting the Coalition? There’s no need for a new Opposition to start constructing an identity this soon. There’s plenty of time until the next election to do that by pointing out the holes in the government, which, of course, can’t start to appear until the government starts governing, which it hasn’t yet.

There’s probably a very simple reason. It’s too cold for the reporters to go on holidays and they have to gnaw at something to be seen to be doing something to deserve their wages. And if they can’t go on holidays, neither can Dutton even if he really doesn’t have anything, not even a hose, to talk about.

We should return federal elections to December when we can get back to not talking until there is something to talk about, starting with the first sittings in March.

roy chen yee | 10 June 2022  

As always a very thoughtful piece. One aspect that your essay didn't have space to cover is union membership. When Menzies gave his speech, union membership was nearing its zenith (peaking at 64.9% of the entire workforce in 1948) - it is a rump of that number these days.

Robert McCahill | 14 June 2022  

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