Tony Abbott’s forgotten families

- First published in the Australian on 13 May 2011

In his budget reply last night, opposition leader Tony Abbott made two mentions of Australia’s “forgotten families”.

It was an obvious reference to Robert Menzies’ “forgotten people” speech. Kevin Rudd, when in opposition, also referred to the “forgotten people”.

The forgotten people speech was delivered on radio in 1942, when Menzies was a former prime minister and ex-United Australia Party leader.

The following year the Labor government under John Curtin won a landslide, with a two party preferred vote in the very high 50s and 66 percent of House of Representatives seats.

After that election Menzies returned to opposition leadership, creating from the ashes of the UAP the new “Liberal Party”. He lost the 1946 election but finally won in 1949.

Menzies then became Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, retiring on Australia Day 1966. (His successor, Harold Holt, then went on to record the Coalition’s biggest win.)

We really only remember the “forgotten people” because Menzies chose it as the title of a compilation of his 1942 radio speeches.

Academics and journalists love it because it contains the essence of the “secret” to his success. (They adore the bogus “Howard’s battlers” for the same reason.)

The Liberal Party under Menzies, like any successful party in this country, won and kept office largely by getting and retaining the support of the uninterested-in-politics middle class. Like most people, they can be encouraged to believe they’re being neglected.

But let’s face it, if he’d never made that speech nothing much would have happened differently.

When this sort of mythology starts creeping into politicians’ public statements, you have to wonder who they’re saying it for. It’s like Julia Gillard’s “game on” when becoming prime minister last June.

Who is the audience? The political class: politicians, academics and journalists, presumably. It’s about creating “momentum” or something like that. As if making people in the beltway believe something will make it come true.

But if “forgotten people” was an effective line for Menzies, it took seven years to come to fruition. In between was the conservative parties’ biggest federal loss ever.

One thing’s for sure: Tony won’t still be opposition leader in seven years.

Myths have their uses, but they’re not to be taken literally. You wouldn’t design a battle plan based on the Gallipolli myth.

“Forgotten people” is a myth best left to the storytellers.