1991 - GEOFFREY BLAINEY

PROFESSOR GEOFFREY N. BLAINEY, A.O.

The son of the Reverend S.C. Blainey, he was born on 11th March, 1930. He was educated at Ballarat High School, Wesley College and the University of Melbourne.

He has held many posts of distinction, Chairman of the Australian Selection Committee for the Harkness Fellowships (1983-89), Professor at Harvard University (1982-83), Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne (1982-87), President of the Council of Queen's College (1971-89).

He was a member of the Economic History Department of the University of Melbourne from 1962, becoming Reader in 1963 and Professor of Economic History 1968-77. From 1977 until his early retirement in 1988 he was Ernest Scott Professor of History.

He has been a noted journalist and columnist, Chairman of the Australia China Council (1979-84), Member of the Australia Council (1977-81), Commissioner for the Australian Heritage Commission (1976-77), Vice-Chairman of the Australian Committee of Enquiry on Museums (1974-75), Member of the Victorian Public Records Council (1973-74), Chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council (1973-74), and Member (1967-73) and Chairman (1971-73) of the Advisory Board for the Commonwealth Literary Fund.

He has received many awards and distinctions including the Sir Ernest Scott Prize in 1955, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society 1963, The Captain Cook Bi-Centenary Literature Award in 1970. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia 1975, and he received the Britannica Award (NY) for Excellence in Disseminating Knowledge in 1988. He is a noted journalist, columnist and author.

His publications include: The Peaks of Lyell 1954, A Centenary History of The University of Melbourne 1957, Gold and Paper; A History of the National Bank of Australasia 1958, Mines in the Spinifex 1960, The Rush That Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining 1963, The Tyranny of Distance 1966, Across a Red World 1968, The Rise of Broken Hill 1968, The Steel Master 1971, The Causes of War 1973, Triumph of the Nomads 1975, A Land Half Won 1980, The Blainey View 1982, Our Side of the Country 1984, All for Australia 1984, Making History 1985, The Great Seesaw: A New View of the Western World 1988, A Game of our Own 1990.

The 1991 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture

Professor Geoffrey N. Blainey, A.O.

REFLECTIONS ON THE CURRENT STATE OF THE NATION

Mr Chairman, Members of the Menzies Family, Ladies and Gentlemen.

In 1949, after Mr Menzies - as he then was - had just won the federal election, he was approached by a young journalist. "Please sir," he said, "now that you have won, will you be answerable to the vested interest that supports you." To which Mr Menzies replied: "Young man, please leave my wife out of this." It is sad that the Vested Interest is not with us tonight, and we wish her a speedy recovery.

I did not know Sir Robert. I shook his hand - that's all. I was surprised to see, after his personal library had been donated to Melbourne University and placed in special cabinets, that three or four of my books were amongst the rank after rank of books. I felt honoured.

I often heard him speak on the radio, and saw him at election meetings in town halls in the late 1950s and 1960s. I first saw him as a boy at Wesley College when he returned to address his old school. He was the finest speaker I had heard - such eloquence, such timing, such a sense of the majesty of words, such a feeling for the occasion. There was a stately courtesy, which sometimes he even used when criticising opponents, though he was also capable of strong words delivered with mighty force. He had wit and a sense of fun: he could mock himself when the occasion called for it.

Like us all he had faults. He made mistakes as well as wise decisions. He made enemies as well as friends. But his achievements will live as long as the nation, as we know it, exists. And it will be a long time before another statesman rises again, as he rose triumphantly, from a time of political adversity.

It could be said with some safety that this was the most remarkable political career in the history of the Commonwealth. He was Prime Minister, in all, for twice as long as any other person. He held that high office when the nation was at war and in some peril. He returned again in peacetime, and led the nation during a long period when the average Australian - child, woman and man - gained a well-being not experienced before.

In his heyday, Sir Robert stood out like a giant in Australian public life. He stands out even more today. Indirectly that's my theme.

The 1980s were more prosperous for the western world than for us. Despite the boasts made in federal parliament, our economy did not perform very well by world standards. Our level of unemployment, even when tackled vigorously, was still high. Our inflation rate was dismaying, and in the years from 1983 to 1989 it was almost double that of the average industrial nation. In the 1980s, it is true, the working days lost through industrial disputes in Australia fell impressively but they fell even faster in most of those nations with which we like to be compared. We were in serious trouble before the present world downturn increased our plight.

IS THIS A DEPRESSION?

Australia is probably in its third worst predicament since 1850. Certainly, Australia suffered more from the depression of the 1890s, which was mainly self-inflicted. It also suffered severely in the world depression of the 1930s.

This is probably now a depression and not a recession. Most Australians know how serious it is but have been effectively restrained from using the word depression partly because economists have come to prefer the more technical, and for them, the more precise word, recession. For an economist to talk of a depression in Australia in 1991 is to imply that economics, their own profession, is not in full health. A depression, for an economist, is the equivalent of the collapse of the West Gate bridge for a civil engineer.

For sometime one of our leading economists, Dr Peter Jonson of Melbourne, has quietly called this a depression. He is right.

The Australian people have also been brainwashed by the success of the federal government's statistical propaganda. In recent years it has persuaded us - with a success that the Kremlin would envy - to accept one set of unemployment statistics rather than another. So we accept the Australian Bureau of Statistics and its ultra-cautious, eccentric definition whereby someone who works for an hour a week is not unemployed.

On the other hand we are not regularly given the different, more revealing statistics collected by the Commonwealth Employment Service. They are not available - I was informed today - unless I apply through Freedom of Information. We have heard of the "recession we had to have". But what about the statistics we mustn't have? Incidentally, the federal government, in other important matters, does not hesitate to ignore the Bureau of Statistics if its figures are politically unpalatable.

This is a depression, or perilously close to it, in the normal, sensible meaning of the word. And Australia's unemployment is much higher than the official 10 per cent - judging by the leaks of the well-guarded CES figures.

THE BORROWING SPREE

Why are we in a mess? We should mainly blame ourselves.

It is true that outsiders poured money into Australia. Some big Australian businessmen assisted them in the pouring and had a hearty drink while pouring. Many of those entrepreneurs are now drying out in the home for the financially intemperate.

The outside world was eager to lend to Australia. Mr Keating's brave deregulation of the financial system permitted it on a large scale and his taxation laws positively encouraged borrowing. The combination of tax rules and inflation also discouraged Australians from saving money. So they went on a borrowing binge in New York, London, Tokyo and many other cities.

Foreign banks - too many - were invited to Australia in 1984. When a government selects a big number of foreign banks and actually marches them into the country, saying "come now or never", this is not what I would call deregulation of the banking system. More new trading banks set up their plates in Australia in the space of a year than in the previous 80 years of Commonwealth history. This was an exciting and excitable phase in world banking, and in retrospect it was a misfortune that Australia decided just then to install a special high-speed credit line to the world's financial system.

In 1986 the Hawke government relaxed its restrictions on the purchase of real estate by foreigners and that helped to push up the prices of land and city property. Heavy immigration, fostered by the government, also boosted property prices. A nation with probably the fastest rate of population growth in the advanced world, a nation with booming cities, is attractive for property developers. Asset values in Australia jumped through the roof. We are now repairing the roof.

The federal government, several state governments and their banks, and important parts of the private sector all joined part of this spree. Australia borrowed too much and wasted too much of what it borrowed. For a few years, however, all Australians shared in the receipts. Mr Hawke was a special gainer in the short term, and at election time in 1987 he claimed the credit for all the jobs temporarily created by the borrowed money.

DEAFNESS IN CANBERRA.

Our standard of living was propped up by this borrowed money. Now our standard of living is falling partly because Australia is paying massive interest on this money.

The federal government, after feeling the pinch on the balance of payments in 1986, should have continuously tackled the problem. It failed. Mr Keating will go down in the history of the decade as the man who gave the loud warning cry of "Banana Republic". He will also go down in history as the man who took little notice of his own warning.

It is now clear that federal ministers at crucial stages were deaf to their own advisers. They sympathetically heard the whispered requests from lobby groups. They listened intently to the ACTU. Above all, they heard the pleas for the short-term concessions that would win votes for Labor - as each federal and even many of the state elections came near. But they did not listen often enough to their economic experts in the public service.

Canberra is no longer a success as federal capital. Created to solve problems, created especially to circumvent the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, Canberra is now itself a problem. It is an expanding oasis of prosperity presiding over a parched economy.

Canberra still has its quiet heroes. New evidence indicates that the key Departments of Treasury and Finance, the high civil servants in Canberra were not out of touch in the crucial years from say 1985 to 1990. Senator Walsh, now free to talk, recently listed important economic issues on which those departments gave sound advice. Unfortunately Mr Hawke and Mr Keating covered their ears and galloped off in a mistaken direction, dragging the nation with them.

The Hawke-Keating government made some constructive and courageous changes. But Mr Hawke rarely gave a big priority to Australia's overseas debt. It continues to rise.

Improvements in the export-import figures, while giving heart to the weary, are to be expected during a depression. My view is that the recent improvements are smaller than we are entitled to expect in an economic downturn of this magnitude. In football terms Australia has been kicking with a gale behind it during the last year. But only three goals instead of six are on the balance of payments scoreboard. We are still heading for defeat.

Accordingly I am critical of the timing of the policy, announced in March, that the protection of manufacturing in Australia will be almost dead in ten years' time. Lower tariffs will initially bring in more imports than we can pay for. The crisis in our balance of payments will be aggravated. In 1995 the federal government, whether Liberal or Labor, will probably have to restore or increase some of the import duties. By then, hundreds of our factories will be closed and their machines, shipped away, will be working 24 hours a day in south-east Asia. Other nations will have the factories: we will have the unemployed.

Some observers are still inclined to compare this year with the recession of 1982-83. The two events - and both had a harsh rural component - can no longer be compared. Those State premiers and those Canberra ministers who are imploring the federal government to create jobs on the big scale are living in a canary cage. They imagine that they have only to chirp, and the birdseed will arrive.

Back in 1983 it was possible to create jobs with ease, indeed too much ease. Today with our heavy overseas debts, the governments cannot create jobs on a similar scale without increasing those debts. To some extent the nation is now trapped. Far fewer jobs can be created than in 1983. It is about time the public was told the truth.

THE NEW ENEMIES OF PROSPERITY

The financial boom, the heavy overseas borrowing, the disaster of the State Bank of Victoria and other finance houses, might not have been unduly damaging if the export industries had been encouraged. We needed more and more experts as the 1980s went on. We did not create them. In the hard competitive world we were the "wimps".

If only a larger sum of the borrowed money had gone into worthwhile projects, hundreds of thousands of Australians would not be unemployed today.

Since the end of the Second World War most of the nation's leaders, state and federal, knew that the Australian economy had to pay its way into the world. Thus, from 1945 to say 1965, some 20 years, enormous energy went into building new factories, refineries and workshops. They were the Chifley years but overwhelmingly the Menzies years. The Holden Car, the Kwinana oil refinery, clothing from Holeproof and Fletcher Jones, the Snowy Mountains hydro-electricity and a hundred other Australian-made products came from those 20 years of effort. Many of the new products were too costly but the nation achieved an enormous saving in imports.

In the next fifteen years, roughly from 1965 to 1980, mighty effort went into finding and developing mineral deposits. In that period Australia boosted its exports dramatically. Then came the 1980s. The Hawke-Keating government did not sufficiently realise that a nation with a fast-growing population must greatly boost its exports or restrain its imports.

One cause of their failure to export successfully was the influence of pressure groups. Whereas the light greens believe in job creation, and call for a balance between conservation and economic development, the dark greens do not. The dark greens oppose the expansion of our major exports at a time when we desperately need exports. Mr Hawke is too often captive of the dark greens. The man who as president of the ACTU normally tried to guard the jobs of Australian workers has unknowingly become a destroyer of jobs on the large scale.

The implications of these lobby groups must be understood. The dark greens are opposed to nearly all the major outback projects which could increase our exports in the 1990s. Greenpeace was even retarding the search for oil offshore at a time when a major oil discovery could revolutionise our balance of payments. When an American group sabotages efforts to improve our economy, it should be strongly rebuked by the Prime Minister.

Mr Hawke rightly protests, with force, when the US government unfairly competes with our rural products in overseas lands. His is dumb when Australian green groups on his home-ground do at least as much damage to our potential exports.

Likewise the ethnic lobby with its clamour for endless family reunion is really increasing our overseas debt. This is the first time in Australian history that immigration has been positively discouraged during a depression. Our hospitals are short of money, and yet huge sums are devoted to providing social security for the migrants pouring into Australia. Of the adult migrants who have arrived since Christmas two years ago, about 36 per cent are unemployed. This is economic lunacy. By these standards, Mrs Kirner's $200,000 Football Cup, announced this week, is a mere tear-drop in the national ocean of extravagance.

Likewise the Aboriginal holders of lands are generally opposed to the economic development of their resources. I have sympathy for their stand but the economic implications for the nation are serious - especially a nation which desperately needs more exports.

The wise policy for Mr Hawke, in reviewing Coronation Hill, would have been to ask the nation's Aboriginal leaders whether the religious significance of the site was such that they would gladly sacrifice tens of millions of additional federal money - money for Aboriginal health and education - rather than desecrate the site. They would probably give this answer: our people need the money more than they need the site.

If the economy declines, Aboriginals will ultimately become major sufferers. No group in Australia at present depends so much on government help. An impoverished Australia will hurt Aboriginals more than any other group. Aboriginals' claims have to be balanced against the legitimate interests of the nation as a whole. Canberra has ceased to think or speak for the nation as a whole.

Never before in Australian history have the enemies of prosperity been so powerful. Not since Australia was a gaol have the main export industries been so loaded with obstacles by an Australian government. Is it wise to complain so much about the aggressive trading tactics of other nations, or to complain of the economic inroads by the Japanese investors, when we don't help ourselves? It is tragic to see a once-prosperous nation, economically mutilating itself.

Australia needs leadership. My reading of history tells me that this is one of the gravest leadership crises in Australia since the Commonwealth was founded. Moreover the feud between Mr Hawke and Mr Keating will not go away. Economically it is more dislocating than the constitutional crisis of 1975.

Every now and then a nation must examine its compass. Australians must realise that, almost without their knowing it, their ship has slowly drifted with the current. Now it is far off course and close to a dangerous coast. The great risk is that we will shut our eyes and hope that the dangerous coast simply vanishes. The coast will not vanish: it is easier to move the ship.

A SURFEIT OF GOVERNMENTS.

Henry the First was said to have died from a surfeit of lampreys. A lamprey is an eel-what the Concise Oxford Dictionary calls "a pseudo-fish with a sucker mouth". Today we are said to be suffering economically because we have a surfeit of governments, each with a voracious sucker-mouth. "We are the most governed country in the world," exclaim many observers. Obviously they have not been to China or the old East Germany, but I know what they loosely mean. We have a small army-almost an occupying army - of federal, state and municipal politicians and all the costly administrations that support the three tiers of government.

It is true that some of the nation's economic obstacles cannot easily be removed because in a federation the legislative track towards removing them is so complicated. In contrast, New Zealand has triumphantly pushed aside many of its traditional obstacles because it has no state governments and indeed no upper house to retard reform. The Labor government in New Zealand felt a sense of urgency because eight years ago that nation's difficulties were even more acute than are ours today. If we had a sense of urgency we would remove obstacles with speed.

It is wishful thinking to ask Australia to adopt a simpler method of government. Australia is a federation because of unalterable facts. The federal system, for all its weaknesses, is the ideal compromise for a democratic nation occupying a vast area of territory. Under a federation the states remote from the central seat of government and conscious of their remoteness-or of the capital city's remoteness-can govern themselves in many important matters. The United States, Canada, and India are federations for the same reason: even the vast Soviet Union in its own way was-until yesterday-a kind of federation.

THE THREE-BALL GAME

Our three-tier system, our three-ball game, will be here for a long time to come. Our failure is that we are not playing that game as well as Australians played it thirty years ago. Today, we are paying a pretty high price for our incompetence in juggling the three balls, and certainly Mr Hawke now realises this.

What are our errors? Firstly it was a mistake to accept Mr Whitlam's decision to initiate the central funding of local government. His aim was to build up local government, the third tier, in the hope of weakening the second tier, namely state government. His bid failed. Now local government itself has become a busy lobby in its own right. In the depths of suburbia and the shallows of the Five Mile Creek are municipal councillors who, while opposing the powers of central government in almost everything, want it to supply even more funds to local government. Even the humblest shire-hall shelters its empire builders who believe in strengthening the third tier of government.

A second weakness is that we Australians have come to tolerate many activities where the three kinds of governments are unnecessarily duplicated. All three forms of government are now busy in social services, something unimaginable 30 years ago. They overlap and duplicate in higher education, the arts, transport, as well as a host of activities where the creators of our constitution envisaged that there should be no duplication. Even in external affairs, and I can hardly credit this, some state governments adopt their own policy - look at Victoria's refusal to allow certain ships of our main ally to enter its main port. I offer no comment on our municipal kingdoms which claim power in external affairs by proclaiming that they are nuclear-free zones.

Some duplication is inevitable and some is perfectly justifiable, but the bureaucratic cost of the present degree of duplication is high.

The main way in which our economy seems to suffer from the present federal system is that the nation as a whole cannot fight the balance of payments problem. I have not heard this point discussed, but it is now vital. We urgently need more exports, and most of the big new export projects require a green light from states because they involve such state responsibilities as minerals and forests and crown lands. The state governments, however, often refuse to aid exports. During a major crisis in the balance of payments, the states have a role more powerful perhaps than that of the Commonwealth in fostering export projects.

In previous depressions every state government made the fostering of exports their prime goal. This is the first crisis in the balance of payments, the first debt crisis, when some states positively block major export projects. They serve as fifth columnists, and yet receive little criticism.

Victoria under Mr Cain was a prime example. Tasmania, resting in the palm of the hands of the five independent greens, is now an obstructionist. Even Western Australia under Dr Lawrence became a blocker of export projects though she now appears to understand the economic imperatives. Often there is a valid case for preserving or enhancing the environment, but when the dark greens carry that case too far-and they do-they indirectly cripple the nation.

If Mr Hawke had achieved a big increase in exports, and at present our main exports are in natural resources, the indirect effect on the whole economy would be dynamic. Perhaps 400,000 more Australians would be in work today. We now wear a dunce's hat which our ancestors would not dream of wearing.

As a nation we seem to believe in the inefficient projects that employ hundreds of thousands of people and create little wealth. But the real winners are the highly efficient export projects that employ few people but create mammoth wealth. The dark greens have been allowed by sympathetic governments to sabotage the expansion of our few wealth-creating industries. Where is the greens' alternative path to national prosperity? They wave their hands in the air. They are silent or incomprehensible.

The green crusade has often been constructive, it still has so much to offer. But it has become one of the most destructive movements this nation has seen. Without directly criticising this now-reckless movement, Mr Hawke has begun, almost too late, to recognise the damage done. His suggestion of a fast track for important national projects is a confession that for some years the snail-like track, or no track, has been normal.

These may sound like harsh words but they are carefully chosen. If Japan placed against her main exports the same impediments which our federal and state governments now place against the expansion of our main export, Japan would not be an economic dynamo today. If West Germany since the end of World War Two had shunned promising export projects as piously as we now shun ours, it would be the Albania of Europe, with its main tourist attraction the wartime rubble not fully cleared away.

Here we are, in economic trouble, urgently needing exports both to revive the economy and repay our debts, and yet allowing governments to sabotage the main sources of new exports.

Now you may say-here is another fault of the federal system. But most of the states and the Commonwealth too have engineered this result. They would have done the same with even more ease if Australia possessed only one parliament house. The fault is easily remediable within the existing federal system.

One remedy lies with the Commonwealth Grants Commission. It was set up in 1933, during the world depression, to advise Canberra on subsidies which might be paid to those states which were economically disadvantaged by their own misfortunes of geography and history. To be more specific it was set up primarily to counter the strong WA movement to secede from the Commonwealth; and WA along with SA and Tasmania was one of its three regular supplicants. The Grants Commission was and is a sensible device for compensating and consoling the unhappy states suffering partly from acts of God. But it was not thought for one moment that a year would come when a state's economy would suffer from deliberately self-inflicted wounds.

It would be legitimate for the Commonwealth Grants Commission to have the additional task, in lean economic years, of recommending the subtraction of federal payments from those states which prevent major export projects from rising in a time of national emergency. If that policy had been adopted in 1986, the nation would not be in such a parlous position today.

In essence the federal system is not primarily at fault: it is the way we work it and the pressure we impose on it. Part of the duplication arose in a period of long prosperity, or when the prosperity itself was fading. Likewise the reluctance of the Hawke-Keating government to penalise those state governments which were sabotaging the export sector is understandable because the saboteurs-call them visionaries if you wish-were so influential within the Labor movement. If a Liberal government should win the next federal election, and if Labor should continue to control say half of the states, then the Liberals might well have to reward state governments which foster exports or foster substitutions for imports. Similarly Canberra might have to penalise those states which, by shunning export projects, wilfully imperil national solvency and also increase their own demands-and those of their unemployed citizens-for special Commonwealth grants.

AN ALTERNATIVE GOVERNMENT

May I turn to a related issue. Many of our economic difficulties have been accentuated by the policies and preferences of the governments in power, both in Canberra and the states. Australians, faced with a fair choice, elected those Labor governments, and re-elected them.

Would Australia's economy have gained if the Liberals and Nationals had succeeded in say half of the elections in the period 1983 to 1991-in short would they have promoted a safer economy? I think they would probably have avoided several of the worst traps, but this is hypothetical because they could not persuade the public even once to give them a majority in most of the parliaments, let alone re-elect them.

The last decade is the worst period in the long history of the Liberals and the Coalition. Not before have they lost such a high proportion of the federal and state elections over a ten-year span. The Coalition parties' other disastrous period, electorally, was between 1941 and 1949 when they did not hold power in Canberra and-for six of those eight years-held power in only two states. Indeed for the two years 1945 to 1947 the Coalition's only seat of power was South Australia, Sir Thomas Playford's domain.

As an outsider, may I briefly ask: why was the Coalition so unsuccessful? The true answer, whatever it is, will consist of many factors-some minor and some major. Labor certainly gained because, with a revamped party organisation, it recruited parliamentary talent in the 1970s and later. Labor also gained electorally because its new-look party began its run of successes in the early 1980s at just the right time-when the world economy after a time of high unemployment and soaring inflation was entering a new era of prosperity.

Labor also won many elections because, jettisoning some of its cherished dogma, it became much more a middle-road party and drove down the centre of the double-white lines of politics, just as the successful Liberal governments of the past had driven. Labor's abandoning of its Bill of Rights-an infamous document that could have cost it a federal election-was a sign of circumspection. In addition Mr Bob Hawke, no matter what you think of him, is a skilled politician, a clever master of the competing Labor factions, a charming wooer of the various lobbies. While skilfully pursuing votes, however, he neglected the nation as a whole.

For their part the Liberals suffered because-until Mr Hawke's victory in 1983-they had been successful for so long, especially in federal politics. Success is a source of quiet corrosion and complacency. Severe defeat exacts its price quickly and conspicuously: great success exacts its price slowly and insidiously. The Liberals also suffered electorally because in a rapidly-changing era, when new and unfamiliar issues quickly replaced the old, they were not sure of their bearings. What did they believe in? In several major election campaigns, state and federal, they gave little sign of believing strongly in anything-except the need to win. Hence they advertised a showbag full of trinkets rather similar to Labor's showbags. Admittedly there were leading Liberals who did hold distinct priorities and values and still hold them.

In economic policy the Liberals were also divided between the so-called Wets and Drys. That division has obviously been solved amongst the federal Liberals. Now the Labor Party itself is split, partly on economic grounds. It is the Liberal Party which has the realisation that Australia is floundering in deep water and that a rescue operation must be mounted. That is why its electoral support is rising.

Sir Robert Menzies' second period as Prime Minister offers a lesson. He enjoyed unprecedented electoral success, partly because he was somebody. People knew what he believed in, and roughly where his priorities lay. He enjoyed an unparalleled term of federal success for an additional reason: he somehow managed to find a balance between two important roles. Firstly he handed out to the electorate such concessions, gifts and challenges as the nation could normally afford. Secondly he so governed that in the normal year the nation's wealth steadily increased. Thus the legitimate public calls on his government for help were fewer than they would otherwise have been.

Mr Hawke was less careful in following those roles. Heavy overseas borrowing and initially the creation of credit enabled his government to evade the rules, but ultimately at a price. He was not primarily interested in the creation of national wealth. Maybe his heart was still in the ACTU, where the emphasis was more on seizing a larger slice of the existing cake than in busily helping to bake a larger cake which all could eat.

In essence, it was Menzies' gift to preside over increasing prosperity for all Australians. It was Hawke's gift to give the impression that he was presiding over increasing prosperity for all Australians, when in fact he was not.

Commentary on Geoffrey Blainey's 1991 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture
by John Stone.

John Stone, was educated at Perth Modern School, the University of Western Australia (BSc.Hons) and as Rhodes Scholar for Western Australia, at New College, Oxford (BA Hons). He worked for the Australian Treasury for 30 years, and in 1979 became Secretary to the Treasury. He resigned in 1984 and has since held many posts, including Senator for Queensland and Leader of the National Party in the Senate, and Professor at Monash University. He is greatly respected as a writer and commentator.

Re-reading today Geoffrey Blainey's 1991 Menzies Lecture, three aspects strike one in particular, namely:
First, the felicity of expression so generally prevalent in Blainey's writings.
Second, consistent with the Lecture's aims, it "gives expression to another viewpoint (at the time) in public life".
Third, and today remarkably of interest, it foreshadows, both in its (largely wrong) economic judgments and in its (largely right) "cultural" ones, much of what we have recently come to describe as "Hansonism" - albeit much better, and more civilly, expressed than that lady's comparable pronouncements.

Within this brief compass, I shall not dwell on my first point: two examples only must suffice. Thus, remarking on the great inflation of the 1980s, when the then Reserve Bank management effectively went to sleep at the monetary policy wheel, Blainey remarks: "Asset values in Australia jumped through the roof. We are now repairing the roof". Or again, describing those State Premiers calling on the federal government to create jobs as "living in a canary cage": "They imagine that they only have to chirp, and the birdseed will arrive".

This (and other such) is lovely stuff : and, apropos my second point, all the more arresting in 1991 because Blainey, in his characteristically courageous way, was giving remarkably biting (though always civil) expression to a viewpoint then rarely voiced publicly - namely, that the then Hawke Government had failed the country badly.

Today, of course, many would agree with him; but, as one of those who, at the time, was doing so, I can personally testify that his was then a rather lonely voice in that regard.

Thirdly, and as a forerunner of more recent insights, the Lecture is at its best in remarking on "the influence of new pressure groups" as a major reason for Australia's relative decline. The "dark greens", the "ethnic lobby with its clamor for endless family reunion", and the "Aboriginal holders of lands [who] are generally opposed to the economic development of their resources", are each in turn held up to answer for their roles in that decline.

At a time when even to question one of those interest groups was to invite the most violent public opprobrium (or worse), Blainey was pointing out that, for example, "of the adult migrants who have arrived since Christmas two years ago, about 36 per cent are unemployed". Canberra, he said, "has ceased to think or speak for the nation as a whole".

That third point, then, leads to a final question: to what extent, given Pauline Hanson's recent personal electoral failure, and the even clearer decline in her party's general fortunes, do the views expressed by Blainey seven years ago continue to have potential force politically?

Personally, I believe they do; but to transform that potential into reality would require leadership - the lack of which has certainly not been remedied since Blainey deplored its absence seven years ago. But then, by contrast with both then and now, "people knew what he [Menzies] believed in...."

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