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Keating Blasts The Old Fogies Of The Liberal Party And The Cultural Cringe Of The 1950s

This is Prime Minister Paul Keating’s response to a question about the supposed “golden age” of the 1950s. It occurred in the House of Representatives on February 27, 1992.

The question permitted Keating to make one of his most vitriolic attacks on the Liberal Party, its founding leader, Sir Robert Menzies, and the cultural cringe.

Keating had been prime minister for just over two months, following his overthrow of Bob Hawke on December 19, 1991.

The Dorothy Dix question put to Keating was the tenth for the day and was asked by Daryl Melham, the first-term Labor member for the NSW seat of Banks. Melham held Banks until he was defeated in the 2013 federal election.

The “two Johns” Keating refers to are John Howard and John Hewson. Howard was the former leader of the party, defeated by Bob Hawke in the 1987 federal election and removed from the leadership by Andrew Peacock in a party-room coup in May 1989. Dr. Hewson had been Leader of the Opposition since 1990, taking over the party’s leadership following Andrew Peacock’s defeat in that year’s election.

The question was an important moment in defining the nature of Keating’s leadership. It helped set the tone for much of the political debate for the rest of the 1990s over issues such as the Republic.

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Hansard transcript of extract of Question Time in the House of Representatives on February 27, 1992.

Mr MELHAM —I direct my question to the Prime Minister. Is the Prime Minister aware of recent comments suggesting—

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The House will come to order.

Mr MELHAM —Is the Prime Minister aware of recent comments suggesting that the 1950s were a time of great advancement for Australia, a golden age for Australia? Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether it is the Government’s intention to pursue similar outcomes?

Mr KEATING —In the past week we have had one of those rare philosophic outbursts from the Opposition. We had some remarks from the Leader of the Opposition and the honourable member for Bennelong at a philosophical level which could not have made the differences between the Government and the Opposition clearer than they did. They started off with the Leader of the Opposition, with his back turned as usual, talking about, ‘I never learned respect at school’. You see, I should never have said in front of Her Majesty the Queen of Australia that Australia was now trading with the Asia-Pacific area. I should never have said that we have independence from Britain and Europe, as Britain joined the Common Market and as Australia trades now 70 to 80 per cent of its imports and exports with the Asia-Pacific area. I should never have made that remark about independence to the Queen of this continent. I should have had more respect. How dare I even reflect modestly on the old links with Britain, on the British bootstraps stuff? Of course we then had a flurry of comment by the honourable member for Bennelong about the 1950s and what a very good period that was—he said it was a very, very good period, a golden age. That was the period when gross domestic product per head was half what it is now; when commodities occupied 85 per cent of our exports; when telephones were half what they are now; when there were half as many cars per thousand people of population; when pensions were half their real value of today and when 10 children per 1,000 went to university instead of 30 per 1,000. That was the golden age when Australia stagnated. That was the golden age when Australia was injected with a near-lethal dose of fogeyism by the conservative parties opposite, when they put the country into neutral and where we very gently ground to a halt in the nowhere land of the early 1980s, with a dependency on commodities that would not pay for our imports.

That was the golden age when vast numbers of Australians never got a look in; when women did not get a look in and had no equal rights and no equal pay; when migrants were factory fodder; when Aborigines were excluded from the system; when we had these xenophobes running around about Britain and bootstraps; and that awful cultural cringe under Menzies which held us back for nearly a generation.

I said today at the Press Club that one of my colleagues, the Minister for Administrative Services, Senator Bolkus, has always been at the Cabinet about the future development of the old Parliament House and about whether it ought to be a constitutional museum or museum of Australian cultural history. We thought we could basically make the changes and put some of the cultural icons of the 1950s down there.

Mr Costello interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —I warn the honourable member for Higgins.

Mr KEATING —The Morphy Richards toaster, the Qualcast mower, a pair of heavily protected slippers, the Astor TV, the AWA radiogram. And, of course, the honourable member for Wentworth and the honourable member for Bennelong could go there as well. When the kids come and look at them they will say, ‘Gee, mum, is that what it was like then?’. And the two Johns can say, ‘No, kids. This is the future’. Back down the time tunnel to the future—there they are. I was told that I did not learn respect at school. I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia—not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination. This was the country that you people wedded yourself to, and even as it walked out on you and joined the Common Market, you were still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods, and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it. You would take Australia right back down the time tunnel to the cultural cringe where you have always come from. That is why your Fightback! document—

Opposition members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —Order! There is far too much noise. Honourable members on my left will cease interjecting. The honourable member for Dundas will cease interjecting. I think the honourable member for Bennelong is going to have a heart attack if his face goes any redder, so he might cease interjecting too. Honourable members on my right will cease interjecting.

Mr KEATING —These are the same old fogies who doffed their lids and tugged the forelock to the British establishment; they now try to grind down Australian kids by denying them a technical school education and want to put a tax on the back of the poor. The same old sterile ideology, the same old fogyism of the 1950s, that produced the Thatcherite policies of the late 1970s is going to produce Fightback. We will not have a bar of it. You can go back to the fifties to your nostalgia, your Menzies, the Caseys and the whole lot. They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture, and we will have no bar of you or your sterile ideology.

Honourable members interjecting—

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The House will come to order. Honourable members on my right will cease interjecting.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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