Rediscovering our moral compass through Menzies

This piece was first published in the Sun Herald today.


The day after Mark Latham was elected ALP leader by a whisker, I had a coffee with a Liberal MP stunned by his �ladder of opportunity� victory speech. �We�re in trouble,� he said. �Latham has updated Menzies� forgotten people.�

Robert Menzies, opposition leader, made that speech in one of many radio talks to the Australian people in 1942, in the depths of World War II. I read them, and could not believe how enduring they were, and how apposite to the war in Iraq.

In �Freedom from fear�, he said three forces were necessary to stop governments waging war: a passionate longing for peace, international machinery for peace and �that intelligent citizenship among ordinary men and women which rulers will respect and which will be the greatest enemy of war�.

“If the individual, as in the past generation, neglects politics – except as a means of obtaining some selfish end – then the people will at times of crisis be dumb and impotent, and despotic rulers will make war.�


In �The moral element in total war�, he said that �there can be no passionate patriotism or willing self-sacrifice in war unless we know in our hearts that we are fighting for good things against evil things, and there can be no better world order except on a moral basis. The brain of man may devise wonders and the hand of man execute them, but they will all fall into evil and harmful uses unless the heart of man – the guide of conduct – is sound and true.�

�The question we need to put to ourselves most frequently in these days is, “What do we believe in?”

The liberal answer was that we believed in the dignity of every human being. From the ashes of WW11 we created the United Nations, and drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Abuse and degradation continued, of course, but the West hung its hat on the ideal. America led the drafting of the Geneva Conventions, too, to help prevent a recurrence of the torture and degradation of prisoners of war by the Japanese. War crimes were created.

Before his retirement John Valder, like Menzies a pillar of the liberal establishment, headed the Sydney Stock Exchange and the Liberal Party. He was a kid in World War II, and carries Menzies� message still. In October last year he rose at a public meeting on Sydney�s North Shore, looked his friend Tony Abbott in the eye, and said:

�There must be quite a conceivable possibility of George Bush facing indictment for what he’s done in Iraq� For the first time, we have a Prime Minister who has put this country at risk of being branded a war criminal.

�There is a total disregard by this government, really, for human rights. I understand there are citizens of forty-two nations in Guantanamo Bay, and forty of those forty-two nations have all protested bitterly to the United States about that. Two haven’t. Australia is one of them.” (China was the other.)

It�s got worse since, with cascading evidence of multiple war crimes, including murder, committed by the Americans on Iraqis picked up on the streets without charge. With each day, responsibility for the war crimes gets ever closer to the very top in the United States. Tellingly, the US refuses to even count the numbers of Iraqi dead during or since the invasion.

Last week the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that last year Australian Major George O�Kane at the US military headquarters in Baghdad helped draft a response to the first Red Cross report on abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. He reported back regularly to his superiors. Howard�s government had claimed ignorance until the pictures of the horror were released last month.

As usual, John Howard did not respond by setting out the facts, but by obfuscation. Why? What do we believe in?

Even on purely practical grounds, we should have protested. The downside for the Coalition of torturing ordinary Iraqis is enormous. But I bet we didn�t, just like we won�t ask for the videos of the interrogations of our citizens in Guantanamo Bay.

We have lost our moral compass under John Howard, and thereby aided a superpower which is dooming itself and the world to endless war. Last week the International Institute of Strategic Studies confirmed that the war had rejuvenated al-Qaeda and swelled its ranks � now estimated to be 18,000, with 1,000 now in Iraq.

How can we find politicians who believe in duty and service and who are unafraid to tell us the truth? Look around, and if there is no one in the major parties who qualifies in your seat, find someone who does and organise support for them. As Menzies said in �The task of democracy�:

�I am aware of the weakness of democracy, of its occasional stupidities and shallowness, its temptation to prefer the rabble-rousing spell binder, its habit of giving way to envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness. (But) I believe in democracy as the only method of government which can produce justice based upon recognition of enduring human values. Parliament must be recruited from the best we have, and politics once more become a noble and glorious vocation.�

Reader quote of the week

John and Karen Dwyer in Florida, USA

�American survival is not – and never was – threatened by Iraq, unless the hatred we leave behind is really the weapon of mass destruction we were looking for and had to create in order to find.�

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