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Prime ministerial monument or Liberal Party prop? Melbourne University’s Robert Menzies Institute

‘In an era when many people are pulling statues down, we’re in effect putting one up.’ This is how Nick Cater, a conservative stalwart in the Australian media landscape and director of the Liberal Party think tank Menzies Research Centre (MRC), describes the new prime ministerial library scheduled to open in Melbourne University’s Old Quad this September.

Several years ago, the MRC set out to partner with a tertiary institution prepared to house a library, museum, and research centre honouring Robert Menzies (1894 – 1978), Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister and architect of the Liberal National Party. According to Cater, the MRC entertained partnerships with three Australian universities before settling with the University of Melbourne. That Menzies himself had been a student and chancellor there, with some of his personal archive already stored in the Baillieu library’s special collections, sweetened the deal.

For its part, University of Melbourne management readily acquiesced. Enticed by the millions of dollars on offer – with the MRC securing seven million from the federal government and another half from private benefactors, including Alan Jones – they could not resist. A brief public notice about the institute emphasises Menzies’ ‘life-long commitment to Australia’s higher education system,’ though such ideological trappings quickly reveal themselves as such no sooner than former Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis admits to welcoming the restoration of Old Quad enabled by the institute. We have, here, an encapsulation of management’s motive: redeveloping the architectural and marketing jewel of this sandstone university trumps Menzies’ values, actual or imagined.

So was born the Robert Menzies Institute (RMI).

In a recent interview with The Age, newly appointed executive director of the RMI Georgina Downer assures us that the institute will be a non-partisan, independent body, allowing students and the public at large to explore the legacy of one of Australia’s ‘most prominent politicians,’ including ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly.’ She also notes that the RMI follows in the footsteps of other prime ministerial libraries housed in Australian universities, such as the Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University. In Downer’s words, then, the RMI sounds like a benign, if not noble, endeavour. Her claims, however, are spurious. To understand why, it’s necessary to examine the political agenda of the MRC and its latest offshoot, the RMI.

For the hard-right conservatives behind the MRC, ideology is, as Terry Eagleton once noted, like bad breath: it’s always what the other person, or political current, has. That’s why their website gives ample space to promoting publications like Cancel Culture and the Left’s Long March – an extended diatribe against the indoctrination of school children by a hegemonic, ‘neo-Marxist’ agenda propagandising feminism, gender fluidity, unionism, multiculturalism, and Indigenous history. Or why, alternatively, the centre organises events such as the ‘Gender Agenda,’ designed to convince you that meritocracy is not an ideological justification for systemic gender inequity, but the only route to overcome it (for a few worthy women, that is). Quotas, we can assume, would entail succumbing to ‘the illiberal doctrine of woke.’

This extreme paranoia that the MRC manifest towards a strawman, ‘authoritarian left’ – itself a figment of their opportunistic imagination – is absurd, but it’s not inconsequential. Such rhetoric dovetails with a political project aimed at banishing the spectre of left-wing politics from Australia and, along with it, the political movements, organisations, and public discourse that rail against a system based on profit and power for the few, and crumbs for the many. A cursory look at prominent figures involved in the RMI and their political track record shows this to be the case.

Georgina Downer, a member of one of Australia’s most established conservative family dynasties and CEO of the RMI, is unabashedly comfortable with the millions of Australians forced to get by on a woefully inadequate social welfare system (which she regards as ‘overly generous’). Her record includes arguing for the abolition of not only penalty rates but minimum wage itself, until she was forced to moderate such a manifestly ruling-class position to protect her electoral prospects. An avowed Donald Trump supporter, she admits to having celebrated his presidency as an inspiring rejection of ‘the international environmental movement and its fatwa against carbon.’

Working in partnership with Downer on the RMI board is Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott and superstar of the right-wing propaganda machine, Sky News. In the corridors of parliamentary power, she established her reputation as a supporter of the most bigoted wing of the Liberal Party. This is readily manifest in her contemporary Sky News invectives. Last year, for instance, she blamed the outbreak of a Covid-19 cluster in Coburg on poorly ‘assimilated’ Muslim and South Sudanese communities celebrating Eid and flouting health measures (which Credlin herself stridently opposed).

This context should strike fear and, more importantly, anger into all university workers and students, too long subjected to communications from management that portray tertiary institutions as exemplars of free intellectual inquiry.     

If the likes of Downer and Credlin have control over the RMI, then we can be sure that the institute will strive to project and protect a sanitised image of Robert Menzies. After all, the ‘ugly’ side of Menzies hinted at by Downer in her Age interview only concerns his dogged monarchism. She did not allude to his support for the White Australia policy, South African apartheid, or Nazi Germany – let alone his role as a McCarthyite Cold War warrior raiding the Australian workers’ movement. Students, researchers, and members of the public can and, no doubt, will see past this idealised image, but the critical capacities of ordinary people are not really the issue here. The issue is that the people organising the institute’s public lectures, exhibitions and research services have executive power to dictate its content. And it’s difficult to imagine RMI board members funding projects that seek to delve too deeply into Menzies’ ugly – or, let’s be frank, racist – recesses.

It’s not just the whitewashing of Menzies’ legacy that should concern us. The problem strikes at the broken heart of the tertiary sector today: systematically tied to corporate interests in pharmaceutical, extractive and arms manufacturing industries, beholden to a starvation model of funding, and directed by unaccountable, unelected executives engorged on seven-figure salaries, universities today literally operate as lackeys of big business, to the ire and shock of absolutely no one.

Hal Draper, a leader of the historic Berkeley Free Speech Movement, used the expression ‘knowledge factories’ to evoke the subservience of universities to industry and its logic of instrumental rationality. The phrase still resonates. For all its green-washing and lip-service to divestment, management at the University of Melbourne refuses to cut ties with ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, and Rio Tinto, some of the largest carbon emitters globally. The RMI must be understood within this context of corporatisation.

A senior academic at the University of Melbourne once defended the university’s ties to fossil fuel magnates by claiming that inviting ExxonMobil managers onto campus to fraternise with students and funnel graduates into their ranks does not equate to condoning the company’s ecologically destructive activities; it is instead about ‘keeping communication lines open.’ This is the same rhetorical sleight of hand we can expect from university chancellery and its allies when defending the RMI – only this time, the ‘communication lines’ being fostered are not with fossil fuel magnates but the right-wing of the Liberal Party.

Let us be clear: under the guise of academia and public engagement, the MRC wants to bring its hardcore conservative agenda to the University of Melbourne. With the consent of management, it has effectively purchased a space to do so.

This is not, of course, the first time that conservative forces have tried to carve out a space of influence in Australian universities. Consider the controversy sweeping ANU, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, and the University of Wollongong over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which intended to fund an undergraduate arts degree, in Tony Abbott’s now notorious words, ‘not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it.’ The centre was once aptly described in military terms as ‘a kind of shock humanitarian intervention’ into Australian universities.

The RMI eschews the explicit overtures to Western supremacy in which the Ramsay Centre was couched, and in this sense, it is less like ‘humanitarian’ war than assertive diplomacy. But the premise and the explicitly conservative political forces behind the two bodies are the same. Pointing to examples of other prime ministerial libraries that exist in Australia does not suffice to render them equivalent – as if the mere presence of the Whitlam Institute necessitated a Menzies Institute. Context is key, as is the fact that the Whitlam Institute is not backed by an explicitly partisan think tank, nor led by culture warriors who publicly crusade against anything that smacks of progressive politics and principles.

It’s incumbent on us to learn from the opposition to the Ramsay Centre. Just as academics and students did then, we must reject the blackmail according to which any funding at all for ‘the chronically underfunded humanities’ is better than none.  Just as they did then, we must rebuff the claim that protesting the RMI violates the free speech of conservatives, a claim that legitimises the ‘authoritarian left’ bogeyman they’ve concocted in the first place. (After all, protest is itself a manifestation of free speech.) And just as they did then, we must raise the seemingly impossible demand of a free, fully funded education system, if we are to ever really achieve the objective that, at least rhetorically, justifies the RMI to begin with: freedom of expression. Demanding the impossible, of course, is the basis of all emancipatory movements.

But what’s just as important as these political arguments is the concrete, organising lesson we can draw from the controversy over the Ramsay Centre. For it was not by depoliticising inherently political issues, deferring to bureaucratic systems of university governance, or succumbing to compromise in the first instance, that students and staff managed to fuel a public crisis over the Ramsay Centre, foment radical democracy amongst the student body in a way unseen since the 1970s, and, in some cases, prevent it from being established. It took instead a mass protest campaign galvanising workers and students against the institutionalisation of a conservative bastion on campus.

That is what we need to build at the University of Melbourne. And we want you to help.

Join the campaign against the Menzies Institute through our website, our Facebook page or via email.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Monica Sestito is a graduate research student at the University of Melbourne and a member of Socialist Alternative.

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Comments

  1. Excellent summary Monica.
    It’s always the usual suspects when conservative institutions take a few steps back into the ‘good old days’
    Not good for the oppressed of course.
    Gotta wonder if Menzies most ardent admirer, John Howard, had a hand in this.

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