When Robert Menzies delivered his famously definitive speech on radio in May 1942, the “forgotten middle class” to whom he referred were mostly families gathered around a wireless. The homes in which they lived constituted, he said, that “one little piece of earth with a house and a garden which is ours, to which we can withdraw… into which no stranger may come against our will”.
The garden might now be smaller and the family more likely to be scattered throughout a McMansion checking the “feed” on their social media devices (more about Sir Bob’s attitude towards electronic media here), but the middle class is as big and significant as ever in Australia. But are they still forgotten? Let’s test the conditions Menzies used to confirm their “forgotten” status. They were:
Unorganised and unselfconscious. On the first count, mostly yes. Menzies defined their occupations as “salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. There are no lobby groups representing skilled artisans, shopkeepers or salaried workers. Some professions have associations, but they are neither as political nor influential as, say, GetUp! The National Farmers Federation became a key lobby group as soon as it was formed in 1979.
By describing them as “unselfconscious”, Menzies was saying Forgotten People neither questioned their responsibilities nor expected help from others as long as they could help themselves. A scan of volunteers in surf-lifesaving, the SES, fire brigades and most kids’ sport confirms the Forgotten People pull their weight in the community. It is arguable that they now take more back. “Middle-class welfare” became a common, derogatory term for family tax benefits during John Howard’s government. But these were not mindless handouts. Rather, they are incentives to work. Menzies would have approved.
Envied by those whose social benefits are largely obtained by taxing them. “Envy” is a strong word. Do the iconoclastic welfare recipients chaining themselves to trees to save the habitat of Leadbeater’s possum really wish they were living more mainstream lives as taxpayers raising their own families? It’s plausible. The devotion of fringe protesters to the survival of other species suggests they sympathise with the natural urge to raise a family. Similarly, their determination to impose their values on others suggests they too harbour a desire to be independent and influential, albeit in ways that have been distorted by a decade or more of indoctrination under our education system.
Not rich enough to have individual power. Forgotten People, Menzies said, are neither so poor that they need welfare nor so rich that they can easily look after themselves. They are the vast demographic in between, who work without expectation of anything in return except a life of liberty and enterprise. This still describes today’s middle class, but the subliminal meaning - that they don’t even seek individual power as long as their humble expectations are met - remains as true today as it did in 1942.
Taken for granted by each political party. This observation was particularly prescient of Menzies. The 1940 federal election, which Menzies won, was fought mostly on ways to manage the war effort, and there were only vague indications that political advantage might be gained by abandoning the middle ground in pursuit of fringe voters. The temptation to do so now, however, is much stronger, especially with environmental policies that appeal to inner-city urban voters but cost middle-class families. However, in an impassioned speech to the MRC Forgotten People performance in Melbourne this week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reasserted the Liberal Party’s devotion to this middle ground. Speaking to the “salary earners, the shopkeepers, skilled artisans and so on” among the audience, he said: “Menzies called you the backbone of the nation; you were then and you are today.”