Thank you, Georgina for the opportunity to formally open this conference and informally open the Robert Menzies Institute.
My friend and colleague, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, will be doing the formal opening of the Institute tonight. Even though he is a Monash graduate!
But it is my pleasure to open this conference - your very first - at this magnificent Institute, which has been proudly supported by $7 million from our government.
This Institute is the sixth Prime Ministerial library. We have ones for Alfred Deakin, John Curtin, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, John Howard and now Robert Menzies.
To be honest, I don’t know why it took so long to have one for our longest serving Prime Minister. For the man who, as Dr Zachary Gorman points out, built or at least shaped modern Australia.
We should quite rightly study and reflect on his time as we do for other significant political leaders. We study history, but history is made up and formed by individuals and groups of people, and there is arguably no more significant individual in modern Australia.
As the federal Education Minister, I am particularly informed by his philosophy on schools and universities.
He was one of the greatest champions for education that Australia has had.
His guiding philosophy was that the purpose of education was “to equalise opportunity”. Not equalise outcomes, but opportunity. Because he saw this as a way of each individual fulfilling their potential. But he also saw the collective outcome of this for the good of the nation: every child having the opportunity to achieve their best, which collectively drives the success of the nation.
He delivered policies to achieve this, massively expanding higher education and providing greater school choice for parents.
Some of his most passionate writings were about teachers, stating that their task was such that “if performed well, can do more to produce good citizens than all the acts of Parliament ever passed.”
At university, he believed deeply in free speech and the contest of ideas. He knew that universities must be spaces for argument and debate — they must be “custodians of mental liberty and unfettered search for truth.”
It was this search for truth at universities that was at least one of the causes of our tremendous gains in wealth and freedom during his period.
I frankly think he would be aghast at many of the recent trends on university campuses - of de-platforming, hostility to contrary views, and shutting down debates.
Today, in your conference you are covering the early years of his life from 1894 to 1942.
What a time in Australia’s history! The foundation of a nation itself. The bloody battles of World War 1, the Great Depression, and the beginning of the Second World War after the “war to end all wars” clearly wasn’t.
A time when liberal democracy itself was tested to its very foundations.
A time when Menzies studied here. Where he succeeded in Victorian parliament. In federal Parliament. In becoming Prime Minister. And in losing the prime ministership after a very short time.
Perhaps most importantly it was a time when he wrote arguably the most important intellectual contributions to Australian political life — the “forgotten people” radio addresses.
You have a tremendous line up of speakers, starting with someone who has made an immense political and now intellectual contribution to our nation and to liberalism - in Dr David Kemp. But also, Justice Edelman, Judith Brett and many others.
I wish Georgina Downer and the Board well and thank you for giving me the honour of declaring your very first conference open.