Robert Menzies’ other forgotten people

Don Arthur

People think of the ‘aspirational voter’ as a recent development. But it is hard to think of a better way of describing the people Menzies was reaching out to in his speeches from the 1940s and 50s. Menzies may have claimed that he represented the middle class, but he also claimed the Australian Liberal Party was the true workers’ party. As Judith Brett writes in her 1993 book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Menzies’ middle class was a moral rather than an economic category (Brett 1993). Almost anyone could be middle class if they identified with middle class values like ambition, effort, independence, and readiness to serve.

Menzies said the only true classes in Australian society ‘are the active and the idle’ (Menzies 1954). This was the point he made in his 1942 speech ‘The forgotten people’ where he distinguished between society’s ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ and warned against those who wanted to benefit from government help but were reluctant to make any contribution in return (Menzies 1942a). As a moral category, ‘leaners’ included only those who chose not to contribute. Menzies acknowledged that there was group in society who were neither lifters nor leaners—those who could not work because of sickness or disability. He saw this group as deserving of compassion and support.

There is a forgotten group in Menzies speeches and policy thinking.

But there is also a forgotten group in Menzies speeches and policy thinking. These are people who cannot aspire to a middle class life of stable employment and home ownership, not because they suffer from some individual impairment, but because something in the social and economic system blocks their way and denies them the choice. In the rhetorical world created in Menzies’ speeches, this group does not exist. This group is also absent from Menzies’ policy proposals for income support. In the early 1940s as Labor was drawing up plans to extend social security to the unemployed and sick, Menzies argued for an insurance-based system where workers paid into a fund and made claims when they became unemployed or ill. This kind of scheme would have excluded people without a history of employment as well as those who remained unemployed for long periods of time. But Menzies had little to say about how he planned to deal with these gaps in the system. The gaps seem to be invisible.


Categorising people according to their moral and personal qualities rather than their position in the economy has a commonsense appeal, according to Brett. She argues that this is how most people think about themselves and about those they know (Brett 1993, p. 42). The division of people into the two classes of lifters and leaners fits with the everyday experience of life in homes and workplaces where most of us keep a keen eye on who is doing their fair share and who is not. The popular American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox was probably the first to use the words lifter and leaner. In her late 19th century poem ‘Which are you?’ she wrote that there were only two kinds of people:

… the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, and the people who lean.

Wherever you go, you will find the earth’s masses,
Are always divided in just these two classes (Wheeler Wilcox 1903).

Wheeler Wilcox was one of the most popular American poets of her generation. In the early decades of the 20th century her words found their way into many Australian newspapers, sometimes attributed, and sometimes not. ‘Which are you?’ sometimes appeared under the title ‘Lifters and leaners’ (in, for example, the Healesville Guardian in 1895). It is likely that Wheeler Wilcox is the source of Menzies’ reference to lifters and leaners. Part of what made Wheeler Wilcox so popular was the way her poems reflected readers’ commonsense understandings of the world. Lifters and leaners focuses on individuals and puts their choices and actions in the foreground. With the social and economic context forming a blurry background for the main action, a natural way to explain why some people succeed and others fail is to look for differences in their characters and behaviour. In his forgotten people speech, Menzies deliberately focuses on individual explanations for social outcomes. He dismisses abstract ideas like ‘financial power’, ‘morale’ or ‘man power’ arguing that at the ‘motive power of human progress’ is the ‘intelligent ambition’ of individuals (Menzies 1942a).


In another of his 1942 radio broadcasts, Menzies spoke about achieving freedom from want. He argued that this freedom comes at a price. Security ‘is to be earned, to be merited, and is not to fall, like manna, from heaven’.

Thus it is that freedom from want does not mean paid idleness for all. The country has great and imperative obligations to the weak, the sick, the unfortunate. It must give to them all the sustenance and support it can. We look forward to social and unemployment insurances, to improved health services, to a wiser control of our economy to avert if possible all booms and slumps which tend to convert labour into a commodity, to a better distribution of wealth, to a keener sense of social justice and social responsibility. We not only look forward to these things, we shall demand and obtain them (Menzies 1942b).

Menzies was reaching out to a group that today would be called aspirational voters.

His proposal for unemployment insurance differed from the Labor government’s scheme. Under the Labor scheme, benefits would be paid from tax revenue and would be means tested. Under Menzies scheme, workers would make contributions to an insurance fund and would be entitled to claim payments regardless of their savings or other sources of income. In a 1944 parliamentary debate he said:

contribution preserves self-respect; it enables social security schemes to be kept solvent; and it dispenses with the humiliation that is involved in a means test. Humiliation is involved in such a test. The moment we establish, or perpetuate, the principle that the citizen, in order to get something he needs, or wants, and to which he has looked forward, must prove his poverty, we convert him into a suppliant to the State for benevolence. That position is inconsistent with the proper dignity of the citizen in a democratic country. People should be able to obtain these benefits as a matter of right, with no more loss of their own standards of self-respect than would be involved in collecting from an insurance company the proceeds of an endowment policy on which they have been paying premiums for years.

Menzies has nothing to say about people who do not manage to get a foothold in the labour market. Indigenous people in remote communities where jobs are scarce and ties to kin and country are strong do not fit easily into this scheme. Nor do young people who enter the job market during recessions, older men forced into early retirement by industry restructuring or women who have spent years caring for others in the home. Anyone overlooked by employers but not impaired in a way that obviously allows government to label them ‘weak’, ‘sick’ or ‘unfortunate’ falls into a gap that means they will have to prove their need and their status as lifters.

In the shadow of the contributory welfare state it is inevitable that there will be a system of humiliation for those on the margins. Lifters and leaners might seem like a clear cut way to divide the population, but as moral categories based around willingness to contribute, the boundary between the two is difficult to police. If a person does not have a recent history of paid work (or, in the case of married women, supporting someone who does), then the government needs some way to decide whether the cause is a person’s unwillingness or a lack of opportunity. Today governments use stigmatising policies like work for the dole and income management to deter claims from people who are able to find work but choose not to.


By inviting working people to aspire to a middle class life for themselves and their children, Menzies was reaching out to a group that today would be called aspirational voters. He promoted the idea that people could achieve this life through education, hard work and personal responsibility.

Menzies has nothing to say about people who do not manage to get a foothold in the labour market.

In Menzies time, Labor parties in Australia and the United Kingdom saw themselves as working class parties. But by the 1990s, this had changed. In the United Kingdom, political adviser Phillip Gould argued ‘the old working class was becoming a new middle class: aspiring, consuming, choosing what was best for themselves and their families. They had outgrown crude collectivism and left it behind in the supermarket car-park’ (Gould 2011, p. 4). In Australia, Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon has a simple way of understanding today’s aspirational voters. They pay most attention to hip pocket issues that affect their personal and family budgets. But he argues that this is as much about morality as ambition:

This sentiment is not always driven by selfishness; quite the contrary. More often than not it’s driven by a desire to see justice being done. In other words, they want an economic model in which reward for effort is the driving principal.

All these people are ‘aspirational voters’, those who work extraordinarily hard at building a better future for themselves and their families. They don’t have to be ‘middle class’, as some would suggest; they can be a low-paid worker or working couple, grabbing every overtime opportunity on offer to build a better life for their children (Fiztgibbon 2012).

In countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, the idea that voters see fairness or social justice as reward for effort, comes up again in writing by politicians, pollsters and political advisers. In the United Kingdom, Gould writes: ‘When people are asked what fairness means they invariably answer by one form or another of the same formulation: stop people abusing the system, give people who work hard a fair deal.’ According to Gould (2011) ‘a call for fairness has become a cry of grievance, resentment and anger, expressing the view that my life is bad because others are unfairly benefiting’.

As in the United Kingdom, many people in Australia are convinced the income support system is being abused by people who can work but prefer not to. According to data from the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, almost 60 per cent of respondents agree with the statement: ‘Around here most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted to’ (Australian Data Archive 2011). The rhetoric of lifters and leaners relies on the belief that our economy offers everyone except people with severe and permanent disabilities the opportunity to contribute. It is a difficult belief to challenge because it does not necessarily imply there are jobs for everyone who wants one. All the rhetoric really implies is that those who miss out are less worthy than those who do not. Outside of the depths of an economic depression, it can be easier to let an employed majority believe they are worthier than a jobless minority. And for the minority it is a belief that offers the hope of redemption if only they are willing to lean less and lift more. Those who do not fit this scheme can be quietly and safely forgotten.


Australian Data Archive 2011, The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, 2009, Australian Data Archive [Online] Available: [2014, Jul 6].

Brett, J. 1993, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

Fitzgibbon, J. 2012, ‘Labor must remember to reach out to aspirational voters’, The Australian, 7 December [Online], Available: [2014, Jul 6].

Gould, P. 2011, The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever, Hachette Digital, London.

Menzies, R. 1942a, ‘The forgotten people’, The Forgotten People: Radio broadcasts written and presented by the Rt Hon. R.G. Menzies [Online], Available: [2014, Jun 8].

Menzies, R. 1942b, ‘The four freedoms, freedom from want’, The Forgotten People: Radio broadcasts written and presented by the Rt Hon. R.G. Menzies [Online], Available: [2014, Jun 22].

Menzies, R. 1954, ‘Democracy and management’, William Queale Memorial Lecture, Adelaide, 22 October [Online], Available: [2014, Jun 22].

Wheeler Wilcox, E. 1903, Poems of Power, W.B. Conkey Company, Chicago [Online], Available: [2014, Jun 8].

Don Arthur’s work has previously been published by the Evatt Foundation and in the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy magazine. The views expressed here are his own.

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