This article contains a brief overview of Robert Menzies. Scroll to the bottom for some other web-based resources to aid your learning.
Robert Menzies remains the most significant figure in Australia’s political history, and played a lesser role in international history during a time of world war and its cold-war aftermath. His significance arises primarily from the extraordinary duration of his tenure as Prime Minister; eighteen and a half years. This made him Australia’s longest serving leader by 7 years.
The first of his two periods as Prime Minister came as Europe was plunged into World War. Menzies immediately committed Australian troops to Britain’s aid, against the opposition of the Labor party, who felt that troops should be reserved for Australia’s home defence. His latter term, from 1949 until his retirement in 1966, spanned the Cold War, the entrance into the Vietnam conflict, Australia’s re-orientation away from Britain and towards Asia with the U.S as its chief ally, and the post-war transformation of Australia’s society through immigration and urbanisation.
Menzies was a consummate politician, known for his rhetorical dexterity both in parliament and on the hustings. “The whole glory of parliamentary debate,” he said, “is its cut and thrust”. He was lauded for his steady governance and temperament. He attracted the loyalty of his ministers and upheld the independence of the public service mandarins who served around him. He was regarded as a man of integrity, even by his political foes.
Uniquely among all Australian Prime Ministers, Menzies retired at a time of his own choosing rather than being defeated in an election or party room coup. In an age where politics now consists of constantly shifting allegiances and where even sitting Prime Ministers or Premiers can be deposed by former allies, Menzies longevity sprang as much from his force of intellect and imperial mien as it came from inhabiting an era of a more civil polity.
We may gauge the impact Menzies would have on Australian politics by observing his rapid ascent in earlier life. Menzies was born to a middle class family of Scottish and Cornish heritage, the son of a shopkeeper. He studied and gained admittance to the Victorian bar, winning a number of awards and scholarships. He practiced as a lawyer before beginning his political career at the age of 34 in 1928, where he served in both houses of the Victorian legislature, soon becoming deputy Premier as a member of the Nationalist Party. This party merged with other groups to form the United Australia Party, under whose banner Menzies gained election to the Federal parliament in 1934 and was appointed Attorney General. Menzies became Prime Minister in 1939 in a minority government immediately prior to the outbreak of war.
Menzies' declaration of war against Germany, made famous by his radio broadcast, flowed from an assumption barely questioned in either Australia or Britain, that Australia would come to its Mother Country’s aid. Although Menzies was an ardent monarchist and supporter of strong ties with Britain, it is not likely any other leader would have failed to have to have done the same, except that Menzies’ choice of sending Australian troops abroad at the expense of home defence was criticised. Menzies narrowly won the 1940 election but his most significant action afterwards was to undertake a hazardous journey to England in early 1941 to confer with Winston Churchill to press Australia’s plight. Menzies was exceptionally well received in England, possibly because of his symbolic status as the leader within the wider Commonwealth that would not see Britain abandoned in its time of need. Menzies clashed personally with Churchill, and lamented privately that Churchill’s autocratic style of government stifled genuine debate and dissent within cabinet and from advisors. But among the public and press, so well received was he that there was agitation from some quarters that Menzies should replace Churchill as British leader. Menzies experienced two crucial failures at this time. He failed to convince Churchill to defend Britain’s regional possessions, such as Singapore, at all costs, and his absence of four months created a crisis for his political leadership at home. He lost the Prime Ministership shortly after his return.
Menzies’ chief contribution in the interregnum between this loss and his return in 1949 was addressing the moribund state of the conservative parties. The United Australia party lost its mandate in 1940 and both the following two elections. In 1943, the UAP gained only 16.1% of the vote, and Menzies felt it no longer suited the times. Right-of-centre parties were fragmented and disorganised; no match for the solidarity and resources of the Labor movement. It was Menzies who convened a summit of eleven conservative groups in October 1944. The result was the founding of the Liberal party which (in coalition with the Country [later, National] party), has dominated Australian conservative politics for nearly 70 years. Menzies was advocate, catalyst, midwife and leader to this change.
The defining global factor that proved pivotal to Menzies’ second, fifteen year stretch as leader from 1949 to 1966 was the Cold War. Menzies trenchant opposition to communism was typical of the time, and the persistent fear of “reds under the bed” delivered Menzies more advantages than defeats. It was Menzies who pushed hard for the Communist Party to be declared illegal, and it was a significant loss for him have lost the 1951 referendum he proposed to this end. However, Menzies skilfully manipulated the “Petrov Affair” in 1954 (where a Soviet functionary defected, revealing purported Communist sympathisers within Australia) to his advantage. Menzies instituted a Royal Commission which implicated members of the Labor opposition, which exploited deep divisions between H.V Evatt, the Labor leader (whose behaviour began to descend into paranoia), and Catholic members of the Labor movement who were themselves opposed to Communism. This famous schism, which created the Democratic Labor Party, was very effectively used by Menzies to keep the Liberals in power for years. This was no doubt assisted by Menzies’ historic decision to directly support non-government schools (including Catholic schools) with Federal money. This further encouraged a break in the historic nexus between Catholics and the Labor movement. Menzies also implemented a visionary master plan for the development of Canberra into a fitting capital, initiating the construction of iconic places such as the National Library and Lake Burley Griffin, and actively relocating bureaucracies from Melbourne and Sydney to Canberra.
Menzies mastery of domestic politics contrasted with what is perhaps a mixed record on the international stage. Menzies authorised the British atomic tests at Maralinga, and opposed Britain joining the E.E.C or its ceding of the Suez. He also opposed the isolation of South Africa arguing a principle of sovereignty, although this view was lost in the debate over apartheid. He cemented regional alliances by negotiating a Australia-Japan Trade agreement, by approving a U.S communications base at North West Cape, and joining Australia in the Columbo plan, the ANZUS and SEATO pacts. Menzies also threw Australia’s support behind the U.S in the escalating Vietnam conflict, even though this meant the unpopular conscription of Australians to the war. Despite this, he failed to convince the United States to intervene in the Indonesian annexation of West New Guinea. Despite the stereotype of Menzies as an Anglophile, history should judge him a leader who was aware and active in Australia’s concerns in the region; our need for the U.S as a key ally, and in Australia’s slow reorientation toward Asia as the key to our future. Finding himself alternately on the right and the wrong side of history leaves Menzies’ ledger in foreign affairs merely balanced.
Despite many successes, Menzies was not without flaws. His friend Lionel Lindsay summed Menzies up as “a fascinating, generous, affectionate man who yet found time for a certain amount of hearty intolerance and well selected hatreds”. One colleague, referred to him as “Banyan Tree Bob” because “in his shade, nothing will grow.” Another noted he treated his backbenchers with ill-concealed condescension. Such characterisations perhaps sting more than those bestowed by opponents (epithets like “Ming the Merciless” or “Pig-Iron Bob”) because they reflect on the reality of the man without the bias of malice. Both complex and expansive, Menzies’ presence as a crucial figure in Australia’s history cannot be doubted.
Here are some books containing information about Menzies:
- Brown, Wallace. (2002). Ten
Prime Ministers: Life among the politicians.The first chapter is very readable and is written by a long time political journalist with first hand anecdotes about Menzies, and about how politics was "done" in the 50s and 60s.
- Henderson, Gerard. (1998). Menzies Child: The Liberal Party of Australia. This book is a history of the Liberal Party that Menzies' founded. The first half of the book is more relevant as it deals with how Menzies' time in the political wilderness gave rise to the Liberal Party as a new conservative force in Australian politics
- Howard, John. (2010). Lazarus Rising: A personal and political biography.This is the memoir written by John Howard, Prime Minister from 1996-2007; the second longest serving Prime Minister, and from the same party as Menzies. Check the index, as Menzies is referred to many times as Howard contextualises his story.
And here are some on-line resources you can use:
Menzies' entry in The Australian Dictionary of Biography,
The Menzies Virtual Museum:
Containing valuable information about the timeline of Menzies' life, in parallel with events in Australia and abroad.
Robert Menzies' 1941 Diary:
An exhibition put on by the Museum of Australian Democracy (in Old Parliament House in Canberra) detailing Menzies' overseas trip where he pressed Australia's plight directly to Winston Churchill and the British War Government. This is an excellent resource for our lesson covering these events.
The Menzies Research Centre:
Information about Menzies, a more concise timeline, and some links to Menzies' more significant speeches.
Menzies: A Life of Liberalism
A 12 minute YouTube biography that covers the main points of Menzies' life, made by the Menzies Research Centre:
"Menzies and Churchill at War":
Go to this link for a three minute synopsis/trailer of a longer documentary we will be watching parts of in class
Menzies interviewed in retirement about the "Petrov Affair":