Robert Menzies

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Sir Robert Menzies
Robert Menzies

12th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1940, 1946-1963
In office
April 26, 1939 – August 26, 1941
Preceded by Earle Page
In office
December 19, 1949 – January 26, 1966
Preceded by Ben Chifley
Succeeded by Harold Holt

Born December 20, 1894
Jeparit, Victoria
Died May 15, 1978
Political party United Australia; Liberal

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, KT, AK, CH, FRS, QC (December 20, 1894 – May 15, 1978), Australian politician, was the twelfth and longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia, serving eighteen and a half years. He had a rapid rise to power, but his first term as Prime Minister was a failure. He spent eight years in opposition, during which he founded the Liberal Party, which is more similar to the British Conservatives than to the British liberals. He was re-elected Prime Minister at the Australian general election, 1949 elections, and he then dominated Australian politics until his retirement in 1966. Menzies was renowned as a brilliant speaker, both on the floor of Parliament and on the hustings. Menzies thrice took his country into war. In World War II he joined the Allied Powers (World War II) in aid of what many Australians called the 'mother country," the United Kingdom. He later sent troops to fight in the Korean War. Next, he supported the United States in the Vietnam War. Convinced that Australia's security depended on the support of the USA, he entered the ANZUS alliance in 1951. He was as opposed to communism as he was to the policies of the Australian Labour party. He was a strong supporter of links with the Commonwealth of Nations and with the United Kingdom regarding Australia as part of Europe that happened to be in the East. He supported British intervention in the Suez in 1956. In the post-Menzies years, Australia has positioned herself more expicitly within the geo-political context of the South Pacific and of Asia. During his period in power, what was known as the White Australia Policy was in place, which discriminated against people of color and Asians who wanted to migrate, encouraging European immigration instead. Concepts of racial purity, similar to those that prevailed at the time in South Africa, were popular in Australia, where White South Africans were regarded as part of the same club of former settler colonies. The rights of the Australian aborigines, too, was not even on the political agenda during his long premiership and school children learned nothing about pre-James Cook Australian history or culture, since it was assumed that the Aborigines had neither a history or a culture.

Early life

Robert Gordon Menzies was born to James Menzies and Kate Menzies (nee Sampson) in Jeparit, Victoria, a small town in the Wimmera region of western Victoria, on December 20, 1894. His father James was a storekeeper, the son of Scottish crofters who had emigrated to Australia in the mid-1850s in the wake of the Victorian gold rush. His maternal grandfather, John Sampson, was a miner from Penzance who also came to seek his fortune on the gold-fields, in Ballarat, Victoria.[1] Both his father and one of his uncles had been members of the Victorian parliament, while another uncle had represented Wimmera in the House of Representatives.[2] He was proud of his Scottish Highlands|Highland ancestry - his enduring nick-name, Ming, came from "Mingus," the Scots language|Scots—and his own preferred—pronunciation of "Menzies," although it was also a reference to the evil emperor Ming the Merciless in the science fiction cartoon "Flash Gordon."

Menzies was first educated at a one-room school, then later at private schools in Ballarat and Melbourne, and read law at the University of Melbourne.

When World War I began Menzies was 19, and his family decided that his elder brothers would enlist. It was later stated that since the family has made enough of a sacrifice to the war with the enlistment of these brothers, Menzies should stay to finish his studies. However, Menzies himself never explained the reason why he chose not to enlist. He was prominent in undergraduate activities and won academic prizes and declared himself to be a patriotic supporter of the war and conscription. [3] He graduated in law in 1918. He soon became one of Melbourne's leading lawyers and began to acquire a considerable fortune. In 1920 he married Pattie Leckie, the daughter of a federal Nationalist Party MP, who was reputedly a moderating influence on him.

In 1928, Menzies gave up law to enter state parliament as a member of the Victorian State Parliament representing the Nationalist Party of Australia. The following year he shifted to the Victorian Legislative Assembly, and was a minister in the conservative Victorian government from 1932 to 1934, and became Deputy Premier of Victoria in 1932.

Menzies entered federal politics in 1934, representing the United Australia Party (UAP). He was immediately appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Industry in the Joseph Lyons government, and soon became deputy leader of the UAP. He was seen as Lyons' natural successor and was accused of wanting to push Lyons out, a charge he denied. On April 7, 1939, Lyons died.

First term as Prime Minister

On April 26, 1939, following a period during which the Country Party leader, Sir Earle Page, was caretaker Prime Minister, Menzies was elected Leader of the UAP and was sworn in as Prime Minister. But a crisis arose when Page refused to serve under him. In an extraordinary personal attack in the House, Page accused Menzies of cowardice for not having enlisted in the War, and of treachery to Lyons. Menzies then formed a minority government. When Page was deposed as Country Party leader a few months later, Menzies reformed the Coalition with Page's successor, Archie Cameron. (Menzies later forgave Page, but Pattie Menzies never spoke to him again.)

In September 1939, with Britain's declaration of war against Nazi Germany, Menzies found himself a wartime Prime Minister. He did his best to rally the country, but the bitter memories of the disillusionment which followed the First World War made this difficult, and the fact that Menzies had not served in that war and that as Attorney General and Deputy Prime Minister, Menzies had made an official visit to Germany in 1938 and had expressed his admiration for the regime undermined his credibility. At the 1940 election, the UAP was nearly defeated, and Menzies' government survived only thanks to the support of two independent MPs. The Australian Labour Party, under John Curtin, refused Menzies's offer to form a war coalition.

In 1941 Menzies spent months in Britain discussing war strategy with Winston Churchill and other leaders, while his position at home deteriorated. The Australian historian David Day has suggested that Menzies hoped to replace Churchill as British Prime Minister, and that he had some support in Britain for this. Other Australian writers, such as Gerard Henderson, have rejected this theory. When Menzies came home, he found he had lost all support, and was forced to resign, first, on August 28, as Prime Minister, and then as UAP leader. The Country Party leader, Arthur Fadden, became Prime Minister. Menzies was very bitter about what he saw as this betrayal by his colleagues, and almost left politics.

Return to power

Robert and Pattie Menzies in the 1940s

Labour came to power later in October 1941 under John Curtin, following the defeat of the Fadden government in Parliament. In 1943 Curtin won a huge election victory. During 1944 Menzies held a series of meetings at "Ravenscraig" an old homestead in Aspley to discuss forming a new anti-Labour party to replace the moribund UAP. This was the Liberal Party, which was launched in early 1945 with Menzies as leader. But Labour was firmly entrenched in power and in 1946 Curtin's successor, Ben Chifley, was comfortably re-elected. Comments that "we can't win with Menzies" began to circulate in the conservative press.

Over the next few years, however, the anti-communist atmosphere of the early Cold War began to erode Labour's support. In 1947, Chifley announced that he intended to nationalize Australia's private banks, arousing intense middle-class opposition which Menzies successfully exploited. In 1949 a bitter coal-strike, engineered by the Communist Party, also played into Menzies's hands. In December 1949 he won the election and again became Prime Minister.

The ALP retained control of the Senate, however, and made Menzies' life very difficult. In 1951 Menzies introduced legislation to ban the Communist Party, hoping that the Senate would reject it and give him an excuse for a double dissolution election, but Labour let the bill pass. It was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the High Court. But when the Senate rejected his banking bill, he called a double dissolution and won control of both Houses.

Later in 1951 Menzies decided to hold a referendum to change the Constitution to permit him to ban the Communist Party. The new Labour leader, Dr. H. V. Evatt, campaigned against the referendum on civil liberties grounds, and it was narrowly defeated. This was one of Menzies's few electoral miscalculations. He sent Australian troops to the Korean War and maintained a close alliance with the United States.

Sir Robert Menzies

Economic conditions, however, deteriorated, and Evatt was confident of winning the 1954 elections. Shortly before the elections, Menzies announced that a Soviet diplomat in Australia, Vladimir Petrov, had defected, and that there was evidence of a Soviet spy ring in Australia, including members of Evatt's staff. This Cold War scare enabled Menzies to win the election. Labor accused Menzies of arranging Petrov's defection, but this has since been disproved: he had simply taken advantage of it.

The aftermath of the 1954 election caused a split in the Labour Party, and Menzies was comfortably re-elected over Evatt in 1955 and 1958. By this time the post-war economic boom was in full swing, fuelled by massive immigration and the growth in housing and manufacturing that this produced. Prices for Australia's agricultural exports were also high, ensuring rising incomes. Labour's rather old-fashioned socialist rhetoric was no match for Menzies and his promise of stability and prosperity for all.

Labour's new leader, Arthur Calwell, gave Menzies a scare after an ill-judged squeeze on credit—an effort to restrain inflation—caused a rise in unemployment. At the Australian general election, 1961 election Menzies was returned with a majority of only two seats. But Menzies was able to exploit Labour's divisions over the Cold War and the American alliance, and win an increased majority in the Australian general election, 1963 elections. An incident in which Calwell was photographed standing outside a South Canberra hotel while the ALP Federal Executive (dubbed by Menzies the "36 faceless men") was determining policy also contributed to the 1963 victory. This was the first "television election," and Menzies, although nearly 70, proved a master of the new medium. He was made a Knight of the Thistle in the same year.

In 1965 Menzies made the fateful decision to commit Australian troops to the Vietnam War, and also to reintroduce conscription. These moves were initially popular, but later became a problem for his successors. When a Labour government was finally elected in 1971, one of its very first acts was to abolish conscription. Despite his pragmatic acceptance of the new power balance in the Pacific after World War II and his strong support for the American alliance, he publicly professed continued admiration for links with Britain, exemplified by his admiration for Queen Elizabeth II, and famously described himself as "British to the bootstraps." Over the decade, Australia's ardor for Britain and the monarchy faded somewhat, but Menzies' had not. At a function, Menzies quoted Elizabethan poet Barnabe Googe, "I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die."

Racist and Imperialist Australia

During Menzies' whole period in office, what has been called the White Australia immigration policy was firmly in place. Australia wanted immigrants to increase its populations and to grow the economy, but it wanted white, Europeans. From the days of the nineteenth century gold rush, when many Chinese came to dig for gold, public opinion favored Caucasian over non-Caucasian immigration. This was enforced by, for example, being able to test any immigrant not only in the English language but also in Welsh or Celtic, which was used to exclude anyone whose ethnicity did not fit the picture of Australians as antipode cousins of European and North American Caucasians. A concept of racial purity not unlike that which created Apartheid in South Africa informed this policy. The threat of Japanese conquest during the Second World War (Japan bombed North Australia) and memories of the treatment of 30,000 prisoners of war, two-thirds of whom died, only reinforced anti-Asian sentiment. Australia had close sporting and cultural links with their white South African cousins. Throughout Menzies' premiership, Australia continued to use the British honors system of awarding knighthoods, membership of the order of the British Empire and even peerages. Attorneys "took the silk," that is, became QC's (Queen's Counsel). Menzies was himself a QC. The Judicial Court of the British Privy Council was Australia's highest court of appeal. In theory, the UK parliament could still pass legislation that had jurisdiction in Australia. This did not change until the Australia Act of 1986 was passed not only by all Australian states and by the Australian Federal Government but also by the UK parliament by which the Australian Consititution was repatriated to Australia. Technically, only the succession of the monarch now ties Australia with Britain, but this might be tested were Australia to choose a different heir. The Privy Council remains the highest court of appeal.

When the Labour government of Gough Whitlam was dismissed in 1972 by the Governor-General, representing the Queen as Head of State, a constitutional crisis followed and Labour started to support a new Republican constitution. This was anathema to Menzies, running counter to eveything he cherished about Australia's heritage. Australia's trusteeship of New Guinea and of a number of other island protectorates was always a type of junior imperialism, supported by economic domination of the sugar industry in Fiji via the Colonial Sugar Refining Company [4] Indentured labor, mainly from the South Sea islands, was also widely used in the Australian sugar industry. Many were more or less kidnapped. During Menzies' premiership, the question of recognition of Aboriginal land claims was not even on the agenda. Under subsequent government, this changed. In 1971 as Gough Whitlam's Labour government took office, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy camped out on Parliamentary lawns. Finally, in 1993 the Native Land Titles Act was passed. This effectively reversed the legal fiction that when Captain Cook had claimed Australia, the land had belonged to nobody (terra nullius). The Aborigines, it was assumed, had no concept of owning land. In a sense, this was correct; they understood the land as owning them, rather than vice-versa. During Menzies' premiership, few aborigines worked in high paying jobs or lived in white areas. Many lived in apartheid-type settlements. As recently as 2000, one writer decribes Australian aboriginals as living in third world conditions, referring to Australia's "very racist past" [5].

Australia under Menzies resembled a lesser version of imperialist Britain. Australians prided themselves, though, on being a class-less society and, since many claimed descent from convicts, in a type of reverse snobbery which looked down on the English as 'has-beens'; too tired after the effort of twice defeating Germany and the Axis powers to amount to much in the new world order. Convicts had not even really done anything wrong; they had been victims of a classist British society. Australia was to be the new Britain—a young, confident and potentially very prosperous society with lots of space, a liking for sports and for the outdoor life—to which the future belonged. In Australia of the late 1960s and early 1970s it was not at all unusual to hear the phrase, "Australia is the greatest country on earth." Mezies himself looked, however, to the middle class of what others called a class-less society as the "moral backbone of the society—proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest," calling them the "forgotten people" in a radio broadcast May 22, 1942[6].

Retirement and posterity

Menzies retired in January 1966, and was succeeded as Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister by his former Treasurer, Harold Holt. After his retirement the Queen appointed him to the ancient office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He toured the United States giving lectures, and published two volumes of memoirs. His retirement was spoiled, however, when he suffered strokes in 1968 and 1971. The following year, a Labour government was returned to power and by 1975, the White Australia policy was abolished by the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act. Thereafter Menzies faded from public view, and in old age became very embittered towards his former colleagues. He died from a heart attack in Melbourne in 1978 and was accorded a state funeral.


Menzies was Prime Minister for a total of 18 years, five months and twelve days, by far the longest term of any Australian Prime Minister, and during his second term he dominated Australian politics as noone else has ever done. He managed to live down the failures of his first term in office, and to rebuild the conservative side of politics from the depths of 1943. These were great political achievements. He also did much to develop higher education in Australia, and made the development of Canberra one of his pet projects.

Critics say that Menzies' success was mainly due to the good luck of the long post-war boom and his manipulation of the anti-communist fears of the Cold War years, both of which he exploited with great skill. He was also crucially aided by the crippling dissent within the Labour Party in the 1950s and especially by the ALP split of 1954. But his reputation among conservatives is untarnished, and he remains the Liberal Party's greatest hero.

Several books have been filled with anecdotes about him and with his many witty remarks. While he was speaking in Williamstown, Victoria in 1954, a heckler shouted, "I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel" — to which Menzies coolly replied "If I were the Archangel Gabriel, I’m afraid you wouldn’t be in my constituency."

Planning for an official biography of Menzies began soon after his death, but was long delayed by Dame Pattie Menzies' protection of her husband's reputation and her refusal to cooperate with the appointed biographer, Frances McNicoll. In 1991 the Menzies family appointed Professor A. W. Martin to write a biography, which appeared in two volumes in 1993 and 1999.

Notes and references

  1. Frederick White, "Robert Gordon Menzies 1894-1978," Australian Academy of Science: Biographical Memoirs of Deceased Fellows Robert Gordon Menzies 1894-1978. Retrieved 15 June 2007
  2. Australia's Prime Ministers website: Robert Menzies. Retrieved 15 June 2007
  3. [1]
  4. "A History of Australian Imperialism," Melbourne IndyMedia, April 5, 2004 [2] retrieved 18 June 2007
  5. Anup Shah, "Historic Oppression of the Aboriginal People," Human Rights for All, September 4, 2000 Historic Oppression of the Aboriginal People retrieved 18 June 2007
  6. "Judith Brett on Robert Menzies' speech, 'The Forgotten People'," Lingua Franca, February 17, 2007 Judith Brett on Robert Menzies' speech, 'The Forgotten People' retrieved 18 June 2007

Further reading

  • Brett, Judith. Robert Menzies' Forgotten People. Sydney: SunAustralia, 1991. 9780725107215 (a sharply critical psychological study)
  • __________. Robert Menzies and Colonial Biography: Trevor Reese Memorial Lecture. 1993. Trevor Reese memorial lecture, 1993. London: Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, 1993. ISBN 9781855070585
  • Hasluck, Paul Meernaa Caedwalla. Sir Robert Menzies. Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 1980. ISBN 9780522842050
  • Martin, Alan. Robert Menzies: A Life. two volumes. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, [1993] 1999. ISBN 9780522844429 (this competent but uninspiring official biography was delayed for many years by the un-cooperative attitude of Dame Pattie Menzies.)
  • Menzies, Robert Gordon. The Forgotten People, and Other Studies in Democracy. Sydney: Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1943.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2022.


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