Robert Gordon Menzies matters as much today as he did both eight decades and three decades ago—albeit in different ways. On Tuesday October 9, 1928, R.G. Menzies was sworn in as the member for East Yarra in the Legislative Council of the Parliament of Victoria—then at the Exhibition Building. On May 19, 1978, a state funeral was held for Sir Robert Menzies at the Scots’ Church—close by on the corner of Russell and Collins Streets. Today, above the lectern at the Scots’ Church flies the late Sir Robert’s flag and crest of his Order of the Thistle—which was presented by Dame Pattie Menzies, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, on September 27, 1981.
In the penultimate chapter of his two-volume Robert Menzies: A Life—which I regard as the finest biography of an Australian prime minister—Allan Martin recorded that:
“The State funeral … was simple, but touched with great solemnity … Police estimated that 100,000 people lined the route from Melbourne to the Springvale crematorium. There the funeral cortege was met by a lone piper, who, to the melancholy strains of the Scottish lament, ‘Flowers of the Forest’, led the coffin into the chapel.”
I very much appreciated the invitation by Alan Gregory, chairman of the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, to give the thirty-first address in this series and I thank the members of the Trust, including members of the Monash University Liberal Club, who recommended me for this function.
In a phone conversation, subsequent to his letter of invitation, Dr Gregory reminded me that the Trust’s patron was Mrs Heather Henderson. It was impossible to say no. After all, Heather Henderson had launched the first edition of my book Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia in Sydney on October 14, 1994—the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberal Party’s formation. During her address on that occasion, Heather spoke movingly and empirically about her father in his capacity as a family man and Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. Heather Henderson and I have stayed in touch—with occasional meetings, occasional phone calls and occasional correspondence. She now signs her letters as: “Heather Henderson (no relation)”. And she is correct.
Another factor contributing to my acceptance of this invitation turned on my admiration for the Monash University Liberal Club in general—and this lecture series in particular. As a full-time or part-time student at the University of Melbourne around four decades ago, I was disappointed by the lack of impact which the Liberal Club at the time had on campus life and the contemporary debate. This was a common phenomenon Australia-wide.
By the mid-1970s, I was pleased to observe that—for the first time in many decades—campus Liberals had acquired the knowledge and intellectual ability, along with the courage, to engage the Left on university campuses. Without question, the most impressive of this group was the Monash University Liberal Club—with the likes of Michael Kroger in the vanguard. Peter Costello, though not a Liberal Club member while studying at Monash University, was active in student politics and worked with Michael Kroger in forming a successful coalition against the extreme Left on Australian campuses.
Also, I admired the importance which the Monash Liberals gave to the spoken and written word—demonstrated by the decision made by the likes of Carol Baker and Michael Kroger three decades ago to establish this series and print the lectures. This made possible the subsequent decision to re-publish the first twenty lectures in Alan Gregory’s edited collection The Menzies Lectures. In addition, the Monash Liberal Club demonstrated a fine sense of history in 1976 in asking Sir Robert’s permission to use his name for this series.
The Menzies—and the Hendersons
I have come here to talk about Robert Gordon Menzies. But, first, I should say something about myself and my family.
I was born in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn. Balwyn had been part of East Yarra province when Menzies was in the Legislative Council—he moved into the Legislative Assembly when he won the seat of Nunawading at the November 1929 state election. And Balwyn was part of the federal seat of Kooyong, which Menzies represented as I was growing up—along with my sister Veronica and brother Paul—at 221 Whitehorse Road, Balwyn. As you well know, Menzies became the Member for Kooyong in September 1934 and resigned from politics in January 1966—handing over the seat to Andrew Peacock, who later led the Liberal Party. Kooyong pre-selectors were wont to give younger types a chance. Robert Menzies was thirty-nine when he won Kooyong; Peacock twenty-seven.
As it turned out, the Hendersons and the Menzies lived within a block of each other for a couple of years in the late 1940s. In 1948 the Menzies family moved from Howard Street, Kew, to Reid Street, Balwyn—just up the hill from Whitehorse Road—where they remained until the house was sold to Robert’s brother Frank when the Menzies moved into The Lodge in Canberra, following the Coalition’s victory in the December 1949 federal election. As a child I remember riding my tricycle on the footpath outside what we called the Menzies house.
Gerard Henderson is an unusual name—since it combines an essentially Catholic first name with an essentially Protestant surname. Put simply, my father Norman was the product of what was once called a mixed marriage—my paternal grandfather was a Protestant and my paternal grandmother a Catholic. My father was brought up a Catholic—my mother, Pauline Dargavel, had Catholic parents.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Norman Henderson was a financial member of both the Clerks Union and the Australian Labor Party. My brother Paul believes that he held office in the ALP’s Balwyn branch. I understand that my mother also voted Labor—as did my aunts, Rita Dargavel and Ellen Dargavel, and my uncle William Dargavel, to whom I was close and who lived nearby in East Kew. My aunt Eileen had died as a teenager and my uncle Alan was killed on the Western Front on November 10, 1917—in what came to be called the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele.
My father was an admirer of Labor’s wartime prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley but sceptical about Dr Bert Evatt, who became Opposition leader after Chifley’s death in June 1951. Heather Henderson has spoken of her father’s warm relationships with his political opponents Curtin and Chifley. This did not extend to the erratic Evatt.
Norman Henderson was part of that tribal Catholic middle class—along with the Catholic working class—who admired their tribal leader, the Irish-born Daniel Mannix, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne who arrived in Australia in 1913. This Catholic tribe attended Mass each Sunday—and voted Labor whenever an election was held. Growing up, I was more interested in the activities of the Italian Pope in Rome than the British King or Queen in London.
Put simply—and diplomatically—as a young boy it was evident that my family was not a fan of Menzies or the Liberal Party. My sister Veronica recalls that, on occasions, my mother would use the disparaging term “Pig Iron Bob” in political conversation at home. However, my brother has reminded me that the family rejoiced when the Communist Party finished last in Kooyong, always losing the comrades’ deposit. The CPA invariably put up a high-profile candidate against Menzies. The lawyer Rex Mortimer scored 1.8 per cent of the primary vote in 1954—and the physician Dr Gerald O’Day gained 1.2 per cent and 1.1 per cent in 1955 and 1958 respectively. O’Day’s fate was especially welcome at our home—since he was a Catholic who had abandoned the “Faith of Our Fathers” to embrace the secular ideology of Lenin and Stalin and sing that secular anthem The Internationale.
In those days, the Hendersons of Balwyn and the Dargavels of East Kew voted Labor 1, the Liberal Party 2 and the Communist Party last. At an early age, I learnt one of Norman Henderson’s political jokes:
Question: What’s the difference between America and Australia?
Answer: America has Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. And Australia has Bob Menzies and no hope.
As a young boy, I loved helping—or pretending to help—my father and my siblings letterbox ALP material in the Commonwealth and state elections in the early 1950s. And I remember admiring my father as he handed out ALP how-to-vote cards in the polling booth, opposite Deepdene Park on Whitehorse Road. Then, after Labor’s loss to the Coalition at the May 1954 federal election, Evatt turned on the anticommunists in the ALP’s Victorian branch and also publicly attacked Dr Mannix and, later, the Catholic lay activist B.A. Santamaria. This was the beginning of the Labor Split of the 1950s—which commenced in late 1954 and concluded three years later when Labor divided in Queensland. My father, along with thousands of anticommunist rank-and-file members, was driven from the ALP. Also Labor withdrew its support from the anticommunist unionists in the Industrial Groups.
At the May 1955 Victorian election and at the December 1955 federal election, I helped—or pretended to help—my father and my siblings distribute flyers for the newly formed Anti-Communist Labor Party, which was subsequently renamed the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP gave its second preferences to the Liberal Party ahead of Labor.
So, in 1955, my father put Bob Menzies ahead of the candidate of what he termed the “Evatt Labor Party” in the seat of Kooyong. My parents remained in Kooyong for the rest of their lives—living in Hawthorn and then Kew. From the time of the Split, my father handed out how-to-vote cards for the DLP for around twelve hours each election day until shortly before his death in 1974. It is a matter of record that DLP preferences saved the Menzies-led Coalition from defeat at the 1961 federal election and the John Gorton-led Coalition from defeat in 1969.
Menzies understood the significance of what had occurred; Gorton never did. The former went on to win yet another victory in 1963 before retiring; the latter lost his leadership in a party-room ballot and his poorly performing successor William McMahon lost the 1972 election to Labor under Gough Whitlam’s leadership.
There are two great and honourable political traditions in Australia—the social democratic tradition and the politically conservative tradition. Up until the Labor Split of the mid-1950s, the Hendersons of Balwyn and the Dargavels of East Kew belonged to the former. The Menzies of Kew, then Balwyn, then Canberra, obviously belonged to the latter. Even though Bob Menzies chose to call the party which he formed in 1944 the Liberal Party of Australia—rather than, say, the Conservative Party.
My father always supported the social democrats—he rejected the totalitarians on the extreme left and the extreme right. Menzies always supported the political conservatives even though, on a couple of occasions towards the end of his life, he gave his first preference to the DLP. Menzies also rejected the fascist or Nazi or lunar right’s totalitarians on the right—along with the communist totalitarians on the left.
Just as Menzies admired Curtin and Chifley, even though he disagreed with them on many issues—so my family came to admire Menzies, even if they did not agree completely with him. There was, after all, much to admire.
I note that Andrew Robb—who played a significant role in the Liberal Party’s electoral victory in 1996 and who is now the most senior Liberal in Victoria—comes from a similar background to mine. He helped his father to distribute DLP how-to-vote cards in Epping and, later, Reservoir. Frank Robb, like Norman Henderson, was a social democrat by instinct—who moved away from Labor because he could not accept the social policy and foreign policy agenda of Evattism and Whitlamism.
Popular Support—Outside the Academy
Australians tend not to be flag-waving and emotional. The fact that some 100,000 Australians turned out in the Melbourne CBD and in the suburbs to pay tribute to Menzies, after he died at age of eighty-three, provides an indication of the respect with which he was held by many.
As we know, Menzies became prime minister after Joseph Lyons died in office in April 1939. By and large, both men have been treated with undue harshness by Australian historians and commentators. Anne Henderson has done much to re-assess Lyons’ reputation with her essay in Michelle Grattan’s collection Australian Prime Ministers along with her entry in the 2003 edition of Britain’s Dictionary of National Biography—and, more generally, in her recently published Enid Lyons: Leading Lady to a Nation.
I am proud of the fact that I have played a part in re-assessing Robert Menzies’ reputation—in my weekly newspaper column since 1987, in my electronic media appearances and in my book Menzies’ Child. No one did more to give Menzies his due than Allan Martin in his two-volume biography. The fact that the late Dr Martin was a self-declared Labor voter for much of his life gave greater credibility to this work. Allan addressed the Sydney Institute on the occasion of the launch of both volumes of his biography—and both speeches live on in published form in the Sydney Papers. He also delivered this lecture in 1994.
It’s scarcely surprising that Joseph Lyons has received a bad press despite his achievement, when acting treasurer, in ensuring (with the active support of the young Victorian MP, R.G. Menzies) that Australia did not default on its loans in the early 1930s and in overseeing, when prime minister, Australia’s economic recovery after the Great Depression. Many, if not most, academics are either leftist or left-of-centre. Put simply, Lyons was detested because he broke away from the Labor Party in 1931 and joined the political conservatives—thus being branded with that contemptible label of “Labor rat”.
Menzies was resented by the same group because he was a political conservative and an avowed anticommunist. Also, both men were popular politicians who kept Labor out of office. Lyons won elections in 1931, 1934 and 1937. Menzies narrowly retained office in 1940. He failed to win in 1946—his only defeat at the ballot box—but prevailed from 1949 until his retirement in January 1966, winning seven elections in a row.
As Heather Henderson commented in a letter published in Quadrant last April—in which she made the case that her father was Australia’s greatest prime minister—Sir Robert had “the wit to know when to go”. Not only did Menzies retire at a time of his own choosing, he also provided the opportunity for his successor Harold Holt to renew and refresh the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the December 1966 election in which the Coalition scored a record victory.
The Left’s Attack on Menzies—Living and Dead
The proposition that Menzies matters is self-evident from the attempts by the Left to discredit his period in office and to diminish his legacy both in retirement and in death. This was led by the influential historian Manning Clark. In the epilogue to the sixth (and final) volume of his A History of Australia, Professor Clark wrote with approval of the various Labor leaders. Jim Scullin was “much loved”; John Curtin was “greatly loved”; Ben Chifley, too, was “loved”; Bert Evatt “had the image of Christ in his heart” and “believed Labor was the Magic Flute leading Australians from ignorance and superstition up into the light”; Gough Whitlam was a “man of vision” who attempted “to liberate Australians from the dead hand of the past”. And so on.
And what about R.G. Menzies? Well, according to Clark, Menzies’ life was a “tragedy writ large” since he “lacked the one precious gift of reading the direction of the river of life”. What’s more, Clark maintained, Menzies “may have tasted deep damnation as the fruit of all his disquiet” and—wait for it—was not loved.
This approach to history as barracking for left-wing causes has influenced many of Australia’s contemporary historians who comment today on R.G. Menzies and the Liberal Party.
Michael McKernan was a bit ahead of me at school—but we had the same history teacher, Jim Griffin. I was a student at the University of Melbourne with Judith Brett, David Day and Stuart Macintyre. All of the above four were very bright students—who subsequently made a significant contribution in the various capacities of historian, commentator and teacher. All four—plus John Edwards—have delivered fine addresses to the Sydney Institute. What they share in common is a sense of contempt for Menzies—to a greater or lesser extent. What is this all about?
Stuart Macintyre wrote an article titled “The Legacy of Robert Menzies” in the Winter 1995 issue of Voices, which was published by the National Library of Australia to mark the occasion of the Liberal Party’s fiftieth birthday. Speaking—somewhat presumptuously —for his generation, Macintyre declared:
“Finally, there was Menzies senesces—and this was the Menzies that my generation knew best—the ageing anachronism who clung to the values and assumptions of the past. He embodied a provincial philistinism that we post-war baby boomers who were graduating from the universities he himself had built up found intolerable. This is a generational reading of Menzies and it is a generation to which both Judith Brett and I belong.”
Well, yes. Which helps explain Macintyre’s hostility to Menzies in his many histories. For example, in his A Concise History of Australia, Professor Macintyre maintains that, when he retired, Menzies was “a man out of sympathy with the times”. That is the view of a leftist historian. A majority of Australian voters took a different view at the time. Such analysis matters because Macintyre is one of Australia’s leading historians and has influenced generations of young Australians. He is the author of two general histories of Australia—one published by Oxford University Press, the other by Cambridge University Press.
In her book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Brett tried to take Menzies seriously—but, on occasions, could not escape what Macintyre depicts as her “generational reading” of Menzies’ alleged anachronism. In one of the most ridiculous paragraphs written in Australian political history, Brett depicts Menzies’ opposition to communism as a homophobic-induced fear of the attack from behind. That’s all. Let’s go to the text, at page 87:
“Much anti-communist rhetoric has drawn on bodily imagery: the imagery of sickness and disease (a social cancer) and the anal erotic imagery of the attack from behind (rooting rats out of holes). There are occasional uses of such imagery by mainstream Australian non-labour politicians like Menzies, but they are surprisingly few.”
In the rush to Freudian analysis, Dr Brett overlooked the obvious. Namely, that Menzies was opposed to communism because it enshrined what Ronald Reagan was later to term the evil empire. The prisoners in the various communist gulags well understood this—as did the descendants of the victims of Lenin, Stalin and Mao—even if such wisdom was not gained by the likes of Brett and Macintyre.
In his contribution to Voices in 1995 Macintyre bagged Menzies’ alleged anachronism—on behalf of himself and his colleague Brett. It seems that anachronism, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. After leaving Melbourne University, Macintyre became, for a while, a member of the Communist Party. For her part, Brett signed up as an editor of Arena Magazine, a self-declared journal of Left opinion which remains the house journal for many a continuing Marxist. Such life-choices seem somewhat anachronistic to me.
It says a lot about Robert Menzies that his legacy has been able to withstand decades of withering criticism from within the academy and sections of the media and yet remain so strong three decades after his death. There have been attempts by the school of Menzies’ naysayers to diminish even Menzies’ unquestionable achievements. A few examples illustrate the point.
Menzies as War Leader
In his book The Strength of a Nation, Michael McKernan writes of Menzies’ support for Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany in 1938 and early 1939. He juxtaposes Menzies’ experiences in Germany (when he visited there in July 1938) with those of the left-wing historian Manning Clark (who visited Germany in late 1938). Dr McKernan contrasted Manning Clark’s first-hand report of what he saw in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht with Robert Menzies’ speech to Melbourne Grammar Old Boys a few days later. Needless to say, the comparison was not favourable to Menzies.
Ronald Reagan once joked that some of his clearest memories turned out to be of events which had never happened. We now know that Manning Clark was not in Bonn on the morning after Kristallnacht. He simply made it up by reporting his fiancée Dymphna Lodewyckz’s personal recollections as his own.
But there is a more important point here. Sure, Menzies was an appeaser in the late 1930s. So was Joe Lyons. So was the Labor leader John Curtin. And so was the overwhelming majority of Australian politicians—with the notable exception of William Morris Hughes. Moreover, as Allan Martin has documented, the term “Pig Iron Bob” which was applied to Menzies was unfair since, in the late 1930s, all members of the League of Nations were trading with Japan—and John Curtin and the Labor Opposition did not criticise Menzies at the time.
However, the fact is that when Mr Chamberlain came to his senses and Britain declared war on Germany, Menzies joined leaders in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and some other nations in “putting on the khaki” in support of king and country. On September 3, 1939, speaking as prime minister, Menzies said that it was his melancholy duty to declare that, consequent upon Germany’s invasion of Poland, Australia was at war with Germany.
This stands in stark contrast to many of Manning Clark’s comrades on the Left at the time. The inconvenient truth is that, when Menzies declared war on Germany in 1939, the Communist Party of Australia and its fellow travellers supported Nazi Germany—as a consequence of their backing of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. This lot included the likes of Mr Mortimer and Dr O’Day. The pro-communist Left continued to oppose the Allied war effort until July 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
Yes, Menzies was an appeaser in 1938. But he became a warrior in 1939. Unlike the pro-communist Left—which effectively collaborated with the Nazis during the first two years of the Second World War. This is something which is seldom dwelt on in, say, a Stuart Macintyre history. Indeed the impact of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on Australia does not even rate a mention in either Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia or his The Oxford History of Australia: Volume 4: 1901–1942.
And what about the social democrats? Michael McKernan has referred to John Curtin as the “father of the nation” during the Second World War. Yet it should be remembered that, when he was Opposition leader at the commencement of the war, Curtin opposed the deployment of the Australian Imperial Force to fight Hitlerism—maintaining that it should stay at home to defend Australia. The truth is that in September 1939 Labor was not prepared to do anything to defeat Nazism in Europe or in North Africa.
The Left and the social democrats are invariably better at writing, and re-writing, history than the political conservatives. On April 19, 2001, John Edwards delivered the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Public Lecture at Curtin University. An early copy was given to selected media outlets—and the ABC AM program revealed “the discovery of a letter” sent by Menzies to Stanley Melbourne Bruce in London in September 1939. The ABC ran John Edwards’ line that Menzies was an “appeaser … even after the war began”. This overlooked the obvious point that appeasers don’t declare war.
I was interviewed by AM and The World Today that morning—and introduced by the latter program as “one of the chief safe-guarders of the Bob Menzies legacy”. That night, at late notice, I was invited to debate the matter with Dr Edwards on the Lateline program. There I was able to remind viewers that this so-called new evidence had actually been published as long ago as 1976 in Volume 11 of Documents on Australian Foreign Policy: 1937–49. So, nothing had been discovered—by Edwards or anyone else.
The same evening, Paul Keating weighed into the debate on the ABC Radio National Late Night Live program—accusing Menzies of being one of a group of “craven cowards who wanted to lie down when the fight was really on”. Edwards did not tell his audience—and Keating failed to inform Phillip Adams’ listeners—that in Australia, in September 1939, only the Left did not want to combat Nazism when the fight was really on. Needless to say, Mr Adams did not bother to correct Mr Keating’s bad history or to mention that his guest’s hero—Jack Lang—did not want to take on Nazism at any time during 1939 or 1940.
Then there is David Day, whose book Menzies & Churchill at War is soon to form the basis of an ABC television documentary. In this tome Dr Day alleged that Menzies was willing to quit Australia in the early years of the war and settle in Britain where he hoped to succeed Winston Churchill as prime minister of the United Kingdom. What is the evidence for so serious a claim?
Well, as Allan Martin has documented, it consists of a minute, which Menzies probably did not read, in which one of Menzies’ admirers theorised that it would be a you-beaut idea if his hero took over at 10 Downing Street. Day’s account of this (non) event is replete with such tell-tale words and concepts as “presumably”, “it seems”, “suggests”, even “Trojan horse”.
Paul Hasluck, Australia’s official war historian for political events, who later served as a minister in Coalition governments after 1949, was in as good a position as anyone to assess the relative merits of Menzies and Curtin as wartime leaders. Sir Paul delivered his judgment in his 1979 Daniel Mannix Memorial Lecture:
“I challenge the accuracy of those accounts which represent this term [Menzies’s first period as prime minister] as a failure. It was Menzies who laid the foundation of the Australian war effort. The results obtained by Curtin after the Japanese attack at the end of 1941 were the direct outcome of the work done by Menzies in the previous two years. Curtin himself acknowledged this. The organisation established by Menzies for the war effort and the appointments made in his term were used to good effect by his successors. Both Menzies and Curtin earn credit as wartime Prime Ministers.”
Menzies and the Lunar Right
Despite Menzies’ willingness to commit Australia to war against fascism in 1939, some of his detractors like to present him as a fascist, or neo-fascist, or something like that. Take, for example, the work of academic Andrew Moore—in particular his book The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia, where the following statement appears: “It might sound melodramatic to suggest that in 1951 Australian fascism’s headquarters were in ‘The Lodge’ Canberra, but that is not so very far from the truth.”
Dr Moore’s analysis is not even good melodrama. Just bad, undocumented history. Menzies did not even encourage Australia’s home-grown Lunar Right and certainly not real fascists. Malcolm Fraser has recorded that, when he was a young Liberal MP in the 1950s, Menzies advised him to have nothing whatsoever to do with the anti-Semite Eric Butler and the Australian League of Rights organisation which Butler headed. To even hint that Menzies’ home was the headquarters of Australian fascism in Australia circa 1951 is total calumny. Yet this is the sort of historical drivel which is being taught, at taxpayers’ expense, to young Australians undertaking tertiary studies by those who seek to sneer at—and attempt to diminish—Menzies’ memory.
The Private Menzies
When the libertarian Left begins to bemoan the alleged lack of morality among political conservatives, it is evident that there is a political play involved. A recent example occurred when the comedian, Sunday Age columnist and one-time Arena editor, Guy Rundle, attacked the moral standards of Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter, Bristol. Writing in the on-line Crikey newsletter on September 3, 2008, Rundle sneered: “John McCain has a face that says ‘yes’, some stooges said earlier at the GOP. Yeah, dude, but sadly so does Bristol Palin.” It’s interesting how some leftist libertarians become born-again moralisers when there is a prospect of criticising a political conservative or members of his or her family.
In November 2006 Mungo MacCallum contributed a leading article in the Monthly—editorial chairman Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe University, editor Sally Warhaft—in which he wrote:
“when Sir Warwick Fairfax belatedly discovered that his first wife had conducted an affair with Menzies, the Sydney Morning Herald had a rather less passionate affair with Menzies’s opponent, Arthur Calwell.”
This was not the first occasion in which MacCallum had run this rumour about Menzies and the late Mrs Warwick (Betty) Fairfax. He had given it a mention in an article published in July 2002 in the Age. It’s just that, on this later occasion, I was phoned by Crikey’s Misha Ketchell, who asked me what was the evidence for MacCallum’s claim. I replied—none whatsoever—and drew his attention to page 302 of the first volume of Allan Martin’s biography where the only extant evidence was published about the friendship, circa 1938, between Mr Menzies and Mrs Fairfax. It was a friendly note in which Menzies said that he might invite himself around for a drink with Mrs Fairfax after he returned to Australia from a visit to Europe.
I advised Ketchell that I had spoken to the late Allan Martin about this matter and that Martin had informed me that there was no evidence of any kind to support this rumour. I also suggested that had there been such an affair, it is most unlikely that Menzies would have left a copy of even such an innocuous letter in his personal papers.
Ketchell went back to Warhaft and asked her what fact-checking the Monthly undertook before publishing Mungo MacCallum’s claim. Sally Warhaft’s reply to Crikey is instructive. She said:
“I spoke to Mungo about this. When I first read it [the rumour] I said I felt very uneasy about it. He said he’d talked to a lot of people and it was common knowledge and he’d published it before. I accepted Mungo’s insistence that his sources were strong.”
It seems that Professor Manne presides over an influential journal of opinion where so-called fact-checking merely involves an editor asking a contributor about his or her sources—and is satisfied when the (alleged) evidence is attributed to that ubiquitous source “common knowledge”.
Pressured by Crikey, MacCallum put forward his evidence. It consisted of his recall of stories told to him many years ago by (unnamed) politicians, (unnamed) political staffers, two (deceased) journalists and some (anonymous) deceased Commonwealth car drivers. In the follow-up discussion in Crikey, the rumour was dismissed by—among others—historians Gavin Souter and Bridget Griffen-Foley and journalists Vic Carroll, Gideon Haigh and Brian Johns.
Eventually MacCallum conceded to Crikey that there was “no direct evidence” that “more than a platonic friendship” was involved. But neither Robert Manne nor Sally Warhaft saw fit to run a correction—or even a clarification—in the Monthly.
Menzies as Liberal Party Founder
The Liberal Party does not make as much as it should of its pre-history—including the existence of such parties as the Protectionist Party, the Free Trade Party, the original Liberal Party (which followed the fusion of the protectionists and free traders), the Nationalist Party and the United Australia Party—which were led by the likes of Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin, George Reid, Joseph Cook, William Morris Hughes, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, John Latham (a former Member for Kooyong), Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies.
I welcome the fact that the recently published Liberal Party pamphlet 60 Years of Achievement in Australia contains a section on Australia’s liberal and conservative traditions from Federation in 1901 until the formation of the Liberal Party in 1944. I believe there is a strong place for extending this sense of history to the Liberal Party room in Canberra.
I would not change the photographic series which begins with Robert Menzies, runs up to Brendan Nelson and will include Malcolm Turnbull. However, there is a case for a miniature series devoted to those who led the political conservatives at the national level before 1944. All of this group—except Lyons—sat in this house of parliament when Melbourne was the capital of Australia before the seat of government moved to Canberra in 1927.
Menzies was a politician who experienced failure along with acute disappointment and yet prevailed. As indicated, much of the academic criticism of the Menzies government between 1939 and 1941 has been unfair. Yet it is clear that Menzies mishandled the politics of leading the UAP at the time—so much so that he lost the support of his colleagues at wartime and felt the need to step down in favour of Arthur Fadden, the Country Party leader. This followed a disappointing election result in 1940 when Menzies failed to win an absolute majority of seats.
As we know, Menzies fought back and managed to bring the disparate forces of political conservatism together. The story has been told by Menzies in his book Afternoon Light, by Allan Martin, by Graeme Starr in The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History, by myself and by others. However, many of Menzies’ critics will not even acknowledge his success in forming the Liberal Party. Take Judith Brett, for example. In an introduction to the new edition of Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Judith Brett wrote about the Liberal Party’s fiftieth anniversary in 1994:
“We heard time and again in the media that ‘Menzies had founded the Liberal Party.’ Gerard Henderson even called his book on the Liberal Party Menzies’ Child. To be sure, Menzies had a big hand in it, but as historian Ian Hancock has argued, it defies commonsense to think that one man could found a party. Menzies may have been the new party’s most prominent spokesman, but its successful formation out of a score or so of other organisations depended on a huge amount of organisational work by many people. Commonsense, however, is no match for people’s need for heroes, and the identities of those organisations and people have all but disappeared from Liberal Party memory. Only Menzies remains. The myth of the party’s origins had thus become the myth of leadership.”
This comment is not true. Menzies, Martin, Starr, myself and others have all referred to the organisations which came together—initially in Canberra and then Albury in late 1944—out of which the modern Liberal Party was formed. Moreover, the men and women who led these organisations have been named. I use the phrase “men and women” not to be fashionably inclusive but, rather, to reflect reality. Menzies himself paid tribute to the key role played by Mrs (May) Couchman, and the Australian Women’s National League in Victoria, in the formation of the Liberal Party of Australia.
The essential point is that no one except Menzies had the political ability, charisma or intellectual clout to merge these organisations at the time. That’s why it is fair to call the Liberal Party “Menzies’ child”. It is noteworthy that Dr Brett now seems unwilling to discuss this topic. During a recent e-mail correspondence, the following exchange took place:
Gerard Henderson to Judith Brett—April 7, 2008
Finally, I ask you the same question which I asked Ian Hancock in 1995. Do you believe that the Liberal Party of Australia would have been founded circa 1944 without Robert Menzies? Professor Hancock has conceded that the correct answer to this question is in the negative. What do you think?
Judith Brett to Gerard Henderson—April 7, 2008
I’ve noted your views.
I suggest that Dr Brett declined to answer this crucial question because a truthful answer was inconsistent with her theory that the statement that Menzies founded the Liberal Party is but a “myth”.
In democratic politics and in government, the real achievers are those who create sustainable institutions or who implement sustainable change. In his long political career, Menzies accomplished much. But, without question, one of his great achievements was to create the Liberal Party of Australia in 1944 out of the remnants of the politically conservative parties and organisations which existed in the early 1940s and had performed disastrously under the leadership of Fadden and Hughes at the 1943 federal election.
Menzies’ achievement is no more evident than in those periods—like the present—when the Liberal Party is out of favour with the electorate. In 1993—during Labor’s (then) ascendancy—Judith Brett wrote “the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed”. In the lead-up to the November 2007 election, the academic Norman Abjorensen predicted that, if the Coalition lost, the Liberal Party “will be extremely fortunate to survive in its present state”.
All such prophecies have proven false—which stands as testimony to the structure which Menzies created in 1944. Following the victory of the Liberals in the recent West Australian election—and the recent good showing of the party in New South Wales and at the Gippsland by-election—no new soothsayers have emerged to foretell the Liberal Party’s imminent death.
Menzies’ child—like the significantly older Labor Party—has proved enduring in the face of vicissitudes. Malcolm Turnbull is capable of reviving the Liberal Party at the federal level because the organisation Menzies founded in 1944 was built to last—in bad times as well as in good times.
Likewise, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner are able to enact an economic package today in response to the international financial crisis because of the fact that they inherited from Peter Costello and John Howard not only a large budget surplus but also no net Commonwealth government debt. In other words, inheritance matters.
Robert Menzies—A Critique
Contrary to what some ABC journalists might say, I do not consider myself to be one of the chief safe-guardians of the Menzies legacy. Heather Henderson fulfils such a role with considerable ability—and does not need any relief from an interchange bench. However, I have been motivated to some extent to involve myself in this debate by the overwhelming criticism of a person who—on any fair analysis—is entitled to be regarded as a very successful leader of a most successful nation. If the likes of the late Manning Clark and his extant leftist academic acolytes are constantly bagging someone, then he or she must have something going for them.
Of course there is reason to query—even criticise—some of Menzies’ policies. As Paul Hasluck has acknowledged, Menzies’ strong respect for tradition was such “that he did not do much that was wrong but he was slow to do anything that was novel”. For the most part, Menzies presided over a growing economy with low interest rates, low inflation and low unemployment.
Yet Menzies could have done something to overturn what, in 1990, I termed the Federation Trifecta—the legacy left by both Alfred Deakin and Labor of high levels of protection, highly centralised industrial relations and White Australia. The Federation Trifecta was not fully dismantled until the governments led by Labor’s Bob Hawke and Paul Keating and the Coalition’s John Howard (with the support of Peter Costello). The fact that Australia has perhaps the most prosperous economy in the OECD today is due to the economic reform and regulatory policies implemented in Australia over the past quarter-century.
Menzies was a genuine federalist and believed in states’ rights. Even so, there was a good case for the Commonwealth to do more about the plight of Aborigines. In any event, the Holt government formally dropped the White Australia policy in 1966 and initiated the successful amendment to the Constitution by referendum in 1967 which gave the Commonwealth government power to make laws with respect to Aborigines.
However, on such issues as White Australia, it is important to remember that Menzies was a man of his times who was born in 1894 and his views at the time were shared by the leaders of the Labor Party along with the overwhelming majority of electors. In Menzies’ day, only two parties opposed the White Australia policy—the Communist Party and the Democratic Labor Party. An unusual unity ticket, to be sure.
Also, I believe that the Menzies government—and here I include such senior ministers as Holt and Hasluck—could have done more to explain Australia’s Vietnam commitment, especially after the decision to send combat troops in 1965, some of whom were to be conscripted national servicemen. I supported Australia’s Vietnam commitment. Yet I was always conscious that the Coalition did not do a good job in explaining the case—a belief which was reinforced when I read Paul Ham’s recently published book Vietnam: The Australian War. Menzies must share responsibility for this—despite his advancing age at the time.
The Menzies Achievement
All governments commit sins of commission and omission. In this they reflect humanity—in this time, after The Fall. Yet, on any objective standard, Robert Menzies presided over a successful administration which ensured the security of Australians and facilitated rising living standards.
In his book The Lucky Country, which was published in 1964, Donald Horne depicted Australia as “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”. This was a harsh and unfair judgment. In fact, Australia was a successful democracy in 1964—and it remains so today.
Today it is fashionable in some circles to present Menzies as something which he was not—that is, as some kind of small “l” liberal who would feel comfortable in, say, the British Liberal Democrats. This is ahistorical. Some leading Liberals today could well learn from the Liberal Party founder—who understood the need to continue to appeal to political, social and economic conservatives and who recognised that the Liberal Party would never succeed in the long term by flirting with the Left.
Whether Australians in Menzies’ time agreed with him or not, they invariably understood where he stood on the important economic, social and foreign policy issues of the day. In other words, Menzies readily embraced what he regarded as good policy.
• Menzies believed in the family as the most important institution in society—and his government’s policies reflected this.
• Menzies believed in the importance of private enterprise, with a particular focus on small business. Unlike contemporaneous leaders in Britain and New Zealand, he did not take Australia along the route of nationalisation of private industry by compulsory acquisition or cradle-to-grave welfare. Welfare was a responsible safety net, not an initiative-sapping drip.
Some contemporary commentators like to present Menzies as being opposed to privatisation. Not so. In 1952 the Australian government’s shares in Common-wealth Oil Refineries were sold and what was once COR became BP Australia. This decision was part of what was called at the time Menzies’ “de-socialisation” agenda. I still recall my father, who always bought COR petrol, criticising Menzies for this act of privatisation. As explained, Norman Henderson in the early 1950s supported public ownership.
• Menzies believed in national security—including our close friendships and alliances with Britain and the United States of America. Australia’s commitments to support the USA and Britain in Korea, the British at the time of the Malayan Emergency and during Confrontation, and the USA in Vietnam were undertaken because Menzies maintained that such commitments were in the national interest of Australia as well as being consistent with Australia’s treaty obligations.
On national security, Menzies banned the Communist Party of Australia soon after the commencement of the Second World War. He (unsuccessfully) sought to ban the CPA in the early 1950s when, as has now been proven, it was an agent of the communist totalitarian dictatorship in Moscow. The Menzies government also introduced tough-minded amendments to the Crimes Act in the early 1960s—which upset the pro-communist Left and the civil liberties lobby of the day.
Justification for the Menzies government’s approach can be found in the book What’s Left? written by one-time Communist Party functionary Eric Aarons. At page 118, Aarons confessed that he had reminded his fellow comrades in the mid-1950s that, if the Communist Party was “in power … we … could have executed people we considered to be … helping our enemies”. The CPA’s direct “enemies”, of course, would have been executed—read murdered—straight away, without question. The Australian public was entitled to be protected from such revolutionaries—and Menzies understood this.
• Menzies believed in economic growth and supported high levels of immigration whenever this was consistent with increasing employment.
• While initially distrustful of Catholics, Menzies was the first Australian political leader, Catholic or Protestant, to resolve the legitimate claim by Catholics that their schools should receive government support—state aid, in the language of the day. At the time, Catholics of Irish and Italian stock comprised the most significant minority in Australia. My Catholic family rejoiced in the breakthrough on state aid which the Menzies government took to, and enacted after, the 1963 election. It resolved a grievance which had existed all their lives and it demonstrated the influence of DLP preferences at the time.
In short, Menzies presided over an accepting society with near-zero levels of ethnically motivated crime and very high levels of inter-marriage between ethnic groups. Australia was a successful multicultural nation in the 1950s and 1960s before the term was invented.
In his important book The Costello Memoirs, Peter Costello graciously writes that, “with the possible exception of Sir Robert Menzies, John Howard is Australia’s greatest prime minister”. Kevin Rudd also understands the importance of the Menzies legacy. In the lead-up to the 2007 election, our current Prime Minister sought to identify with Sir Robert.
The respect held by many mainstream social democrats like Mr Rudd for Menzies—along with the continuing hatred of Menzies from the far Left—tells us why Robert Gordon Menzies remains so important three decades after his death. And why it is necessary that the Monash Liberal Club—and the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust—continue to remember R.G. Menzies each year. And why Menzies still matters—both to the Liberal Party and to our nation.
This is the 2008 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture given by Gerard Henderson in the chamber of the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament of Victoria on October 23, 2008. It will also be published as a booklet by the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, GPO Box 1101, Melbourne 3001.