Menzies Before the Liberal Party

After a brilliant career at the Melbourne bar in the 1920s and a period as Victoria’s Attorney-General, Robert Gordon Menzies eventually became the most towering federal parliamentarian ever seen in Australian politics. But until now, few books, even including Allan Martin’s magisterial two-volume biography (1993, 1999), have dealt in any length or clarity with Menzies’s childhood, personality and early adulthood.

The Young Menzies explores the formative period of Menzies’s life, when his personal and political beliefs, which helped make modern Australia, were being moulded. A number of contributors to this fine collection examine the context and origins of the ideas and principles that Menzies later put into powerful political practice when he returned to the prime ministership in 1949. It was these principles, Menzies claimed, to which he attempted to adhere for his sixteen more years leading Australia’s governing Liberal-Country Party coalition.

This review appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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The Young Menzies also deals with the many difficulties Menzies faced when, as leader of the United Australia Party, he first attained our highest office in 1939. This prime ministership occurred at a time when the nation’s primary focus was on survival. It was only after he ignominiously lost power in 1941 that Menzies was given the impetus and capacity for self-reflection to develop a detailed vision for post-war Australia. This led him to establish the Liberal Party of Australia in the mid-1940s, and then to become our longest-serving prime minister. Menzies’s record of slightly over eighteen years in office seems unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed.

In a foreword to The Young Menzies, Geoffrey Blainey points out that Menzies’s rural hometown, Jeparit, about 350 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, had “few cultural amenities except the churches. Even the town library—in the year when he was learning to talk—held a mere 247 volumes.” At a time when religion permeated education and politics, as a youth Menzies absorbed the hymns and religious ideology of Methodism and especially of Presbyterianism, becoming, as he later wrote, “well-schooled in the Bible”. David Furse-Roberts, author of God & Menzies (2021), canvasses the above in his chapter, “A Simple Presbyterianism in Politics”. 

The Young Menzies is ably edited by Dr Zachary Gorman, the academic co-ordinator at Melbourne University’s Robert Menzies Institute. This illuminating anthology covers Menzies’s life from his birth in the back of the family’s general store in Jeparit in December 1894 to his evocative The Forgotten People radio broadcast, which he delivered in May 1942.

As well as Furse-Roberts, contributors to this well-indexed and beautifully produced book are, in alphabetical order, Frank Bongiorno, Troy Bramston, Judith Brett, Nick Cater, Anne Henderson, David Kemp, Greg Melleuish and Scott Prasser. In addition, Justice James Edelman and Angela Kittikhoun co-author a fascinating chapter, “Menzies and the Law”.

As befits a book of ten, often disparate, scholarly essays, The Young Menzies begins with an informed assessment of the existing historiography surrounding Menzies and his views about Australian liberalism. This is written by the Liberal Party stalwart and prolific historian David Kemp.

Troy Bramston’s contribution, “Young Robert”, is extremely revealing. In 2019 Bramston published a detailed biographical study, Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, which covered Menzies’s childhood and experiences as a youth.

Close to his mother but often distant from his father, both of whom prized hard work, thrift, education, self-reliance and public duty, the young Menzies (who was the fourth of five children) started formal schooling in June 1898. This was at the local state primary school in the dusty wheat town of his birth. Bramston explains that Menzies, a keen and able student, was only able to further his education by winning scholarships to study at a school in Ballarat, at the prestigious Wesley College in Melbourne, and then, in 1913, at the University of Melbourne. In fact, Menzies’s upbringing in Jeparit could not be further, Bramston writes, “from the establishment youth into which his later contemporaries in the law and politics were born. There was no family fortune and few connections.”

Shortly after he began studying for a Bachelor of Laws, Menzies made a seminal decision not to enlist in the First World War. His strict father and doting mother had insisted that, as his two elder brothers Les and Frank were fighting abroad, he should remain to look after the family. Being branded a coward for not enlisting had, Menzies said, “a very searing effect” on his mind.  

Bramston maintains that, as a direct result of his failure to enlist, Menzies “decided to go into politics, viewing it as ‘public service of some kind’, to erase the perceived stain on his name”. This attempt to validate his existence, it seems clear, was the dominating reason that propelled Menzies to stand for parliament and to begin a long, sometimes turbulent, and eventually hugely successful, political career.

Although essentially a moderate, Menzies, an avid reader, enthusiastically advocated many causes. As Greg Melleuish and Judith Brett respectively explain, these included the importance of liberal education and higher education, of civic values and political liberalism, and the value of the Australian federation. Other passions, enumerated by Scott Prasser, were loyalty to Great Britain and the crucial role of home ownership and private property. He was not enamoured of the notion of provision of public housing and especially of any government-enforced redistribution of wealth. 

As The Young Menzies makes clear, Menzies was a master of the medium of radio, which he loved, and used to massive positive effect. The thirty-seven broadcast essays that comprised The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy, published in 1943, were distributed widely throughout Australia by Angus & Robertson, which was based in Sydney. As Nick Cater states, these published radio broadcasts “were arguably the most important intellectual contribution to Australian politics since Federation”. They articulated the principles of Australian liberalism: individual freedom; equal dignity; equality of opportunity rather than equal outcomes; personal and community responsibility; the family and the family home as the primary unit of social cohesion; the rule of law; constitutional parliamentary governance; economic prosperity; and progress-driven private enterprise motivated by reward for effort. According to Cater, they also set the terms for the democratisation of university education, which occurred in earnest under Menzies from 1957 to 1966. (That was the time when, with the aid of a Commonwealth Scholarship, I completed a BA Honours degree, studying History, Politics and Economics at Monash University.)

Cater wisely argues that the ideas that buttress The Forgotten People represent an utter and explicit rejection of the leftist notion of “competing social classes with clashing economic interests”. As he summarises the situation, “The class divide, in so far as Menzies will allow it, pits an enterprising and industrial middle class without inherited privilege against a capital-owning upper class and an organised working class.” In many ways, this is similar to the ideas of Britain’s later long-serving Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.

According to Cater, Menzies’s thirty-seven radio talks form “a succinct summary of a political philosophy” that he “augmented and amplified … in countless speeches over the next three decades of public life”. His ideas certainly helped shape post-war Australia through their repeated endorsement of what Cater accurately categorises as “the power of the individual, the limited role of the state, the social and economic benefits of private enterprise, the primacy of democracy, and governance by consent”.

A highlight of The Young Menzies is Anne Henderson’s chapter, which is simply titled “Peace and War”. Author of Menzies at War (2014), Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of the Sydney Institute. Its director, her husband Gerard Henderson, wrote Menzies’ Child, a helpful history of the Liberal Party of Australia from 1944 until 1994, the year of publication. As a result of interviews with Menzies’s daughter, Heather Henderson, and with Menzies’s wife Dame Pattie Menzies, this book does deal in considerable detail with the young Menzies.

In her excellent contribution, Anne Henderson demolishes the myth that Labor luminary and later prime minister John Curtin was not an appeaser. Henderson argues persuasively that (in some ways like Menzies) until Australia went to war, Curtin tried to avoid armed conflict with Nazi Germany. Indeed, throughout the 1930s Curtin was still a pacifist who believed that the ruling class had “a vested interest in war and war-making”. As a consequence, when in Opposition as leader of the federal Labor Party, Curtin opposed every initiative of Joseph Lyons and then, in April 1939, of the Menzies government to increase Australian defence expenditure. 

Henderson reveals that, as a person and a politician, Curtin the pacifist believed that “war, if it came, would be the work of international profiteers and not the result of the expansionist ambitions of Germany’s arch-dictator Adolf Hitler. In other words, diplomacy (also known derisively as ‘appeasement’) was needed, and diplomacy should push on, regardless of the failure of the Munich Agreement of late 1938.”

The truth is that, before the Nazis invaded Poland in late August 1939, the overriding pressure on government politicians of all stripes was to avoid war. This was with the conspicuous exception of a few dissidents, most notably Winston Churchill in England and Billy Hughes in Australia. Moreover, as Henderson explains, it was not until well into 1940 that Labor, under Curtin, supported Menzies’s commitment in early September 1939 to send troops to Europe to fight Hitler. On November 16, 1939, as Opposition leader, Curtin had told the House of Representatives, “there is some hope of peace being negotiated … In many places where influence is exerted some endeavour has been made to see if, even at this terrible stage, it is not practicable to resolve the situation without prolonging or continuing the war.” For Curtin, and for Menzies, this forlorn hope was misplaced.

Until his resignation as UAP leader in August 1941 Menzies presided over a relatively effective wartime government. While his first term as prime minister was racked with divisions in the UAP, as Henderson explains, Menzies “was successful in continuing the work of the Lyons government in strengthening Australia’s war preparedness”. Indeed, when he became Australia’s prime minister in 1941, the ex-socialist Curtin acknowledged the strong inheritance he had received from Menzies. 

The statement above is supported by Frank Bongiorno in his fascinating, but ambiguously-named chapter “Menzies and Curtin at War”. In the National Library of Australia there is a handwritten letter, dated November 7, 1941, from Curtin to Menzies, who was by then a backbencher. Addressed to “Dear Bob”, Curtin noted that in a cable he had received from Winston Churchill, the British prime minister had concluded his observations with the message: “Give my regards to Mr Menzies. I am so glad he is on your War Council.” Curtin continued, “I thought you would like to know that.”

As Bongiorno states, “The voluminous writings on Robert Menzies and John Curtin are agreed on one thing: that their relations were cordial and courteous.” Even though Menzies was mainly a pragmatic, middle-class, anti-communist Scots Presbyterian, and Curtin was idealistic, working-class, factionally-conscious, and of Irish Catholic background, they always treated each other with civility. According to Menzies, “in the years we faced one another across the chamber, we met and spoke regularly, and Curtin … loved nothing more than a personal discussion which had no particular relationship to the business before the House”. 

Australia’s national prosperity that emerged in the 1950s and early 1960s owed much, Bongiorno argues, “to the dynamic of Menzies’s wartime relationship with Curtin, and the legacies of Labor’s post-Depression economic and social vision”. The latter had been implemented by Curtin as prime minister and to a lesser extent by Ben Chifley. The policies implemented by these Labor leaders arguably provided a firm base for the long, and in the main, economically successful Menzies era.

Menzies’s remarkable stint as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 leading a long-standing, but occasionally divided, conservative coalition and his role in the development of political liberalism in Australia will be canvassed in three more anthologies. These books, to be published by MUP, are to be the result of other academic conferences in Melbourne, convened by the Robert Menzies Institute.

The Young Menzies: Success, Failure, Resilience 1894–1942 
edited by Zachary Gorman

Melbourne University Press, 2022, 224 pages, $49.95

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His recent books include a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey, and My Last Drink: 32 Stories of Recovering Alcoholics, co-edited with Neal Price and published by Connor Court

5 thoughts on “Menzies Before the Liberal Party

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “Shortly after he began studying for a Bachelor of Laws, Menzies made a seminal decision not to enlist in the First World War. His strict father and doting mother had insisted that, as his two elder brothers Les and Frank were fighting abroad, he should remain to look after the family. Being branded a coward for not enlisting had, Menzies said, ‘a very searing effect’ on his mind.”
    Fitzgerald glosses over the fact the Menzies, no doubt with the support of his parents, swanned around Melbourne in the uniform of a Captain in the Melbourne University Rifles until those certain events in Europe in 1914 persuaded him to resign his commission without delay and resume the upward march of his legal career. The cost to him was, rightly or wrongly, being branded a coward by many, including identities in the Melbourne legal profession, who were commonly in similar family-service situations and refrained from resigning their commissions.
    Menzies’ subsequent career progressed despite this becoming common knowledge and the subject of countless items of gossip which lost nothing in the telling and retelling. (“If that was the case, what the %$@#$% hell was he doing in uniform in the first place?….” said the truck driver from whom I first learned the story.)
    Menzies once said in a TV interview that he had always nursed an ambition to go on the stage and become an actor. I think he could have become a very fine one, and could have given the likes of Gielgud and Olivier each a run for their money. After all, he was a boy from Jeparit who had skilfully created and adopted the eloquent persona which became known as Robert Menzies, politician.
    In that sense, he was an actor from a very early age, and never left off from the role he had crafted for himself. Needless to add, like an accomplished vaudevillean, he delighted in repartee and interaction with the numerous hecklers in the numerous auditoriums around election times.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    All politicians are actors, Ian.

  • STD says:

    And DT I would add to that, that the Australian Labor Party and the Greens would hand Australia over to their communist brethren from the mainland Chinese Communist Party ,without an audible whimper.
    Ian can you or could you explain – at the end of the day Sir Robert Menzies proved in word and deed that he was in fact a patriotic Australian. By the way his dear wife vouched for that!

    His hour had not yet come………Ian

  • alandungey says:

    Ian MacDougall states: “Fitzgerald glosses over the fact the Menzies, no doubt with the support of his parents, swanned around Melbourne in the uniform of a Captain in the Melbourne University Rifles until those certain events in Europe in 1914 persuaded him to resign his commission without delay and resume the upward march of his legal career.”

    So far as I can work out, there is almost no truth in this paragraph. Militia Service was compulsory, so whether Menzies’ membership of the University Rifles had the support of his parents or not is irrelevant. He did not resign his commission in 1914; he served in the militia for the entire duration of his studies, and for the entire duration of the war, from 1913-1919. Whether the militia had its own uniform, and whether Menzies wore it socially to impress others, as Ian alleges, I cannot say.

  • jstead says:

    Also as I understand it, the Government policy was that if there were 3 boys in a family., only 2 were allowed to enlist! Why is this not mentioned!

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