Australian Books

Unforgotten person

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

A newly-elected Australian Prime Minister was pleased to receive a letter of congratulations from Australia’s longest serving PM, Sir Robert Menzies. The new PM replied warmly:

Dear Sir Robert, I was profoundly moved by your magnanimous message on my election to this great office. No Australian is more conscious than I how much the lustre, honour and authority of that office owe to the manner in which you held it with such distinction for so long. No Australian understands better than you the private feelings of one now facing the change from the years of leading the opposition to the burdens and rewards of leading our nation.

The new PM was E.G. Whitlam, and it is a measure of both Sir Robert Menzies’ towering impact on Australian politics and his commitment to the national interest, that such an exchange of letters could take place across the political aisle.

Indeed, as Troy Bramston records in this first class biography, Prime Minister Menzies was at pains to advise the young Whitlam on how best to deploy his parliamentary skills on his arrival in Canberra. The new member for Werriwa should not model himself on the populism of the firebrand Labor MP, Eddie Ward. Political adversaries, in those times, need not be enemies.

Certainly, Bramston appropriately underlines the degree of respect and the depth of friendship that existed between three of the wartime prime ministers: John Curtin, Ben Chifley, and Menzies. This was not true of Menzies’ view of ‘Doc’ Evatt, but it was a common place for Menzies to invite John Curtin, as Labor leader, to come around to the Prime Ministerial Office in Old Parliament House for ‘a yarn’.

This is not to suggest that Menzies or Curtin or Chifley did not fight their political corners with passion and dedication. Hard things were said in the three elections of 1943, ‘46 and ‘49. But unlike today, there was an absence of personal abuse. Politics was about issues and philosophies. For Menzies, this was focussed on ‘the forgotten people’.

Menzies was less approving and far less forgiving of more than a few on his own side of the chamber. Billy McMahon, caught leaking from the Menzies Cabinet, was summoned for a Prime Ministerial dressing down:

McMahon was put on notice: ‘If ever I have real reason to suppose that you have been up to these hanky-panky tricks again,’ Menzies warned, ‘I will first of all dismiss you. I will walk straight into the House and I will tell the House why you have been dismissed… and that will be the end of your beautiful career. Now push off and don’t forget it.

McMahon, of course, learned nothing, which is why Patrick Mullins’ biography of him is entitled Tiberius with a Telephone.

The conversation between Menzies and McMahon is in the Prime Ministerial Papers in the National Archives of Australia. Bramston has made good use of this and other material either overlooked or ignored by previous biographers. He has drawn upon interviews which Menzies gave in May of 1972 and December of 1973. Coupled with the author’s own interviews of family, former senior ministers, significant public servants and influential Liberal party officials, Bramston has constructed a portrait of the founder of the Liberal party that is at once carefully measured and insightfully nuanced. Sir Robert is confirmed as a man of formidable intellectual and parliamentary skills and as a great orator. But neither are his weaknesses disregarded, from his brusque disdain for lesser beings through to his apparent Olympian aloofness.

The lad from Jeparit in rural Victoria was very much a man of his monarch’s times. Bramston, whose excellent biographical record rests mainly on his authoritative assessments of Labor leaders, especially Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Neville Wran, has traced Menzies’ career from the Melbourne Bar through Victorian state politics, to Canberra, where his first period as Prime Minister ended in failure, bitterness and recrimination. Menzies learned and it is a truism in Australian politics that the best of our prime ministers had to fight very hard, both internally and externally, to arrive in the Lodge.

For Robert Gordon Menzies, the year 1944 was the pivot in his political career.  The conservative forces were in disarray and wartime Labor was dominant. The United Australia Party was a bankrupt estate. Menzies had the vision to rebuild Australian conservatism in the form of the new Liberal party, named carefully for the Australian experience. Conferences in Canberra and Albury brought disparate conservative elements together under the Liberals’ banner.

Menzies’ role was decisive in everything from the drafting of the new party’s constitution to the design of a new federal structure. The value of all this decisive work was that in 1949, Menzies defeated Ben Chifley and set in train a 16-year prime ministership during which Canberra evolved as a truly national capital.

Some dismiss the Menzies years as the ‘Rip van Winkle’ years. While it is true that more could have been achieved during the long period of prosperity, the achievements of the Menzies government from the Colombo plan to the consolidation of the US Alliance under the Anzus Treaty are not to be forgotten. On the Suez Crisis of 1956, Menzies was found wanting. But the Commerce Treaty with Japan of 1957 set the platform for continuing economic growth for both countries. Bramston underlines Menzies’ mistake in sending Australian combat troops to Vietnam. But he was not alone among American allies.

Menzies remains a commanding figure in our politics, alternatively being embraced or discarded. This was not always recognised during his life, as a comment from Country party leader, Arthur Fadden at the funeral of John Curtin puts beyond doubt:

A long processional march snaked its way from Cottesloe, where Curtin had lived, to Karrakatta Cemetery on July 8 1945. Menzies and Fadden were among the thousands walking to honour Curtin. ‘I don’t want all this fuss when I go, Artie,’ Menzies said. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t get it,’ Fadden replied.

Politics should always be humbling.

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