On Saturday afternoon I turned on the TV to catch up with world news. The dial was set to ABC and as the TV flicked into life I realised I had tuned into a repeat of the earlier episode of Howard On Menzies. It didn’t take me long to forget about world news and become engrossed in what I was watching. Having enjoyed that, I lapped up the final episode last night. Howard wasn’t a bad interviewer, I decided, and had access to an A-list of talent. The subtitle of the documentary was Building Modern Australia, and that was John Howard’s theme, that Robert Gordon Menzies had ruled Australia for so long we could talk of a “Menzies era” inexorably shaping the country as it glided through the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.
The ideas in the television show (and let’s remember that is what it was, a “show”) come from Howard’s monumental 700-page biography The Menzies Era: The years that shaped modern Australia. Howard says historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested he (Howard) was ideally placed to write the biography of Menzies “from a political perspective” as another long-term leader from the same party. Howard says the era of Menzies lasted from 1949 to 1972, as the three Liberal prime ministers that followed him were all served as ministers in the Menzies government.
Menzies was a towering figure in Australian politics throughout the centre of the 20th century and his influence began well before 1949. Menzies was a brilliant intellectual who would have succeeded in whatever career path he chose. Born in a small country town (an upbringing he was proud of, but quietly escaped) he served a political apprenticeship in the Victorian parliament and was a stellar barrister. Former judge Michael Kirby told Howard that Menzies would have certainly ended up on the High Court had he continued in law. But he gravitated towards federal politics in the 1930s where he found an easy fit as attorney-general in Lyons’ UAP government.
In 1935 he went to England, which began a lifelong affair with the country and its institutions. “One realises that a Parliament for England is something growing from the very roots of English soil”, he wrote. For Menzies “home” was Britain, though that was not to disparage his native Australia, which he saw as a British appendage. Menzies was in the constant public eye as AG, earning the nickname Pig Iron Bob for his firm stand when he clamped down on workers who refused to load boats carrying iron ore for Japan.
When Lyons died in 1939, Menzies was the obvious replacement. Though he had resigned from the ministry in a dispute with the Country Party over the national insurance bill, Menzies was sworn in as UAP prime minister. Ongoing hostility from Labor and the Country Party left Menzies vulnerable and he did not help his cause by spending much of the early war years in Britain. Britain was where the action was, and where Menzies wanted to be, but he neglected his power base. An ungrateful Australia booted him out of office in 1941.
Left to stew in his juices in a backwater while the affairs of the world went on without him, Menzies did a root and branch investigation into what power really meant to him. The start of his political renaissance is charted by his best biographer Judith Brett in her analysis of a series of radio speeches beginning in 1942 called The Forgotten Years. Then a backbencher, ‘The Forgotten People’ is Robert Menzies’ appeal to the Australian middle class, whom he saw as the moral backbone of the society. “proud, scrupulous, thrifty and modest.” The middle class lived outside the public sphere and centred their lives on their homes. Menzies imagined them as independent citizens exercising their judgment as to what is best for the nation as a whole. These views struck a powerful note with their intended audience and were to ground his future political success.
The occupations they had were “salary-earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on”. Menzies believed that no party spoke for these people and set about creating his own as he sat out the war. His new Liberal Party was smashed in the 1946 election but the time was right in 1949. By then the electorate had enough of Labor’s post-war austerity and wanted something new to believe it. The times were right for Menzies.
Menzies had a lot of luck in his following career. In 1954 he was on the nose until he used the Petrov Affair to whip up the fear of communism. The Labor party split of 1955 put it out of action for the rest of the decade, yet Arthur Calwell almost snatched government in 1961, Menzies winning by one seat. Menzies’ final victory in 1964 was a triumph as he used Labor sectarianism to push through popular reforms in education, snatching much of their Catholic vote in the process. He retired in glory on Australia Day 1966 handing over power to Harold Holt.
Hated and despised by Labor in equal measure, it wasn’t until another towering intellect came along in Gough Whitlam, that Menzies’ ghost could be exorcised. And it took another Labor genius Paul Keating to read the last rites. Howard tries to get us to look at Menzies in a new light, but with Howard being in Menzies own image, perhaps is fatally undermined in that task.
But as a gripping sequence between Howard and Bob Hawke reminds us, Menzies’ longevity in power is extraordinary in a democracy and questions need to be asked about he survived so long. Luck played a large part as did his ability to turn world affairs to his account. The quality of his opposition was poor, Labor being even more conservative and set in their ways than Menzies was. And the power of his personality made him the dominant figure in his own party making sure that there would be no night of the long knives from within. His patrician bearing could never make him a man of the people and he failed in his personal quest to ban Communism. But he was always a political survivor. As Barry Humphries said “no one liked him except the electorate”.
Howard On Menzies teased out many of those issues, as it was about Howard as much as it was about Menzies. Menzies’ success was based on “quiet prosperity” which is an oxymoron today, and probably was in Menzies’ time, predicated by hiding behind tariff walls, picket fences and whitewashed history. There was no doubt the people Menzies appealed to were hard-working and decent and Howard tried to tap into them to guarantee his own long term survival. But by the late 20th century the walls were crumbling and despite Howard’s dictum of “we will decide who comes to this country”, he could not keep his Australia as white and pure as Menzies’ Australia.
As I said, Howard had a stellar list of Australian greats ready to give their fascinating tuppence worth on Menzies. But one of Menzies’ key lessons was missed in the program. As he sat out the war, he realised an important electoral demographic was women, and he spoke to their needs. But Judith Brett aside, they were largely absent from Howard on Menzies. They remained the forgotten people.