Robert Gordon Menzies is remembered for being Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister spending an incredible 18 years in office between 1939-41 and 1949-1966. His legacy, however, is politicised and fiercely contested as he was the founder and inaugural leader of the Liberal Party of Australia. Despite retiring from public life in 1966, Menzies’ long shadow continued to shape Australian politics for decades. On 27 February 1992 Prime Minister Paul Keating viciously attacked the notion put forward by his eventual successor, John Howard, that the 1950s had been a ‘golden age’ for Australia (Barnes, 2003, 30). Keating, and the broader Labor narrative, has described the Menzies era as a period of stagnation and of racial and gender inequality. Despite this, when the Age asked leading historians and political writers to rank Australian prime ministers from best to worst, Menzies came in second, beaten only by John Curtin (Age, 2004). Menzies’ contribution to Australian and international politics can be judged in three distinct categories; his war-time leadership, his post-war policies and his crusade against communism. Finally, the party that he founded must be analysed. Does it still reflect his original vision? By breaking down Menzies’ long period of leadership into sections and ignoring both the plentiful hagiographical and vitriolic accounts, his contribution can be more fairly assessed.
Menzies’ first term as prime minister is generally viewed as unsuccessful. He gained the leadership of the ruling United Australian Party following the death of Joseph Lyons on 7 April 1939. The political situation in Europe was already menacing and by September war had broken out. Menzies informed the nation that Great Britain had declared war on Germany and that ‘as a result, Australia is also at war’ (Waters, 2012, 1). This reflected Menzies’ core belief that Australia was not an independent nation but a member state of the Commonwealth, inextricably tied to Britain and the wider Empire. A federal election on 21 September 1940 returned a hung parliament and Menzies retained the prime ministership with the support of Victorian Independent MPs, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson. Early the next year, however, Menzies left for Britain and spent four months discussing war strategy with Winston Churchill and other members of the Imperial War Cabinet. He was roundly criticised for spending so much time abroad at such a crucial moment and returned home to find he had lost the support of his own party and was forced to resign (Grose, 2007, 20). The Independents crossed the floor and Labor leader, John Curtin, assumed the prime ministership.
Had Menzies ended his political career at this point, he likely would be remembered as failure, a footnote to the greater history of John Curtin. In many ways, Menzies contributed to Curtin and to the emerging sense of Australian nationalism by being so staunchly Imperial-minded. Menzies considered Australia to be automatically at war with Germany following Great Britain’s declaration. Trained as a lawyer, he would have known this was not legally the case, but in the mind of one of Australia’s last great empire men, morally, it was so. In contrast, Curtin insisted Australia make its own declaration of war against Japan in December 1941 (Boyce, 2008, 25). Curtin further distanced himself from Menzies by declaring soon after that ‘Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kingship to the United Kingdom’ (Curran, 2011, 11). Although as James Curran has noted, the phrasing was a revelation of realpolitik not an ‘epiphany of Australian independence and a rejection of the nation’s Britishness (2011, 12). Nevertheless, Menzies’ apparent poor judgement was a key factor in Labor’s success that would continue beyond the war with Ben Chifley defeating Menzies and the newly formed Liberals at the 1946 election.
Menzies regained the prime ministership in 1949 with a strong anti-communist platform. He had used his time in opposition to forge a new ideology and a new political party that would see him rebound to become the most successful prime minister in Australian history. In his famous Forgotten People speeches which were broadcast in Sydney and Melbourne during World War II, Menzies outlined a new philosophy. He took the political emphasis off supporting business and championed the cause of the middle class. Menzies described his forgotten people as ‘those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether milestones of a false class war (Warhaft, 2004, 149). Menzies actively countered Labor’s dominant discourse which saw them as the champions of the working class. Menzies rejected the notion of class warfare and insisted that Labor were ignoring the honest, middle class, ‘the backbone of this country’, by pursuing an outdated Marxist notion (Warhaft, 2004, 149). It was Menzies’ appeal to the forgotten people that underscored, not only his own success, but the subsequent success of the party he founded. Decades later, the appeal to Howard’s battlers, who delivered him four consecutive electoral victories, bore the hallmark of Menzies.
Menzies was a prime minister of his time and was consumed with the fight against international communism. As the Iron Curtin descended over Eastern Europe, the Allied powers were coming to grips with a nuclear armed Soviet Union and a growing sphere of communist influence. Menzies’ attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party was partly driven by political expediency. He had hoped that Labor would oppose him, allowing him to portray them as weak on the issue. As it turned out, Labor supported the bill only for the High Court to reject it as unconstitutional. Menzies responded with a referendum to change the constitution and allow the government to ban the Communist Party on 22 September 1951. In one of the closest referenda in Australian history, Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania voted for the change with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia opposing it. In total, 49.44 percent of voters supported the change (Parliament of Australia website).
The attempt to ban the Communism Party gives historians a key insight into Menzies’ thinking. This was the era of McCarthyism, the Korean War and the Domino Theory. The Petrov Affair was possibly the most dramatic Cold War episode to take place on Australian soil. Vladimir Petrov, a KGB agent stationed in Canberra, organised with ASIO officials to defect to the West, however, he made no plans for his wife to defect with him. Dramatic scenes unfolded at Sydney airport where KGB officials forcibly boarded Evdokia Petrov on a plane for Moscow. Amidst passionate anti-communist protest, Menzies made the decision to grant Evdokia political asylum and she was intercepted when the plane refuelled in Darwin. The move met with wide approval. The defections occurred shortly the 1954 election which Labor was widely expected to win. Labor accused Menzies of timing the incident to whip up anti-communist fear and to take the political emphasis off local issues. Shortly after the Petrov affair Menzies established a royal commission into Soviet espionage (Lowe, 1999, 123). David Lowe has described Menzies crusade against communism as the ‘great world struggle’ (Lowe, 1999). In this regard, Menzies used his position in Australia to make a strong contribution to the international movement against communist expansion.
Menzies’ contributions to Australian and international politics are vast. He was the founder of Australia’s most successful political party, which despite its short history has spent more time in office than any other. Key to the success of the Liberals has been Menzies’ forgotten people. Menzies inflicted a mortal wound on the workers-bourgeois dichotomy that had given the Labor Party such a strong primary base. In this regard, Menzies was crucial, not only in shaping the Liberals but also in shaping Labor which had to reinvent itself as an alternative government. Menzies influence continued well past his death. Paul Kelly has noted, ‘anyone [who] doubts the influence of … Menzies, should examine the story of Howard and Keating’ (Kelly, 2010, 13). In the international arena too, Menzies was an active player. In peace time and war, he always saw himself and Australia as key players in a global struggle. He would remain attached to the British Commonwealth and the broader democratic fight against communism.
So what is Menzies legacy? The obvious answer would seem to be the Liberal Party of Australia but in politics all is never what it seems. The modern Liberal Party, ironically, is simply a conservative party. The ‘broad church’ which Howard boasted of includes only moderate and extreme conservatives, both well to the political right of Menzies. This is precisely the opposite of what the founder intended. Explaining why he didn’t follow the United Kingdom’s example and use the name, Conservatives, Menzies said, ‘We took the name “Liberal” because we were determined to be a progressive party … in no sense reactionary (Menzies, 1969, 286). Former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser recently lamented, ‘politics has moved so far to the right there are liberals in the party, but not too damn many’(Australian, 2010). Despite leading the Liberals to three electoral victories, in retirement Fraser quit the party, convinced it has betrayed Menzies’ legacy. He has said, ‘Today’s Liberals call themselves conservatives with pride, but [Menzies] would have considered the term an insult’ (Australian, 2010).
Menzies may well have had a greater impact on the Labor Party than his own. Menzies defeated the Laobr Party at seven elections between 1949 and 1963 with Harold Holt and John Gorton winning in 1966 and 1969 respectively before Labor finally returned to power in 1972. The psychological damage of nine consecutive losses on Australia’s oldest party can hardly be overstated. Menzies was an unrivalled master of wedge politics and his Machiavellian use of communist paranoia literally split the Labor party in two in 1955. True believers in the Labor Party often ask where is today’s John Curtin or Ben Chifley. In truth, it is not that these men are gone but the party they served. By discovering the forgotten people, Menzies carved out an election winning majority and delivered a terminal blow to the workers-bourgeoisie binary that had served Labor so well. Since their historic first term in 1904, Labor have only had two periods of sustained political dominance. They ruled from 1941-1949, defeated in an attempt to nationalise the banks. Despite Whitlam’s three years from 1972-1975, Labor would not enjoy sustained success again till the Hawke-Keating years from 1983-1996 on a platform that included selling major public assets. The party is plainly not what it used to be and the hulking figure of Menzies can take much credit for the transformation.
Menzies’ legacy will continue to be contested. The Liberals religiously venerate their founder despite having embraced the conservatism he was so concerned with avoiding. The Labor party continue to denounce Menzies as a political dinosaur, yet during his lengthy time in office, he transformed the ALP more than they transformed themselves. What can be said is that he effectively united the diverse anti-Labor elements and formed a devastatingly effective electoral strategy. His ideas, particularly about the importance of education and social capital, are largely gone from his own party yet his cult remains vibrant with conservative lectures, research centres and think-tanks named in his honour. Menzies’ biographers include passionate supporters and fierce critics. Perhaps the only thing both sides will always agree on, is that his contribution and influence was a large as any Australian leader before or since.
Barnes, G. (2003). What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boyce, P. (2008).The Queen’s Other Realms: The Crown and Its Legacy in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Sydney: Federation Press.
Curran, J. (2011). Curtin’s Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Curtin: Our Greatest PM. (18 December 2004). The Age.
Grose, P. (2007). A Very Rude Awakening: The Night the Japanese Midget Subs Came to Sydney Harbour. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Kelly, P. (2010). The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press.
Lowe, D. (1999). Menzies and the ‘Great World Struggle’: Australia’s Cold War 1948-54. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
Massola, J. (27 October 2010) Malcolm Fraser takes swipe at successor John Howard over legacy. Australian.
Menzies, R. (1969). Afternoon Light, Adelaide: Penguin.
Parliament of Australia. (2012). Referendum Results. Parlinfo.aph.gov.au, Retrieved 25 September 2012 from http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;db=HANDBOOK;id=handbook%2Fnewhandbook%2F2008-12- 19%2F0067;query=Id%3A%22handbook%2Fnewhandbook%2F2008-12-19%2F0066%22
Warhaft, S. (2004). Well May We Say: The Speeches That Made Australia. Melbourne: Black Inc.
Waters, C. (2012). Australia and Appeasement: Imperial Foreign Policy and the Origins of World War II. London: I.B. Tauris.