AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - MENZIES OBITUARY
a radio broadcast on 26April 1939, Robert Gordon Menzies gave this
account of his childhood:
as it now seems, Menzies made his reputation when he took a case for the
unions to the High Court. His industry and ability did not pass
unnoticed and by the end of the 1920s he had a legal practice which
earned him £10,000 a year. His successes were in the Court of Appeal.
He was far less successful addressing a jury. In the mid-1950s, he
expressed regret that he had not left Australia and gone to the English
bar to assume the mantle of Lord Birkenhead.
1929, he entered the Victorian Legislative Council after being defeated
at an earlier attempt. His political career was not confined to the
public arena and he was part of the cabal which helped to move Joe Lyons
from the Labor Party to the leadership of the United Australia Party
early in 1931. At that instant it was hard to decide if he were the
confidant of the owners of the old National Party machine, or merely the
legman for J. B. Were, the Melbourne stockbrokers. In the following May,
he told the congregation at a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon: ‘If Australia
were to get through her troubles by abating or abandoning traditional
British standards of honesty, or justice, or fair play, of resolute
endeavour, it would be far better that every citizen within her
boundaries should die of starvation within the next six months’.
the conservatives returned to office in Victoria in 1932, Menzies became
Deputy Premier. The Bulletin
issued the following advice a few weeks later: 'Interjectors beware of
him for, though kindly, he is a master of repartee.' His oral
brilliance, however, was useless against the determination of the
Wonthaggi miners in 1934, and just before he moved across to federal
politics he had to admit the first of many defeats at the hands of the
new career in Canberra began surprisingly well. He instantly became
Attorney General. The following year he absented himself from this
position for a short period to appear for the Shell oil company before
the Privy Council. (A decade earlier, Shell's director general, Henri
Deterding, had donated four million guilders to Hitler's Nazi party
after the collapse of the beer-hall putsch.)
been sent to Canberra to watch over lapdog Lyons, Menzies tore his
nominal leader to shreds in an effort to take the prime ministership for
himself. Towards the end of 1938, Menzies developed a social conscience
which momentarily stopped him from serving in any government that would
not introduce a system of national insurance. This passion for reform
lasted until Lyons' death early in April 1939. Although the UAP chose
Menzies to be its leader, his popularity is shown by the fact that he
was run a close race by the ageing and unlovely Billy Hughes, and by the
fact that the Country Party refused to serve under him. This was the
occasion of Earle Page's attack on Menzies' loyalty. After recounting
Menzies' undermining of Lyons, Page turned his attention back
twenty-four years and noted that 'the right honorable member for Kooyong
was a member of the Australian Military Forces and held the king's
commission. In 1915, after having been in the military forces for some
years, he resigned his commission and did not go overseas.'
next few years did not go easily. Five months after becoming Prime
Minister, he had to announce that Australia was at war with a country he
admired greatly. Menzies had visited Germany late in July 1938, just as
the Czech crisis was building up. He reported to Lyons that his
'principal impressions' were:
am looking forward very much to getting back home again. As you know,
the pleasures of these overseas visits can be grossly exaggerated.
in Australia, Menzies continued to press the virtues of Hitler's
Germany. He said he was particularly impressed by the way in which the
German industrialists looked after their workers.
workers were about to give Menzies a different lesson in international
politics when the Port Kembla wharfies refused to load pig iron for
Japan. Menzies considered this was 'a provocative act against a friendly
power'. The Japanese remembered him favourably and a study of Foreign
Office archives in Japan might help us distinguish how his patriotism
differed from that of Petain and Quisling.
capitalist spokespeople were taking a different line and criticism of
Menzies' handling of the war effort mounted inside his own government.
He was saved for a time by Curtin's fear of taking responsibility for
Australia. Finally he was brought down by his own side. There were those
who blamed the UAP for not having prepared our defences in the1930s.
Many said that even in 1941the government was not doing enough and was
persisting with a business-as-usual policy. Others suggested that the
Prime Minister was indolent and a socialite who spent too much time
flirting with Sydney ladies. Towards the end of August 1941, these
criticisms came to a head in the party rooms. Menzies was forced to
resign. For the next forty days and nights, the fate of Australia rested
in the hollow of Artie Fadden's head.
on Menzies' loss of the prime ministership, the Sydney
Morning Herald later said that ‘he was as disconcerted and as
furious as Hamlet would have been had he been stabbed from behind the
arras by Polonius in the second act'. The general opinion was that
Pig-Iron Bob was finished. He was the Australian equivalent of
Chamberlain. The new social order would have no place for him.
dismiss Menzies was to forget his ambition and his associates. Within a
year of defeat he was seeking out a new political constituency. No
longer could he parade as the spokesman for Collins Street. He had to
represent the whole of capitalism. To mask this transformation he began
to speak up for the middle class, the forgotten people, in whom he found
four particular virtues:
Menzies had found a new political base from which to defend the
interests of foreign capital, he had not lost the old edge to his
thought. On education, he was still bathed in eugenic imagery:
high-minded contempt for the Australian people was as petty as before:
own innate good manners had stopped him picking fault with his hosts
whilst sitting around German fireplaces in1938.
these ideological beginnings and from support within the old
conservative organisations in Victoria, he set our to build a new
political party. The Liberal Party of Australia was founded at a
conference in Albury in 1944. It gained seats in the 1946 elections and
was swept to power three years later. Even this victory did not end the
discontent over his leadership. A decade before, Sir Keith Murdoch had
told Clive Baillieu what a 'most difficult man' Menzies was to work for:
'l do not know whether it is utter laziness or pride.' Sydney
capitalists remained unsure of him and feared that his interests were
still too regionally Victorian.
weeks of assuming office, Menzies set about turning Australia into a
police state. The pretext was his promise to ban the Communist Party.
The aim was to destroy the trade union movement and remove all
opposition to the new demands of the US. Once again Menzies was defeated
by the Australian people who, in spite of a horrendous propaganda
campaign in favour of banning the Communists, voted against this
proposal when it came to a referendum. By now, Menzies had become a
great champion of war making. He called for nuclear weapons to break the
Berlin blockade in 1948. In 1951, he announced that we would be at war
within three years. The Australian economy was severely damaged by the
plans that this scare produced. In 1960, his expert handling of the
economy plunged Australia into a recession which nearly lost him the
the end of his long period in office, two questions were asked: what, if
anything, had he accomplished? Had he wasted Australia's time. In his
retirement press conference he nominated two things as his achievements:
the alliance with the USA and the alliance with the Country Party.
Friends and editorialists added the building of Canberra and the boost
to university education. A few recalled the Bulletin's 1896 obituary to Henry Parkes and wondered if it might
apply to Menzies:
those who had come of age under his resonant cadences and in awe of his
physical bulk, it was hard to believe that he lacked substantiality;
that he was, as Sir George Reid had said of himself, all piss and wind.
Yet this was how William Dobell saw him for the portrait that appeared
on the cover of Time in 1960.
Historian Manning Clark described Dobell's portrait as 'a great riddle
to his audience', and recalled:
too conscious of his own past and of his conspicuously hollow present,
Menzies attached himself to the Churchill myth. He saw himself in the
mould of a world statesman. When Churchill retired from the parliament
at Westminster after more than 60 years, Menzies moved a motion of
congratulations to him from the Australian parliament. He did this
without consulting the Leader of the opposition, Calwell, who was
obliged to support the motion but did so in a fashion which revealed how
empty was Menzies' attempt to present himself as the Australian
Churchill. Calwell reminded Menzies that,
campaign to have himself accepted as a loyal Britisher was a long and
arduous one. Events kept getting in the way of his best-turned phrases.
Take for instance this extract from a 1950 speech where Menzies provided
the quintessence of his self-proclaimed imperials patriotism:
was in fact rising to meet the future was the ANZUS alliance, which
Menzies signed even though it outraged the British by denying them
access to Australia’s primary treaty.
were far from Menzies' major attribute, though he used them effectively
to mask the reality of his actions. He was not kept in office because he
was good at the front of the house, but because he delivered the goods:
opportunities for US investment and troops for Vietnam. Yet his
reputation rests mainly on his command of language. Certainly he learned
to work very hard on his speeches. The easy flow of phrases might have
seemed effortless, but they had all been hammered out in a series of
drafts. His business speeches were often masterly. Like a good barrister
he had never forgotten how to present a brief. Whether he understood
what he was talking about, especially on the economy, is less than
probable. His handling of interjectors has been overrated. Anyone with a
microphone and the sense to ignore comments that they cannot answer will
always have the advantage over an audience. And if you are prepared to
wound without pity, you can always silence a critic. It takes a great
speaker to make an audience laugh with you. If Menzies had but once used
his gifts in defence of the weak and defenceless, we might have some
inkling of his potential greatness. Because he always chose to fight
with the strong, we can know only his flexing muscle.
the stories of his deadly wit, there were a remarkable number of
occasions when he was the victim. Shortly after the outbreak of war in
1939 he was walking to the Commonwealth office in Sydney with his
Attorney-General, Billy Hughes, and Dame Mary Hughes. As they passed
through Martin Place, countless strangers said, 'G'day Billy', and Billy
replied, 'G'day brother'. Inside their offices Menzies chastised Hughes
for allowing himself to be addressed in this way. 'I wouldn’t let
people speak to me like that', Menzies concluded. In her innocence, Dame
Mary hastened to assure him that he need not be troubled: ‘No one
would want to say ‘G’day’ to you Bob’.
Earle Page's attack on Menzies is the best remembered this is probably
because it was so abusive. Indeed, it was so bluntly personal that it
lost its effectiveness. Far more devastating were the occasional barbs
of Calwell. Incensed by Menzies' attempt to picture the Labor Party's
opposition to the Vietnam war as anti-American, Calwell pointed out to
the Right Honorable the Prime Minister that Calwell's ancestors had been
members of the legislature of Pennsylvania at a time when Menzies'
forebears were having difficulty in remembering that it was a criminal
offence to go cattle duffing across the Scottish border.
far the most devastating parliamentary assault was from Les Haylen who
commented on Menzies' defence of his government after its near defeat in
Hansard record has been
amended to read 'I knew him well', but 'him' was not the pronoun that
kept the House in uproarious laughter for two minutes.
essence of Menzies' political career was simply this: he devoted his
great skills to the service of the rich and powerful and employed his
wondrous talents on behalf of the foreign masters of the country of his
birth. His loyalty was never to Britain, as he pretended, but to
whichever foreign power promised him the greatest influence. He switched
from British sycophant to American lickspittle, and back again, with
such an easy conscience that his followers discovered in his lack of
principle a species of gracefulness. Given the opportunity he
undoubtedly could have
found the resources within himself to head a Vichy-style regime for
the backing of great and powerful friends it is less than amazing
that he headed the Australian government from
1949 to 1966. What is surprising is that his grip on office was so
shaky. In the Cold War and economic boom of his second prime
ministership, he should have been unassailable. Yet election after
election were near-run things, especially in 1954 and 1961.The legend of
Menzies as the Australian electoral hero is terribly hollow. Just as he
despised the Australian people, they detested him. He clung to office
because he clung so desperately to the real masters of Australia.
Without their support he would never have been elected to the Malvern
own favourite image of Menzies will be forever the sight of him in the
Brisbane City Hall campaigning for the 196l elections, totally
unprepared for his speech but hoping to live off interjections. In place
of interjections there was a sea of protest. His wit and his voice
failed him and he was driven, helplessly drunk, from the platform and
then chased along Ann Street by wharfies.
the Prime Minister of Nigeria,
Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, was assassinated in 1966, Menzies was moved
to great grief. In an effort to explain their leader's unusual affection
for a black man, the Australian press explained that Sir Abubakar had
been the Menzies of Nigeria. As our senses are assaulted by the
umpteenth commemorative broadcast to Menzies, it might comfort others to
think that Radio Lagos is presently explaining that Sir Robert was the
Abubakar Tafewa Bulewa of Australia.