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Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (20 December 1894 - 14 May 1978), Australian politician, was the twelfth and longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia. He had a rapid rise to power, but his first term as Prime Minister was a failure. He spent eight years in the wilderness before making a successful comeback, and then dominated Australian politics through the 1950s and 1960s.

Table of contents
1 Early life
2 Rise to Power
3 First Term as Prime Minister
4 Return to Power
5 Second Term as Prime Minister
6 Retirement and posterity
7 Further reading
8 External links

Early life

Menzies was born in Jeparit, a small town in the Wimmera region of western Victoria, the son of a storekeeper and state Member of Parliament of Scottish descent. Menzies's uncle and father-in-law were also politicians. He was inordinately proud of his Highland ancestry - his enduring nick-name, Ming, came from "Mingus," the Scots pronunciation of "Menzies," although it was also influenced by the cartoon character Ming the Merciless.

Menzies was educated at private schools in Ballarat and Melbourne, and studied law at the University of Melbourne. He was a brilliant student. When he was 19 the First World War broke out. His family decided that his elder brothers would enlist. It was later stated that since the family has made enough of a sacrifice to the war with the enlistment of these brothers, Menzies should stay to finish his studies. This decision would later haunt Menzies's political career.

Menzies graduated in law from in 1916 and was called to the Bar in 1918. He soon became one of Melbourne's leading lawyers and began to acquire a considerable fortune. In 1920 he married Pattie Leckie, the daughter of a federal MP - she was always a moderating influence on him.

Rise to Power

In 1928, Menzies entered Victorian state politics as a member of the Victorian Legislative Council. His candidacy was nearly defeated when a group of ex-servicemen attacked him in the press for not having enlisted, but he weathered this crisis. The following year he shifted to the Legislative Assembly, and was a minister in the conservative Victorian government from 1932 to 1934.

He entered federal politics in 1934, representing the United Australia Party (UAP) in the upper-class Melbourne electorate of Kooyong. He was immediately appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Industry in the Lyons government, and was soon also deputy leader of the UAP. He was seen as Lyons's natural successor and was accused of wanting to push Lyons out, a charge he denied. In 1939, however, he resigned from the Cabinet in protest at what he saw as the government's inaction. Shortly afterwards, on 7 April 1939, Lyons died.

First Term as Prime Minister

The younger Menzies

On 26 April 1939, following a period during which the Country Party leader, Sir Earle Page, was caretaker Prime Minister, Menzies was elected Leader of the UAP and was sworn in as Prime Minister. But a crisis arose when Page refused to serve under him. In an extraordinary personal attack in the House, Page accused Menzies of cowardice for not having enlisted in the War, and of treachery to Lyons. Menzies then formed a minority government. When Page was deposed as Country Party leader a few months later, Menzies reformed the Coalition with Page's successor, Archie Cameron. (Menzies later forgave Page, but Pattie Menzies never spoke to him again.)

In September 1939 Menzies found himself a wartime Prime Minister. He did his best to rally the country, but the bitter memories of the disillusionment which followed the First World War made this difficult, and the fact that Menzies had not served in that war undermined his credibility. At the 1940 election, the UAP was nearly defeated, and survived only thanks to the support of two independent MPs. The Labor Party, under John Curtin, refused Menzies's offer to form a war coalition.

In 1941 Menzies spent months in Britain discussing war strategy with Winston Churchill and other leaders, while his position at home deteriorated. When he came home, he found he had lost all support, and was forced to resign, first, on 28 August, as Prime Minister, and then as UAP leader. The Country Party leader, Arthur Fadden, became Prime Minister. Menzies was very bitter about what he saw as this betrayal by his colleagues, and almost left politics.

Return to Power

Labor came to power later in October 1941 under John Curtin, following the defeat of the Fadden government in Parliament. In 1943 Curtin won a huge election victory. During 1944 Menzies held a series of meetings to discuss forming a new anti-Labor party to replace the moribund UAP. This was the Liberal Party, which was launched in early 1945 with Menzies as leader. But Labor was firmly entrenched in power and in 1946 Curtin's successor, Ben Chifley, was comfortably re-elected. Comments that "we can't win with Menzies" began to circulate in the conservative press.

Over the next few years, however, the anti-communist atmosphere of the early Cold War began to erode Labor's support. In 1947, Chifley announced in a 42-word statement to the Australian media that he intended to nationalise Australia's private banks, arousing intense middle-class opposition which Menzies successfully exploited. In 1949 a bitter coal-strike, engineered by the Communist Party, also played into Menzies's hands. In December 1949 he won a smashing election victory and again became Prime Minister.

Second Term as Prime Minister

One of Menzies's first moves was to cancel Chifley's intended bank nationalisation plans. The ALP retained control of the Senate, however, and made Menzies's life very difficult. In 1951 Menzies introduced legislation to ban the Communist Party, hoping that the Senate would reject it and give him an excuse for a double dissolution election, but Labor ducked the issue by letting the bill pass: it was later ruled unconstitutional by the High Court. But when the Senate rejected his banking bill, he called a double dissolution and won control of both Houses.

Later in 1951 Menzies decided to hold a referendum to change the Constitution to permit him to ban the Communist Party. The new Labor leader, Dr H V Evatt, campaigned against the referendum on civil liberties grounds, and it was narrowly defeated. This was one of Menzies's few electoral miscalculations. He sent Australian troops to the Korean War and maintained a close alliance with the United States.

Economic conditions, however, deteriorated, and Evatt was confident of winning the 1954 elections. Shortly before the elections, Menzies announced that a Soviet diplomat in Australia Vladimir Petrov, had defected, and that there was evidence of a Soviet spy ring in Australia, including members of Evatt's staff. This Cold War scare enabled Menzies to win the election. Labor accused Menzies of arranging Petrov's defection, but this has since been disproved. He had simply taken advantage of it.

The aftermath of the 1954 election caused a split in the Labor Party, and Menzies was comfortably re-elected over Evatt in 1955 and 1958. By this time the post-war economic boom was in full swing, fuelled by massive immigration and the growth in housing and manufacturing that this produced. prices for Australia's agricultural exports were also high, ensuring rising incomes. Labor's rather old-fashioned socialist rhetoric was no match for Menzies and his promise of stability and prosperity for all.

Labor's new leader, Arthur Calwell, gave Menzies a scare after an ill-judged squeeze on credit - an effort to restrain inflation - caused a rise in unemployment. At the 1961 election Menzies was returned with a majority of only two seats. But Menzies was able to exploit Labor's divisions over the Cold War and the American alliance, and win an increased majority in 1963. An incident in which Calwell was photographed standing outside a South Canberra hotel whilst ALP members were determining policy inside at an ALP Federal conference also contributed to the 1963 victory. It led to an image of "36 faceless men" deciding on ALP policy without the Federal leaders participating (the standard ALP practice at the time) that was again successfully taken advantage of by Menzies. This was the first "television election," and Menzies, although nearly 70, proved a master of the new medium.

He was knighted in 1963.

In 1965 Menzies made the fateful decision to commit Australian troops to the Vietnam War, and also to reintroduce conscription. These moves were initially popular, but they later became huge problems for his successors. Despite his strong support for the American alliance, he professed continued admiration for links with Britain, exemplified by his admiration for Queen Elizabeth II. In 1954 extraordinary crowds came to see and cheer her. At a function, Menzies quoted Elizabethan (Elizabeth I, that is) poet Barnabe Googe, "I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die."

Retirement and posterity

Menzies retired in January 1966, and was appointed Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, an antique royal title which caused much amusement. He toured the United States giving lectures, and published two volumes of memoirs. His retirement was spoiled, however, when he suffered strokes in 1968 and 1971. Thereafter he faded from public view, and in old age became very embittered towards his former colleagues. He died in Melbourne in 1978 and was accorded a state funeral.

Menzies was Prime Minister for a total of 18 years and six months, by far the longest term of any Australian Prime Minister, and during his second term he dominated Australian politics as no-one else has ever done. He managed to live down the failures of his first term in office, and to rebuild the conservative side of politics from the depths of 1943. These were great political achievements. He also did much to develop higher education in Australia, and made the development of Canberra one of his pet projects.

Critics say that Menzies's success was mainly due to the good luck of the long post-war boom and the anti-communist fears of the Cold War years, both of which he exploited with great skill. He was also aided by the ineptitude of the Labor Party. But his reputation among conservatives is untarnished, and he remains one of the Liberal Party's greatest heroes. Several books have been filled with anecdotes about him and with his many witty remarks.

Further reading

External links

Prime Ministers of Australia
Preceded by:
Earle Page
First term (1939-1941) Followed by:
Arthur Fadden
Preceded by:
Ben Chifley
Second term (1949-1966) Followed by:
Harold Holt

Preceded by:
(first leader)
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
Followed by:
Harold Holt