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The Young Menzies
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Michelle Grattan: Hello, I’m Michelle Grattan. Welcome to this digital event which is being filmed at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and is to launch the book, The Young Menzies.
Let me start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are today, and paying respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. And through that acknowledgement, also paying my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout Australia.
Now this collection that we’re discussing today is the product of the Robert Menzies Institute at the Melbourne University. That Institute houses a library and museum about Sir Robert Menzies, and of course, is a great resource for scholars who want to study his work and his life. And he was Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, so there’s a lot to research. The book is the first of a series of four about Sir Robert Menzies, and they’re all based on conferences at the university, about his life and work.
To discuss The Young Menzies today, we have Zachary Gorman, who’s the Academic Coordinator at the Menzies Institute, and an historian who specialises in the history of Australian liberalism. Welcome, Zach. And we also have Frank Bongiorno, who’s Professor of History at the Australian National University, and the author of a number of much reviewed and respected books. Welcome, Frank.
Zach, can I start with you, and can we start with the very young Menzies. Can you tell us something about the influence of his early life? We know about the story of the boy from Jeparit, who was the son of the local shopkeeper. But what about the influence for his parents, and particularly also his uncle who was in politics, Sydney Sampson?
Zachary Gorman: Yes, sure. I think one of the things to emphasise is that contrary to what people might assume, Menzies was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was born out the back of the general store in Jeparit, which his parents James and Kate ran. And they ran it at a very precarious existence. They often lent out to the farmers and came quite close to a loss. So there’s an element in which that really informs Menzies’ idea of the forgotten people, people who are small business owners, but very much value community, value giving things back to that community, lifters, not leaners, these sorts of things.
Michelle Grattan: And what about the uncle?
Zachary Gorman: Well, the uncle is really important from my perspective, because the uncle enters federal politics in 1906, and he enters it as a member of the Corner Party. So these are the people that are protectionists, who don’t support Alfred Deakin, because Alfred Deakin is taking support from the Labor Party to form Government. So there’s this element in which Sampson embodies both the progressive Victorian Liberal tradition of Alfred Deakin, that’s very much focused on in Judith Brett’s chapter, but at the same time has this antisocialist element, this real fear of what a despotic and controlling state could do, and that very much informs Menzies’ rhetoric, the 1949 election, how he very much paints that as a referendum on socialism based around the nationalisation of the banks. A lot of that really taps into that Sampson legacy.
Michelle Grattan: Now, this young boy from this remote northern Victorian town ends up at Wesley College in Melbourne, where there would have been a lot of people with silver spoon backgrounds. He’s a scholarship boy. Tell us a bit about his time there.
Zachary Gorman: Well, he does struggle a little bit at Wesley. So Menzies for most of his life is quite a brilliant student. He excels academically, this is how he’s able to win scholarships, first to Grenville College and Ballarat, then to Wesley, and then ultimately to the University of Melbourne. But there is this adjustment period at Wesley, and perhaps that is a sort of culture shock of coming into the Melbourne establishment that Menzies initially is not a part of, that’s not his background at all.
Michelle Grattan: Do you think this partly accounts for the fact that he did become, especially in his earlier years, somewhat arrogant?
Zachary Gorman: He had almost, you could say, too much success. That at a certain point, things started to come a bit too easily to him. But he also had little quirks, that he was a tremendous mimic. So Troy Bramston’s chapter talks about how he used to do soapbox speeches in Jeparit, emulating his father, who was a local councillor, and he used to mimic headmasters, and all these sorts of things. But sometimes he didn’t know when the jokes should stop, and tread on toes with doing these.
Michelle Grattan: Now, Frank, can we come to the First World War. The Menzies family sent off two sons to fight, but it was decided, and it seems to have been a collective family decision, wasn’t it, that Bob would stay at home. The fact that he didn’t serve seems to have dogged on him politically and indeed, psychologically, for forever, really, or at least through a large part of his career.
Frank Bongiorno: And socially too, I think, if some of the research on the reasons for his not becoming a member of the exclusive Melbourne Club is correct. So Sybil Nolan, a historian from Melbourne, has made the case that it was that lack of service in the First World War that was a reason for his not joining that most exclusive of Melbourne men’s clubs, where he does join some of the others. I mean, he’s a member of the Savage Club, I think the Atheneum Club and so on.
It’s a hard thing to track, this issue, because it’s not something that people generally spoke openly about. It’s the subject of, one suspects, of whispers, of talk. But it rarely came into the public realm. Of course, he most famously did come into the public sphere in 1939, when he was basically the certain successor to Joseph Lyons as leader of the United Australia Party, and therefore as Prime Minister when Lyons died. And Earle Page, who had served in the First World War, although it has to be said, had what might be described as a good war. He’d been a surgeon and served for about a year and then came back to his own practice in Australia. But nonetheless, he had served in the First World War, and among the reasons he gave in any speech before Parliament.
Michelle Grattan: And he was the Country Party leader?
Frank Bongiorno: He was the Country Party leader, and among the reasons he gave for Menzies’ non-suitability as Prime Minister was his not having served in the First World War. He gave some others as well. But it was that one in particular, that gained the most attention.
Michelle Grattan: And that was such a long time after the First World War.
Frank Bongiorno: Absolutely. I mean, you’re talking years and decades later. And it suggests I think that there had been this kind of scuttlebutt for years; why didn’t he go? But he did – it must have been very hurtful and painful for him, because the kinds of decision that the Menzies family made were, it seems, quite common in Australian families in the First World War.
Michelle Grattan: And not unreasonable at all.
Frank Bongiorno: By no means unreasonable. These are the days before a much more fully developed welfare state. Aging parents, particularly I think, for more middle class households, and as Zach’s pointed out, this wasn’t necessarily the most affluent household, although they were doing rather better perhaps by the time of the First World War, but nonetheless, they weren’t rich people, and they needed a son to support them in their old age. And that was going to be Robert Menzies’ role, if his brothers had been killed in the First World War.
So these kinds of decisions were quite common. There’s in fact plenty of indications that this was painful for Robert Menzies himself, the fact that he wasn’t able to serve because he respected family decisions. And we know that family decisions were critical at other points in his career. He consulted his family in 1941, when the issue of his resignation as Prime Minister was being discussed; amazing. I mean, this is a man well into his 40s, and he’s consulting with parents back in Victoria. So yes, it’s an issue in his career. In 1939, of course, Page came out more damaged by that. Page’s career never recovered from that attack on Menzies.
Michelle Grattan: Well, it was an extraordinary attack in general that he launched.
Frank Bongiorno: Yes. It was seen as below the belt, frankly, it was seen as lacking restraint and lacking decorum. And the United Australia Party promptly elected Menzies as their leader, and he became Prime Minister of course, and Page was seen to have behaved badly. But nonetheless, it sits there as something that clearly people talked about, and it had some significance in Menzies’ career. And of course, in the post-World War Two years, there’d be jokes from figures like Eddie Ward about Menzies’ glorious military career having been interrupted by the First World War. By then perhaps mattered less. But it certainly had mattered, I think, earlier in his career.
Michelle Grattan: Before we explore in more detail Menzies’ federal career, can you tell us something Zach about his time in the law and state politics? Because by the time he got into federal politics, he’d done a hell of a lot.
Zachary Gorman: Yes. So Justice Edelman’s chapter talks about the fact that the law was definitely Menzies’ first love, that politics he viewed as his duty. It was an element of community service in entering politics. And he certainly would have earnt a lot more money had he stayed in the law. This is often a tension in the early federal politics. So for example, it’s one of the main reasons that Barton resigns as Prime Minister in 1903, is that he wants to return to the law so he can earn a bit more money. George Reid often doesn’t attend Parliament because he’s trying to be a lawyer as well. So this tension is there.
But Menzies was a brilliant lawyer. He topped his class at the University of Melbourne. He even tutors at the University of Melbourne, that often forgotten fact. And he becomes Australia’s youngest King’s Counsel at the age of 34. And even earlier than that, at 25, he wins the famous Engineers case, which is a landmark case in Australian constitutional law, which basically decides that from now on, the Constitution should be interpreted on face value, with no regard to the intentions of the founders or the necessities of federalism. There’s an element in which he’s a bit lucky with the Engineers case, because one of the Justices, Isaac Isaacs, had been a member of the Federal Conventions, and basically disagreed with every decision that the majority made there, and wanted to overturn a lot of these restraints on the Federal Government. So he’s looking for an opportunity to make this landmark decision, and Menzies happened to be at the right place at the right time, but crucially with the right arguments, and they won the day, and not just Isaac Isaacs agreed with him.
Michelle Grattan: And what about his time in state politics?
Zachary Gorman: Yes, so Menzies enters state politics first as a member of the Legislative Council. And I think that is partly that idea that he wants politics to be part time initially. He doesn’t want to abandon the law. So he dips his toes into the leisurely Upper House. But he ultimately gets a taste for politics, and he very soon enters the Legislative Assembly, and is serving as Attorney General, and acting Premier, and all these sorts of things.
But one really important and crucial moment in the development of Menzies that happens in state politics, is that he resigns over a point of principle, when the Victorian Government that is relying on the Country Party for support in the Legislative Assembly to maintain its majority, it offers to prop up this abattoir that is very much in the needs of Country Party interests. And Menzies thinks this is disgusting sectional politics, that state money shouldn’t be spent just to be able to buy a few votes in the Legislative Assembly, and he resigns over that. And he will do it again in 1939 as a member of the Lyons’ Government.
Michelle Grattan: Frank, let’s now turn to the period from ’39 to ’41, when he was in Government, when he was Prime Minister first time round, which of course, didn’t end well. But how did he handle that period? In particular, what were his limitations in handling those years?
Frank Bongiorno: Yes, it’s a mixed record, Michelle. I mean, our understanding of that has been very shaped, I think, by Labor Party propaganda during the war, and even perhaps into the post-war period. And especially, I think, around the 1943 election, which Labor won in a landslide. Of course, it was critical for the Labor Party to present its predecessor as having not done enough, as having failed to prepare Australia adequately for war, for having been incompetent, or lacking vigour in the prosecution of the war effort. And, of course, that fed into a kind of a legend of John Curtin as a great wartime leader. And there’s elements of truth in all of that. But it was, I think, an exaggeration of the failures of the Menzies’ Government.
Clearly a lot of the wartime bureaucracy and administration that the Labor Government would eventually draw on in the Pacific War was set up in the period 1939 to ’41. There were critical appointments made by the Menzies Government in that early period. The industrialist, Essington Lewis, of course brought deeply into the war effort as a leading figure, and a whole range of Government departments that were set up. There’s even the first instalment on the post-World War Two welfare state is established under the Menzies Government, with Labor influence, and that’s the child endowment policy, which is introduced in 1941.
On the other hand, and there’s always an on the other hand with these things, Menzies was seen as lacking finesse, I think, as a wartime leader, particularly in the management of people. He found it difficult to present a kind of unified face. He faced a lot of press criticism, there was deep hostility to Menzies from particularly the Sydney or the New South Wales branch of the United Australia Party, but also some key newspaper outlets and proprietors. There was also a sense of this was a tired Government. It had been there since early 1932. It had come to be seen as lacking vigour, lacking unity, even under Lyons, and that continued, I think, during Menzies’ Prime Ministership. He lost three Ministers, of course, in a plane tragedy, an air tragedy here in Canberra in 1941, which certainly didn’t – sorry, 1940, I should say, which certainly didn’t help his cause.
It comes back to the point that Zach made earlier I think about Menzies, there was a sense of kind of arrogance. The phrase that was often used of Menzies, even later, was an unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. And I think that did come out during that early period. And it made maintaining a unified front, and maintaining good relations with the Country Party after that episode that we described earlier in 1939, all of that became very difficult, I think. But it wasn’t, by any means, the kind of failed Government that it’s sometimes been presented. It was ultimately the Greek campaign in 1941 that probably did the most to destroy Menzies’ Prime Ministership, Australia’s commitment of troops to what turned out to be an absolutely disastrous campaign, really designed as a demonstration to the United States that the British Empire meant business. But it of course resulted in really unnecessary casualties and a disastrous defeat.
Michelle Grattan: And he did take a very long trip to Britain, right? Being absent seemed to mean that dissent against him could ferment.
Frank Bongiorno: That’s true. Yes, I mean, his absence in in in Britain was probably damaging.
Michelle Grattan: How long was that trip?
Frank Bongiorno: Oh, it was about probably – would it have been six months, I think? It was certainly a long period.
Michelle Grattan: So unbelievable these days, isn’t it?
Frank Bongiorno: Yeah. Yes. Yes. And of course, he was contemplating another one. I mean, in fact, that’s one of the issues that precipitates kind of resignation, the move against him in 1941.
Michelle Grattan: It makes Gough Whitlam look a stay-at-home.
Frank Bongiorno: Well, that’s right, those few weeks over 1974/75, yes. So he was certainly gone many months, and yes, that undermined his position in Australia. I make the case in the book, and I look at his relations with John Curtin in particular, he also underestimated Curtin’s ambition, his ambition for power, really. I think he failed to recognise that Curtin’s harping on about “I’m not wanting to be Prime Minister, I’m happy to be opposition leader” –
Michelle Grattan: He took him at his word.
Frank Bongiorno: He took him at his word. I mean, this was a thoroughly experienced Labor operative, who understood the Labor movement like the back of his hand, and knew that the very last thing a Labor leader should do is appear power hungry. And it was a very disunited – I mean, if you think the UAP was disunited, it had nothing on the Labor Party. It split again, I mean, the Labor Party split again in 1940, with a group that was loyal to Jack Lang, the New South Wales Labor leader, splitting off again. So in 1939, 1940. So he was leading also a quite disunited, and often turbulent crew. And that was a difficult process. And I think Menzies failed to recognise that Curtin was playing a kind of a long game. and Curtin could see the UAP also disintegrating, and I think Menzies misread that situation.
Michelle Grattan: Just more broadly, what was the relationship like between Menzies and Curtin?
Frank Bongiorno: Oh, it was a cordial, friendly relationship, based on mutual respect. There’s very little evidence, in fact there’s no evidence really, of any degree of personal hostility between them. There’s friendly correspondence, which I think is genuine, it’s not just the ritual of cordiality. I think it was a kind of mutual respect.
I mean, they came from very different backgrounds in some ways, and yet, there was also a kind of a shared outlook. I mean, there’s a very interesting recent book by a man named Toby Davidson on really a very specialised topic, and this is John Curtin and poetry. How did John Curtin use poetry during his career? What poetry was he familiar with? What did he read? How did he use it? And as I read that, I was struck by the fact that this is really a kind of a world that Menzies would be similarly familiar with. They wouldn’t be reading the same things from boyhood. They had a different outlook on empire, but in the end, they were both empire men, I think, as World War Two itself would show. I mean, Curtin went out of his way to foster strong relations with Britain, particularly after the divisions around the fall of Singapore in 1942.
And so there were elements of a shared outlook too, I think, that could help to oil a cordial friendly relationship between them. But they were political rivals, and I think Curtin did, to some extent outsmart Menzies, in that early wartime period, into kind of underestimating him. It’s interesting that Menzies seems to have recognised the ways in which Chifley played that kind of game, but for some reason, he didn’t see it in Curtin in the same way. And that may be because their relations were in fact, so good.
Michelle Grattan: Zach, let’s leap forward a bit. When Menzies was driving the formation of the Liberal Party a few years on, he wanted the name Liberal, because he saw it as a progressive party, and not a party of naysayers, of always saying no, opposing things. Can you just talk a bit about Menzies general ideology, philosophy, if you like, and how constant was it throughout his federal political life?
Zachary Gorman: Yes, it’s an interesting quote that the Liberals were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments. It’s often brought up to make comments on the modern Liberal Party, to some extent anachronistically. But at the same time, Menzies very much sees himself as a progressive. He had seen so much happen in his own lifetime, that it was almost impossible not to be a progressive. He’d seen Federation happen. He had seen the advent of female suffrage. And to his credit, he said that democracy only really began in Australia with the advent of female suffrage. And it should be remembered that Victoria was actually one of the last states to grant women the vote. So he would have been quite politically conscious at that time. And then you have technological advancements, like the introduction of flight.
So Menzies really wants to push forward this young nation. But he also has an idea that progress is very much driven by individuals. He doesn’t think that bureaucracy, as much as he respects the public service, and keeps a lot of the Chifley Government’s public servants in place when he becomes Prime Minister again in 1949, he doesn’t think that bureaucracy pushes innovation. He thinks it’s stifling. He says that “Intelligent ambition is the motive power behind all human progress”. That’s a quote from The Forgotten People. So he very much wants to foster individuals to drive the nation forward. And the state can facilitate that, it can certainly try to enable individuals. But he thinks that if the state is in control of too many things, that that’s going to stifle progress, and that nothing will move forward.
And the other thing to emphasise is that Menzies had this Edmund Burke sense that true progress is built on consolidating the successes of the past, and then moving forward. So he was very much enamoured by Australia’s British institutions, and how successful they had been, and he wanted to carry through those into the future and then build on them, with things like, for example, social services. So in the 1946 referendum, the only part of that referendum that gets up is actually social services. And one of the main reasons that it does get up, is that Menzies, as Liberal leader, decides to back it. So this really important constitutional change, even though it’s the Labor Party that’s introducing the legislation, it’s really Menzies that makes sure that there’s enough of the centre right that is voting for it.
Michelle Grattan: So he’s very centrist, very pragmatic, and very much a melding of conservatism, liberalism, individualism, but an acceptance that the state had a quite active role to play in certain areas. Would that summarise?
Zachary Gorman: Yes, certainly. He doesn’t like to use the term conservative for himself too much. But it’s clear that he’s reading Burke. We have his copy of Edmund Burke at our library, and it’s very well read. This was a time in which Australian politicians didn’t really like to call themselves conservatives. It was a hangover of the 19th century, where Tory conservatism was about having a landed aristocracy, and that bunyip aristocracy that William Wentworth attempts.
So there is an element in which that self-labelling isn’t something that he wants to do. The only time I really know of him calling himself conservative is when he talks about his relationship with his grandfather, John Sampson, who was a big union leader who read The Worker. And Menzies could acknowledge that in that circumstance, he was comparatively the conservative one. But generally speaking, he very much saw himself as a liberal. And that again, comes back to his family life. His brother Frank was given the middle name Gladstone. They were very much trained in this 19th century British liberalism.
Michelle Grattan: Now, Menzies scholars, a number of them, are always very preoccupied with The Forgotten People, broadcasts of his opposition period during the war. Do you think that that series of broadcasts is really central to understanding Menzies’ thinking? And to what extent were they political pictures, or were they really bringing out the essence of the man politically?
Zachary Gorman: Well, The Forgotten People series, if you look at the full series, is really fascinating, because there’s over 105 broadcasts. It lasts from 1942 until 1944. There’s this real contemplation of political issues to a really deep extent that’s almost without precedent. There is one precedent, in Billy Hughes’ The Case for Labor, which is a series of articles he publishes in The Daily Telegraph that again builds this Labor philosophy. And that’s what The Forgotten People really is doing for Menzies. It’s building this liberal philosophy that’s based around the home. He talks about homes material, and homes spiritual, the fact that our home encourages people to have thrift, a sense of continuity, a sense that what they’re contributing to society is ultimately their children, and that long term thinking, and that contribution. He talks about the fact that too many people want to be beneficiaries of the state, rather than contributors to society. So it’s that JFK line about what the nation can do for you, or what you can do for the nation. He very much has that idea that’s baked into The Forgotten People.
But the other thing that is important about The Forgotten People, I think, is that The Forgotten People is when Menzies becomes relatable. So what’s happening in his first stint as Prime Minister, both internally within the United Australia Party, and then also externally with the way he communicates to the Australian public, is that he still seems aloof. He is very much enraptured in that Melbourne establishment culture, that even though it was foreign to him initially, he does come to embrace it. Arthur Fadden in his autobiography talks about that Menzies had a certain snobbery about anyone who had not been given a university education, and Menzies would go on to try to democratise university education, but it’s still there.
But The Forgotten People is all focused on the home, and how that is the building block of patriotism, and how it’s all ultimately about family. And that really resonates with people, and particularly it’s of the time, but at the time, it did resonate quite well with women, compared to the Labor Party’s ideology of very much talking about the workplace and industrial unions and these sorts of things. The home broadened Australian political discourse into something that anyone could be a part of.
Michelle Grattan: Now, just taking up the point about education, Frank, the Government that’s just been defeated, the Coalition Government, seemed to be quite anti universities, and anti the humanities, and seemed to see universities as something that should be much more vocation focused. Now, Menzies, in contrast, really rated education, and he expanded the university sector enormously. And he valued a broad education for people not just focused on what they were going to do, how they were going to make their living. Can you just tell us something about his attitude to education, and where all that came from, and how much influence it had?
Frank Bongiorno: Yes, well, I think it is rooted in this background. I mean, this is a son of the kind of lower middle class, I guess, the petty bourgeoisie, who is a scholarship boy, who goes to good private schools as a result of his talents and ability to win scholarships in Ballarat, and then at Wesley College in Melbourne. And as Zach said, by 1920, he is a famous man. He has won this this absolute landmark High Court case, and of course, very soon is a major political figure in Victoria and then nationally. Education has propelled him into a great prominence and great success.
And it does influence, I think, his general outlook. The Forgotten People broadcast has a line in it – I don’t know if I’m going to get the phrasing here right – and it’s a bit disturbing in some ways, because it has a slight eugenic feel about it, where he talks about the son, the bright son or the intelligent son of self-sacrificing, thrifty parents having more entitlement, than I think the phrase might be something like the dull offspring of improvident parents, or something along those lines in that famous broadcast. And I think clearly, that’s autobiographical. He’s talking about his own parents, he’s talking about himself.
By the late 1950s of course, Australia is the affluent society par excellence. It’s people who never imagined that they’d have a house and a car and all the rest of it, sometimes had both. And there was an opportunity there for an expansion, particularly of the university system, but that was also part of a larger expansion of educational opportunity.
Menzies brought over a leading, or the leading British university administrator, Sir Keith Murray, who produced a report. And Murray, at the end of this, was absolutely stunned when he handed over a few dot points to Menzies on a sheet of paper, which set out a really ambitious expansion of the university system, it was going to be quite expensive. And Menzies just took a look at it and said “Yep, we’ll have that”. And he accepted the lot, basically. And this, of course, was the basis for the massive expansion of university education that occurred from the late 1950s onwards; new universities, expanded places, and then eventually in the 1960s, to the dual system, including technical colleges, colleges of advanced education.
It was still an elite project in a lot of ways, in the sense that it envisaged certainly democratisation, but also a larger elite in a way. I mean, university education was still to be the preserve of a minority, and Menzies had a very old fashioned traditional view of the university. I mean, the phrase he used; a place of pure learning. And hence I think that was the basis in many ways for the hiving off of the more technical, and certainly what would have been considered the lesser professions, I suppose, compared with the law and medicine, which were still obviously going to be taught within the universities.
But this is rooted in his own experience, and very much the ways in which education had worked for him, as someone who was obviously very bright, but certainly his entry into the professions was very dependent on his ability to win scholarships and to go on to university in that way.
Michelle Grattan: And perhaps we’ve come to see universities in a more utilitarian way since those days, or since his view of them anyway.
Frank Bongiorno: I think we have. I mean, even back then, they were certainly considered places for training people for the workplace, for the professions, they had a strong emphasis, even going right back into the 19th century. But in a lot of ways, Menzies own understanding of the university ran slightly against that grain. It was perhaps an Oxbridge kind of understanding, of a more cloistered university, and he seems to have maintained that. I mean, he clearly thought that universities needed to provide professional training, but he also had this very, I think, idealistic view of what a university should do.
Michelle Grattan: Zach, a chapter in the book by Scott Prasser is titled, The Learning Leader. And he argues that Menzies’ strength really was that he could learn throughout his years as a leader. Do you think that that was a key factor in his very long second Prime Ministership, as well as of course, many other factors, like a dash of luck, and a rather shambolic Labor Party at various times, and so on, but that he could learn and renew himself?
Zachary Gorman: Oh, certainly. And he also had the opportunity to learn, which is something that so few political leaders of the modern day get. I mean, you have Howard with the ‘Lazarus rising with the triple bypass’. Rudd, to a far lesser extent, by the time he came back, it was clearly to save furniture, it wasn’t really a possibility of political renewal. But Menzies does come back, and he has these eight years in the wilderness to really contemplate things, find out what he’s done wrong.
One of the real things he learns is that he needs to cultivate the party room more, he needs to be seen as less aloof. But at the same time, he gets this blessing of the 1949 Parliament, which greatly expands the number of seats. So after that election, he’s not really dealing with the same people who had seen him in the 1930s and distrusted him. He has this whole wave of ’49ers who all get elected on the Robert Menzies ticket, and are a bit more adulatory based on that.
But there are other things that he does learn. He learns to get along with the Country Party. This distrust of the Country Party is really deeply ingrained in Menzies; both his father and Sydney Sampson lose their seats to Country Party members, Country Party challenges. And the Country Party in Victoria when it first emerged, even had a pledge that was modelled on the infamous Labor pledge that all Liberals really rejected. And Sydney Samson almost got recruited to the Country Party, but ultimately decided against it, because he would not sign the pledge.
It’s really ingrained in Menzies, that he doesn’t like the Country Party, but he ultimately learns to get along with them, that they are going to be essential to the health of this centre right as they remain today. They’re one of the real enduring oddities of Australian politics. So few western democracies have an agricultural base rural party that survives into the 21st century. It’s very rare, but maybe it’s the nature of Australian politics and the makeup of our electorates, they remain central. So it really compromises with people like Jack McEwan, and he gives in on certain issues surrounding tariffs, and they’re pet interests.
Another thing Scott Prasser talks about in his chapter is setting the agenda. When Menzies was Prime Minister for the first time, and the Second World War was going on, it was very difficult for Menzies to get much cut through. He’s very much reacting to what Winston Churchill and these more powerful figures were deciding. But in his second stint, he’s able to really tap into the zeitgeist of Australian politics. One of the key ones is on that issue of home ownership, and reacting to John Dedman’s statement that the Labor Party doesn’t want to create little capitalists by allowing people to own their own home.
Menzies knows that Australia is an aspirational place, we are an immigrant society. People want to be little capitalists, people want to have that little piece of earth that they can call home. And Menzies really is able to capitalise on that, that what he’s selling the electorate that second time around is far more clear. It’s more coherent, thanks in part to The Forgotten People speeches, but also thanks to the times. I mean, you can’t discredit bank nationalisation and the way in which it gave teeth to George Reid’s socialist tiger. This menace of Australian socialism, that the Liberal side of politics had been trying to articulate to the Australian people since the early days of Federation. Suddenly it was real, and Menzies was really able to fight that battle and dive headfirst into it.
Michelle Grattan: Frank, Menzies is obviously, for the Liberals, the iconic leader, even now they go back to him, to his example. But to what extent was he a man of his time? And how would he go in modern politics, contemporary politics? Would he be the learning leader and adapt, be able to adapt? Or would that media age be beyond his ability to come to grips with?
Frank Bongiorno: Menzies never pretended to be like the rest of us. And I think that’s one of the fundamental ways in which he differs, actually, from the garden variety modern political leader. All of them want to pretend to a greater or lesser extent that they’re like us. Whether it’s Malcolm Turnbull catching public transport, whether it’s Scott Morrison dressing in his rugby guernsey, or whether it’s the folksy phrases of a Kevin Rudd, and they all love to demonstrate their delight in sport and pubs and all the rest of it. It often has a very blokey male aspect to it. Menzies doesn’t seem to have bothered with any of this. He had paid the price for a sense of being too aloof, in his first time as Prime Minister. But in a lot of ways, for most Australians, he must have appeared a rather aloof figure still, in the 1950s and 1960s.
Michelle Grattan: Was that what people wanted in a way, that they wanted to feel the country was in the hands of someone who’s perhaps a bit different, but was competent and knew what he was doing?
Frank Bongiorno: Yes. And I think he conformed to an ideal of what a Prime Minister should look and sound like. I’ve read many of the letters that ordinary constituents wrote to Menzies, here in the Menzies papers at the National Library. And one of the striking things that comes through is this sense of the voice, that he sounds like people’s idea of an Australian Prime Minister. It’s not an English accent. It’s a cultivated, educated Australian accent. But he also looked like a Prime Minister, he acted like a Prime Minister. And it’s striking that the next individual who comes along, and who seemed like he could really fill those boots, wasn’t a Liberal at all; it was Gough Whitlam, the enormous bulk, the height, the physical presence, the oratorical skills, the education. Both Menzies and Whitlam were kind of law and classics men.
And so even in the 1970s, in this supposedly transformed Australia, I think that Whitlam benefited from this sense that he was a kind of Menzies-like leader. And when we consider Menzies popular appeal in the ’50s, and ’60s, it’s not the popular appeal of someone who was just like one of us. It was someone who was more gifted, more skilled than one of us, could protect us, could look after us, could be competent, could lead. And I think that that’s why Menzies was such a success during that period of great affluence. And as you say, also a period when the alternative offerings from the Labor Party often seemed very poor.
Michelle Grattan: And from what you say, Menzies will be regarded, indeed already is being regarded by history, perhaps better than many of the observers at the time thought.
Frank Bongiorno: Well, I think that’s right, and it has a lot to do with the affluent society. Many Australians today are, quite rightly, particularly younger Australians, preoccupied with things like housing affordability. I mean, this is one of the great achievements in 20th century Australian history. In 1947, about 50 percent of places were owner-occupied. By 15 years later, it was over 70 percent. That’s a remarkable transformation. And that didn’t happen by accident or through free markets. It happened through, in large part, Government policy, ensuring that people could get their hands on bank loans, ensuring that land was made available.
This is one of the great public policy successes in Australian history. So those homes that Menzies was talking about, those families he was talking about in The Forgotten People broadcasts back in 1942, he delivered on that. It wasn’t just his achievement, of course; State Governments were also involved in this. The banks were involved in this. Property developers were involved in this. So it’s not just about Government policy, but Government policy had a lot to do with it. I think that is a major achievement.
One could also just look at the levels of economic growth, which by the 1960s, were quite extraordinary. They’re running up to I think, 5, 6 percent. And the Menzies Government was often criticised, you remember, Michelle, in the ’80s and ’90s, of having squandered the opportunities provided by post-war effluence. It would be very difficult for a Government to abandon policies that were producing that kind of growth and that kind of affluence back in the 1950s and ’60s.
So yes, I think that we do look a little bit more benignly these days, certainly on his domestic policy, and perhaps even on some aspects of the foreign policy too, in the 1950s, at least, when yes, anticommunism was an important part of the Government’s armoury, but perhaps with good reason. It was a period in which Cold War tensions were very great.
Michelle Grattan: It’s been a fascinating discussion. Thank you, Frank and Zach. The Young Menzies is well worth a read, and we look forward to the future volumes in this series. Thank you for tuning in to this digital event. Goodbye for now.
[End of recorded material at 00:44:12]
Tune into Dr Zachary Gorman in conversation with Frank Bongiorno and Michelle Grattan as they discuss the new book, The Young Menzies: Success, Failure, Resilience (1894-1942) and its ties to the National Library of Australia collection.
About the book
Sir Robert Menzies is a towering figure in Australian history. As the nation's longest-serving prime minister, he transformed and ultimately dominated the political landscape, implementing policies that laid the foundations of modern Australia. The story of Menzies and his governments is essential to the Australian narrative: the centrality of political liberalism, the defense of democracy through trying times, and the expanding horizons of our identity, prosperity and appreciation. The Young Menzies: Success, Failure, Resilience 1894-1942 explores the formative period of Menzies's life, when his personal outlook and system of beliefs that would help shape modern Australia were themselves still being formed.
Contributors look at Menzies's ideas prior to their political practice and examine their context and origins. This period is also the time in which Menzies first attained power, though in difficult circumstances, when the focus of the nation was on survival. It was in losing office that Menzies was given the impetus to develop his vision for post-war Australia.
This is the first of a four-volume history of Menzies and his world, based on conferences convened by the Robert Menzies Institute at the University of Melbourne.
Contributors include Frank Bongiorno, Troy Bramston, Judith Brett, Nick Cater, Justice James Edelman, David Furse-Roberts, Anne Henderson, David Kemp, Angela Kittikhoun, Greg Melleuish and Scott Prasser, with a foreword by Geoffrey Blainey.
About the speakers
Dr Zachary Gorman is the academic coordinator at the Robert Menzies Institute. A professional historian, Gorman has worked as a researcher and academic since 2013, including several years at the University of Wollongong, where he received his PhD. He has written two books, Sir Joseph Carruthers: Founder of the New South Wales Liberal Party and Summoning Magna Carta: Freedom's Symbol Over a Millennium, and edited two others, the 250th anniversary edition of Captain James Cook, R.N.: 150 Years After and The Young Menzies: Success, Failure, Resilience 1894-1942. He has been published in a wide range of academic journals.
Frank Bongiorno AM is professor of history at the Australian National University, where he was formerly Head of the School of History. Frank is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a Whitlam Institute Distinguished Fellow at Western Sydney University. Frank is the author or co-author of five books and many scholarly articles and book chapters on Australian history. He is most recently the author of Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia.
Michelle Grattan AO is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and chief political correspondent at The Conversation. One of Australia’s most respected and awarded political journalists, she has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery for more than 40 years, during which time she has covered all the most significant stories in Australian politics. As a former editor of The Canberra Times, Michelle Grattan was also the first female editor of an Australian daily newspaper.