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How Robert Menzies became Australia’s most outstanding Prime Minister

Robert Menzies in The Australian Business Executive

Robert Gordon Menzies was Australia’s longest serving and our most politically successful prime minister. He held the prime-ministership twice – from 1939 to 1941, and then more impressively from 1949-1966 – a total of 18 years, 5 months, and 12 days. During that second period Menzies won seven elections in a row. No-one at the national level had ever had such success, and no-one, for a variety of reasons, will achieve that again. Moreover, Menzies achieved one other distinction – he left office in January 1966 at a time of his own choosing. Only two other Australian prime ministers had achieved that previously, and none since. Nevertheless, despite this success Menzies, has until recently not been fully appreciated even by the party he founded.

A brief history – Menzies a scholarship boy

Menzies was born in 1894 in Jeparit in country Victoria 300 kilometres north of Melbourne. His family were shopkeepers of modest means. Menzies won scholarships to several schools, then to Melbourne University where he studied law and won numerous academic prizes. After entering the Melbourne bar, Menzies soon had a thriving law practice, participated in the pivotal High Court Engineer’s Case in 1920 which overturned precedent and was made King’s Counsel (KC) at just 35 years of age – Australia’s youngest. He soon became Australia’s highest paid KC.

Despite this success Menzies decided to go into politics. First in Victorian government and then in 1934 he joined the Lyons United Australia Party (UAP) federal government as Attorney General and Minister for Industry and soon deputy UAP leader. Upon Lyons death in 1939, Menzies was elected prime minister. It had been a swift rise, but he soon faced a series of problems and was forced to resign in 1941. After the 1943 election which saw the UAP decimated, Menzies returned as leader and then established a new political party – the Liberal Party. However, it was not until 1949 that Menzies led the Liberal-Country party coalition back to office.

Myths about Menzies

In reviewing Menzies’ second prime-ministership, several myths have developed that devalue his contribution to Australian government and underplay his political skills.

In essence, Menzies’ political success has been explained by detractors as being easily achieved based on the post World War Two international economic boom, his manipulation of ‘Cold War’ fears, and the Labor Party split in 1955-6. It required no real skills or hard decisions. Menzies just ‘presided’ over the economy. Moreover, there were few achievements. Australia lagged in welfare and education and Menzies’ never appreciated developments in Asia.

Challenges facing the Menzies’ governments

In fact, the Menzies period was more complex than has often been portrayed. There were economic, social, international, and political challenges.

Economically, Australia’s economic growth was not foregone conclusion, easily achieved and requiring no difficult decisions. There was a new era of international financial and trade arrangements; concerns about Australia’s over-reliance on rural exports; disruptions caused by the Korean War, balance of payments and foreign investment issues; and industrial relations problems, and Britain’s move to Europe.

Socially, Australia was undergoing great change. A massive immigration program would bring 2.5 million people to the country from a more diverse range of nations than previously had begun. It was the beginning of multicultural Australia. It was also a time of the ‘baby-boom’ and demand for more housing and schools.

Internationally, much was in flux with real dangers not limited to distant Europe. There were Cold War tensions, the emergence of Communist China, the Korean War, and the threat of nuclear war. Decolonisation was occurring and the disassembling of the British Empire, and Britain’s diminution as a world power.

Politically, Menzies had to manage a hostile Senate, maintain relations with the Country Party, face an active opposition, and manage Australia’s increasingly complex federal-state relations and complex system of government.

Menzies’ successes

Economically, Australia under Menzies governments enjoyed an unprecedented period of high economic growth, low unemployment, low interest rates, rising real incomes and low inflation (most of the time). Keynesian anti-cyclical demand management was adopted, and tariff protection allowed a broad range of industrial development, especially manufacturing. Menzies ran a tighter fiscal policy than many overseas countries or what it would have been under Labor. Menzies established the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1960 though resisted by Labor, as was the pivotal 1957 Australia-Japan Agreement on Commerce which brought Australia into direct contact with Asia. By the early 1960s Japan had replaced Britain as our largest trading partner. The Menzies Government rejected Labor’s interventionist policies like bank and airline nationalisation.

In social policy strict means testing and targeting for most welfare incomes was financed by a progressive income tax that meant Australia avoided the unfunded welfare policies of European systems and thus caused less demand on national savings. Menzies’ social welfare policies were a mixture of principles stressing individual responsibility, supported by low unemployment, growing wages, and low inflation with pragmatic responses to meet immediate needs rather than to promote grandiose visions. There was steady liberalisation of the pensions means test. Menzies promoted home ownership, rather than public housing which was all the rage in the United Kingdom and with the ALP. Home ownership in Australia increased from 53 per cent in 1947 to 70 per cent by 1961 and grew even more. It was what the electorate wanted most.

In education, Menzies was an undoubted leader and reformer. As a scholarship boy he had a genuine interest in this area. When Leader of the Opposition Menzies initiated in 1945 the first major debate on education in the federal parliament. His speech outlined farsighted proposals including: increased facilities and funding for schools, adult education, universities, even pre-schools, and the need to address the qualifications, status and remuneration of teachers. Although education was a state responsibility, Menzies predicted and supported increased Commonwealth involvement. In office, Menzies appointed two major public inquiries in 1956 and 1961 that revolutionised university education with Commonwealth funding between 1955 and 1966 growing tenfold. In his final term (1963-66) Menzies at the 1963 election announced major initiatives that tackled the ‘state-aid’ issue – public funding of non-government schools – independent and Catholic and the beginning of which Commonwealth support for state public schools. It became bipartisan policy.

In international affairs, Menzies reaffirmed the alliance with the United States begun by Labor Prime Minister Curtin during World War Two and signed the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Australia also became increasingly involved in Asian issues, sometimes under the auspices of the United Nations as in the Korean War (1950), or in support of the United Kingdom with the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) that broke the back of a pro-Beijing insurgency and allowed peninsula Malaya to become independent in 1957. Later Australia would support the United States in the Vietnam War (1965). However, the Colombo Plan was Australia’s own initiative and so too was the support Australia gave to the fledging Malaysian state during the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-66). As Lee Kuan Yew, leader of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, wrote, Menzies “was an outstanding leader who set out painstakingly to build up Australia’s links with the new countries in Asia, particularly immediate neighbours in South-East Asia”.

Politically, Menzies’ overcame the hostile Senate by calling a double dissolution in 1951 – a risky strategy as when used in 1914 the government lost office. The 1954 election was close. Only with the 1955 and 1958 elections was Menzies secure but this was short-lived as in 1961 he won only by one seat. Again, Menzies held his nerve, made policy changes and called an early 1963 election picking up ten seats. He left a sound foundation for his successor, Harold Holt. Menzies’ electoral successes were never certain. He was a good campaigner, understood modern communications, was superb on the hustings, and understood the electorate.

Lastly, Menzies modernised Australian government laying the foundations of government as Australia entered the 21st century. After all, Australia as a federated nation was just a half century old when Menzies came to power in 1949. It was part of Menzies’ legacy that the Commonwealth Government (now the Australian Government), confirmed its national primacy in both government and politics. Although a federalist, Menzies eschewed the notion that Australia’s national direction or unity would be sacrificed on the altar of states’ rights and parochial political concerns. The overriding supremacy of the national government’s wishes was firmly and unassailably established. It did not all start with Whitlam.

Menzies governments exuded stability. Ministerial reshuffles were rare. From 1949-66, there were only two Treasurers. By the way, scandals under Menzies were unknown. There was only one case of a ministerial resignation stemming from a conflict of interest, and that was on a minor issue.

Conclusions

Australia under Menzies was marked by changes in politics, public policy and social life. Many of the transitions that began during this period were nurtured and went on to lay the foundations for a more modern, and in many ways, different Australia. Menzies great achievement was to allow these transitions to occur with the minimum of disruption. Indeed, Menzies gave a sense of stability and reassurance at this time of great change. There will never be another Menzies.

Dr Scott Prasser is a Senior Fellow, Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) having worked in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent book Robert Menzies: Man or Myth is available through Connor Court publishing, www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au.

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