Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978)
Robert Gordon Menzies was Prime Minister of Australia through two momentous periods for the Australian nation: 1939-41, the first years of World War II, and 1949-66. His second prime ministership lasted a record sixteen years, ending with voluntary retirement on Australia Day and making him to date, the longest serving Prime Minister since Federation.
Most historians, and Sir Robert himself in his memoirs, agree on the marked differences between the first and second terms. The younger Menzies, in his own words, was ‘green in judgment’. The mature Prime Minister of the post-war boom period confidently, and with peerless political skill, reshaped and reactivated a fatigued country.
After the non-Labor forces in Australian politics suffered a crushing defeat at the 1943 election, Menzies became the key architect and leader of the newly-formed Liberal Party of Australia in 1944. He articulated a vision for post-war Australia founded on private enterprise, family stability and an active role for government in national development.
Sir Paul Hasluck (a Menzies cabinet minister and later Governor-General) identified several significant achievements of the Menzies era: among them, dedicated attention to the need to improve housing, services and utilities; the planned promotion of immigration to enrich and diversify Australian society; and increased access to higher education for all.
For Australians who had endured years of depression and war, it was a time of new and bigger horizons, a time when they could plan with confidence and aspire to give their children an even brighter future. Menzies was also ahead of his time in recognising the changing role of women in Australian society and in developing policies that appealed to women.
At different times, Menzies’ career was marked by controversy: intense debate over Australian readiness for world war; the sale of pig-iron to Japan pre-war; the Korean war; the bill to outlaw the Communist Party; the Petrov affair; and, in the 1960s, Australia’s escalating involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
But no-one was in any doubt where Menzies stood. His Scots and Cornish heritage, and strict upbringing, had developed a strong value system based on honesty, loyalty and hard work. The author of most of his own speeches – including the milestone ‘The Forgotten People’ in 1942 – Menzies articulated clear and consistent social, cultural, political and moral views.
At times, he gained unlikely friends. The day Menzies resigned as Prime Minister of Australia, in August 1941, he sent a short note to John Curtin, leader of the Labor Party, thanking him for his ‘magnanimous and understanding attitude. Your political opposition has been honourable and your personal friendship a pearl of great price’. Curtin replied: ‘Your personal friendship is something I value … as a very precious thing’.
Menzies believed in the primacy of the Westminster system of government and British institutions. He was a committed monarchist. In the 1950s, especially during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, most Australians felt the same way.
One further achievement must be acknowledged: Menzies’ crucial role in the making of the national capital. At a time when Canberra’s fortunes were arguably at their lowest ebb, he committed his government to the task of creating a capital worthy of the nation. It was a decision both courageous and visionary. As Allan Martin has noted in his biography: ‘Menzies’ interest, and effectiveness, in the development of Canberra was…for him a source of special pride’.