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Robert Gordon Menzies
and the Menzies Era
1949 to 1972



Robert Gordon Menzies

Robert Gordon Menzies was Prime Minister of Australia from 1939 to 1941 and again from 1949. Beginning in 1949, Menzies won seven consecutive elections. He retired undefeated in 1966. His Party, with most of his policies, continued in government until 1972. This period is regarded by many Australians as a golden era.

During the Menzies Era, Australia was "the Lucky Country". Wealth from the land and the mines paid for new factories, providing plentiful jobs. New suburbs sprang up around the cities and a new, suburban way of life developed. New appliances steadily accumulated and most could afford a new car every two or three years.

While Australia continued to produce a stream of sporting champions, hundreds of thousands of migrants from war-ravaged Europe brought a more diverse and exciting culture.

Australians built great national symbols like the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the Sydney Opera House and hosted the Olympic Games while fighting alongside "rich and powerful friends" in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam.

In Australia, as in the rest of the developed world, the prosperity of Menzies Era allowed the development of the first youth culture from early rock'n'roll through the Beatles era.



Robert Gordon Menzies - a Brief Biography

Robert Menzies was born on 20 December 1894 in Jeparit in country Victoria where his father, James, was a shopkeeper. His father was of Scottish descent while his mother, Kate, was descended from Cornish miners. His ancestors had come to Australia in the gold rush of the 1850s.

Young Robert first attended a one-teacher school in Japarit but won a scholarship which enabled him attend Grenville College in Ballarat. While in Ballarat, he lived with his grandmother. In 1909, Robert's parents moved to Melbourne and the 14-year old Robert won another scholarship to attend Wesley College in Melbourne and, later, another to study law at Melbourne University. He graduated in 1916 with first class honours.

In 1920, he married Pattie Leckie, the daughter of Senator J. W. Leckie.

Menzies was admitted it the Bar in 1918 and his skills as an orator gained him a reputation as a brilliant barrister. He was appointed a King's Counsel in 1929.

In 1928, Robert Menzies was elected to the Victorian Parliament, representing the Nationalist Party. In 1932, he was appointed Attorney-General, Minister for Railways and Deputy Premier but he quit State politics in 1934 to contest the Federal seat of Kooyong for the United Australia Party.

Once in Federal Parliament, Menzies was soon appointed to the position of Attorney-General and Minister for Industry under the Prime Ministership of Joe Lyons. The government was a coalition of the United Australia Party and the Country Party. The leader of the Country Party, Earle Page, was the Deputy Prime Minister.

In 1938, Menzies challenged Lyons for the leadership of the Party. When he was defeated, Menzies resigned as a minister and as Deputy Prime Minister.

When Lyons suddenly died in office the next year, Earle Page was sworn in as interim Prime Minister. Against strong opposition from Page, Menzies was elected leader of the United Australia Party and, as leader of the larger party, assumed the Prime Ministership. Page refused to serve under Menzies, which led to him losing the leadership of his own party. (Earle Page later moderated his attitude and became Minister for Health under Menzies in the mid-fifties.)

Four months after Menzies became Prime Minister, Britain declared war on Germany. Menzies promptly announced on radio that Britain has declared war on Germany and, therefore, Australia is at war. He did this without consulting Cabinet, which did not necessarily agree that Australia needed to blindly follow Britain. Menzies autocratic style of leadership earned him the nickname "Ming" after the evil emperor in the Buck Rodgers movies.

Although Menzies automatic following of Britain into war would be seen as totally inappropriate today, at the time, it seemed the natural and legally correct course. Australia was part of the British Empire; Australians were British citizens - Australian citizenship was not introduced for another ten years. In the minds of many Australians of Menzies generation at that time, being Australian was secondary to being British. For most Australians, that attitude was to change rapidly in the next few years.

Menzies proceeded to put Australia on a war footing, introducing censorship, price control, conscription for home defence and petrol rationing. Australian troops, three divisions by 1941, were sent to fight in Europe and North Africa. On the other hand, Menzies continued to permit the export of iron ore to Japan, which was not yet at war with Britain. The unions refused to ship the iron ore, saying that it would come back as bombs and calling Menzies "Pig Iron Bob". Menzies further enraged the leftist unions by outlawing the Communist Party, which the Left rightly argued would help the Allies win the war.

Menzies rapid rise, the controversy surrounding his appointment as Prime Minister, his autocratic style and the unpopular wartime measures led to continuing dissatisfaction with his leadership within the United Australia Party, culminating in his resignation as leader in 1941. Soon afterwards, the Party lost government.

The new Prime Minister, John Curtin, soon turned from Britain to America as the "great white hope". In 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. To many Australians this demonstrated that the era of British power in Asia and the Pacific was over. Soon after the Japanese attacked the American base at Pearl Harbour in December 1941, their submarines also shelled Sydney and Newcastle, their troops threatened Australia from the north and their planes bombed Darwin and Broome. Curtin introduced conscription for overseas service for the first time in Australia's history but limited it to service in the Pacific for the defence of Australia - not for the defence of Britain. He recalled Australian troops from the European theatre to defend Australia in the Pacific, much against the wishes of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who argued that Australia was expendable and the priority of the entire British Empire should be to defend Britain.

In 1943, Curtin's government was returned with an increased majority.

In 1944, Menzies convened a meeting of business and political leaders to create a new non-Labor political organisation to rebuild Australia when the war ended. The Liberal Party was established in Albury later that year.

John Curtin died in office shortly before the end of the war. He was succeeded by Ben Chifley, who was re-elected in 1946, largely on the basis of his Party's record of government during the war. Chifley was inspired by socialist ideals. He increased social welfare, although this meant higher taxes and an extension of wartime rationing, and introduced legislation to nationalise the banks. The move was blocked by the High Court. This made Chifley unpopular with both the conservatives, who accused him of being a communist, and with the socialists because his plan failed. Chiffley became even more unpopular with the Left when he called in troops to break a coal miners' strike.

1949 Liberal Party poster
1949 Liberal Party poster

At the next election, in 1949, Chifley's government was defeated by Menzies' Liberal Party. Menzies campaign was largely bases on the scare tactic of accusing Labor Party members of being communists. He continued to use this tactic throughout his whole time in government.

By 1949, the economy was starting to boom. Prices for exports, particularly wool, were increasing and oil, gas and other mineral discoveries soon boosted Australia's wealth. The Menzies government implemented a policy of high tariff protection for Australian manufacturers and farmers. This policy meant that Australia maintained full employment and high wages in an expanding manufacturing sector, even though its industries were gradually becoming less competitive by world standards. The wealth being produced by primary production was sufficient to pay for it.

When Malaya was granted indepenence from Britain in 1948, Malayan Communists, many of whom had been trained and armed by the British to fight the Japanese, began an armed insurgency. In 1950, the Menzies government, alarmed by the threat of the spread of communism in the region, sent an Air Force contingent to assist the Malayan government. From 1955 to 1962, ground troops were also deployed in Malaya.

In 1950, Australia also sent troops to Korea as part of the United Nations force opposing the Communist North Koreans and Chinese. 339 Australians were killed and more than 1,200 were wounded in the conflict.

When Ben Chifley died in 1951, H.V. "Doc" Evatt, became leader of the Opposition. Evatt had been Deputy Prime Minister from 1946 to 1948 and had left politics to become the first President of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Evatt succeeded in defeating legislation introduced by Menzies to outlaw the Communist Party and, in the 1954 elections, came close to defeating the Menzies government.

In 1956, Egypt's President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in order to use money from tolls to pay for construction of the Aswan Dam. When the International Court upheld Egypt's right to do this, Britain and France conspired to persuade Israel to provoke a war with Egypt so that they could seize the Canal by force. Menzies led an unsuccessful delegation of five nations to try to persuade Nasser to give up the Canal. Although, in retrospect, the issue seems to have had very little relevance to Australia, at the time it was seen as confirming Menzies' status as a world statesman.

In a further demonstration of Menzies' continuing allegiance to Britain, in the same month as the Suez delegation (September 1956), Britain was allowed to conduct the first of four atomic bomb tests in Western Australia. The idea that one nation would supply another with uranium for nuclear weapons and then invite the other nation to drop the weapons on its territory now seems absurd but, at the time, most Australians saw it as an appropriate part of Australia's role in the British Commonwealth.

By this time, the Labor Party was starting to split into two groups. The main group, led by Evatt, was more left-wing and was accused of being pro-communist by the fervently anti-communist right-wing group, led by B. A. Santamaria. By 1957, the right-wing group had become a separate party, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP).

With the two Labor parties seemingly more intent on fighting each other than winning government, Menzies' Liberal Party had a landslide victory in the next election. Evatt resigned from politics, being replaced as leader of the Labor Party by Arthur Calwell.

In 1961, in order to curb growing inflation, the Menzies government introduced an enormously unpopular "credit squeeze" - a policy largely designed by Menzies' Deputy, John "Black Jack" McEwan, on whom Menzies relied for much of his economic and trade policy. In the elections at the end of that year, Menzies' large majority was reduced to just two.

Because of the difficulty of governing with such a small majority, Menzies called another election less than two years later. By this time, the roughly-spoken Calwell was not seen by many as a viable alternative leader to Menzies, the urbane and articulate statesman - now Sir Robert, having received a knighthood earlier that year. The Menzies government was returned with ten additional seats. Calwell's popularity continued to wane until his retirement in 1967 after an electoral landslide against his Party.

Despite Menzies continuing electoral success, Australians increasingly felt that his British and royalist sentiments were out of step with the majority attitude. This was brought to the fore in Menzies' much-lampooned 1963 speech to the Queen in which he quoted the verse "I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die".

In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed against bitter opposition from Indonesia. In 1964, Indonesian troops attacked Sarawak and North Borneo. Australian and British troops moved into the area to confront the Indonesians. The Indonesian President, Sukarno, announced an alliance with the Asian Communist states (China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Cambodia) and threatened to obtain nuclear weapons. It was this threat, rather than the Vietnam War (as is often supposed), that led Menzies to announce the introduction of conscription in November 1964.

Sukarno was overthrown in a military coup in 1965. The new President, Seoharto, quickly put an end to the confrontation and the Australian troops were withdrawn.

In 1964, Australia had sent a small number of military advisers to South Vietnam to help US forces support the South Vietnamese government against Viet Cong rebels who were seen as threatening to spread communism throughout South-East Asia. In April the following year, Menzies announced that Australian combat troops would also be sent to Vietnam.

In 1964, Menzies appointed Garfield Barwick, the Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs, as Chief Justice of the High Court. Many had seen Barwick as a possible alternative to Menzies as Liberal Party leader. Menzies was accused of using this "golden handshake" technique to get rid of potential rivals several times during his career.

In October 1965, Menzies was granted one of the highest British awards by being named successor to Winston Churchill as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

On 26 January 1966, Menzies retired. Harold Holt became the new leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister.

On his retirement, Menzies became Chancellor of the University of Melbourne.

In 1976, he became the first recipient of the newly created Australian honour of Knight of the Order of Australia.

Sir Robert Menzies died on 16 May 1978 in Melbourne. He left three children, Ken, Ian and Heather, and nine grandchildren. Dame Pattie Menzies died on 30 August 1995, aged 96.

Robert Menzies and Harold Holt
Robert Menzies and Harold Holt