Robert Gordon Menzies and the Menzies Era 1949 to 1972
Robert Gordon Menzies and the Menzies Era 1949 to 1972
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
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
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
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
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.