Almost half a century after leaving the building, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies is back. Old Parliament House is staging a celebration of the leader who spent 32 years within its precincts, 19 of them as Prime Minister.
That his comeback has been delayed so long is extraordinary. In the United States, almost every president is granted a library or museum. In Britain serious political history is a mainstay of literature and broadcasting. Yet it was not until 34 years after his death that our longest serving prime minister was accorded a statue in Canberra. The ABC has yet to make him the subject of a serious documentary. The leader who coined the phrase “the forgotten people” has been all but forgotten himself.
Menzies, however, is bouncing back. An exhibition at Old Parliament House’s Museum of Democracy, guest curated by John Howard, is evidence of a revival quietly gathering pace. Two recent books by Menzies’s daughter, Heather Henderson, Letters to my Daughter and A Smile for My Parents, present a human side all but airbrushed from history.
Anne Henderson’s Menzies at War published earlier this year tells the story of Menzies’s first prime ministership with rare clarity and objectivity. Later this month comes the publication of the most substantial Menzies work of all: Howard’s The Menzies Era, a 700-page chronicle of the architect of our post-war prosperity.
The caricature of Menzies as a staid, stuffy leader whose reactionary, forelock-tugging government held his nation back is one the greatest fallacies in Australian history. Yet the myth endures that nothing happened in post-war Australia before Gough Whitlam. The cultural turmoil of the 60s and 70s are portrayed as a journey from darkness into light, a victory of the leader of the future over the moribund leaders of yesteryear. Donald Horne casually dismissed Menzies and his Labor opponent Arthur Calwell as “exiles in their own century.”
President Richard Nixon, no less, begged to differ. Menzies, like Singpore’s Lee Kuan Yew, was a big man on a small stage, he said, a leader “who in other times and other places might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli or a Gladstone.”
Menzies’s pivotal role in the nation’s history becomes clear once 1949, not 1972, is recognised as the turning point for modern Australia. At the December election that year, the country was faced with a momentous choice between state-managed socialism and entrepreneurial liberalism. Had Ben Chifley won the election and the post-war decades belonged to Labor, Australia would have been a diminished, and less prosperous place.
For the model of what Australia might have become, we need only to look to Great Britain where government interference, necessary in wartime, morphed into the behemoth of the welfare state. By 1966, government spending in Britain amounted to 40 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. In Menzies’s Australia it was a fraction of that figure.
Menzies described his dystopian fear of the welfare state in May 1942 in his finest speech, The Forgotten People. He warned against “the overlordship of an all-powerful State on whose benevolence we shall live, spineless and effortless,” a place where the government “will nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us.”
The resonance of Menzies’s observations more than seven decades later is uncanny. “For a generation we have been busy getting ourselves on to the list of beneficiaries,” he said. “Are you looking forward to a breed of men… who will have become boneless wonders? Leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles. Men without ambition readily become slaves.”
Menzies’s arguments for lean government and free enterprise are moral, rather than economic. The “intelligent ambition” of an enterprising middle class is “the motive power of human progress.” Key to unlocking potential is education.
In the 1949 campaign, Chifley pledged to deliver freedom from want, but it was Menzies who delivered the era of prosperity in which it was achieved. Australia was transformed into a car-driving and house-owning democracy. In 1947 there was one car for every eight people; by 1966 it was one in three. Barely half of all households owned or were buying their own home in 1947; by Menzies’s retirement the figure was 70 per cent.
Menzies – not Whitlam – was the great post-war champion of higher education, whatever Labor’s mythmakers would have us believe. The country he took over had just one university per state. By the time he stepped down in 1966, seven more had been created. Some, like Monash, La Trobe and Flinders, had been built from scratch. Students enrolments had trebled, and at least half of those attending were receiving Commonwealth grants.
Menzies’s boast of being “British to the bootstraps” and transparent affection for the Queen has been used by his enemies to portray him as a colonial relic. Yet it was Menzies, not Whitlam, Hawke or Keating, who pioneered Australia’s relations with Asia. He visited Japan in 1950 and secured a trade agreement in ‘57. Visiting Tokyo that year he described Japan’s leader, Tatsuo Kawai as his “old friend.”
Two years later he became the first Australian prime minister to visit Jakarta. The 1952 Colombo Plan, bringing Asian students to Australia, was an act of soft diplomacy far sighted for its time. Menzies signed the ANZUS defence agreement with the US and vastly reduced Australia’s reliance on Britain. In 1949 more than 40 per cent of Australia’s exports were sent to British ports and barely 1 per cent to Japan. By 1966, exports to both countries were level at 17 per cent.
Menzies’s philosophy of freedom, opportunity and choice offer welcome relief from the stifling conformity of modern thinking. “Strangely enough,” Menzies wrote in retirement, “I had never, even as a student, been attracted by State Socialism. To me, human beings were individuals, not statistics.”