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Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) Menzies (1894–1978)

by Humphrey McQueen

In a radio broadcast on 26 April 1939, Robert Gordon Menzies gave this account of his childhood:

I am a singularly plain man, born in the little town of Jeparit, on the fringe of the Mallee; educated in Ballarat, in a state school, and then by scholarship at a public school and Melbourne university. Apart from having parents of great character,  and fortitude, I was not born to the purple.

Strange as it now seems, Menzies made his reputation when he took a case for the unions to the High Court. His industry and ability did not pass unnoticed and by the end of the 1920s he had a legal practice which earned him £10,000 a year. His successes were in the Court of Appeal. He was far less successful addressing a jury. In the mid-1950s, he expressed regret that he had not left Australia and gone to the English bar to assume the mantle of Lord Birkenhead.

In 1929, he entered the Victorian Legislative Council after being defeated at an earlier attempt. His political career was not confined to the public arena and he was part of the cabal which helped to move Joe Lyons from the Labor Party to the leadership of the United Australia Party early in 1931. At that instant it was hard to decide if he were the confidant of the owners of the old National Party machine, or merely the legman for J. B. Were, the Melbourne stockbrokers. In the following May, he told the congregation at a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon: ‘If Australia were to get through her troubles by abating or abandoning traditional British standards of honesty, or justice, or fair play, of resolute endeavour, it would be far better that every citizen within her boundaries should die of starvation within the next six months’.

When the conservatives returned to office in Victoria in 1932, Menzies became Deputy Premier. The Bulletin issued the following advice a few weeks later: 'Interjectors beware of him for, though kindly, he is a master of repartee.' His oral brilliance, however, was useless against the determination of the Wonthaggi miners in 1934, and just before he moved across to federal politics he had to admit the first of many defeats at the hands of the working class.

His new career in Canberra began surprisingly well. He instantly became Attorney General. The following year he absented himself from this position for a short period to appear for the Shell oil company before the Privy Council. (A decade earlier, Shell's director general, Henri Deterding, had donated four million guilders to Hitler's Nazi party after the collapse of the beer-hall putsch.)

Having been sent to Canberra to watch over lapdog Lyons, Menzies tore his nominal leader to shreds in an effort to take the prime ministership for himself. Towards the end of 1938, Menzies developed a social conscience which momentarily stopped him from serving in any government that would not introduce a system of national insurance. This passion for reform lasted until Lyons' death early in April 1939. Although the UAP chose Menzies to be its leader, his popularity is shown by the fact that he was run a close race by the ageing and unlovely Billy Hughes, and by the fact that the Country Party refused to serve under him. This was the occasion of Earle Page's attack on Menzies' loyalty. After recounting Menzies' undermining of Lyons, Page turned his attention back twenty-four years and noted that 'the right honorable member for Kooyong was a member of the Australian Military Forces and held the king's commission. In 1915, after having been in the military forces for some years, he resigned his commission and did not go overseas.'

The next few years did not go easily. Five months after becoming Prime Minister, he had to announce that Australia was at war with a country he admired greatly. Menzies had visited Germany late in July 1938, just as the Czech crisis was building up. He reported to Lyons that his 'principal impressions' were:

  1. Both Chamberlain and Halifax enjoy a very high reputation in the official and semi-official quarters in which I moved.
  2. The ambassador, Sir Neville Henderson, is an extremely clear-headed and sensible fellow with a frank and even breezy method of putting the British view to the Germans.
  3. All around the German Foreign office I found them optimistic about an amicable settlement of the Polish corridor affair but rather depressed about the Czechoslovakian position, Runciman's appointment was very well received but there appears to be a gloomy feeling in the German mind that Benes, egged on by France, will refuse to do-the fair thing and that trouble may ensue.
  4. I came to the conclusion that the actual absorption of the Sudeten into the German Reich is not in the immediate program and that Germany may quite possibly be satisfied, for some time, at least, with a loose federal system in Czechoslovakia, based on substantially autonomous national communities.
  5. I am more than ever impressed with the view that this problem requires a very firm hand at Prague, otherwise Benes will continue to bluff at the expense of much more important nations, including our own.
  6. The Germans are enormously impressed by British rearmament.
  7. Paradoxically enough, the royal visit to France was well received in Berlin, the idea being that this dramatic affirmation of the Entente Cordiale should make the French much less nervous and therefore much less liable to do silly things.

I am looking forward very much to getting back home again. As you know, the pleasures of these overseas visits can be grossly exaggerated.

Back in Australia, Menzies continued to press the virtues of Hitler's Germany. He said he was particularly impressed by the way in which the German industrialists looked after their workers.

Australian workers were about to give Menzies a different lesson in international politics when the Port Kembla wharfies refused to load pig iron for Japan. Menzies considered this was 'a provocative act against a friendly power'. The Japanese remembered him favourably and a study of Foreign Office archives in Japan might help us distinguish how his patriotism differed from that of Petain and Quisling.

Other capitalist spokespeople were taking a different line and criticism of Menzies' handling of the war effort mounted inside his own government. He was saved for a time by Curtin's fear of taking responsibility for Australia. Finally he was brought down by his own side. There were those who blamed the UAP for not having prepared our defences in the 1930s. Many said that even in 1941 the government was not doing enough and was persisting with a business-as-usual policy. Others suggested that the Prime Minister was indolent and a socialite who spent too much time flirting with Sydney ladies. Towards the end of August 1941, these criticisms came to a head in the party rooms. Menzies was forced to resign. For the next forty days and nights, the fate of Australia rested in the hollow of Artie Fadden's head.

Commenting on Menzies' loss of the prime ministership, the Sydney Morning Herald later said that ‘he was as disconcerted and as furious as Hamlet would have been had he been stabbed from behind the arras by Polonius in the second act'. The general opinion was that Pig-Iron Bob was finished. He was the Australian equivalent of Chamberlain. The new social order would have no place for him.

To dismiss Menzies was to forget his ambition and his associates. Within a year of defeat he was seeking out a new political constituency. No longer could he parade as the spokesman for Collins Street. He had to represent the whole of capitalism. To mask this transformation he began to speak up for the middle class, the forgotten people, in whom he found four particular virtues:

First: It has 'a stake in the country'. It has responsibility for homes material, homes human, homes spiritual.

Second: The middle class, more than any other, provides the intelligent ambition which is the motive power of human progress.

Third: The middle class provides more than perhaps any other the intellectual life which marks us off from the beast; the life which finds room for literature, for the arts, for science, for medicine and the law.

Fourth: This middle class maintains and fills the higher schools and universities and so feeds the lamp of learning.

If Menzies had found a new political base from which to defend the interests of foreign capital, he had not lost the old edge to his thought. On education, he was still bathed in eugenic imagery:

 . . to say that the industrious and intelligent son of self-sacrificing and saving and forward-looking parents has the same social deserts and even material needs as the dull offspring of stupid and improvident parents is absurd.

His high-minded contempt for the Australian people was as petty as before:

To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer and impute false motives to public service, these are the maladies of modern democracy, and of Australian democracy in particular.

His own innate good manners had stopped him picking fault with his hosts whilst sitting around German fireplaces in 1938.

With these ideological beginnings and from support within the old conservative organisations in Victoria, he set out to build a new political party. The Liberal Party of Australia was founded at a conference in Albury in 1944. It gained seats in the 1946 elections and was swept to power three years later. Even this victory did not end the discontent over his leadership. A decade before, Sir Keith Murdoch had told Clive Baillieu what a 'most difficult man' Menzies was to work for: 'l do not know whether it is utter laziness or pride.' Sydney capitalists remained unsure of him and feared that his interests were still too regionally Victorian.

Within weeks of assuming office, Menzies set about turning Australia into a police state. The pretext was his promise to ban the Communist Party. The aim was to destroy the trade union movement and remove all opposition to the new demands of the US. Once again Menzies was defeated by the Australian people who, in spite of a horrendous propaganda campaign in favour of banning the Communists, voted against this proposal when it came to a referendum. By now, Menzies had become a great champion of war making. He called for nuclear weapons to break the Berlin blockade in 1948. In 1951, he announced that we would be at war within three years. The Australian economy was severely damaged by the plans that this scare produced. In 1960, his expert handling of the economy plunged Australia into a recession which nearly lost him the prime ministership.

At the end of his long period in office, two questions were asked: what, if anything, had he accomplished? Had he wasted Australia's time. In his retirement press conference he nominated two things as his achievements: the alliance with the USA and the alliance with the Country Party. Friends and editorialists added the building of Canberra and the boost to university education. A few recalled the Bulletin's 1896 obituary to Henry Parkes and wondered if it might apply to Menzies:

He had the art of seeming great, yet no one could really remember, even at the zenith of his career, that he ever did anything particular to deserve his reputation . . . The old man was a good politician judged by the bad standards of his own bad school, and he was a long, sad failure.

To those who had come of age under his resonant cadences and in awe of his physical bulk, it was hard to believe that he lacked substantiality; that he was, as Sir George Reid had said of himself, all piss and wind. Yet this was how William Dobell saw him for the portrait that appeared on the cover of Time in 1960. Historian Manning Clark described Dobell's portrait as 'a great riddle to his audience', and recalled:

I remember standing in front of it for well over an hour one afternoon in Canberra, chewing over the simple question: what is it about? None of the obvious explanations seemed to fit: it was not about an arrogant man, or one absolutely corrupted by absolute power, or a lonely man (though the heart of a man who has topped a cloud is generally a desperate hunter), or an innocent boy from Jeparit who had gone to Melbourne and fallen among thieves who had stripped him of his apparel and beaten him and the wounds had never healed. I was just about to give up in despair and admit defeat when I noticed that one of the hands was resting on the monogram of empire. So I looked again greedily at the face and suddenly realised that what Dobell wanted people to see was that there was nothing behind the facade or mask Menzies presented to the world: that Menzies, as a representative leader of our public men, had become a hollow man.

All too conscious of his own past and of his conspicuously hollow present, Menzies attached himself to the Churchill myth. He saw himself in the mould of a world statesman. When Churchill retired from the parliament at Westminster after more than 60 years, Menzies moved a motion of congratulations to him from the Australian parliament. He did this without consulting the Leader of the opposition, Calwell, who was obliged to support the motion but did so in a fashion which revealed how empty was Menzies' attempt to present himself as the Australian Churchill. Calwell reminded Menzies that,

while Churchill thundered his magnificent obsession, as it seemed, there were those who, in smoother cadences, besought the people to imagine themselves in the position of the German people at their own firesides selves whether they would not find much to admire in Herr Hitler’s achievements. Churchill, with his clearer insight and genuine sense of leadership, stripped the mask from such humbug.

Menzies’ campaign to have himself accepted as a loyal Britisher was a long and arduous one. Events kept getting in the way of his best-turned phrases. Take for instance this extract from a 1950 speech where Menzies provided the quintessence of his self-proclaimed imperials patriotism:

To me the British Empire means (and here you will find a curious jumble in both time and place) a cottage in the wheat lands of the north-west of the State of Victoria, with the Bible and Henry Drummond and Jerome K Jerome, the Scottish Chiefs and Burns on the shelves. It means the cool green waters of the Coln as they glide past the church at Fairford; the long sweep of the Wye valley above Tintern, with a Wordsworth in my pocket; looking north across the dim Northumbrian moors from the Roman Wall, with the rowan trees on the slope before me, and two thousand years of history behind; old colour and light and soaring stone in York Mister. It means King George and Queen Mary coming to their Jubilee in Westminster Hall as Big Ben chimed out and Lords and Commons bowed, and, as they bowed, saw beyond the form of things to a man and a woman greatly loved. It means Chequers, and, from the crest beyond, that microcosm of history in which you may, with one sweeping glance, see the marks of British trenches, the ‘Roman Road to Wendover’. The broad Oxford plains, and (by the merest twist) the plumed figure of John Hampden walking through the fields to the church whose spire is just to be seen at Great Kinble, to address the gentlemen of Buckinghamshire on Shipmoney. It means at Chequers, Winston Churchill, courage and confidence radiating from him, the authentic voice of the British lion in his voice, the listening world marveling at how such a triumph could be built upon such disaster. It means the Royal Mile at Edinburgh, and a toast from kilted clansmen in the Valley of the Tay, and a sudden cold wind as I came up one day from a Yorkshire dale. It means laughter in Lancashire; Jack Hulbert and Cecily Courtneidge. It means Australian boys in tired but triumphant groups at Tobruk and Benghazi; Cunningham at Alexandria, with his flashing blue eyes, talking to me of the Australian, Waller; Australian airmen in Canada, in Great Britain, all over the world. It means at Canberra, at Wellington, at Ottawa, at Pretoria, the men of parliament, meeting as those met at Westminster seven hundred years ago; at Melbourne the lawyers practising the Common Law first forged at Westminster. It means Hammond at Sydney, and Bradman at Lords, and McCabe at Trent Bridge, with the ghosts of Grace and Trumble looking on. It means a tang in the air; a touch of salt on the lips; a little pulse that beats and shall beat; a decent pride; the sense of a continuing city. It means the past ever rising in its strength to forge the future.

What was in fact rising to meet the future was the ANZUS alliance, which Menzies signed even though it outraged the British by denying them access to Australia’s primary treaty.

Words were far from Menzies' major attribute, though he used them effectively to mask the reality of his actions. He was not kept in office because he was good at the front of the house, but because he delivered the goods: opportunities for US investment and troops for Vietnam. Yet his reputation rests mainly on his command of language. Certainly he learned to work very hard on his speeches. The easy flow of phrases might have seemed effortless, but they had all been hammered out in a series of drafts. His business speeches were often masterly. Like a good barrister he had never forgotten how to present a brief. Whether he understood what he was talking about, especially on the economy, is less than probable. His handling of interjectors has been overrated. Anyone with a microphone and the sense to ignore comments that they cannot answer will always have the advantage over an audience. And if you are prepared to wound without pity, you can always silence a critic. It takes a great speaker to make an audience laugh with you. If Menzies had but once used his gifts in defence of the weak and defenceless, we might have some inkling of his potential greatness. Because he always chose to fight with the strong, we can know only his flexing muscle.

Despite the stories of his deadly wit, there were a remarkable number of occasions when he was the victim. Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939 he was walking to the Commonwealth office in Sydney with his Attorney-General, Billy Hughes, and Dame Mary Hughes. As they passed through Martin Place, countless strangers said, 'G'day Billy', and Billy replied, 'G'day brother'. Inside their offices Menzies chastised Hughes for allowing himself to be addressed in this way. 'I wouldn’t let people speak to me like that', Menzies concluded. In her innocence, Dame Mary hastened to assure him that he need not be troubled: ‘No one would want to say ‘G’day’ to you Bob’.

Although Earle Page's attack on Menzies is the best remembered this is probably because it was so abusive. Indeed, it was so bluntly personal that it lost its effectiveness. Far more devastating were the occasional barbs of Calwell. Incensed by Menzies' attempt to picture the Labor Party's opposition to the Vietnam war as anti-American, Calwell pointed out to the Right Honorable the Prime Minister that Calwell's ancestors had been members of the legislature of Pennsylvania at a time when Menzies' forebears were having difficulty in remembering that it was a criminal offence to go cattle duffing across the Scottish border.

By far the most devastating parliamentary assault was from Les Haylen who commented on Menzies' defence of his government after its near defeat in 1961:

The Prime Minister, on these occasions, loves to ham it up. When he does, I enjoy him immensely. On Thursday night he was superb. I have seen some brilliant performances, but this was a three-star night. It was good theatre, but it was terrible politics. He decided to play Hamlet. He walked the gloomy battlements of his political humiliation, communing with his ghosts. He saw them everywhere, particularly on the editorial board and in the management of the Sydney Morning Herald. All honorable members remember how the right honorable gentleman saw the ghosts of his majorities go past one by one screaming with the banshee wail of lost souls, lost seats and lost opportunities. He was hunted and haunted. Then, continuing to ham, he descended into the famous graveyard scene, accompanied by his two gravediggers, the Treasurer (Harold Holt) and the Minister for External Affairs (Sir Garfield Barwick). When they dug up the skeleton of the Liberal Party of Australia, the Prime Minister took the skull in his hands and said, 'Alas, poor Warwick! I knew her well!'

The Hansard record has been amended to read 'I knew him well', but 'him' was not the pronoun that kept the House in uproarious laughter for two minutes.

The essence of Menzies' political career was simply this: he devoted his great skills to the service of the rich and powerful and employed his wondrous talents on behalf of the foreign masters of the country of his birth. His loyalty was never to Britain, as he pretended, but to whichever foreign power promised him the greatest influence. He switched from British sycophant to American lickspittle, and back again, with such an easy conscience that his followers discovered in his lack of principle a species of gracefulness. Given the opportunity he undoubtedly could have found the resources within himself to head a Vichy-style regime for the Japanese.

With the backing of great and powerful friends it is less than amazing that he headed the Australian government from 1949 to 1966. What is surprising is that his grip on office was so shaky. In the Cold War and economic boom of his second prime ministership, he should have been unassailable. Yet election after election were near-run things, especially in 1954 and 1961. The legend of Menzies as the Australian electoral hero is terribly hollow. Just as he despised the Australian people, they detested him. He clung to office because he clung so desperately to the real masters of Australia. Without their support he would never have been elected to the Malvern council.

My own favourite image of Menzies will be forever the sight of him in the Brisbane City Hall campaigning for the 196l elections, totally unprepared for his speech but hoping to live off interjections. In place of interjections there was a sea of protest. His wit and his voice failed him and he was driven, helplessly drunk, from the platform and then chased along Ann Street by wharfies.

When the Prime Minister of  Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa, was assassinated in 1966, Menzies was moved to great grief. In an effort to explain their leader's unusual affection for a black man, the Australian press explained that Sir Abubakar had been the Menzies of Nigeria. As our senses are assaulted by the umpteenth commemorative broadcast to Menzies, it might comfort others to think that Radio Lagos is presently explaining that Sir Robert was the Abubakar Tafewa Bulewa of Australia.

* This obituary first appeared in Nation Review, 18-24 May 1978, pp 10-11

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Humphrey McQueen, 'Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894–1978)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/menzies-sir-robert-gordon-bob-11111/text41181, accessed 1 March 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 December, 1894
Jeparit, Victoria, Australia

Death

15 May, 1978 (aged 83)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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