THE MENZIES ERA:
The Years that Shaped Modern Australia
by John Howard
(Sydney: HarperCollins, 2014)
Hardcover: 720 pages
Reviewed by John R. Barich
The foundation of the Liberal Party of Australia, according to former prime minister John Howard, began with Robert Menzies’ famous “forgotten people” speech on May 22, 1942, when, as recent prime minister and leader of the United Australia Party (UAP), he pitched an appeal to Australia’s middle-class. He described them as the “backbone of Australia”, and lamented that they were “taken for granted” by the political parties.
Robert and Pattie Menzies
in the 1940s
He said: “I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of the organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.
“The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.”
When Labor, under John Curtin, won the 1943 election, Menzies, who had sat on the opposition backbench since 1941, resumed the leadership of the UAP and became opposition leader.
So debilitated was the party, however, that Menzies set about forging a new and broader Australian political grouping made up of conservatives and liberals opposed to the socialist ideology of the ruling Australian Labor Party.
During 1944, he called two historic conferences — the first one in Canberra in October; the second in Albury, New South Wales, in December — to discuss forming a new non-Labor party to replace the UAP. Thus was born the Liberal Party of Australia, which was formally launched at the Sydney Town Hall on August 31, 1945, a fortnight after the end of World War II in the Pacific.
In the 1949 federal election, Robert Menzies led the Liberal and Country parties to victory over Labor and served as prime minister until his retirement from parliament in 1966.
Menzies’ extraordinary postwar political ascendancy owed much to left-wing Dr H.V. “Doc” Evatt’s inept leadership of the Labor Party. Chapter 8 of Howard’s book deals with the Great Labor Split of 1955, which largely ensured that Menzies retained power for 17 years.
In chapter 13, “Saved by Santamaria”, Mr Howard demolishes the myth that Jim Killen saved the Menzies government from electoral defeat in 1961 by winning the Queensland seat of Moreton. (Killen, as a joke, used to spread the untrue story that he had narrowly won his seat on Communist Party preferences!).
In fact, it was the anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which saved Menzies in 1961, by attracting 15 per cent of the vote in Victoria. It was Menzies’ promise of state aid to Catholic and other non-government schools which consolidated this vote. (The Liberal Party was won round to supporting state aid only after the DLP threatened to direct its voting preferences to the Country Party).
Howard, in his previous book, Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Biography (2010, 2013), inexplicably devoted only two sentences to describing the late B.A. “Bob” Santamaria’s contribution to Australian politics. This was despite the fact that, as prime minister, he personally visited Santamaria on his death-bed in early 1998, and approved the holding of a state funeral in his honour, which he attended.
In his new book, The Menzies Era, to his credit Howard devotes two chapters to describing the role in Australian public life of the Movement (later the National Civic Council) and the DLP. He even includes a photograph of a youthful Santamaria.
The book, however, covers much more than the Menzies years. Howard has written whole chapters on Menzies’ successors, Harold Holt, John Gorton, William McMahon and even Whitlam. He also includes fascinating pen-portraits of other leading political identities, such as Arthur Fadden, Eric Harrison, Howard Beale, Garfield Barwick, Philip McBride, Neil O’Sullivan, Richard Casey and Bert “Doc” Evatt.
Howard discusses at length the Indonesian-Malaysian Konfrontasi (confrontation), a violent conflict which lasted from 1963 to 1966. The Menzies government helped Malaysia, and, in order to boost the RAAF’s preparedness for conflict in Asia, hastily purchased F-111 bombers from Washington in 1963. Howard, however, does not discuss why the American aircraft was chosen instead of the British SR2, or the unstated fact that the F-111 had the range to bomb Jakarta if necessary.
Menzies, however, was careful to safeguard Australia’s relationship with Indonesia by cultivating good relations with the country’s moderate Muslim leaders, who were threatened by the rise of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) — the largest non-ruling communist party in the world until its suppression in 1965. These moderates were the very same people whom Santamaria befriended through his Pacific Institute.
Howard points out that one issue which helped John Gorton get elected leader of the Liberal Party, after the disappearance at sea in December 1967 of his predecessor Harold Holt, was his resolute handling in the Senate of the so-called “VIP affair”.
In 1967, both Prime Minister Holt and his Minister for Air, Peter Howson, had been implicated in what appeared to be a cover-up by denying the existence of records showing who had flown on VIP government planes.
Howard documents Bob Santamaria’s demolition of the so-called Freeth doctrine — a call by the Gorton government’s Minister for External Affairs, Sir Gordon Freeth, for Australia to adopt a more relaxed attitude towards Soviet ambitions in the Indian Ocean.
Santamaria publicised the cold response of Japan, Indonesia and India to Freeth’s position. He urged the DLP to deny Freeth its preferences. Freeth suffered an 11.6 per cent swing against him in the WA seat of Forrest, and was defeated.
Some of the chapters in John Howard’s book, such as “The Vietnam War”, cover all the prime ministers, including Labor’s Gough Whitlam, who concluded the withdrawal of Australian troops. This is in fact a stand-alone chapter, in which Mr Howard has obviously drawn on the expertise of individuals with deep knowledge of all aspects of the Vietnam War.
Howard contends that it was the 1972 election and the coming to power of the Whitlam government which finally brought down the curtain on the Menzies era. Australia’s first period of sustained economic growth after World War II “was from the late 1940s through to the early 1970s: the time span of the Menzies era”.
Menzies was nicknamed Ming the Merciless (after a villain in the Flash Gordon comic strip dating from 1934), partly because of his preference for the traditional Scottish pronunciation of his surname: “MING-iss” (with the “g” pronounced as in “finger”).
Apropos of that, it is incorrect to describe the Menzies era as the Ming dynasty. A dynasty occurs when descendants assume power. The more correct term would be the Ming reign.
Unfortunate minor flaws in John Howard’s book include the misspelling of the surname of Dame Dorothy Tangney, the first woman member of the Australian Senate, and Mr Howard’s repeated reference to some or other issue being further dealt with in a later chapter (should one read these immediately or later?).
Howard mentions the importance of the nexus between the number of members of the House of Representatives and senators — the former can never be more than double the latter — but neglects to explain that five DLP senators and five other senators managed to defeat a bipartisan constitutional amendment to do away with the nexus.
Howard gives a favourable assessment of the DLP’s Jack Kane, who was elected senator in 1970 but lost his seat, together with the other four DLP senators, in the 1974 double-dissolution election.
Throughout the book Howard acknowledges the pivotal role the DLP played in repeatedly returning the Coalition to government, but does not mention the fact that, in 1973, the then opposition leader Billy Snedden, in order to retain DLP preferences, promised the DLP at least two winnable seats somewhere in Australia.
However, he reneged on the deal, and the DLP lost all its senators and were left with no representation in federal parliament. This helped Whitlam in the following year to win government again, as the DLP could no longer trust the Coalition.
This 720-page book is a powerful foundational document for the Liberal Party. However, Howard, in seeking to explain how the party can accommodate both conservative and liberal persuasions, neglects to distinguish properly between the two political continuums — one, social; the other, economic.
A social conservative supports traditional marriage, is pro-life and defends our Judeo-Christian heritage. An economic liberal espouses a deregulated free market, small government and lower taxation.
Howard hints at how the Liberals could broaden their appeal when he speaks of the working-class ALP voters who are socially conservative.
Some Liberals do not necessarily align in the same direction on the two continuums, e.g., Malcolm Turnbull is an economic rationalist, but, unlike Mr Howard, holds a left-wing social position on same-sex marriage.
John Howard, however, repeatedly mentions the liberal-conservative mantra in the context of the Liberal Party constituting a “broad church” party, perhaps hoping that this becomes a generally acceptable term.
John R. Barich is a retired Commonwealth public servant, who worked for 11 years in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, serving six Australian prime ministers — Menzies, Holt, McEwen, Gorton, McMahon and Whitlam.