John Howard’s new book on the Men­zies era re­veals much about how — and how not — to gov­ern a na­tion, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FOR those who are in­trigued by pol­i­tics, John Howard’s The Men­zies Era will be a stim­u­lat­ing or fas­ci­nat­ing book. It dis­sects the long era of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics that be­gan with Robert Men­zies’ elec­toral vic­tory in 1949 and ended with Gough Whit­lam re­gain­ing power for La­bor in 1972.

While Howard was mainly an on­looker in the Men­zies era, he was prom­i­nent or dom­i­nant in fed­eral pol­i­tics for the next third of a cen­tury. Here he in­spects a road some­what like the one he had trav­elled. It is his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, how­ever, that il­lu­mi­nates the Men­zies years.

Robert Gor­don Men­zies sat in the two houses of the Vic­to­rian par­lia­ment while a young bar­ris­ter and was a se­nior min­is­ter be­fore ar­riv­ing in Can­berra. Still in his mid-40s, he was prime min­is­ter when World War II broke out in 1939. A gifted and ded­i­cated leader, he did not al­ways ban­dage the feel­ings of col­leagues he had wounded. After 2½ years his time as prime min­is­ter ended dra­mat­i­cally, largely at the hands of his po­lit­i­cal al­lies.

So, a few months be­fore the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, Men­zies sud­denly en­tered the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness and seemed likely, in the opin­ion of many, to re­main there. He emerged, licked his wounds, re­shaped his ideas and even­tu­ally be­came prime min­is­ter after an ab­sence of eight years from of­fice. Elec­tion after elec­tion he won. Al­ready hold­ing power longer than any of his pre­de­ces­sors, he stayed on for another 10 years. He re­signed, un­de­feated. Will we again see a politi­cian who, at the end of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, so tow­ered over na­tional life?

La­bor takes his­tory more se­ri­ously than do the Lib­er­als, writes it more of­ten, and so de­servedly ex­erts more in­flu­ence on our pic­ture of the past. This is to Howard’s ad­van­tage. He can re- The Men­zies Era: The Years That Shaped Aus­tralia By John Howard HarperCollins, 720pp, $59.99 (HB) paint a pic­ture or try to re­align one that hangs crookedly. He re­minds us of the piti­ful state of the con­ser­va­tive side of pol­i­tics in 1943. Its party — then called the United Aus­tralia Party — was bro­ken. It was no longer led by Men­zies but by Billy Hughes, who had be­come La­bor prime min­is­ter in World War I, had changed sides, and now was aged 82.

After a short elec­tion cam­paign — the war was be­ing waged in the Mediter­ranean, At­lantic and the Pa­cific — Hughes’s party was trounced by John Curtin’s La­bor Party. Hughes won only 16 per cent of the vote. It is doubt­ful whether in the his­tory of the com­mon­wealth ei­ther of the two main par­ties has been thrown out the win­dow with such a thump. Last year, com­men­ta­tors mar­velled at Kevin Rudd’s low pri­mary vote in the fed­eral elec­tion, but it was dou­ble the per­cent­age won by Hughes.

It was time for a new con­ser­va­tive party and Men­zies, back from the dead, force­fully and tact­fully cre­ated it. Want­ing a popular, na­tion­wide or­gan­i­sa­tion, Men­zies partly bor­rowed that goal from La­bor. His new Lib­eral Party of Aus­tralia was launched at a small con­fer­ence in Al­bury, NSW, in De­cem­ber 1944. His old par­lia­men­tary col­leagues in Can­berra soon joined it, and many mem­bers of the pub­lic too. The for­ma­tion of a new party so quickly is seen by Howard as re­mark­able.

Men­zies hoped to win the 1946 elec­tion, but was “sur­prised and dispir­ited” by the lean re­sults. It is a sign of how far he had to re­make him­self as a politi­cian that, even when he led his party ef­fec­tively, some pow­er­ful in­ter­ests in Mel­bourne qui­etly called on RG Casey, a for­mer gov­er­nor of Ben­gal, to re­place him.

When Ben Chi­fley and his La­bor gov­ern­ment in 1947 de­cided, out of the blue, to na­tion­alise the pri­vate banks, they un­locked one gate through which Men­zies could stride to power. Mil­i­tant unions un­locked another gate. Satur­day night at sub­ur­ban cin­e­mas was a happy event, but the power black­outs were so fre­quent in 1949 that the owner of the lo­cal May­fair the­atre in the Howards’ Syd­ney sub­urb had to in­stall his own gen­er­a­tor. The dis­lo­cat­ing black­outs in Mel­bourne and Syd­ney were a re­flec­tion of the in­abil­ity of the La­bor gov­ern­ment to con­trol in­dus­trial re­la­tions at the NSW black-coal mines, then the hub of the in­dus­trial econ­omy.

In De­cem­ber 1949 Men­zies de­ci­sively won the fed­eral elec­tion. Many Lib­eral vot­ers, in­clud­ing Howard’s mother, were not sure whether he had the right per­son­al­ity to lead a na­tion. Later they were sure.

Not be­ing as in­ter­ested in Men­zies as they should be, the Lib­er­als ul­ti­mately let them­selves be de­prived of credit for many of his achieve­ments by the more en­thu­si­as­tic La­bor his­to­ri­ans and his­tory-minded jour­nal­ists. I also sus­pect some of his achieve­ments slipped from mem­ory be­cause they did not fit the pic­ture of him so com­monly dis­sem­i­nated.

Men­zies is of­ten as­so­ci­ated in the pub­lic mind with Bri­tish sym­pa­thies or oc­ca­sions. There he is, in the photo sec­tions of this book, for­mally at­tired while es­cort­ing the Queen, or chat­ting with Win­ston Churchill. To­day, it is inconceivable to most mid­dle-aged Aus­tralians that this was the na­tional leader who in fact guided his coun­try to­wards Asia. In 1957, HV Evatt, the most in­ter­na­tion­al­ist of La­bor lead­ers, op­posed Men­zies’ in­sis­tence on forg­ing a strong trad­ing pact with Ja­pan, the old wartime en­emy. Men­zies’ al­lies in the Coun­try Party (now the Na­tion­als) were es­pe­cially con­vinced that Aus­tralia’s trad­ing fu­ture, even in wool, did not lie with Bri­tain. By the time Men­zies re­tired, Ja­pan was be­com­ing our main trad­ing part­ner

Just after he stepped down, his Lib­eral suc­ces­sor Harold Holt be­gan to dis­man­tle the White Aus­tralia pol­icy. Pub­lic opin­ion had al­ready changed quickly to­wards Asia. The old pol­icy faded, in Howard’s words, ‘‘with a mini-

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