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