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Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, KT, AK, CH, FRS, QC (20 December 1894 15 May 1978), Australian politician, was the twelfth Prime Minister of Australia. His second term saw him become Australia's longest serving Prime Minister. He had a rapid rise to power as Prime Minister at the 1940 election which his party narrowly won. A year later, his government was brought down by MPs crossing the floor. He spent eight years in opposition, during which he founded the Liberal Party. He again became Prime Minister at the 1949 election, and he then dominated Australian politics until his retirement in 1966.

Menzies was renowned as a brilliant speaker, both on the floor of Parliament and on the hustings; his speech "The forgotten people" is an example of his oratorical skills. Throughout his life and career, Menzies held strong beliefs in the Monarchy and in traditional ties with Britain, despite Britain's move away from the Commonwealth. In 1963 Menzies was invested as the first Australian Knight of the Order of the Thistle.

Early life

Robert Gordon Menzies was born to James Menzies and Kate Menzies (née Sampson) in Jeparitmarker, a town in the Wimmera region of western Victoriamarker, on 20 December 1894. His father James was a storekeeper, the son of Scottish crofters who had immigrated to Australia in the mid-1850s in the wake of the Victorian gold rush. His maternal grandfather, John Sampson, was a miner from Penzancemarker who also came to seek his fortune on the gold-fields, in Ballaratmarker, Victoria. Both his father and one of his uncles had been members of the Victorian Parliament, while another uncle had represented Wimmera in the House of Representatives. He was proud of his Highland ancestry his enduring nick-name, Ming, came from "Mingus," the Scots — and his own preferred — pronunciation of "Menzies". His middle name, Gordon, was given to him in honour and memory of Charles George Gordon, a British army officer killed in Khartoummarker in 1885.

Menzies was first educated at a one-room school, then later at private schools in Ballaratmarker and Melbournemarker (Wesley Collegemarker), and read law at the University of Melbournemarker graduating in 1916.

When World War I began, Menzies was 19 years old and held a commission in the university's militia unit. Menzies resigned his commission at the very time others of his age and class clamoured to be allowed to enlist. It was later stated that since the family had made enough of a sacrifice to the war with the enlistment of two of three eligible brothers, Menzies should stay to finish his studies. However, Menzies himself never explained the reason why he chose not to enlist. Subsequently he was prominent in undergraduate activities and won academic prizes and declared himself to be a patriotic supporter of the war and conscription. Menzies was admitted to the Victorian Bar and to the High Court of Australia in 1918 and soon became one of Melbourne's leading lawyers after establishing his own practice. In 1920 he married Pattie Leckie, the daughter of a federal Nationalist Party MP; she was reputedly a moderating influence on him.

Rise to power

In 1928, Menzies gave up his law practice to enter state parliament as a member of the Victorian Legislative Council representing the Nationalist Party of Australia. His candidacy was nearly defeated when a group of ex-servicemen attacked him in the press for not having enlisted, but he survived this crisis. The following year he shifted to the Legislative Assembly, and was a minister in the conservative Victorian government from 1932 to 1934, and became Deputy Premier of Victoria in 1932.

Menzies entered federal politics in 1934, representing the United Australia Party (UAP) in the upper-class Melbourne electorate of Kooyong. He was immediately appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Industry in the Joseph Lyons government. In 1937 he was appointed a Privy Councillor

In late 1934 and early 1935 Menzies unsuccessfully prosecuted the Lyons government's case for the attempted exclusion from Australia of Egon Kisch, a Czech Jewish communist. Because of this, some accused Menzies of being pro-Nazi, whilst others saw it as an early example of his strong opposition to communism. Following the outbreak of World War 2 Menzies found it necessary to distance himself from the controversy by claiming Interior Minister Thomas Paterson was responsible since he made the initial order to exclude Kisch.

He later became deputy leader of the UAP. He was seen as Lyons's natural successor and was accused of wanting to push Lyons out, a charge he denied. In 1938 he was given the pejorative nickname "Pig Iron Bob", the result of his industrial battle with waterside workers who refused to load scrap iron being sold to Imperial Japanmarker. In 1939, however, he resigned from the Cabinet in protest at what he saw as the government's inaction. Shortly afterwards, on 7 April 1939, Lyons died.

First term as Prime Minister

Robert Menzies broadcasting to the nation the news of the outbreak of war, 1939
On 26 April 1939, following a period during which the Country Party leader, Sir Earle Page, was caretaker Prime Minister, Menzies was elected Leader of the UAP and was sworn in as Prime Minister. A crisis arose almost immediately, however, when Page refused to serve under him. In an extraordinary personal attack in the House, Page accused Menzies of cowardice for not having enlisted in the War, and of treachery to Lyons. Menzies then formed a minority government. When Page was deposed as Country Party leader a few months later, Menzies reformed the Coalition with Page's successor, Archie Cameron. (Menzies later forgave Page, but Pattie Menzies never spoke to him again.)
In September 1939, with Britainmarker's declaration of war against Nazi Germany, Menzies found himself a wartime Prime Minister. He did his best to rally the country, but the bitter memories of the disillusionment which followed the First World War made this difficult. Added to this was the fact that Menzies had not served in that war, and that as Attorney General and Deputy Prime Minister, Menzies had made an official visit to Germany in 1938, and like his Opposition at the time, supported Neville Chamberlain's policy of Appeasement. But after Chamberlain declared war, Menzies followed suit. At the 1940 election, the UAP was nearly defeated, and Menzies' government survived only thanks to the support of two independent MPs, Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), under John Curtin, refused Menzies' offer to form a war coalition, and also opposed using the Australian army for a European war, preferring to keep it at home to defend Australia. The ALP did agree to participate in the Advisory War Council, however.

In 1941 Menzies spent months in Britain discussing war strategy with Winston Churchill and other leaders, while his position at home deteriorated. The Australian historian David Day has suggested that Menzies hoped to replace Churchill as British Prime Minister, and that he had some support in Britain for this. Other Australian writers, such as Gerard Henderson, have rejected this theory. When Menzies came home, he found he had lost all support, and was forced to resign, first, on 28 August, as Prime Minister, and then as UAP leader. The Country Party leader, Arthur Fadden, became Prime Minister. Menzies was very bitter about what he saw as this betrayal by his colleagues, and almost left politics.

Return to power

Labor came to power later in October 1941 under John Curtin, following the defeat of the Fadden government in Parliament. In 1943 Curtin won a huge election victory. During 1944 Menzies held a series of meetings at 'Ravenscraig' an old homestead in Aspley to discuss forming a new anti-Labor party to replace the moribund UAP. This was the Liberal Party, which was launched in early 1945 with Menzies as leader. But Labor was firmly entrenched in power and in 1946 Curtin's successor, Ben Chifley, was comfortably re-elected. Comments that "we can't win with Menzies" began to circulate in the conservative press.

Over the next few years, however, the anti-communist atmosphere of the early Cold War began to erode Labor's support. In 1947, Chifley announced that he intended to nationalise Australia's private banks, arousing intense middle-class opposition which Menzies successfully exploited. The 1949 coal strike, engineered by the Communist Party, also played into Menzies' hands. In the December 1949 election, Menzies won power for the second time in a massive landslide, scoring a 48-seat swing--still the largest defeat of a sitting government at the federal level in Australia. In 1950 Menzies was awarded the Legion of Merit (Chief Commander) by US President Harry Truman for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services 1941-1944 and December 1949-July 1950".

Although Menzies had a comfortable majority in the House, the ALP-controlled Senate made life very difficult for him. In 1951 Menzies introduced legislation to ban the Communist Party, hoping that the Senate would reject it and give him an excuse for a double dissolution election, but Labor let the bill pass. It was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the High Courtmarker. But when the Senate rejected his banking bill, he called a double dissolution and at the election won control of both Houses.

Later in 1951 Menzies decided to hold a referendum on the question of changing the Constitution to permit the parliament to make laws in respect of Communists and Communism where he said this was necessary for the security of the Commonwealth. If passed, this would have given a government the power to introduce a bill proposing to ban the Communist Party (although whether it would have passed the Senate is an open question). The new Labor leader, Dr H.V. Evatt, campaigned against the referendum on civil liberties grounds, and it was narrowly defeated. This was one of Menzies' few electoral miscalculations. He sent Australian troops to the Korean War and maintained a close alliance with the United Statesmarker.

Economic conditions, however, deteriorated, and Evatt was confident of winning the 1954 elections. Shortly before the elections, Menzies announced that a Sovietmarker diplomat in Australia Vladimir Petrov (see Petrov affair), had defected, and that there was evidence of a Soviet spy ring in Australia, including members of Evatt's staff. This Cold War scare enabled Menzies to win the election; although Labor won a majority of the two-party vote, it was unable to take enough seats from the Coalition to topple Menzies. Evatt accused Menzies of arranging Petrov's defection, but this has since been disproved: he had simply taken advantage of it.

The aftermath of the 1954 election caused a split in the Labor Party, with several anti-Communist members from Victoriamarker defecting to form the Australian Labor Party . The new party directed its preferences to the Liberals, and Menzies was comfortably re-elected over Evatt in 1955. Menzies was reelected almost as easily in 1958, again with the help of preferences from what had become the Democratic Labor Party.

By this time the post-war economic recovery was in full swing, fuelled by massive immigration and the growth in housing and manufacturing that this produced. Prices for Australia's agricultural exports were also high, ensuring rising incomes. Labor's rather old-fashioned socialist rhetoric was no match for Menzies and his promise of stability and prosperity for all.

Labor's new leader, Arthur Calwell, gave Menzies a scare after an ill-judged squeeze on credit an effort to restrain inflation caused a rise in unemployment. At the 1961 election Menzies was returned with a majority of only two seats. But Menzies was able to exploit Labor's divisions over the Cold War and the American alliance, and win an increased majority in the 1963 elections. An incident in which Calwell was photographed standing outside a South Canberra hotel while the ALP Federal Executive (dubbed by Menzies the "36 faceless men") was determining policy also contributed to the 1963 victory. This was the first "television election," and Menzies, although nearly 70, proved a master of the new medium.

In 1963, he was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT), the order being chosen in recognition of his Scottish heritage. He is the only Australian ever appointed to this order, although three British governors-general of Australia (Lord Hopetoun; Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, later Lord Novar; and Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester) were members. He was the second of only two Australian prime ministers to be knighted during their term of office (the first prime minister Edmund Barton was knighted during his term in 1902).

In 1965, Sir Robert made the fateful decision to commit Australian troops to the Vietnam War, and also to reintroduce conscription. These moves were initially popular, but later became a problem for his successors.

Despite his pragmatic acceptance of the new power balance in the Pacific after World War II and his strong support for the American alliance, he publicly professed continued admiration for links with Britain, exemplified by his admiration for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and famously described himself as "British to the bootstraps". Over the decade, Australia's ardour for Britain and the monarchy faded somewhat, but Sir Robert's had not. At a function attended by the Queen at Parliament House, Canberra, in 1963, Sir Robert quoted the Elizabethan poet Thomas Ford, "I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die".

Retirement and Legacy

Sir Robert Menzies
Sir Robert retired in January 1966, and was succeeded as Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister by his former Treasurer, Harold Holtmarker. The coalition would remain in power for almost another seven years, until the Australian Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam led his party to victory at the December 1972 Federal election.

On his retirement he became the thirteenth Chancellor of his old University of Melbourne, and remained the head of the University from March 1967 until March 1972. Much earlier in 1942, he had received the first honorary degree of Doctor of Laws of Melbourne University. His responsibility for the revival and growth of university life in Australia was widely acknowledged by the award of honorary degrees in the Universities of Queensland, Adelaide, Tasmania, New South Wales, and the Australian National University and by thirteen universities in Canada, the U.S.A. and Britain, including Oxford and Cambridge. Many learned institutions, including the Royal College of Surgeons (Hon. FRCS) and the Royal Australian College of Physicians (Hon. FRACP), elected him to Honorary Fellowships, and the Australian Academy of Sciencemarker, for which he supported its establishment in 1954, made him a fellow (FAAS).

Sir Robert was appointed in July 1966 by the Queen to the ancient office of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castlemarker, taking official residence at Walmer Castlemarker during his annual visits to Britain. He toured the United States of America giving lectures, and he published two volumes of memoirs. At the end of 1966 Menzies took up a scholar-in-residence position at the University of Virginiamarker. Sir Robert encountered some public tribulation in retirement; however, when he suffered strokes in 1968 and 1971, he faded from public view.

Sir Robert died from a heart attack in Melbourne in 1978 and was accorded a state funeral, held in Scots' Church, Melbournemarker.

Robert Gordon Menzies was Prime Minister for a total of 18 years, five months, and 12 days, by far the longest term of any Australian Prime Minister, and during his second term he dominated Australian politics as no one else has ever done. He managed to live down the failures of his first term in office, and to rebuild the conservative side of politics from the nadir it hit in 1943. Sir Robert also did much to develop higher education in Australia, and he also made the increasing development of Canberramarker one of his big projects.

However, it can also be noted that while retaining government on each occasion, Menzies lost the two party preferred vote in 1940, 1954, and 1961.

He was the only Australian Prime Minister to recommend the appointment of four governors-general (Sir William Slim, and Lords Dunrossil, De L'Isle, and Casey). Only two other Prime Ministers have ever chosen more than one governor-general. (Malcolm Fraser chose Sir Zelman Cowen and Sir Ninian Stephen; and John Howard chose Peter Hollingworth and Michael Jeffery.)

Critics say that Sir Robert's success was mainly due to the good luck of the long post-war boom and his manipulation of the anti-communist fears of the Cold War years, both of which he exploited with great skill. He was also crucially aided by the crippling dissent within the Labor Party in the 1950s and especially by the ALP split of 1954. His reputation among conservatives is untarnished, and he remains the Liberal Party's greatest leader.

Several books have been filled with anecdotes about him and with his many witty remarks. While he was speaking in Williamstown, Victoriamarker, in 1954, a heckler shouted, "I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel" to which Menzies coolly replied "If I were the Archangel Gabriel, I’m afraid you wouldn't be in my constituency."

Planning for an official biography of Sir Robert began soon after his death, but it was long delayed by Dame Pattie Menzies' protection of her husband's reputation and her refusal to co-operate with the appointed biographer, Frances McNicoll. In 1991, the Menzies family appointed Professor A.W. Martin to write a biography, which appeared in two volumes, in 1993 and 1999.

Titles and honours

Styles from birth

Styles and titles Sir Robert Menzies held held from birth until death, in chronological order:

  • Mr Robert Menzies (20 December 1896 – 1928)
  • The Hon. Robert Menzies, MLC (1928 – 1929)
  • The Hon. Robert Menzies, MLA (1929 – 1929)
  • The Hon. Robert Menzies, KC, MLA (1929 – 1934)
  • The Hon. Robert Menzies, KC, MP (1934 – 1937)
  • The Rt Hon. Robert Menzies, KC, MP (1937 – 1951)
  • The Rt Hon. Robert Menzies, CH, KC, MP (1951 – 1952)
  • The Rt Hon. Robert Menzies, CH, QC, MP (1952 – 1963)
  • The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, KT, CH, QC, MP (1963 – 1965)
  • The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, KT, CH, FRS, QC, MP (1965 – 1966)
  • The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, KT, CH, FRS, QC (1966 – 1976)
  • The Rt Hon. Sir Robert Menzies, KT, AK, CH, FRS, QC (1976 – 15 May 1978)

See also

Actors who have played Menzies

Eponyms of Menzies

Notes and references

Further reading

  • Alan Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, two volumes, Melbourne University Press, 1993 and 1999
  • A. W. Martin, "Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894 1978)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, Melbourne University Press, (Melbourne) 2000, pp 354-361.[4288]
  • Judith Brett, Robert Menzies' Forgotten People, Macmillan, 1992 (a sharply critical psychological study)
  • Michelle Grattan, "Australian Prime Ministers", New Holland Publishers , 2000 (very good summary of his life and career)

External links

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