With 16 years in his second term of office,
Sir Robert Menzies is Australia's longest-serving prime minister.
Menzies first held office from April 1939 to August 1941 as the leader
of the United Australia Party. Party disunity during this term detracted
from the all-important task of preparing the nation for war. When forced
to resign in 1941, Menzies set about rebuilding the United Australia
Party into the cohesive, united Liberal Party. His long second term,
"the Ming Dynasty," is testimony to his success.
"First among equals . . . the
expositor and the interpreter" was how Menzies described his own
style of leadership. Menzies overshadowed many of his colleagues with
his powerful personal aura and remarkable gifts of oratory. He dominated
Australian politics through the 1950s and '60s and gave Australia a
stable conservative political force. It was a time of growth, affluence
and rising living standards. Menzies was an ardent Royalist and fostered
Australia's association with Britain. He supported American involvement
in Vietnam, committing Australian conscripts to fight in 1964. He
retired from politics in 1966.
Robert Gordon Menzies was born in Jeparit,
Victoria on December 20, 1894 into a political family. After a dazzling
academic career he graduated with first-class honours, was called to the
bar in 1918 and made King's Counsel at age 33. He married Pattie Leckie
in 1920, who in 1954 was appointed Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the
British Empire. They had three children.
His political career began in 1928, first
in the Victorian Legislative Council, then in the Legislative Assembly.
Menzies helped form the Victorian Branch of the United Australia Party (U.A.P.).
Lyons invited him to enter federal politics and on his election was
immediately offered the position of attorney-general and deputy leader.
This move caused considerable resentment, and Menzies fell out of favour
with Lyons. "Pig-Iron Bob," as he was nicknamed when
workerside workers refused to load a shipment of iron to Japan, resigned
his posts in March 1939.
On April 7, Joseph Lyons died. In spite
of a bitter personal attack by Earle Page, the caretaker prime minister,
Menzies was elected leader of the U.A.P. and became prime minister.
World War II began in September. Menzies favoured the idea of a national
all-party government, and although he won over the Country Party in
1940, Labor refused to join. In January 1941 Menzies left the country
for four months to discuss war matters with Churchill and Roosevelt. His
opponents were critical of his long absence at such a crucial time and
forced his resignation in August 1941.
The U.A.P. split, and Fadden, the nominee
of the Country Party, became prime minister for six weeks. When his
budget was defeated, the governor-general commissioned Curtin to form a
Menzies returned to his law practice, and
by 1943 saw a chance to regain control and rebuild the now-factionalised
U.A.P. The formation of the Liberal Party was announced in Parliament in
Menzies' Liberal Party became the
effective opposition to Labor. Unease about the Chifley Government's
plans for nationalisation and resentment of rationing of essential goods
like petrol, butter and tea, bolstered the Liberal campaign against
socialism and bureaucracy. Menzies' young, enthusiastic Liberal/Country
Party coalition was swept into government but faced a hostile senate.
Playing on Cold War fears of communism, Menzies introduced the Communist
Party Dissolution Bill, which required anyone accused of being a
communist to prove his or her innocence. The bill's fundamental reversal
of civil liberties led to an immediate High Court challenge. It was
defeated in the High Court and at a subsequent referendum but succeeded
in casting doubts about the Labor Party.
The anti-communist theme continued with
Australia's involvement in the Korean War, when Australia committed
troops to the United Nations fighting force. In 1951 Australia and New
Zealand joined the United States in signing the ANZUS Treaty,
Australia's first alliance with a country outside the Commonwealth.
The early '50s was a time of spiralling
inflation, and Menzies may well have lost the 1954 election but for the
Petrov Affair (Hughes). Menzies capitalised on the Liberal's record of
anti-communist vigilance by the announcement of a Royal Commission on
Espionage. Herbert Evatt, then leader of the Labor Opposition, damaged
his party by appearing before the commission. Accusations led to a split
in the Labor ranks and the formation of a new party eventually known as
the Democratic Labor Party. This rift weakened Labor's electoral
prospects for many years.
In 1956 both television and the Olympic
Games came to Australia. Menzies was the first prime minister to use the
new medium in his campaigning, making the most of his skilfully
modulated and persuasive voice, his superb acting ability and precise
timing. He was a brilliant speaker and revelled in parliamentary debates
By 1960 the economy was again in trouble,
and a massive credit squeeze to control spending hurt many small
businesses and homebuyers. Unemployment reached 3.2% (through most of
the Menzies era, it was 1.2%). Australia was also concerned about
Britain's application to join the European Economic Community, with
possible effects on established trade agreements.
The 1961 election was very close, with
the Liberals winning by one seat. The next elections were held in 1963
shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Australians returned
the Menzies government to power. Menzies supported United States
involvement in Vietnam. In 1962 a team of military instructors was sent
to Vietnam at the request of the South Vietnamese government. Australia
increased its commitment to the Vietnam War in 1964-65 and re-introduced
selective conscription. In 1965, Menzies announced that a battalion of
national servicemen would be sent on duty to Vietnam in the following
year. The battalion left for Vietnam in April 1966.
Menzies announced his retirement in 1966
and appointed Harold Holt as his successor. He is the only prime
minister ever to retire from office at a time of his own choosing.
Knighted, he was made Warden of the Cinque Ports (a ceremonial role)
entitling him to reside in England. He died at home in Melbourne in