The Life of Sir Robert Menzies – Australia’s 12th Prime Minister

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Early Life

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies was born to James Menzies and Kate (nee Sampson) on 20 December 1894. The fourth of five children, young Robert Menzies was naturally influenced by his father who was elected to the Victorian State Parliament for the seat of Lowan in 1911. Politics however was not just the occupational domain of his father’s side of the family. He had two uncles Hugh Menzies and Sydney Sampson (one from each side of the family) who had represented the electorates of Stawell in the Victorian parliament and Wimmera in the House of Representatives respectively. Politics it seemed was an occupational family trait much like the military is for other families.

Menzies began his formal education at Humffray Street State School in Bakery Hill in Ballarat. He then transferred to a private school in Ballarat (Greenville College) and then to Wesley College in Melbourne. In 1907 he topped the state Scholarship examination, a feat which impressed his parents who believed that their kids should receive a good education; a privilege which they had lacked.  Robert’s intellectual prowess led him to study law at the University of Melbourne where he graduated in 1916. At University Robert ingratiated himself in the world of student politics. He was elected president of the Students Representative Council and was editor of the Melbourne University Magazine.

Menzies was admitted into the Bar on 13 May 1918 and specialised in constitutional law. In 1920, Menzies won a case in the High Court which won him “sudden fame”. He was an advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers and the case led to the positive reinterpretation of Commonwealth powers to those of the individual States.

At this time in Australian political circles, many professional young men were growing increasingly exasperated by the status of state politics. It was perceived as inefficient and moribund by many young professional men who believed the state of politics could be improved.  Certain clubs and organisations such as the “Constitutional Club” provided an outlet for men like Robert to discuss ideas, research and even practice public speaking through the creation of a mock parliament. It became apparent to Robert that only through politics could he actually induce the kinds of changes he yearned to see.

Life in Politics

Under the patronage of Wilfrid Kent Hughes, Menzies began ingratiating himself with the Victorian branch of the Nationalist Party of Australia. In 1928 he was elected to the legislative council after winning a by-election for the seat of East Yarra. A year later he stood for the seat of Nunawading in the Legislative Assembly. He was keen to change the dynamics of the Nationalist Party which at the time was dominated by the “National Group” whose main concerns focused on benefiting big business. In an effort to drive internal party reform, Menzies along with Kent Hughes formed the Young Nationalists organisation in 1929 and became its first president in 1931. The organisation not only aimed to reform the party in terms of policy and direction but also to improve the calibre of the members through “political training”, where rising stars would be able to practice their public speaking and various other skills.  In 1932 Menzies became Minister for Railways and Attorney General under the government of Sir Stanley Argyle. It is interesting to note that while he promoted free enterprise and privatisation in his political career, he maintained that railways and some other public utilities should be exempt from privatisation. 

During the Depression years the Labor government under the leadership of James Scullin found itself in crisis. The Labor Party was divided on how to respond to the Depression. Labor politician Joseph Lyons resigned from the party due to his conservative economic beliefs, which included not supporting enlarging the deficit to stimulate the economy. He left the government and was elected leader of the newly formed United Australia Party; a party which merged with the Nationalist Party and in coalition with the Country Party formed government in January 1932 after defeating the Scullin government.

In the 1934 election, Menzies contested and won the federal seat of Kooyong as a member of the United Australia Party. He was finally duly sworn in as Attorney General on 12 October 1934; a position which he held until 20 March 1939. As a senior member of the government, Menzies spoke to British experts regarding Hitler’s expansionist policies in 1935. He also visited Nazi Germany officially in 1938. At first Menzies supported the British policy of appeasement sanctioned by Neville Chamberlain as he believed a war with Germany would be catastrophic and thus had to be avoided through diplomacy. As time progressed however he came to the realisation that appeasement was not working and that war was inevitable.

Prime Ministership

On 7 April 1939, Joseph Lyons, the only Prime Minister to die in office, passed away. Earle Page was installed as Prime Minister of the caretaker government until the UAP elected a new leader. Menzies was elected as the new leader and became Prime Minister of Australia on 26 April. On September 3 after the outbreak of WWII, he made the following statement on national and commercial radio at 9:15pm: 

“Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that, in consequence of the persistence of Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement. Great Britain and France, with the cooperation of the British Dominions, have struggled to avoid this tragedy. They have, as I firmly believe, been patient; they have kept the door of negotiation open; they have given no cause for aggression. But in the result their efforts have failed and we are, therefore, as a great family of nations, involved in a struggle which we must at all costs win, and which we believe in our hearts we will win …”

Only 6 weeks after Australia entered the war (20 October 1939), Menzies introduced compulsory military service which came into effect on 1 January 1940. Unmarried men aged 21 were required to undergo military training for a period of 3 months.

On 29 August 1941, Robert Menzies resigned as Prime Minister and later as leader of the United Australia Party after the disastrous Greek campaign, his inability to form a national government and his perceived arrogance by the electorate. He recommended to his cabinet that he should resign and allow Labor to form government. His cabinet at first recommended that they should form a National government sharing the Ministry with Labor. Labor however refused and it was then decided that the UAP should elect a new leader.

The next time Menzies became Prime Minister was on 10 December 1949 when he led a Coalition of parties and defeated the Chifley Labor government. At this election Menzies capitalised on Chifley’s inability to deal with Communist-inspired miners strikes as well as the serious discussion within the Chifley government of nationalising the banks.

Prior however to winning the election in 1949, Menzies was instrumental in forming the largest non-Labor Party that still exists to this day; the Liberal Party of Australia. The formation of the Liberal Party occurred in a small hall not far from Parliament House Canberra in 1944.  It was born after Menzies called for a meeting where negotiation and discussion lasted 3 days. 80 men and women from 18 different non-Labor parties were in attendance at this conference.  The aim was to unite as many non-Labor parties as possible in order to provide a viable united party as an alternative to Labor. It was agreed on 16 October 1944 that the term “Liberal” would be adopted and two months later at a conference in Albury was held and the Party’s constitutional and organisational framework was established.

Menzies in his second time as Prime Minister from 1949-1966 won 6 consecutive elections setting the record for longest serving Prime Minister of Australia. In 1966 he retired from politics. Within 6 months of Menzie’s second Prime Ministership the Korean War broke out. In an effort to maintain the relationship with the United States, Menzies pledged Australia’s support for South Korea and the allies, sending 3 Australian infantry battalions, one RAAF fighter squadron, 4 frigates, 4 destroyers and an aircraft carrier.  

In the 1949 election, the Liberals repeatedly promised to outlaw the Communists after the chaos that was being caused nationally by strikes and the fear of Soviet espionage. In government Menzies did act on this promise by introducing the Communist Party Dissolution Bill on 27 April 1950. The bill aimed to allow the Parliament to outlaw the Communist Party and all related organisations. Members of the Communist Party were to be “declared” and barred from any public employment, trade union membership or working on projects associated with defence. The bill passed with the support of Labor in 1950 however it immediately came under scrutiny by the High Court of Australia which found that Communist Party Dissolution Bill was unconstitutional.  This decision was made in March 1951 by a vote of 6 to 1. Angered by this roadblock, Menzies sought a double dissolution in 1951 which he won, losing some ground in the parliament but gaining control of the Senate. He also introduced a referendum on amending the constitution in a way that would allow for a Communist ban. The campaign began in late August 1951 and the actual referendum was held on 21 September 1951. The Labor Party opposed and campaigned for the “No” case as did some Liberals and sections of the Liberal base. The referendum was narrowly lost by 58,000 votes with three states voting “yes” and three states voting “no”.

Australia’s embroilment in the Korean conflict and the process of trying to ban the Communist Party were just some of the hallmarks of the Menzies government. Menzies introduced a raft of policies and made many diplomatic decisions which have shaped Australia’s progression and image in the international arena. He is known for strengthening Australia’s alliance with the United States while simultaneously expressing his deep love, admiration and support for the Monarchy and the royal family. He was not ashamed of his British heritage but openly flaunted his pride; once describing himself as “British to the bootstraps”.

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