I am pleased to be here today with Nick Cater, Executive Director of the Menzies Research Centre, Heather Henderson, daughter of Sir Robert Menzies, John Nethercote, editor of Menzies: The Shaping of Modem Australia, contributors to the book, the Hon David Kemp, David Headon, and Greg Melleuish. I would also like to acknowledge Ms Daryl Karp, Director of the Museum of Australian Democracy.
In Menzies: The Shaping of Modem Australia, John Howard begins his essay with this statement: "The most remarkable thing about the second prime ministers hip of Robert Gordon Menzies was that it happened." That it did, is testimony to the many qualities Menzies had, and vitally, those that he would acquire as 'he bled awhile' after he lost the Prime Ministership in 1941.
In Afternoon Light, published in 1967, Menzies recounts the events of April 1939 when he had been elected Leader of the United Australia Party after the death of Prime Minister Lyons.
The Country Party's Leader Earl Page, a bitter opponent of Menzies, was so incensed that he withdrew his party's support for the UAP, meaning Menzies would be leading a minority government. When Menzies visited Y arralumla to meet with Governor-General Lord Gowrie, Gowrie asked Menzies, "If I commission you to form a government, how long do you think you will last?" Answering honestly, Menzies replied "Six weeks, Your Excellency". Gowrie smiled and said "Well, that will do for a start. I commission you, and lookfonvard to receiving the names of your Ministers". Anne Henderson also writes of this moment in her essay, in this book.
And so it was that Menzies began his first Prime Ministership. It was April 1939, Europe was desperately trying to appease Hitler, the Second World War would breakout just six months later, and the Prime Minister was uncertain as to whether he could command a majority in the House of Representatives for any longer than six weeks.
As Speaker, I often receive comments from members of the public concerned with the uncertainty of modern Australian politics. Many say there has never been a more tumultuous time in Australian politics. This is one of the reasons I disagree. Menzies came to office with a divided party, a broken Coalition, and on the eve of a War the public overwhelmingly wanted to avoid, but could not.
Menzies loss of the Prime Ministership in 1941 was attributable to many factors; but I have often wondered whether the other contenders of the UAP leadership in 1939 would have done any better in the circumstances? And had Menzies not failed, would our party have been created and created in enough time to effectively and persuasively offer the alternative road in the post war years?
To fail as Menzies did, to have the courage to stay in public life, to build a new political party, contest the 1946 elections with high hopes, only to have them dashed, and to redouble the effort to finally succeed in 1949 is a remarkable story of character. I doubt even Menzies himself would have predicted in the mid- l 940s that he would become Australia's longest serving Prime Minister, and leave office at a time entirely of his own choosing.
What was it that made Menzies such a formidable leader? Menzies learnt from his mistakes. He identified his shortcomings and addressed them. He acknowledged that his treatment of his colleagues had contributed to the failure of his first prime ministership. He humbly conceded he was yet "to learn that human beings are delightfully illogical but mostly honest, and to realize that all-black and all-white are not the only hues in the spectrum," and undertook to improve his manner with his colleagues.
Once Leader of the Liberal Party, Menzies developed a sophisticated and calm way of dealing with inherited policy positions. As Kemp tells us in the book, "In his talks in 1942 Menzies advocated none of the flagship policies of the Deakinite agenda: industry protection, compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes, nor White Australia. His silence was eloquent." That is, Menzies took the approach that on some issues; he could convey his views powerfully and maintain unity by not saying anything.
Menzies understood and sought to capture middle Australia. He reached out to them in his watershed 1942 Forgotten People radio broadcasts. Referring to middle Australia as the 'backbone of Australia', he recognised that they had been taken for granted by both Labor and the old UAP. The foundation of the Liberal Party of Australia and its policy platform illustrated this understanding.
Whether it was preventing the nationalization of the banks, signing the ANZUS treaty with the United States, confronting the Cold War or fostering post war immigration, the policies of the Menzies government held true to both the conservative and liberal traditions that the Liberal Party of Australila embodies, and carried what would be a growing post-war middle Australia with them.
Menzies was not just a strongly principled man he was a leader who believed in policy consistency. In April 1954, he summed it up this way in a speech to the Institute of Public Affairs: "If you stand on the basis of principle you may go wrong but you will never go far wrong ... I don't want to appear to be a self-righteous person-I hope I'm not. But if I did something today which I thought was dead right for this country and they threw me out, like that, I'd rather like to think that in 30 years' time, when I've been dead and buried the fellows who wrote the records would say; that was right. "
And of course, we should never forget that Menzies was a formidable politician.
At critical times in his long prime ministership, he made the right decisions at the right times. He was a great communicator -in the arena of parliament, on the hustings of an election campaign and as I have mentioned with the use of radio broadcasts to propel his philosophy directly into the lounge rooms of Australian families.
Just as he served the Australian people, the Australian people respected Menzies.
They saw a man of character who had suffered the great loss of rejection come back a better leader; a leader they chose at 7 federal elections to lead our country.
Like me, Menzies was a loyal Carlton supporter and in his retirement loved to watch games at Carlton's home ground, Princes Park. Suffering ill health in old age, it became more difficult for him to attend those games. The Carlton Football Club stepped in and made special arrangements so his car could be driven right up near the goalposts so he could watch from the comfort of inside. I still remember as a very young boy my father pointing out to me Mr Menzies in his car surrounded by a welcoming and friendly crowd that epitomised an Australia that had developed,
prospered, advanced and diversified monumentally as a result of his influence.
Menzies: The Shaping of Modern Australia contributes to our understanding of this giant of Australian politics: the failure of his first prime ministership, his establishment of the Liberal Party, his return to the Prime Ministership and the work of his government for sixteen years.
Menzies wrote in Afternoon Light, "We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea'.
When readers buy and read this book, every contribution will affirm that that is exactly what he and the party did during the Menzies years.
Thank you for asking me to launch this compilation of fourteen reflective essays assessing Menzies achievements and the record of his government.
Each focus on different policy features -but together all paint fully the picture of his contribution, and how it shaped and built modern Australia in the post war years. It is a vital story that needs to be told and retold.
I congratulate John Nethercote for his extensive work in editing this book, as well as all of the contributors, many of whom are here this afternoon.
I am proud to officially launch Menzies: The Shaping of Modem Australia.