BOOKS: by Peter ColemanNews Weekly
'Robert Menzies: A Life', by A.W. Martin
, January 15, 2000
Robert Menzies: A Life Volume 2, 1944-1978
by A.W. Martin
Melbourne University Press
Rec. price: $49.95For man of my generation - the Depression kids - R. G. Menzies means their youth and the coming of good times. Forget about his starchy followers. When he won his first election 50 years ago, Menzies seemed just the man to kick out the planners and regulators, the socialists and kill-joys. Happy days were here again. Ming was the harbinger of the Great Boom, the personification of a historic turning point.
Now at last a detailed biography of the great man has been written. In this Volume II, A.W. Martin not only captures those first heady days but takes the story through the next 30 years. He was a good choice for the assignment. (Signing him up was Peter Ryan's last major decision as director of Melbourne University Press). He is, he tells us, a Labor man. But he is also a conscientious historian (and has also written a fine biography of Henry Parkes).
In Volume 1 of Robert Menzies: A Life,<
published over six years ago, Martin took the story up to the last days of Menzies' first prime ministership and the collapse of the United Australian Party in the early years of the War. Writing with his gift for fair and clear consolidation, he took us through such great affairs of the time as the Kisch case, the 'Pig Iron Bob' imbroglio, the proposed Australian Academy of Art to combat surrealism, Menzies' famous ten weeks in blitzed London and his quarrels with Churchill.
Martin killed forever the legend, dear to the hearts of the chattering classes, that Menzies was some sort of grovelling royalist with a Malvolio complex, a colonial John Bullfrog.
That first volume ended in betrayal, defeat and despair. This new volume - covering the years of fight-back and triumph - begins slowly with Menzies' role in the formation of the Liberal Party. (This chapter is too brief and fobs us off with a footnote that Ian Hancock's forthcoming book will tell a further story). But the story soon gets into stride with the election campaigns of the later 1940s, winning government in 1949, and the post-War transformation of Australia.
Martin's judiciousness is especially noteworthy in his treatment of the Communist issue. He plainly dislikes the idea of banning the Communist Party but equally plainly he sees the threat to the liberalism that the Communist Party embodied. It was Menzies' 'tragedy', Martin thinks, that he could not find a liberal solution to the 'intractable' problem of how to suppress subversion without also suppressing freedom of thought.
But Martin catches the public mood of the time when 80 per cent of Australians wanted the Communists banned. He notes the impact on Menzies (and Australians in general) of the Red Army's occupation of eastern Europe and the 1948 Communist coup in democratic Czechoslovakia (not to mention the defenestration in Prague of the war-hero Jan Masaryk).
Above all, unlike most of his critics, Menzies knew of the Soviet spy rings in Australia, based on the Communist Party, that were only publicly documented decades later in the Venona transcripts and in the studies of Desmond Ball and David Horner. Even so, Menzies may have accepted with some relief his narrow defeat in the anti-communist referendum in 1951, noting that it is almost impossible to win a referendum in Australia.
The Communist issue still remained in the forefront of Australian politics, largely because of Vladimir Petrov's defection. Martin entirely rejects the notion of conspiracy. The Petrov documents were authentic, the timing was Petrov's, and he and his wife were 'witnesses of truth'.
In the later chapters, Martin broadens his canvas to cover the Suez crisis of 1956; the British decision in 1961 to join the Common Market; the long ('stop-go') boom; State Aid to church schools; and the Vietnam war. (It is a pity that the index is so poor and the choice of photographs so pedestrian).
Martin explores the human toll in all this drama. Menzies aged rapidly in appearance and already in the early 1950s, M. H. Ellis was predicting that 'he will crack up like Lyons in he is not careful'. In fact, he collapsed in 1957.
Menzies' embittered opponent, Dr Evatt, also cracked up, went mad and had to be made the Chief Justice of NSW.
Menzies' family life was stressful, largely as a result (Martin thinks) of the 'dominance' at home of his wife, Dame Patti. He attributes an over-assertiveness to her sense of intellectual inferiority to her husband and to her belief that his formidable sister Belle disapproved of her. In any case, Menzies stayed away from the Lodge as much as was seemly, and looked for good company and good drinkers when relaxing (Martin is weakest when psychologising).
Manzies resigned as Prime Minister in January 1966, aged 71. He lived until 1978, writing his memoirs, lecturing in Virginia, being installed as Warden of Cinque Ports, congratulating John Kerr for sacking Gough Whitlam, and advising Malcolm Fraser.
In his concluding 'Reflections', Martin raises but does not answer the question of Menzies' greatness. He quotes, perhaps with approval, the snotty conclusion of the English politician and editor, Angus Maude, that 'greatness eluded him'.
Yet how do we assess greatness in leaders of small countries? What would we know of Napoleon if he had spent his life living and working in Corsica?
This can be said of Menzies. He created a major political party which has governed the country for most of the past 50 years. He won seven elections. He led Australia into an era of unprecedented prosperity. He massively expanded the universities. More than any other Australian he educated his fellow-countrymen in the Cold War. He won the respect of world leaders from Adenauer and de Gaulle to Khrushchev and Macmillan. No one else in our political history can claim as much.
The book ends with a tribute to Menzies' in-the-bone integrity. No hint of dishonesty or impropriety marred his life-time of service and achievement. The last words are W. R. Crocker's: "The Scotch fibre was there all right." This may not be greatness, but Australians were grateful for it. When he died, 100,000 people lined the route from Melbourne to the Springvale crematorium.
- Peter Coleman served in the NSW and Federal Parliaments in the Liberal interest and was at one time Leader of the Opposition in NSW