Sir Robert Menzies 1894-1978
Some major achievements
- Prime Minister, 1939-41 and 1949-66
- Founder of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944
- Knighted, 1963
- Expanded access to secondary education and built new universities
Memorials or monuments
- The Menzies School of Health Research, Northern Territory
- Menzies Building, Monash University
- Menzies Monument, Jeparit
The Right Honourable Robert Menzies PM broadcasting to the nation the news of the outbreak of war, 1939
Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Background and experience
Robert (Bob) Menzies family lived in the small country town of Jeparit, Victoria, where Bob went to the local state primary school. He was a good student.
At that time, most people did not have a secondary school education and there were no state secondary schools in Victoria. There were private secondary schools but the Menzies family could not afford to pay their fees. The only way Bob could continue with his education was to win a scholarship to a private secondary school.
He sat for a scholarship examination in 1907 and was the top student in the whole of Victoria. His scholarship allowed him to go to private schools in Ballarat and then Melbourne. Later he won another scholarship to the University of Melbourne, where
he studied law.
Menzies grew up hearing plenty of talk about politics. His father and uncle were Members of Parliament in Victoria and his grandfather had been a leader of a miners union. When he was at school in Ballarat, Menzies used to read The Worker with his grandfather and argue about trade union issues.
In 1916 Menzies graduated from university with first-class honours and soon became a successful lawyer and public speaker.
Political life and times
Menzies was elected to the Victorian Parliament in 1928 and by 1934 was acting premier. He was then elected to the House of Representatives in the Commonwealth Parliament, representing the Melbourne electorate of Kooyong.
In 1939, he became prime minister, only a few months before the start of World War II. When Great Britain declared war on Germany, he made a famous announcement, saying that, as a result, Australia is also at war. In 1941, he was forced to resign as prime minister because his party would no longer support him.
Menzies became prime minister again in 1949, and remained prime minister until he retired in 1966. This is the longest period any person has been prime minister of Australia and is known as the Menzies era. It was a time of growth in Australia. There was economic development, low unemployment and increasing levels of home ownership. There was also a large immigration program.
Until the Menzies era, few students completed year 12 or went to university but Menzies helped change this. His governments built more universities and provided Commonwealth scholarships so that successful students could continue their studies. Libraries and science laboratories were provided for secondary schools.
Menzies also made the national capital, Canberra, more important. Until his time, the Commonwealth public service had been based in Melbourne but Menzies transferred it to Canberra. He was also responsible for the building of the National Library and the landscaping of the city.
The Menzies era coincided with the Cold War, when many people in Australia feared a war between the United States of America and communist countries. Australia saw the United States as a powerful friend and Menzies sent Australian soldiers to fight with Americans against communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. Menzies was also a loyal supporter of Great Britain and the monarchy.
Beliefs and aims
... the middle class ... salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on ... represent the backbone of this country ... The case for the middle class is the case for a dynamic democracy as against a stagnant one ... Individual enterprise must drive us forward ...
Menzies, RG 1942, The Forgotten People (pamphlet), HarperCollins Publishers.
The best people in this community are not those who leave it to the other fellow, but those who by thrift and self-sacrifice establish homes and bring up families and add to the national pool of savings and hope some day to sit under their own vine and fig-tree, owing nothing to anybody ... The real freedoms are to worship, to think, to speak, to choose ... to seek reward. These are the real freedoms, for these are of the essence of the nature of man ...
Quoted in Menzies, RG 1967, Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, p 296.
Reproduced courtesy of Reed Educational and Professional Publishing (Heinemann Education), Melbourne.
Challenges and responses
Menzies greatest challenge was to make a political comeback after being forced to resign as prime minister in 1941.
Some people criticised him because he had not served in the armed forces during World War I or because he had not been loyal to the people who made him prime minister in 1939. To overcome these attacks and make his political comeback, he needed great determination and skill. He created a new political party, the Liberal Party, which appealed to middle-class voters and recognised the importance of womens interests and skills.
Menzies believed that people could get ahead in society through individual initiative and hard work. He thought that communists were the greatest danger to Australia because they believed that the government should own property, industry and wealth.
By 1949 communism was spreading in some Asian countries (such as China and Korea) and communist workers were gaining control of some Australian trade unions. In 1950 Menzies government banned the Communist Party of Australia, but the High Court overruled the ban. Menzies then held a referendum to try to ban the Communist Party but the Australian people voted against such a ban.
But Menzies knew that people were frightened of communism and he was able to use this fear to persuade people to vote for his government. He said that the Australian Labor Party was too closely connected to the Communist Party. Then, just before the 1954 election, it was announced that a group of Russian (communist) spies had been found in Australia and Menzies claimed that they were a danger to Australia. This became known as the Petrov Affair and Menzies was able to use it to harm the Australian Labor Party. Even today, people argue about whether the Petrov Affair really was a threat to Australia.
Russian guards drag the wife of Russian diplomat Vladimir Petrov to a plane at Sydney airport to take her back to Russia. The publication of this photo by the Australian media helped Menzies win the 1954 federal election.
The Fairfax Photo Library.