Sir Robert Gordon Menzies

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Sir Robert Gordon Menzies

Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1894-1978) was an Australian political leader and statesman. During his term as prime minister, from 1949 to 1966, Australia underwent notable economic advance.

Robert Gordon Menzies was born at Jeparit, Victoria, on Dec. 20, 1894. His father, a storekeeper, was active in local politics and was elected to the state parliament. Menzies graduated in law from the University of Melbourne and practiced as an attorney from 1918. He was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council in 1928. Transferring to the Legislative Assembly in 1929, he held ministerial posts from 1932.

Elected to a federal seat in 1934, Menzies at once became attorney general. In a cabinet reshuffle early in 1939 he became treasurer and, on the death of Joseph Lyons in April, prime minister. Menzies drew the Country party into a coalition but was criticized for slowness in putting Australia on a full war footing, and in 1941 the disintegrating United Australia party turned from him. Slowly rebuilding a parliamentary following, he became leader of the opposition in 1943. In 1945 he was the prime mover in the creation of the Liberal party as the political voice of suburbia. Attacking the Labour party for its "doctrinaire" approach and particularly lashing the government's plan to nationalize the entire banking system, Menzies led a vigorous Liberal-Country party coalition to success in the general election of December 1949, and he became prime minister.

"Menzies' Era"

Menzies' administration eased Australia away from the United Nations-oriented policies followed by Labour and more positively identified Australia's direct association with Britain and the United States as the prime factor in foreign affairs. The ANZUS Treaty, allying Australia and New Zealand with the United States and signed in 1951, represented Menzies' ideal of a regional security arrangement. It was followed in 1954 by the multination SEATO Pact, to which Australia became a firm adherent. In the 1950s Menzies favored an accelerated industrial and economic buildup rather than greater outlays on defense hardware as the means of advancing Australia's long-range security. At the same time, he supported the economic development of Southeast Asian nations through technical training and direct aid.

In domestic affairs Menzies spoke of dismantling Labour's "socialist bureaucracy," but he set in motion a wide-ranging national development program. He expanded the large-scale immigration effort initiated by his predecessor and spurred a nationwide minerals search under federal auspices. The Snowy Mountains water conservation-hydroelectric project was supported and extended. Manufacturing was buttressed by import controls as well as by tariffs, and rural producers were given general tax aid.

Thwarted by Labour's holdover majority in the Senate, in 1951 Menzies was able to secure a "double dissolution" of Parliament on grounds of Senate obstruction of a banking bill. Public interest centered on Menzies' anti-Communist legislation—the Communist Party Dissolution Bill—which was also the subject of House-Senate differences. The election gave Menzies a majority in both houses; however, an ensuring referendum seeking federal power to legislate against the Communist party and known Communists was defeated.

Over the next 15 years Menzies remained the dominant political force in Australia, winning successive elections against a Labour party torn by disputes. His only stumble occurred in 1961, when a sharp recession in the wake of deflationary measures was reflected in a reduction of his House majority from 32 to 2. Meanwhile he had edged the Liberal party away from conservatism and strengthened its appeal to many of Labour's wavering supporters. This process included wooing the Catholic vote. The principal concession was in granting government funds to independent schools; Menzies broke with tradition when, in 1965, he backed a system of financial support for all privately run schools. He also provided liberally for universities.

Generally Menzies sought not reform but administrative proficiency. He believed in "economic climate setting" through monetary and fiscal policies and was not averse to firm action in these fields. He was able to secure wide support for government at all levels.

Foreign Policies

Menzies' stature as a world figure rested mainly on his role in the annual London conferences of Commonwealth prime ministers. In 1956, during the Suez Canal crisis, he led the canal users' mission to Egypt's president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, but failed to reach a satisfactory agreement. During a period as minister for external affairs (1960-1961) he ran into criticism for an apparent distrust of newly independent nations. In Washington he was a perennially active advocate of United States involvement in the Pacific.

From 1963 he accelerated Australia's defense preparedness sharply. He strongly supported United States policy in Vietnam; he sent military advisers to South Vietnam in 1962 and combat troops in 1965. Against some opposition Menzies signed the agreement (1963) for the U.S. Navy's communications base at North West Cape. Various United States space installations were approved as Australia became America's "reserve platform off Asia."

In 1963 Queen Elizabeth conferred the Order of the Thistle on Sir Robert, and in 1965 he was appointed to the centuries-old post of lord warden of the Cinque Ports. In 1963 he delivered the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Oration at Monticello—the first non-American to do so. Menzies' writings include The Rule of Law during War (1917), The Forgotten People (1943), Speech is of Time (1958), and Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events (1967).

On his retirement from office and from Parliament in January 1966, it was widely acknowledged that Menzies, "a massive figure forever moving restlessly on an enlarging stage," had provided a sense of stability and a background of continuity during years of rapid development of the nation's economic life and relationships with the world. That year, he became president of Dover College, a post he held for 12 years. He died in Melbourne in 1978.

Further Reading

Menzies' memoirs, Afternoon Light: Some Memories of Men and Events (1967), give many sidelights on his life and times. His political mastery is explained in Katharine West, Power in the Liberal Party: A Study in Australian Politics (1966); less complimentary views are those in Don Whitington, The Rulers: Fifteen Years of the Liberals (1964; rev. ed. 1965). Political background is provided in Louise Overacker, The Australian Party System (1952). Some intimate parliamentary background is given in Frank C. Green, Servant of the House (1969).

Specific aspects of the Menzies administration's policies are dealt with in H. E. Holt and others, Australia and the Migrant (1953); Norman Harper and David Sissons, Australia and the United Nations (1959); and Gordon Greenwood and Norman Harper, eds., Australia in World Affairs, 1956-1960 (1963). James Eayrs, ed., The Commonwealth and Suez: A Documentary Survey (1964), provides useful background. Defense and foreign policy issues are explained in J. D. B. Miller, Australia and Foreign Policy (1963), and T. B. Millar, Australia's Defence (1965); also useful is J. G. Starke, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance (1965). □

Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon

views updated May 21 2018

Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (1894–1978) Australian statesman, longest-serving prime minister (1939–41, 1949–66). He encouraged British and US commitment to the security of Southeast Asia, and supported the ANZUS Pact and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

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