Resurrecting Menzies


The Menzies Era: A Reappraisal of Government, Politics and Policy
Edited by S. Prasser, J.R. Nethercote, J. Warhurst
Hale & Iremonger, 1995. 278 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Alex Bainbridge
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Liberal Party by Robert Menzies, and a century since his birth. Many young people getting interested in politics for the first time may not know much about "Pig-Iron Bob" Menzies. Most would have learnt at school that he was Australia's prime minister twice and that he said of the Queen, "I saw her once but passing by, and yet I love her 'til I die". If that is all you know about Menzies and you want to find out more, The Menzies Era is not the book to read. The Menzies Era is a collection of commissioned essays divided into four sections covering Menzies' life, party politics, government and policies. While some attempt has been made to link the various elements, each chapter stands on its own. One of the most enduring popular myths in countries like Australia is that "politics" happens in parliament, parliamentary parties, select committees and royal commissions. This book is written entirely within that framework, the early chapters focussing almost entirely on the pomp, disputes and finer details of parliamentary life. This book is an attempt to rebuild the stature of Menzies, written from the assumption that "conventional wisdom" has short-changed him of the reputation he deserves. It is true that key figures in the Hawke/Keating ALP governments have repeatedly attempted to use Menzies as cover for their own bankrupt politics. Menzies has even been held partially responsible for the severity of the economic decline since the '70s. According to Paul Keating, "What Menzies called 'stability' ... really meant torpor and neglect". In contrast, most of this book's contributors hold the view that the "Menzies' era" — the time of his second prime ministership — was one of great achievement, in large part due to Menzies himself. Graeme Starr, for example, bemoans the "failure of [Menzies'] Liberal supporters and successors over the years to grasp the importance of their history" and argues that the Liberal Party has not "effectively promoted their 'great man'." Because of the almost exclusive focus of this book on parliamentary politics, every difference and division between the Coalition and the Labor party is played up to the maximum and the contributions of individual politicians — either Menzies or other key ministers — are portrayed as being decisive. While there were differences in policy detail between ALP and Liberal governments in the post-war years, and despite the contributors' efforts to emphasise those differences, the book cannot hide a remarkable similarity of orientation between the two major parties. As one author notes, there was a "bipartisan consensus about ... Australia's 'politico-economic growth model' ... The post-war trilogy of full employment, high immigration and domestic industrial development had been accepted by all three major political parties." Another of the book's contributors, Jenny Stewart, points out that the Liberal party of the 1960s was almost "wholly unaffected" by what came to be known as economic rationalism. This policy direction did not have currency within the party until the 1980s — the same time that it was adopted by the leaders of the ALP. In efforts to emphasise policy differences between the two parties, much is made of the attempts by the former Labor government to nationalise the banks and the airline industry. These incidents have often been held up by the ALP left as examples of their party's socialist intentions. The failure of these policies is then held up as proof that a gradual "reform" approach to socialism is needed. In contrast, socialists have pointed out that these policies, (while condemned by important sections of big business and ultimately defeated in the high court), were in fact motivated by a desire to maintain capitalist stability and further develop the infrastructure for this end. While differing in some respects from the ALP policy, Menzies' two airline policy had the same motivation and similar (if slightly more favourable) results for big business. Menzies extended government assistance to the private airline, put limits on the highly profitable, government-owned Trans Australia Airlines (later Australian Airlines) and eventually subjected both airlines to regulations which stipulated almost identical fleets, cost and route structures. In the name of establishing "genuinely equal" competition, Menzies established in effect, a joint monopoly. As one contributor notes, the "key objective" of this policy, "maintaining the financial stability of the airlines ... was very successful". The Menzies Era does give the reader some idea of some of the political issues and policies of the time. The essentially liberal perspective of most of the contributing authors, however, places major limitations on both the depth and accuracy of this particular version of that period of Australian history.