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Today’s leaders could learn from Menzies, who built modern Australia without acting in haste

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The ABC’s two-part documentary, Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, is an ambitious enterprise. It seeks to establish the centrality of the Menzies years in the creation of modern Australia, thereby emphasising the crucial importance of Robert Menzies himself in building the Australia of today.

This program is a work of historical and political revisionism. Its target is the view, expressed most forcefully by Paul Keating, that the 1950s was a time when Australia remained locked in the past in a self-induced stupor, brought about by a failure to recognise that the time of the British Empire was over.

Keating’s rhetoric is both anachronistic and an expression of a sectarian view of the world that was long dead by the 1990s. There can be no doubt that Australia became modern between 1949 and 1966, the year Menzies retired as prime minister.

Australian modernity

Two examples, neither mentioned in the documentary, of events in 1966 are emblematic of the coming of Australian modernity. One was the introduction, just after Menzies’ retirement, of decimal coinage. Gone forever were the days of dinars, zacs and tres.

The other was the closing of Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre. This marked the funeral rites of Australian vaudeville, once dominated by Australia’s greatest comic genius, Roy Rene.

The documentary captures this transformation to modern Australia quite well in two ways.

One is its depiction of the growing affluence of Australian society under Menzies, as Australians sought a home of their own and consumer goods.

The other was in the Menzies’ education revolution, whereby the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for funding universities and began to provide money for non-government schools.

Menzies’ advances

Modern Australia would be both addicted to consumer goods and increasingly come to see education as the panacea for its problems. What was dying was an older version of Australia that existed largely to supply the metropolitan part of the empire with primary produce.

It also included a vision of Australia as a rural civilisation in which ordinary people could own their own small farm. That vision was finally put to rest in the 1950s.

Australia was confirmed as an urban civilisation, which nevertheless would become wealthy by selling mineral products to Asia. Menzies’ role in the creation of that new order is confirmed in terms of the way in which he opened up trade with Asia.

Menzies’ great virtue, which can be seen by watching him in this documentary, is that he was not in a hurry, as compared to, say, Gough Whitlam.

Robert Menzies’ great virtue was that he was not in a hurry as prime minister.
AAP

Menzies’ demeanour and carriage were those of someone who was relaxed and comfortable, who was willing to make what changes needed to be done, but would not force the rate of change as do many 21st-century politicians. For him, liberalism had its traditional Australian meaning of good government.

It is often forgotten that when Menzies came to power in 1949 Britain was still a major destination for Australian exports, and those exports were largely primary produce. The shift away from trade with Britain occurred during the Menzies years, and Australia adjusted accordingly.

Now, it might be argued these changes would have occurred under whatever government was in power and that a Labor government would have been more progressive. That would be to read today’s politics back into the 1950s.

Labor was far more supportive of White Australia than the Liberals; there is a lovely scene in the documentary in which Labor leader Arthur Calwell gives the big NO to Asian immigration. The Labor Party of the 1950s was not a party of educated individuals; it was locked into the past far more than the Liberals.

Explaining history

There are two facets of any attempt to explain history. One is composed of long-term social, economic and cultural changes. The other is the day-to-day events, especially in the world of politics.

In the first facet, this documentary succeeds in portraying very well the way in which Menzies played a key role as a midwife of modern Australia.

In the second area it might be seen as being less successful. One reason for this is that when one looks at political change it is always complex.

Books can deal with this complexity; documentaries by their nature must reduce complexity to simplicity. For example, I cannot recall a single reference to the Country Party in the documentary – and yet the Country Party played a crucial role in Menzies’ political career.

If any event holds the key to Menzies’ long term as prime minister it was the 1954 election and its consequences. This did not seem to be treated adequately in the documentary.

There is discussion of the Petrov Affair, presumably because it provides good footage, but no real explanation as to why the defeat was so devastating for H.V. Evatt and the consequences so dire for Labor.

Here, it seems to me is the prime example of the benefit of Menzies’ “steady as she goes” approach. Labor tore itself apart because of two men who were in too much of a hurry, Doc Evatt and Bob Santamaria.

In 1952 and 1953 it really looked as if Labor was certain to win in 1954. This raised both Santamaria’s and Evatt’s expectations, which, among other things, encouraged Santamaria in his task of “permeating” the Labor Party in the hope a Labor government would be able to put into place his utopian scheme of re-Christianising Australia.

Defeat devastated both men and helped create the circumstances under which Menzies was presented with the Labor Split. John Howard is right, Menzies’ calm hands on the ship of state ensured his government calm waters with a light breeze, while the clash of personalities of Evatt and Santamaria pushed Labor towards the rocks.

Howard is also correct in emphasising that a united Labor would have won back government. The claims by journalist Greg Sheridan that Labor was unfit to govern and had a number of senior figures who were closet communists only make sense when it is realised Sheridan is a one-time Santamaria operative.

Documentaries unfortunately cannot help but simplify. Once one allows for this, one can only say that Howard has achieved his goal of linking Menzies with the changes that created, for better or for worse, a new “modern” Australia.

Menzies was not opposed to change; for example, he welcomed the advances of modern science. But he also understood that not all change is good. Unlike later politicians he did not seek to rush Australia into the future.


Part two of Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia will air on ABC1 on September 25.

The ConversationGregory Melleuish, Associate Professor, School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Fifty years ago today, Menzies’ call on Vietnam changed Australia’s course

The Conversation

Nicholas Ferns, Monash University

In recent weeks, Australians have been exposed to an overwhelming amount of content in anticipation of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. This has ranged from the thoughtful to the near-offensive. Lost in the dust of the ANZAC bandwagon has been another key anniversary of an event far less well known to Australians.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Menzies’ offer of an Australian battalion to the South Vietnamese government. Prior to the prime minister’s offer, Australia’s commitment to the Vietnamese conflict had been limited to fewer than 100 advisers. Menzies’ pledge significantly increased Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.


Robert Menzies meets the US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, at the Pentagon in 1964, the year before committing Australia to the escalating war. Wikimedia Commons/PHC/Ralph Seghers

What reasons were given for joining the war?

The circumstances of this offer are shrouded in controversy.

In 1965, Australia was involved in two crises in Southeast Asia, one in Vietnam and the other in Indonesia. The connection between the two was vital to Menzies’ decision to increase our involvement in Vietnam.

Having already committed a battalion to Malaysia to support resistance to the Konfrontasi policy of Indonesia’s Sukarno government, the logical next step for Menzies was to look to Vietnam. He did this with the support of his Cold War warrior and minister for external affairs, Paul Hasluck. They decided to send an Australian battalion to South Vietnam, partly to ensure continued American interest in the region.

A series of negotiations took place between Australian, American and Vietnamese representatives to secure acceptance of the Australian troops. The South Vietnamese government and the American ambassador in Saigon, Maxwell Taylor, were initially reluctant to receive more foreign troops. It seemed that the necessary South Vietnamese invitation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.

Fortunately for Menzies, the South Vietnamese government was persuaded to accept the Australian offer. A formal request was given just before Menzies made his speech in Parliament.

By this time it was late evening on Thursday, April 29. The Labor opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, had already left Canberra for their home electorates. As many members of both sides had departed Canberra, Menzies made his announcement to a near-empty House of Representatives.

The reasons given to the Australian public were equally controversial.

In an oft-quoted part of his speech, Menzies claimed:

The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia. It must be seen as a part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Seeking US protection from threats in Asia

The spectre of the mythical yellow hordes had been a constant theme in Australian history and has been used to instil xenophobia and need for a great and powerful protector. In Menzies’ case, it masked the true reasons for the offer: Australia’s fear of Sukarno’s Indonesia and the need for American security.

Around 100 Australian troops were already in Vietnam at the time of Menzies’ announcement. They were generally support and training troops, comprising the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). Within months Australian troop numbers had jumped to over 1000 and would peak at almost 7000 by 1969.

The Menzies government’s announcement threw Australian troops into a military “quagmire” of Washington’s making.

The dangers of forgetting

Though the troops’ commitment to the war is rightfully commemorated each Anzac Day, the circumstances surrounding Australia’s commitment of troops to Vietnam has been forgotten.

This collective forgetfulness is particularly relevant this year. In the current “much ado” about Gallipoli 100 years on, arguably a more significant anniversary has been forgotten. After Vietnam, Australian governments of both persuasions realised it was in the nation’s interest to engage with our “near north”.

After Vietnam, there would be no more racially based legislation and governments began to engage with the region, whether the ruling regime was communist or not. Governments still managed to send troops into more recent Washington quagmires, but the numbers are much smaller than the Vietnam commitment.

Menzies’ decision is the forgotten skeleton in the nation’s closet. This forgetfulness suggests a great deal not only about the current national “besottedness” with Gallipoli, but also concerning our collective unwillingness to confront less honourable aspects of our diplomatic and military history. With some notable exceptions, the nation’s populist commentators and the war pathos industry have used Gallipoli as a vehicle for national self-aggrandisement, despite the efforts of some academic historians to push for a more considered approach.

This country has a short attention span when it comes to its history. Well may we say lest we forget on Anzac Day. Those who served deserve that honour.

But perhaps today we should take time out from the Anzac media romp and begin to remember another, more ignominious moment in our recent history and the part played by Sir Robert Menzies. Lest we forget the lessons of the Vietnam War.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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