Inside Story

Strategic omissions

Books | John Howard’s view of the Menzies years is partial in important respects, but he offers a valuable perspective on an important period

Rodney Tiffen 8 January 2015 2717 words

Wrong side of history: Robert Menzies (left) at the Pentagon with US defense secretary Robert McNamara in 1964, as the United States began escalating its involvement in the Vietnam war. Ralph Seghers/Wikimedia

The Menzies Era
By John Howard | HarperCollins | $59.95

On the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, defending his government’s role in that military adventure, John Howard asserted that it was unlikely the Arab spring would have occurred without the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The following year, as Iraq plunged back into violence and ISIS militants made rapid advances north of Baghdad, he said that the renewed crisis had nothing to do with the 2003 invasion. While claiming credit for democratic events in far-off Tunisia, Howard was seeking to avoid any blame for disaster in Iraq itself, a disaster whose genealogy can be traced fairly clearly through the institutional collapse and sectarian violence following the Allied invasion.

The juxtaposition suggests that we are dealing with someone with an elastic, not to say politically convenient, sense of historical causality. It was with this in mind, reinforced by the politically aggressive publicity surrounding the book’s launch, that I approached the former prime minister’s account of the Menzies era with some scepticism. Despite its faults, though, this is a rewarding survey of a key period in Australian political history, covering the years from Menzies’s first period as opposition leader in the 1940s, through the long prime ministership that followed, to the prime ministerships of his successors – Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon – leading up to Whitlam’s It’s Time victory in 1972.

At the simplest level, it is a well-researched and readable, if overly long, stroll through a world that is familiar yet strangely distant. It also sheds light on the early political experiences and outlook of its author and his family, always drawn to the conservative side, always fascinated by the political contests going on around them, and steeped in small-business prudence and a distrust of government and unions.

The greatest appeal of the book is that it is written from the perspective of an experienced practising politician with an understanding of the everyday problems surrounding the great issues of the day, of the interaction of different personal trajectories and interests, and of the political rewards and dangers attending each decision. One example is the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party, which the Coalition lost mainly thanks to vigorous campaigning by H.V. Evatt, the newly installed Labor leader. Howard thinks the government lost because it overcomplicated the issue, and shrewdly observes that winning caused Evatt more problems than losing brought Menzies.

The closest Menzies came to political defeat was the 1961 “credit squeeze” election, which left the government, having won its most closely fought seat by about one hundred votes, with a majority of two. Whether or not the credit squeeze was needed to contain inflation and avoid an overheated economy, writes Howard, the government had not prepared the electorate for such moves, instead imposing them suddenly after earlier statements suggested they might move in the opposite direction. He strongly implies that the treasurer, Harold Holt, was not sufficiently in command of his portfolio to marry the political and policy imperatives.

Also interesting is Howard’s analysis of how John Gorton so quickly turned a prime ministership that had begun with such acclaim into a political disaster. Howard observes that a leader’s three important relationships are with the public, with his broad party membership, and with those he immediately leads, especially his ministers. Following Holt’s death by drowning, it was an open field for the Liberal leadership, and Gorton won largely because he was a better television performer. This standing with the public, Gorton believed, gave him extra leverage in his internal dealings. But within a year, his unpredictability and failure to consult had put pressure on relations with colleagues. Worse followed. Despite the propitious economic conditions, Whitlam secured a swing of over 7 per cent against him in the 1969 election, the biggest swing since the second world war, and in March 1971 Gorton was overthrown by his own party.

Despite Howard’s insightful accounts of episodes like these, this is still the work of a partisan warrior. Not surprisingly, the conservative politicians emerge as much more rounded and sympathetic characters than do the Labor politicians.

Disappointingly, Howard does not consider Menzies as an evolving political figure. He appears to believe that, like himself, Menzies learnt from his early mistakes and became a better listener and a more humble leader, respectful of cabinet and party room. Although the formulation has considerable merit, it is misleading in two ways. First, it is overly generous about Menzies’s early political failings. Not only did his colleagues overthrow him at a time of national crisis, in the middle of a war, but he had already exhibited very poor judgement before the conflict broke out. The dominant political mood in Australia during the late thirties, on both sides of politics, favoured appeasement. For some, such as Menzies’s predecessor, Joe Lyons, this was because the slaughter during the first world war had given them an enduring horror of armed conflict. But others, such as Menzies, admired Hitler. “If you and I were Germans sitting beside our own fires in Berlin,” he said on one occasion, “we would not be critical of the leadership that has produced such results.”

The second problem is that it treats the whole of post-1949 Menzies as a constant. Menzies became increasingly smug and complacent the longer he was in power, and more resistant to the forces for change around him. Howard praises the initiatives Holt took in his first year as leader, such as the 1967 referendum on federal responsibility for Aborigines, the significant liberalisation of the White Australia policy, and a relaxing of the rules that prevented married women from working in the federal public service. In each case, praise for Holt’s action can be seen as implicit criticism of Menzies’s inaction.

Howard reserves particular indignation for what he describes as the “distortion” promoted by “the left” that Asia was all but ignored by Coalition governments during this era, and it is in this part of the book that I think his argument is weakest and his evidence most selective. Howard explores three themes at length – the Colombo Plan, the 1957 Treaty with Japan, and Australia’s involvement in fighting the Malayan insurgency. Relations with Indonesia (“always difficult”) and China (“rightly seen as a threat” in 1965) are mentioned only in passing. Later he makes an intelligent (but skewed) defence of Australian involvement in the Vietnam war.

When Menzies first became prime minister, in 1939, just three Asian countries, China, Japan and Thailand, were independent political entities; by the time Whitlam was elected in 1972, the number had risen to more than twenty. Africa experienced a similar surge of newly independent countries during those years. Menzies was completely out of sympathy with this trend to decolonisation, indifferent to postcolonial sensitivities, and oblivious to how the emergence of these countries was changing the international balance of power.

Of his twenty official visits abroad as prime minister, only two, the two shortest, involved visits to Asian countries independently of visits to the United States or Britain. From 1950 to 1965, Menzies made seventeen visits to Britain, sixteen to the United States and eight to Canada. He made only one visit each to Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, and two to Thailand. He paid just two visits to Japan, which would replace Britain as Australia’s largest trading partner the year after he retired. (Reflecting the more leisurely pace of politics, fourteen of these twenty official visits lasted more than a month; the longest was 115 days; and Menzies often travelled by ship.)

The lack of understanding of decolonisation was on display in Australia’s relations with Indonesia. In 1949, leading Liberal frontbencher Percy Spender claimed that the Chifley government’s support for Indonesian independence was imperilling the White Australia policy. More than that, it would leave the entire area of the “so-called” Indonesian republic to Japanese collaborators who have the “blood of white people on their hands” and would give the whole area of Dutch New Guinea “to the natives.” Thirty years later, Margaret George’s research would reveal that Menzies and Sir Keith Murdoch were friends with the Dutch ambassador to Australia, and both were keen to help the Dutch cause against the Indonesian nationalists.

It must be stressed that in terms of relations with Asia, the divisions within parties were as great as those between them. Labor leader Arthur Calwell, for example, opposed the Menzies government’s decision to open an embassy in Jakarta in 1950. “I do not think that the establishment of an embassy in what is, after all, a very insignificant part of the earth’s surface politically, is warranted,” he said at the time. Just over a decade later, he attacked the Menzies government for its abject appeasement of Indonesia, and accused Sukarno of “sabre-rattling reminiscent of Hitler at the time of Munich and just as menacing.” In his memoirs, published in 1972, he begins the chapter on the White Australia policy by proclaiming, “I reject, in conscience, the idea that Australia should or can ever become a multi-racial society and survive… No nation can be homogenous and multi-racial at the same time. Our ever-increasing band of pseudo-intellectuals should be aware of that.”

The Chifley government’s support for the Indonesian nationalists in the final years of their struggle earned Australia great goodwill from its new and populous neighbour. The initial irritant in the bilateral relationship during the Menzies–Sukarno years was West New Guinea. Much against the wishes of the Indonesian nationalists, the Dutch retained control of this part of their colony. Australia supported continuing Dutch control until, in a huge humiliation, the Kennedy administration signalled that it thought the territory should pass to Indonesia, which it soon did. Australia had incurred considerable ill will for a policy that totally failed.

On a few occasions Menzies spectacularly mishandled relations with the emerging African and Asian countries. A group of five non-aligned leaders – India’s Nehru, Ghana’s Nkrumah, Yugoslavia’s Tito, Indonesia’s Sukarno and Egypt’s Nasser – moved at a special session of the United Nations that a summit between Eisenhower and Khrushchev be convened. Menzies, without speaking to any of that group, moved instead that the old four-power summit, which also included Britain and France, be reconvened. The Australian motion gained exactly five votes, and earned scathing criticism from Nehru (whom Howard seems to particularly dislike, and whom he describes as consistently pro-Soviet).

Howard makes much of Menzies’s attachment to the “old Commonwealth” – “Empire” would be a more accurate label – “the greatest international partnership the world has yet seen.” Menzies was again isolated, and “deeply saddened,” when he opposed the Commonwealth’s decision to expel the South African republic. The overwhelming majority of Commonwealth countries were, however, appalled by apartheid and its vicious enforcement in incidents such as the Sharpeville massacre. Menzies again was on the wrong side of history. Howard says that Menzies opposed apartheid – although he gives no supporting quotes – but was acting on the principle of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.

A rather different view of Menzies’s attitudes is apparent in the diaries of prominent Victorian Liberal Peter Howson. After a nightcap with Menzies on 28 September 1965, Howson wrote, “At times the PM exhibits a series of violent prejudices. Tonight these included: a) antipathy to psychologists and arithmetic tests; b) the UN (he hopes it will fold up); c) he hopes we will never alter the White Australia policy; d) he hopes Rhodesia will delay self-government in any form, especially to Africans. It is no use arguing with him when he is in this sort of mood.”

Howard is the master of the strategic omission. He notes that 521 Australians and almost 50,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam war, but makes no mention of the number of Vietnamese killed, usually estimated to exceed two million. He notes that the “Christmas bombing” of 1972 “attracted the fiercest attacks ever on a US administration from Australian ministers.” Three – Cairns, Uren and Cameron – publicly denounced them, while Whitlam remained silent but sent a critical diplomatic note to Washington. For Howard the American bombing was a response to “the North’s suddenly going cold on negotiations late in 1972,” and it succeeded in bringing the North back to the table, where a final agreement was concluded two months later (actually it was late January). Howard thinks that the reactions to the American bombing were “disproportionate and divorced from fact.”

A week before Richard Nixon’s presidential landslide victory Henry Kissinger had announced that “peace is at hand” (not mentioned by Howard). After the November election the Nixon administration presented forty-four additional demands to the North Vietnamese (not mentioned), and for a period the talks broke down. One of Nixon’s negotiating ploys was what he called the Madman theory (not mentioned), to make the Vietnamese believe he was capable of anything, as a means to make them agree. The Christmas bombing (18–29 December) was the heaviest bomber strikes launched by the US Air Force since the end of the second world war (not mentioned). At the end of January, the peace accords, almost identical to what had been agreed in October (not mentioned), were signed.

The Australia of the Menzies years “was stable and full of hope,” Howard writes of the period in which he grew up, and “Robert Menzies embodies the sense of security and optimism that was a hallmark of that era.” This general conclusion is justified, with two caveats.

In terms of economic growth, and especially material satisfaction, it was indeed a golden era, probably unmatched in Australian history. Psychologically, these were generations that had lived through depression and war, and so, unlike later generations, they didn’t take peace or prosperity for granted. Many of the most important aspects of economic life improved during this long era of prosperity. Home ownership increased; ownership of cars, televisions, refrigerators and washing machines transformed standards of living, and indeed quality of life. For most of the time unemployment was 2 per cent or less, and for many people employment was much more secure than it is now.

The first caveat is that this was not simply a golden era for Australia, but for much of the rest of the world as well. Among eighteen stable advanced democracies, the average annual per capita economic growth rate from 1950 to 1973 was 3.6 per cent, more than double any preceding period. But Australia ranked seventeenth among these eighteen countries, with a rate of 2.3 per cent, ahead only of New Zealand. It was an era of economic success in Australia, but comparatively not as successful as in many other countries.

The second caveat is that it was an era of private affluence and public squalor, especially as time went on. With income tax power passing to the federal government but responsibility for most social functions of government remaining with the states, the unequal division of taxing powers meant that investment in infrastructure, education and health lagged behind demand. This era ended decisively when Gough Whitlam, carried to power by his grand vision and the lack of sewage in the western suburbs, injected a much more urgent involvement by the federal government in all these areas.

Howard is rightly critical of Paul Keating’s description of the Menzies period as the Rip Van Winkle era. His own book’s subtitle – “the years that made Australia” – is equally misleading. That world of fixed currencies, high tariff walls, low unemployment, secure jobs and a highly unionised work force is unthinkable now. Neither Menzies nor Calwell foresaw the cosmopolitan society Australia would become, a society in which women are no longer routinely treated as second-class citizens, and nor did they envisage Australia’s role in the Asian Century. •