It was an extraordinarily vicious attack by one former successful prime minister on the memory of another.
Last Monday, Paul Keating used the occasion of the launch of the first volume of John Edwards’s John Curtin’s War (Viking) to rant against Robert Menzies. The former Australian Labor Party leader attacked Menzies, who led the United Australia Party government between April 1939 and August 1941. Menzies returned as prime minister in December 1949, heading a Liberal Party-Country Party coalition government until his retirement in January 1966.
Addressing the Lowy Institute, Keating described Menzies as a “dreadful fop”, “vacuous dandy”, “vagabond” and — more seriously — “a woeful coward”.
This abuse was broadly greeted by the audience with mocking supportive laughter.
It seems Keating formed his political attitudes, and prejudices, as a young man attending ALP branch meetings in Sydney in the 1960s and early 70s.
At the time, it was all but compulsory for aspiring Labor politicians to attack Menzies, who had led the Coalition to seven election victories in a row (1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963), defeating such Labor heroes as Ben Chifley, Bert Evatt and Arthur Calwell in the process.
Keating extended his attack on what he termed the conservatives to the UAP government headed by Joseph Lyons between his election victory in December 1931 and his death in office in 1939. Lyons won three elections (1931, 1934, 1937). Neither Menzies nor Lyons lost a federal election.
The essential message of Australia’s 25th prime minister is that Lyons and Menzies were appeasers of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in the second half of the 30s, and they put Britain ahead of the defence of Australia.
It’s true Lyons and Menzies were appeasers for some years. But, then, so was Curtin. Keating did not mention this. Moreover, in his informative and well-written book, Edwards denies it, declaring: “Curtin was not an appeaser.”
This is the same Curtin who, in the House of Representatives on May 9, 1939, attacked individuals who were “more concerned with fighting Hitler than with establishing peace”. He argued that those with “a vested interest in war” had “made difficulties for all governments, including the governments of dictators”. Like Hitler.
Appeasement was very much a bipartisan policy among Australia’s political leaders at the time. With the notable exception of UAP politician Billy Hughes — who was prime minister during most of World War I and split from Labor in 1916.
Appeasement collapsed around August 1939 following the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and Germany’s subsequent invasion of Poland.
In the end, it was the appeasers in the West who went to war. Britain, under the leadership of arch-appeaser prime minister Neville Chamberlain, declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. In Australia, Menzies immediately followed suit.
So the man Keating describes as a “woeful coward” committed Australian forces to the war against Nazi Germany.
The first Australian forces arrived in the Middle East in early 1940 and the 7th division of the Second Australian Imperial Force was there by mid-1940.
And what about Curtin’s ALP? Well, as Keating acknowledged in his speech, Curtin and Labor opposed the 2nd AIF going to the Middle East to do battle with the Axis powers. According to Keating’s logic, it was a “woeful coward” (Menzies) who went to war against Hitler.
And it was a nationalist hero (Curtin) who declined to militarily support the Allies, led by Britain, in the early years of the war. At this time, the US was neutral and the Soviet Union (which became Russia) was in a no-war pact with Germany up to June 1941.
In simple terminology, Menzies wanted to fight Hitler in 1940 and 1941 but Curtin did not want to commit Australian forces to this conflict.
While piling on the abuse against Menzies, Keating criticised the former prime minister for (allegedly) saying that the Curtin cabinet was “scum”.
As Edwards documents, Menzies was reported by the American consul in Melbourne as having said that Curtin “is a reasonably safe, solid man” while criticising Evatt and Eddie Ward as “positively menaces to Australia”. In fact, Evatt and Ward caused more problems for Curtin during the war than Menzies did.
To Keating, Menzies’ fondness for Britain was a personality fault. This overlooks the fact that this view was common in Australia before and after World War II.
For example, on September 22, 1938 Curtin proudly described Australia as “an outpost of the British race”.
The Labor Party’s line when Keating was a teenager was that Lyons and Menzies left Australia all but defenceless when hostilities broke out in 1939.
More mythology. Researching her book Menzies at War (NewSouth, 2014), Anne Henderson came across a document in an unpublished manuscript written by Frederick Shedden.
Shedden was secretary of the Department of Defence during the war. Curtin once told Shedden that he was his “right and left hand and head too”. In his manuscript, Shedden wrote that Curtin’s wartime planning could not have been “immediately effective but for the foundations laid by the defence programs of the preceding” UAP governments headed by Lyons and Menzies.
According to Shedden, “Curtin generously acknowledged the inheritance he had received”.
Menzies ceased being prime minister on August 29, 1941 — four months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the Pacific War. This brought the US into the conflict in the Pacific region.
In his speech, Keating depicted Menzies and his colleagues as potential surrender monkeys to Japan while praising Curtin as being Winston Churchill-like in his willingness to fight the Nazis.
This is just barracking posing as history. It seems that Keating’s hatred for Menzies has led to a reassessment of Curtin. In his famous “Placido Domingo” speech in December 1990, Keating dismissed the view that Curtin was a great leader. Rather, he described him as “a trier”.
The truth is that Australia was well led during World War II by Menzies and then Curtin.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.