SUCCESS, as the saying goes, has many fathers. But not always.
It’s true that numerous people played a part in the formation of the Labor Party in the late 19th century. However, there is a strong case for arguing that the Liberal Party of Australia was Robert Menzies’ child.
The 70th anniversary of the Liberal Party takes place on Monday. It’s not easy to establish a national party out of political organisations in various states and the process takes time.
In August 1944, Menzies (in his capacity as leader of the United Australia Party and leader of the opposition) wrote to the supporters of the UAP inviting them to attend a conference at the Masonic Hall in Canberra starting on Friday, October 13, 1944.
The in-principle decision to establish the nationwide Liberal Party was made on this day. The conference continued on the Saturday and the Monday (delegates observed the Christian Sabbath) and there was an additional gathering in Albury in December 1944.
In February 1945, Menzies formally advised the House of Representatives that he and his colleagues desired “to be known in future as members of the Liberal Party”. The full details of the new party’s structure were not approved formally until the second half of 1945.
Obviously Menzies did not act alone and many colleagues worked to put the new party together — including John Cramer in NSW and Elizabeth Couchman in Victoria.
However, those commentators and historians who run the line that the Liberal Party was not Menzies’ child ignore the central question. Namely, would the Liberal Party have been established in October 1944 without the key role played by Menzies? The clear answer is a resounding no.
It’s never easy to create a new organisation — whether of a political, social, religious or business kind. Menzies’ role in getting 77 delegates or observers to Canberra in October 1944 and achieving a unanimous vote for the establishment of a “unified organisation” to be called the LPA was a real achievement.
There were disappointments along the LPA’s way: most notably, Menzies’ defeat by Labor prime minister Ben Chifley at the September 1946 election. After this loss, Menzies seriously contemplated retirement. But he stuck to the task and defeated Chifley in December 1949 after Labor had attempted to nationalise the private trading banks.
For years, much of the writing of Australian history has been documented by left-wing historians, primarily based in taxpayer-subsidised universities. However, this has changed in recent times.
Heather Henderson (Menzies’ only daughter) has published a collection of her father’s personal correspondence called Letters to My Daughter along with a personal account of life with her father Robert and mother Pattie titled A Smile for My Parents.
Anne Henderson’s Menzies at War focuses on the first Menzies government between March 1939 and April 1941 and his opposition years until 1949.
John Howard’s The Menzies Era concentrates on Menzies’ record term as prime minister from December 1949 to January 1966.
Both books dispel the left-wing myths about Menzies and his times.
Moreover, Heather Henderson has demonstrated that there was a gentle and humorous side to the aloof and oh-so-clever Menzies that the Australian public often saw.
The reinterpretation of Menzies and his government has been accompanied by a fresh look at Australia in the 1950s and early 60s.
Appearing on the ABC’s News Breakfast program on September 16, British writer Howard Jacobson rejected Virginia Trioli’s presentation of Australia in the Menzies era as a boring cultural desert. Jacobson, who spent time in Australia in the mid-60s, referred to “real vitality” of the nation at the time along with the “lively speech” and the “absence of reverence for authority” among its citizens.
The most serious charge against Menzies’ first term as prime minister turns on left-wing historian David Day’s assertion that Menzies hoped to abandon Australia during the early years of World War II and settle in London. According to Day, many senior members of British society circa 1941 wanted Menzies to replace Winston Churchill as prime minister of Britain and Menzies took such a proposal seriously.
This line was repeated in the 2008 ABC TV documentary Menzies & Churchill at War which was produced and co-written by John Moore. Moore censored any alternative view from going to air.
In response to a recent challenge, Day has declared that he is too busy to provide the name of one reputable Churchill biographer, or one considered historian of 20th-century Britain, who has ever said or written that there was a serious move to replace Churchill with Menzies. Nor has Day been able to come up with any evidence that Menzies himself thought that this was even a remote possibility.
However, not all the Menzies mythology comes from the Left. This week respected historian David Kemp told The Australian that Menzies would have been “horrified” by the Abbott government’s backdown on amending the Racial Discrimination Act. According to Kemp, “freedom of speech” was central to the Menzies tradition.
Kemp was a senior cabinet minister in the Howard government. It did not alter the Racial Discrimination Act, which it inherited from Labor.
In any event, as Howard documents in The Menzies Era, in the late 40s Menzies abandoned his “orthodox free-speech-based opposition to banning the CPA (Communist Party of Australia) in peacetime” and attempted to do precisely that. He failed, initially due to a majority decision of the High Court and subsequently at a constitutional referendum in September 1951.
The fact Menzies attempted to ban the CPA in the early 50s, soon after Mao Zedong had come to power in China and when Australians were fighting communist forces in Korea, demonstrates that freedom of expression was not necessarily central to democracy in so far as the Liberal Party’s founder was concerned.
The reasons for Menzies’ very real concern about communism in Australia at the time are covered in David Horner’s The Spy Catchers — The Official History of ASIO: 1949-1963.
Like all leaders, Menzies made mistakes. Yet he has many real achievements, including providing strong leadership at the start of World War II, along with presiding over the economic prosperity of the 50s and 60s. And the creation of the Liberal Party, seven decades ago on Monday.