In 1949 Robert Menzies became one of four Liberal Party leaders to win office from opposition — along with Malcolm Fraser (1975), John Howard (1996) and Tony Abbott (2013). Right now, the Liberal Party in NSW is consumed with division between those who describe themselves as “moderates” and those who are depicted as “conservatives”. No such self-indulgence was present in 1949, 1975, 1996 or 2013 when the Liberals, after periods in opposition, were desperate to re-occupy the government benches.
This is not a dispute about ideas but a preselection battle rationalised in terms of ideology. Put simply, the powerbrokers of the faction which calls itself The Group want to put some so-called moderates into seats held by so-called conservatives. Among the targets is Angus Taylor, a former businessman and Rhodes scholar, who holds the seat of Hume in southwest NSW. Taylor was elected in September 2013. Many commentators were surprised that he was overlooked by Malcolm Turnbull when the Prime Minister was refreshing the government after he replaced Abbott.
The Liberal Party has a number of very talented backbenchers, of whom Taylor is one. So it is surprising that he is being targeted. The word from the Liberal Party is that Taylor (who is reported to have voted for Abbott in the September 2015 leadership ballot) has Turnbull’s support. This makes sense since the dumping of Taylor would send out a bad message to the electorate in general and the Liberal Party rank and file in particular.
On the right-of-centre of Australian politics, internal problems tend to be associated with the Labor Party’s success. This was true of the period up to the formation of the Liberal Party in late 1944 to early 1945, during the first couple of years of Gough Whitlam’s government in the early 1970s, at the time of the ascendancy of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 80s and early 90s and during the early period of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership.
The Liberals have experienced some disarray when in government and this was invariably followed by defeat. This is true of the prime ministerships of Harold Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon in the years before Labor’s 1972 victory. Likewise with the final years of the Fraser and Howard governments. What is unusual about the present Liberal Party turmoil turns on the fact that the Coalition has been in government for just over two years.
Menzies’ record of 16 successive years in office was very much shaped from the lessons he learnt during his inaugural period in The Lodge between Joseph Lyons’ death in office (in April 1939) and his own resignation following the loss of support of his colleagues (in August 1941). As Menzies later conceded, he handled his first term poorly and did not unify his party — then called the United Australia Party.
Between December 1949 and January 1966 Menzies led a successful government which won elections in 1951 (a double dissolution), 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963. Seven victories in a row is unlikely to be exceeded by any Australian political leader. Sure, Menzies was assisted by the Labor Split of 1955 and by the poor performance of Bert Evatt and Arthur Calwell as opposition leaders.
Also, in 1961 the Coalition was saved by the preferences of the Democratic Labor Party, which had broken away from the ALP after the Labor Split. But Menzies always understood that the Liberal Party under his leadership needed to have a certain appeal to DLP voters. In short, to some extent the Liberal Party founder made his own luck.
For several decades after he resigned from politics, at the age of 71, Menzies was mocked by the left-intelligentsia. This began to change following the publication of Allan Martin’s two-volume biography in the 1990s, which was a highly competent account of Menzies the politician but said little about Menzies the man. Martin’s background was on the left-of-centre of Australian politics. The private Menzies was revealed by his daughter, Heather Henderson, in her books Letters to My Daughter(2011) and A Smile for My Parents (2013). Menzies emerged as a witty and engaging husband, father and grandfather.
Anne Henderson’s book Menzies at War demolished the undocumented view of leftist historian David Day that Menzies wanted to leave Australia in 1941 and had support in Britain to succeed Winston Churchill as prime minister. Menzies at Waralso documents that Menzies left Australia’s defences in good shape on the eve of the Pacific War. This view is supported in the soon to be released Settling the Office(MUP, 2016), which is written by academics Paul Strangio, Paul ’t Hart and James Walter. And then there is John Howard’s incisive but not uncritical The Menzies Era.
The official histories of ASIO also demolish some of the mythology about Menzies. In The Spy Catchers, David Horner documents that Menzies did not make up allegations of the Soviet Union’s penetration of the Department of External Affairs in the 1950s. And in The Protest Years, John Blaxland documents that in the early 1960s Calwell told ASIO that he was concerned about the Communist Party’s infiltration of the ALP. In other words, Menzies did not invent a communist threat for political purposes.
Like all prime ministers, Menzies made mistakes. But the 50s and early 60s were great years to be an Australian. Then the leading Liberals focused on combining good government with smart politics. There was no room for the political narcissism involved in factionalism.