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Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) Menzies (1894–1978)

by A. W. Martin

This article was published:

Robert Menzies, by Arthur Dickinson, 195-?

Robert Menzies, by Arthur Dickinson, 195-?

National Library of Australia, 12265907

Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) Menzies (1894-1978), prime minister and barrister, was born on 20 December 1894 at Jeparit, Victoria, fourth of five children of Australian-born parents James Menzies, storekeeper, and his wife Kate, née Sampson. The forebears were Scots on the paternal side and Cornish on the maternal. James, originally a skilled Ballarat coach-painter, had become Jeparit's general storekeeper and community leader, a lay preacher in the local Nonconformist church and prominent in activities ranging from organizing sport to presidency of the Dimboola Shire Council. In 1911-20 he held the seat of Lowan in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. 

Though lacking much formal education themselves, Menzies' parents were anxious that their children should have the best that could be afforded. Thus the eldest four—Les, Frank, Belle and Bob—were sent in turn to Ballarat's Humffray Street State School, boarding with their father's redoubtable Scots mother, the widowed Elizabeth. Bob did best, topping the State scholarship examination in 1907, and studying in consequence for two years at Grenville College, a Ballarat private school. It opened the way to another scholarship, which Menzies took at Wesley College, Melbourne. Success there won him an exhibition to the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1916; LL.M., 1918). A brilliant undergraduate career followed, with a galaxy of prizes. He was also prominent in student affairs, being in 1916 editor of Melbourne University Magazine and president of the Students' Representative Council.

Admitted to the Bar on 13 May 1918, Menzies read with (Sir) Owen Dixon, then the leading Victorian junior. He quickly built up a good general practice. His specialist leaning was towards constitutional law, which he had studied under an admired university teacher (Sir) Harrison Moore. In 1920, as advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he won in the High Court of Australia a case which proved a landmark in the positive reinterpretation of Commonwealth powers over those of the States. The court's verdict brought Menzies 'sudden fame'. More important, it gave him, as a young man of 25, the required status, and the means, to marry. His fiancée was (Dame) Pattie Maie, daughter of John William Leckie, a manufacturer and politician; they were married on 27 September 1920 at the Presbyterian Church, Kew.

His work in this early period brought Menzies into close touch with industrial courts, and indirectly caused his first practical involvement in politics. In 1926 the Federal government of Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, exasperated at continuing industrial disputation, sought at a referendum to augment the powers of the Federal Arbitration Court, and to obtain additional Commonwealth powers over trade unions, employers' associations, trusts and combinations in restraint of trade. The Engineers' case notwithstanding, Menzies disliked Commonwealth inroads on State powers and joined a short-lived 'Federal Union' which was in Victoria a major influence in defeating Bruce's proposals. With a natural bent for public speaking, he soon drifted into more regular politics.

This period was one of ferment in Melbourne, principally among young and respectable men, who, in organizations like the 'Constitutional Club', promoted study groups, speaking-classes, libraries and a model parliament. They wanted to bring a new sense of public responsibility to State politics, then notoriously moribund. Menzies imbibed the atmosphere of the time, and as a successful young professional, with a reasonable income, decided that he had a responsibility to undertake 'a certain amount of public work'.

Under the aegis of a friend, (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes, Menzies became active in the Victorian branch of the National Party. In 1928 he entered the Legislative Council, having won a by-election for the province of East Yarra. For eight months in 1928-29 he was a minister without portfolio in Sir William McPherson's government. At the 1929 general elections, he stood successfully for the seat of Nunawading in the Legislative Assembly. He and Kent Hughes had already begun to form a new ginger group, the Young Nationalist Organization, dedicated to reform of the party by improving the calibre of its parliamentary representatives and rescuing it from the control of the National Union, a cabal centred on the Melbourne Club and believed to serve primarily the interests of big business. Leader of the 'Young Nats' in 1931, Menzies won the presidency of the National Federation, the peak public body at the head of the party apparatus. The victory symbolized a substantial inroad into National Union power. In 1932 Menzies became attorney-general and minister for railways—the first 'Young Nat' to receive full cabinet rank—in the government of Sir Stanley Argyle.

Meanwhile, he had been indirectly drawn into the federal political conflict arising from the crisis of the Depression. In the hot debates Menzies stood firmly on the side of orthodoxy: for balanced budgets, for strict adherence to the letter of the law in all contracts, and against expansion of credit. 'Honest' Joe Lyons, acting-treasurer in the Federal Labor government in late 1930, had the same views. Defying a caucus motion to defer the payment of a £28 million loan falling due in December, Lyons insisted on floating a conversion loan. Financiers and businessmen rallied to his support. In Melbourne a 'Group of Six' became the chief organizers of the conversion campaign. Menzies was one of the six; the group was headed by his friend Staniforth Ricketson, a stockbroker. The 'Young Nats' were also prominent in the crusade, and the loan was oversubscribed.

Soon after these events came an extraordinary mushrooming in all States of citizens' leagues, a kind of populist movement through which 'responsible' elements from most (though predominantly the middle) levels of society gave expression to their fears of civil dislocation as the Depression bit. Menzies was among those who saw Lyons as the natural candidate to lead a movement of salvation. In 1931 Menzies and 'the Group' persuaded him to leave the Labor Party and assume leadership of the new United Australia Party. A Federal election in December installed him as prime minister.

Concurrently, Menzies kept his law practice going—he had taken silk in 1929—and also attended effectively to his ministerial duties in Victoria. A decisive change, however, came in 1934 when he was urged to stand for the Federal seat of Kooyong. Taking this blue-ribbon U.A.P. seat with ease (at the elections on 15 September), Menzies was appointed (12 October) attorney-general and minister for industry in Lyons's government. Among inducements to his transferring to Commonwealth politics was a promise that at the next elections Lyons, who was by this time tired and ill, would step down as leader of the party, and therefore as prime minister, in Menzies' favour. The undertaking was not honoured. Lyons was to stand as prime minister in the election of 1937 : 'Honest Joe' was a proven election winner, and the party managers insisted that he not give place to the less popular and more abrasive Menzies.

In 1935, accompanied by his wife, Menzies made his first trip to England, one of a small party of Australian ministers visiting London primarily to take part in the silver jubilee celebrations of King George V's reign. Menzies was also involved in official trade talks. He found these tedious and British negotiators obscurantist, but nothing could dim his joy in experiencing, as he put it, the reflections which 'can so strangely . . . move the souls of those who go ''home" to a land they have never seen'. For weeks he revelled in the actuality, in stones and architecture, countryside and ceremony, of the Britain his education had taught him was also his. He met political notables, travelled widely, was entertained at Buckingham Palace, and won plaudits as a public speaker.

Subsequent official visits to Britain in 1936 and 1938, again largely for trade talks, enhanced Menzies' reputation and confirmed his affection for British culture, but evoked aversion to the ruthlessness of English businessmen. During the 1938 trip he paid an official visit to Nazi Germany, where he admired the régime's efficiency and wondered at a philosophy that 'has produced a real and disinterested enthusiasm which regards the abandonment of individual liberty with something of the same kind of ecstasy as that with which the medieval monk donned his penitential hair shirt'. But he noted that Adolf Hitler was only spoken of 'with the respect which one attaches to a legal fiction' and he told Hjalmar Schacht that 'the suppression of criticism would ultimately destroy Germany'.

Menzies' necessary involvement, as Lyons's attorney-general, in certain domestic disagreements became important for the first use of his name, in traditional left-wing demonology, as emblematic of stern conservatism. Two examples were his part in the attempt in 1934 to prevent the Czech communist Egon Kisch from entering Australia to appear at a Melbourne peace conference, and his resistance in 1938-39 to a waterside workers' ban on exports of pig-iron to Japan. In both cases the facts were more complex than anti-Menzies propaganda allowed. Yet, in the first, the prohibition on Kisch's entry had been imposed, not by Menzies, but by the Country Party minister for the interior Thomas Paterson. Antipathy to communism—assumed, as that was, on Menzies' side of politics—made it mandatory that he uphold the government's position. There is, nevertheless, no indication that he did so unwillingly. In the second case, which earned him the permanent sobriquet of 'Pig-Iron Bob', Menzies again presented the government view: in this instance that the making of Australian foreign policy could not be surrendered to a minority organization like the Waterside Workers' Federation. Strikers had refused to load a cargo of pig-iron for Japan, a nation they correctly branded as an aggressor in China and predicted as an enemy of Australia. In the heat of contemporary and subsequent disparagement of Menzies it was not noted that the proposed export was a one-off and very limited contract, that Menzies went to great lengths to negotiate with the unions concerned, and that there was clear internal union disagreement on the issues at stake.

More personal was Menzies' embroilment in the artistic controversies of the mid-1930s when, in developing the notion that Australia needed an academy of art, he fell foul of modernist painters and their supporters, one of whom was H. V. Evatt. Contemporary critics saw Menzies' dislike of modernism as yet another expression of his conservatism, which was undoubtedly true. The claim that he was also an artistic philistine is more debatable.

On Lyons's death in April 1939, the U.A.P. elected Menzies to party leadership. Sir Earle Page announced that in consequence the Country Party would no longer work in coalition with the U.A.P., and launched on Menzies an attack described by the Sydney Morning Herald as 'a violation of the decencies of debate without parallel in the annals of Federal Parliament'. Page asserted that, with war threatening, Menzies was incapable of leading the nation, because he had been disloyal to Lyons and because he had failed to serve in World War I. Though the reasons for this animus are not altogether clear, Page was probably stung by the waspish comments Menzies had made about him behind his back. It is, however, extremely doubtful that—despite the failure of the promises made to him—Menzies was disloyal to Lyons, and that his behaviour was a factor in the latter's collapse. Dame Enid Lyons, whose hostility to Menzies simmered over many years, made the allegation covertly and, in the end, explicitly. Page shared her grief at Lyons's death, and believed the unproven story that Menzies was partly responsible for it.

On 26 April 1939 Menzies became prime minister with a new, all-U.A.P. cabinet. Without any dissenting voices, in September parliament accepted Menzies' assumption that Britain's declaration of war against Germany involved an identical declaration by Australia. Through the National Security Act (1939), the government took the first steps to put Australia on a war footing, announcing the recruitment of a volunteer military force (which at once became 'the second Australian Imperial Force') for service in Australia or abroad, and the calling up of Militia drafts for local defence.

Menzies resisted the demand of 'minds which are heavily indoctrinated by the ''old soldiers" . . . point of view' that the A.I.F. should be sent forthwith to Britain's aid. To him Australia's circumstances were completely different from those of 1914. Then Japan had been an ally. Now, especially given Britain's failure to develop Singapore as an adequate Pacific bastion, 'upon the Japanese relationship and prospects . . . must depend absolutely the part other than defensive which Australia will be able to take in the war'. But the British government unilaterally arranged scarce shipping for transporting troops; the New Zealand government, without consulting Australia, announced that it would send an expeditionary force; and Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey, then in London, virtually promised the dispatch of a matching A.I.F. division. Menzies furiously noted that the British had shown 'a quite perceptible disposition to treat Australia as a Colony and to make insufficient allowance for the fact that it is for the Government to determine whether and when Australian forces should go out of Australia'.

He was, none the less, like all Australians, proud of the exploits in North Africa of the first troops to fight abroad, those of the 6th Division. En route to England in February 1941, he traversed their recent battlefields and celebrated their successes with them. Menzies' purpose in making this trip was to press the British about the parlous position of Singapore. Yet, with German invasion seemingly imminent, he could hardly hope for immediate British help in the Pacific. (Sir) Winston Churchill admitted Menzies to the British War Cabinet while the latter was in London. Menzies was thus privy to the discussions which led to the ill-starred Greek campaign of 1941, in which Australian and New Zealand troops suffered grievous losses. He objected to the lack of a proper military appreciation of the expedition's chances, fought for promises of full equipment for the troops, and altogether proved a thorn in Churchill's side.

Menzies further antagonized Churchill by visiting Ireland to confer confidentially with Eamon de Valera ('that wicked man', as Churchill called him) in the brave but naive hope of winning an end to Irish neutrality in the war. Wartime security requirements and, subsequently, Menzies' own sense of propriety, prevented any of these actions receiving publicity. Meantime, Menzies' horror at the air-raids he had seen in London and Bristol provoked sensitive speeches in England and Australia, and an emotional scarring that never left him.

The end of the 'phoney war' in May 1940 and the fall of France (June) had elicited from Menzies' government legislation and propaganda for full Australian mobilization. Much was achieved, but Menzies suffered a heavy loss when an air-crash near Canberra in August killed three close friends and ministers, G. A. Street, J. V. Fairbairn and Sir Henry Gullett. The results of the Federal elections in September suggested that the nation was not solidly behind the government: the restored coalition and the Labor Party emerged with even numbers, and Menzies held office by the grace of two Independents. In this precarious position he had made his English visit, having vainly suggested to Labor leader John Curtin the formation of a national, all-party government. It was an open secret during Menzies' absence in England that some ministers and others in the U.A.P. were plotting against his leadership. He was not good—as his political opponent but personal friend Curtin once put it—'at handling his men', and he had alienated, through his social position, intelligence and sometimes arrogant ways, sections of the electorate.

Although welcomed on his return to Australia in May 1941 by great public meetings to which he gave rousing patriotic addresses, Menzies soon came to feel that under his leadership the U.A.P. could not prosper and the war effort might suffer. He offered Labor more proposals for a national government, and, when these were rejected, called an emergency cabinet meeting at which a majority of his ministers agreed that a new leader was desirable. On 29 August Menzies resigned the prime ministership to offer what he called 'real prospects of unity in the ranks of the Government parties'. For him it was a deep personal blow; and for the coalition parties it was an ineffectual move. Before the year was out Labor was in office, and Menzies on the Opposition benches.

After Japan's attack, Menzies seconded most of Curtin's initiatives, though as the crisis waned he was indignant about Labor extremists' allegations that the Curtin government had inherited a nation which was virtually defenceless. He called attention to key appointments his administration had made which Labor subsequently embraced (the most important was that of Essington Lewis as director-general of munitions, with virtually unlimited authority), and fought bitterly against E. J. Ward's unproven allegations that the Menzies ministry had accepted a strategic plan by which, in the event of Japanese invasion, northern Australia would be abandoned almost as far south as Brisbane. By contrast, (Sir) Frederick Shedden, head of the Department of Defence and trusted right-hand man to wartime governments of both colours, wrote privately to Menzies in 1942: 'It was a great experience to be associated with you in the transition to a war footing and the first two years of the war administration . . . Tribute has yet to be paid to the great foundations laid by you at a time when you lacked the advantage of the effect on national psychology and morale of a war in the Pacific'.

Menzies showed remarkable resilience after the first shock of resignation. W. M. Hughes succeeded him as U.A.P. leader, but was doomed when Labor won a landslide victory at the elections in 1943. The U.A.P. re-elected Menzies as leader, though it was evident that, with the passing of the Depression which had given it birth, the party was in decline. Confidential 'post-mortems' on the 1943 defeat counselled a new start, in which a party, freed from the legacy of the recent past, might stand for genuine liberalism. Its immediate tasks would include critical scrutiny of the plans which Labor and a J. M. (Baron) Keynes-inspired bureaucratic elite were already developing for postwar reconstruction. Thus in 1944-45 was formed the Liberal Party, in whose gestation Menzies' influence was the most prominent.

Despite his importance in its foundation, Menzies' position in the party was for some years equivocal. A hope that Labor would be defeated in the elections of 1946 proved badly astray, and in despair Menzies toyed with the idea of leaving political life altogether. But Prime Minister J. B. Chifley's decision in 1947 to nationalize the private banks gave the Opposition leader a new focus for the 'anti-socialist' cause which he and his colleagues by then saw as a key political issue. Taking the high moral ground, Menzies conducted against bank nationalization a fight whose vigour clinched his leadership of the Liberals. He confirmed this early in 1948 by successfully heading the 'No' case when Chifley's government sought through a referendum an extension of its wartime powers to control rents and prices. Later that year, tired and unwell, Menzies went with his wife and daughter on a holiday to England. 'This', he wrote to a friend, 'is to be a refresher course for me, spiritually, mentally and physically, and I hope to come back ''fighting fit"'.

Reaching London in July 1948, Menzies was in time to experience at first hand the tense atmosphere created by the Soviet blockade of Berlin, the most dangerous event of a rapidly escalating Cold War. Even level-headed people, they found, were steeling themselves, only three years after the end of World War II, for another conflagration. Prime Minister Clement (Earl) Attlee told Menzies that he would not have communists in confidential posts in the civil service, 'but [Attlee] otherwise thinks (as I do but my party now does not)' that communists should not 'be martyred by special legislation'. After absorbing the current sense of crisis, and having earnest conversations with (Sir) Anthony Eden (Earl of Avon) and other Conservative friends, Menzies left England wholly converted to the changed views of his party. The parliamentary Liberals had adopted as one of their objectives the dissolution of the Communist Party of Australia. Supposed 'red' initiatives in the chronic industrial unrest of 1947 partly explained this change of heart. It was also a reaction to widespread shock at the death (March 1948) in Prague of Jan Masaryk after a communist coup.

Menzies had always used denunciations of communism in domestic industrial upsets as part of his political stock-in-trade, and he continued to do so. Yet his fears took on a new dimension in 1947-48, as he absorbed from experience abroad a sinister sense of communist parties being potential fifth columns. This sense did not leave him, bolstering his acceptance of the Cold-War belief that communist plans for the destruction of capitalism were worldwide and directed by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet dictatorship. That from this view Menzies grasped political advantage does not negate the depth of the belief or Menzies' feeling that he, as prime minister, carried a heavy responsibility to Australia. The frequently reiterated view that he built his subsequent career on cynically 'kicking the communist can' is a shallow one.

Returning to Australia with new anti-communist fears, rhetoric and resolve to fight, Menzies worked assiduously in the run-up to the 1949 Federal elections. Ironically, his cause was helped by Chifley's determination to contain union demands and curb inflation. Most damaging for Chifley was the communist-led coal strike which culminated in the government's use of troops to work open-cut mines. Anti-communist feeling was rife: in Victoria the 'revelations' of a C.P.A. defector Cecil Sharpley brought a royal commission on communism, and in the Melbourne Herald Denis Warner gave the 'domino' theory one of its earliest airings. In the election campaign Menzies and the Opposition were frank about their determination to stamp out the communist movement, and to fight in the interest of free enterprise against what they chose to call Labor's 'socialistic' measures. Lesser issues were of importance, especially the Opposition's undertakings to counter inflation, extend child endowment and end petrol rationing. The government stood on its record and suffered a decisive defeat. The Opposition transformed a minority of 40 per cent in the House of Representatives to a majority of 60 per cent. It was notable that, of the fifty new coalition members in the House, thirty-four had served in the recent war, at least thirty of them as officers. By contrast, only about 10 per cent of new Labor members had been in the armed forces. Whatever else Menzies' victory represented, his anti-communism and stress on free enterprise had captured a new and formidable element in postwar Australian society. His second term as prime minister began on 19 December.

Communism was predictably the dominant issue in the first phase of the new government's life. In April 1950 a Communist Party dissolution bill was amended in the Senate (where Labor had a majority) in ways unacceptable to the government. Menzies withdrew it, and in September guillotined through the House of Representatives an identical version which, on the orders of its federal executive, Labor allowed the Senate to pass. The Korean War had begun, anti-communist feeling in the community was high, and it was clear that the Menzies government would insist on a double dissolution if the measure were rejected. In March 1951 the High Court declared the Act invalid. The government then engineered a double dissolution on another issue, banking legislation, and at the elections on 28 April gained a majority in the Senate. Five months later the government held a referendum asking for constitutional powers to deal with communism in the same terms as the nullified Act. The referendum was narrowly defeated, despite government anti-communist 'mandates' at two elections.

Menzies' anti-communist legislation of 1950-51 provoked deep controversy, arising chiefly from its reversal of the accepted principle in British law that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty. It was, and is, a puzzle to explain satisfactorily why Menzies—a lawyer deeply identified with British principles of justice—condoned draconian measures which required 'named' communists to prove their innocence. His own explanation was that, on experience elsewhere, and given the Stalinist rhetoric of some Australian communists, the Communist Party was a potential fifth column. Visits to England and the United States of America in 1950 and 1951 and discussions there with men of affairs confirmed the Cold-War fears bred by his 1948 experience.

On his return from the 1951 trip Menzies warned the nation of the possibility of a third world war within three years. In view of that danger, he presented his attempted breach of civil rights as the lesser evil required of a responsible leader. Ordinary court procedures would require witnesses to testify against the accused, but the revelation of the identity and methods of members of the security services was too dangerous to contemplate. Menzies' most bitter enemies seized on this 'sinister' link as the foundation for a grotesque but long-lived allegation that, in league with Brigadier (Sir) Charles Spry, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, he was planning to destroy the industrial unions through the establishment of a police state.

The high emotion stirred by these events exploded again in 1954 when, on the eve of Federal elections which some pundits thought Labor had a chance of winning, Vladimir Petrov and his wife defected from the Soviet embassy in Canberra with alleged evidence of Russian spying activities. Supported by the Opposition, the government decreed a royal commission to investigate the case. The coalition victory in the elections in May brought a charge which, though now discredited, has passed into much Labor mythology: that the defection was engineered by Menzies and A.S.I.O. to smear the Labor Party. Evatt's paranoiac belief in this plot, the sad product of decay in a brilliant mind, brought a degree of self-destruction and gave the more poised and ruthless Menzies the means to crush his opponent. One element in the aftermath of the Petrov affair was the Labor split, chiefly precipitated by Evatt, which was to produce the staunchly anti-communist Democratic Labor Party. No D.L.P. candidate ever won a seat in the House of Representatives, but the cleavage in Labor's ranks was an important factor in Menzies' subsequent election successes. Meantime, the royal commission did not uncover sufficient evidence of espionage in Australia to sustain local prosecutions, though non-Australian sources have provided testimony that the material produced by Petrov's defection was of value to Western intelligence as a whole.

In 1950 Menzies had believed, with most British and American strategists, that the main communist threat was to Europe, and that in the event of world war Australia would provide forces to guard the Middle East. His first two ministers for external affairs (Sir) Percy Spender and Casey, however, saw South East Asia as the crucial area for Australia's defence, a belief given substance by the signing of the Australia-New Zealand-United States treaty (1951) and the formation of the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (1954). Menzies soon accepted the aim of such agreements: to sustain the United States' commitment to the region and look for security through 'great and powerful friends'. He also formally agreed in 1955 to Australian participation in the British-organized Far East Strategic Reserve; in consequence, Australia was involved in conflicts arising from the Malayan Emergency and Indonesia's policy of Confrontation. Henceforth the Menzies administrations were committed to the concept of 'forward defence', a notion which, when combined with increasing dependence on the United States, led almost inexorably to involvement, near the end of Menzies' prime ministership, in the Vietnam War.

Menzies' second prime ministership lasted a record sixteen years, and was to end in his voluntary retirement on 26 January 1966 at the age of 71. Over this time he won seven general elections. There was a serious hiccup in 1961-63 when the government, after providing the Speaker, had a majority of only one in the House. Following the emergence of the D.L.P., Labor's disarray was an important element in consistent Liberal election successes. For all that, Menzies enjoyed formidable support in his own right. In a series of celebrated broadcasts, beginning after his fall in 1941, he had appealed effectively to the 'Forgotten People'—the broad middle class (and especially its women)—rendered powerless, he said, by its lack of wealth on the one hand, and of organization on the other.

The period of Menzies' dominance was also marked by extraordinary economic growth. This 'long boom' was experienced in most advanced economies, but the Menzies governments' stability, their declared policies of 'development' and their continuance of the ambitious immigration programme initiated by Labor were factors in a transformation of Australian material life, as indicated by markers as various as growth in population and home ownership, the ubiquity of whitegoods, and a great jump in motor-vehicle ownership.

In the years after 1958, when the minister for trade (and industry) (Sir) John McEwen was leader of the Country Party and deputy prime minister, promotion of Australian production and export through protection, tariff manipulation and aggressive international trade negotiations became characteristics of the Menzies era. McEwen's department was sometimes at odds with the Treasury, occasionally to Menzies' displeasure. This was the case in 1965, for example, when Menzies rejected—on Treasury's advice—the report by Sir James Vernon's committee of economic inquiry, a document understood to embody the views of McEwen's public service lieutenants, in particular his former departmental secretary Sir John Crawford. Nevertheless, though temperamentally different, Menzies and McEwen saw eye to eye on most matters. On the eve of one Federal election in the 1960s Menzies could write to McEwen: 'There never has been such a partnership as this in the political history of Australia'.

Preservation of the Liberal-Country Party coalition was in fact one of the three achievements on which, near the end of his parliamentary career, Menzies looked back with most pride. Given the natural tensions that had always existed between the two parties, this accomplishment reflected the great political acumen and prestige of the mature Menzies. The other two feats he nominated as memorable were the extension of Federal involvement in education and the physical development of Canberra as the national capital. The highlight of the first was the appointment in 1956 of Sir Keith Murray's committee to inquire into the financial plight of Australian universities, and Menzies' insistence that the committee's recommendations be fully implemented for the provision of life-giving funds by government under conditions which preserved university autonomy. The highlight of the second was his insistence in 1960 that money be appropriated for the construction of the long-delayed lake that Walter Burley Griffin had originally made the centre-piece of his design for Canberra.

Menzies belonged to a generation for whom to be Australian was automatically to be British. That outlook involved veneration for inherited institutions like parliament and the courts because they were the creation of time and history, and respect for the Crown as the focus of loyalty to hold a family of disparate British societies together. Irreverent anachronists lampoon these beliefs and highlight passages of Menzies' career in which his almost sentimental Britishness had regrettable overtones. The prime example was his support of the Eden government's actions in the Suez crisis of 1956.

In the 1950s and 1960s Menzies became at Commonwealth prime ministers' conferences something of the 'Grand Old Man' of the 'Empire' (a description of the Commonwealth into which he often instinctively slipped), but he was unhappy with a situation in which hitherto subject peoples increasingly became the equals of the old 'White' self-governing dominions. Although his good friend Harold Macmillan (Earl of Stockton) tried gently to lead him to accept 'the winds of change', Menzies, at least privately, never quite did so. Yet in his prime he had a shrewd understanding of the way in which superiority was routinely assumed at the metropolitan centre. Occasional diaries and personal letters make it clear that Menzies meant it when he told family and other intimates: 'You've got to be firm with the English. If you allow yourself to be used as a doormat they will trample all over you'.

Menzies' veneration for ancient imperial honours was fired when Queen Elizabeth II appointed him K.T. (1963), and when (Sir) Harold (Baron) Wilson nominated him to succeed Churchill as constable of Dover Castle and warden of the Cinque Ports (1965), ceremonial titles which gave him a uniform and a residence at Walmer Castle. He had been appointed a privy counsellor in 1937 and C.H. in 1951. Among many additional awards and distinctions, he was appointed to the U.S. Legion of Merit in 1950.

Having retired from politics at the peak of his power, Menzies delivered by invitation at the University of Virginia a series of lectures later published as Central Power in the Australian Commonwealth (London, 1967), and periodically visited old friends in England. He wrote two volumes of reminiscences, Afternoon Light (Melbourne, 1967) and The Measure of the Years (Melbourne, 1970). Among his influential earlier collections of speeches and broadcasts, the most important were ''To the People of Britain at War'' from the Prime Minister of Australia (London, 1941) and The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy (Sydney, 1943).

In 1971 Menzies suffered a severe stroke which incapacitated him physically and put limits on his remaining public appearances. He died on 15 May 1978 in his home at Malvern, Melbourne; he was accorded a state funeral and was privately cremated. Dame Pattie survived him, as did their son Kenneth and daughter Heather; their younger son Ian had died in 1974. Sir Robert's estate was sworn for probate at $201,306; it included generous legacies to four universities. In June 1996 his ashes were buried with those of his wife in the newly established Prime Ministers' Memorial Garden in Melbourne general cemetery.

Portraits of Menzies include two by Charles Wheeler—one in King's Hall, Old Parliament House, Canberra, from 1946 until slashed in 1954, the other in the Western Australian Art Gallery. Of four by (Sir) Ivor Hele, one won the Archibald prize (1954) and was given to Menzies, one is held by Parliament House, Canberra; the other two were commissioned by Gray's Inn, London, and the Victorian Bar Council. Of four by (Sir) William Dargie, one is in the Clothworkers' headquarters, London, and the others are in the possession of the University of Melbourne, the Menzies Foundation, East Melbourne, and the Menzies family. The Melbourne Savage Club has a portrait by Sir John Longstaff. (Sir) William Dobell's portrait, commissioned by Time magazine in 1960, was later given to the New South Wales Art Gallery. Busts include two by V. E. Greenhalgh (in the Liberal Party's headquarters, Canberra, and in the Savage Club, Melbourne), one by Barbara McLean (outside the Liberal Party's headquarters, Canberra), and one by Wallace Anderson (in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens). A plaque by Peter Latona is in Sir Robert Menzies Square, Jeparit.

Large framed and handsome, Menzies had a ready wit and superb command of language. His outward imperiousness did not simply betoken a sense of intellectual and political superiority. It also covered a certain shyness. Intimates knew a man of great good humour and kindness. Life for him was a gift to be enjoyed with gusto: he took pleasure in food and drink, revelled in letting his hair down at his favourite Savage and West Brighton clubs in Melbourne, and indulged himself in spectator sports, being a connoisseur of the art of cricket. After Alfred Deakin and before Gough Whitlam, Menzies was probably the most well-read prime minister Australia has had, though he was not given to parading his erudition. He enjoyed the classical nineteenth-century English novels, could quote hundreds of lines of Shakespeare, and on boring train and aeroplane trips loved to fill in the time with 'whodunits'. An intensely private man, he strictly separated personal matters, like his family life, from public affairs. Sir Paul Hasluck, who knew Menzies well, wrote of him: 'I think the sort of tribute he would have appreciated most would not have been praise of his great talents or a recital of what he had accomplished but rather a statement that he was a man of character, honourable in conduct and decent in behaviour. He was that and I offer the tribute'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Hazlehurst, Menzies Observed (Syd, 1979)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • P. Hasluck, Sir Robert Menzies (Melb, 1980)
  • C. Bell, Dependent Ally, a Study in Australian Foreign Policy (Melb, 1988)
  • J. Bunting, R. G. Menzies, a Portrait (Syd, 1988)
  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melb, 1988)
  • J. Brett, Robert Menzies' Forgotten People (Syd, 1992)
  • P. Edwards with G. Pemberton, Crises and Commitments (Syd, 1992)
  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 1 (Melb, 1993)
  • S. Prasser et al (eds), The Menzies Era (Melb, 1995)
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. W. Martin, 'Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Menzies, by Arthur Dickinson, 195-?

Robert Menzies, by Arthur Dickinson, 195-?

National Library of Australia, 12265907

Life Summary [details]


20 December, 1894
Jeparit, Victoria, Australia


15 May, 1978 (aged 83)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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