Australian Books

Lazarus is back

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

18 October 2014

9:00 AM

The Menzies Era; the years that shaped modern Australia John Howard

Harper Collins, pp.707, $59.99, ISBN: 9780732296124

Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley, still quips that John Winston Howard is his nemesis. This does not prevent the ambassador telling perhaps the best story about Prime Minister Howard travelling in the United States. One of the American press contingent asked; ‘Tell us, Mr Howard, what is Australia like?’

The PM considered the question for a moment and then replied: ‘Well, we are a lot like California. Except we tend to be more supportive of the United States Government.’

After successfully writing his political biography, Lazarus Rising, Howard has returned to the lists to write a history of post-war Australian politics, focused upon the founder of the Liberal Party, and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies. Suggested originally by historian Geoffrey Blainey, The Menzies Era is a book of real and probably enduring significance, for it offers a Liberal perspective on the period from the election of the Menzies-led Coalition in 1949 through to Gough Whitlam’s endorsement in 1972. It fills a considerable gap in Australian political history and achieves this in a narrative that is both fair and measured in its assessment of the players, of the parties and of the issues which characterised Australian political life during the period.

Howard’s autobiography, Lazarus Rising, was a critical and commercial success. Unlike most political memoirs, which may be characterised by the expression ‘Once put down, impossible to pick up’, the Howard account of his political life was well regarded by both his peers and the public. In this, he eclipsed the memoirs of many others.  However, no Australian political figure has ever written with the insight and clarity of Paul Hasluck in his essays.  Of course, Hasluck’s portraits of people as different as Billy McMahon and Arthur Calwell were never meant to be published, even posthumously.

It is encouraging to see the Liberals writing books. As is now commonly appreciated, every member of the Australian Labor Party is bound by Rule to write and have published a book. The bookshelves in public libraries are now grinding under the weight of tonnes produced recently by senior Labor figures. A little balance is required  and we cannot wait until David Kemp has finished his history of Australian liberalism, of which I am reliably informed, only Volume 1 is completed.

Nonetheless, it is gratifying to note that here, as in the UK, senior political figures are now routinely putting pen to paper.  The British experience on both sides of the aisle, from Roy Hattersley (Labour) through Roy Jenkins (Social Democrat) to William Hague (Conservative) has produced first class political history and biography.

Howard’s book is thoroughly researched and carefully constructed in a style which argues the impact of R.G. Menzies upon Australia and Australians.

Appropriately, he underlines Menzies’ achievement in bringing the disparate and dispirited forces of Australian conservatism together after the collapse of Arthur Fadden’s government in 1941. The meetings in Canberra and Albury in 1944 which resulted in the formation of the Liberal Party were landmarks in Australian history. Howard writes: ‘It might well have been thought that the formation of a new party was a foregone conclusion: it was anything but. Without the galvanising influence of Menzies’ intellect, eloquence and political experience it would not have come about. The non-Labor forces would have continued to wallow aimlessly…’ Robert Menzies is obviously a figure of reverence for the author, but Howard resists being sycophantic.

Thus, he does not hesitate to criticise Menzies when it is valid, as in the mistakes made by the Menzies government which led to the ‘credit squeeze’ of 1960/61 and the near death experience at the general election of 1961. However, at times Howard’s colours are in evidence and thus Menzies is given the benefit of the doubt over Suez, although he was clearly deceived by Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet.

Howard is different from many other Liberals. He not only understands the significance of the Liberal Party machine but has been a part of it himself, learning at the side of his formidable mentor, John Carrick. In one of the better passages in the book, Howard explains how skilled Menzies was in dealing with his party machine. The issue was contesting a vacant Country Party seat, in Cowper. The NSW Liberal State Executive (including Howard) had resolved to endorse a candidate. Prime Minister Menzies  asked for the matter to be reconsidered. ‘The very humility of Menzies’ request did the trick. How could we, the State Executive, refuse the polite request of our PM, who above all else, was concerned to preserve Coalition unity in the run-up to what could be a difficult election? Needless to say, the executive melted before the PM’s vicariously expressed charm…’

Howard was often underestimated in politics, which caused his critics to overlook or ignore the fact that he grew, both on his return as Opposition Leader in 1995 and then later as Prime Minister. He has also grown as a writer and The Menzies Era is proof of this.

For Howard, the 1950’s is reflected in sunshine:  ‘Many of the building blocks of the modern Australian economy were put in place in the 1950s and 1960s – economic engagement with Asia; diversification of our trade; the re-emergence of the mining industry; the strengthening of tertiary education; and a highly successful immigration programme…’ Contrast this with Paul Keating’s lacerating alternative view of the period being ‘The Rip Van Winkle years.’

There are certain weaknesses in the narrative, as with the defence of the ‘domino theory’, now best consigned to the archives.  Changing social attitudes, particularly among younger Australians, also merit greater emphasis.  And Patrick White thought Australia could do better, describing John Gorton as suggesting to the world that we were ‘a nation of rustic clowns.’

However, Howard’s analysis of the Labor Split of 1954-57 and understanding of the shifting allegiance of Catholic voters is astute, as evidenced by the debate over state aid. At times, Howard is actually a little easy on the ALP.  His remark that Labor was ‘generous’ in allowing Arthur Calwell to contest three elections as leader is a case in point. ‘Foolish’ would be more accurate.

Howard has drawn upon impressive sources, including A.W. Martin’s convincing biography of Menzies, (Robert Menzies:  A Life) and the eloquent Graham Freudenberg (A Certain Grandeur:  Gough Whitlam’s Life in Politics). Howard’s book rests comfortably with these two earlier contributions on Australian politics and history.

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