When Sir Robert Menzies’s black Bentley pulled up in front of Government House on the afternoon of January 20, 1966, the assembled journalists knew exactly what to expect. Earlier in the day, after months of intense speculation and years of rumours, Menzies had released a short statement announcing his retirement as prime minister. Sixteen years after he had taken office in December 1949 — years of rapid population growth, an expanding economy and unemployment below 2% — he became the first Australian PM to leave office at a time of his own choosing.

It wasn’t the first time Menzies had made that drive across Canberra. In 1941, at the end of his first (and much shorter) prime ministership, he drove to Yarralumla to tell another governor-general Lord Gowrie that he no longer had the support of his own party room. It was only a temporary setback: having been rejected as too abrasive and high-handed by his colleagues in the disintegrating United Australia Party, he set about merging no fewer than 14 non-Labor organisations into a new political force. He stumbled along the way — the non-Labor vote barely changed at the 1946 election — but in 1949 the new Liberal-Country Party Coalition took office and the Menzies era, as it would eventually be known, began.

Before Menzies returned to the prime ministership, the journalist Warren Denning made a compelling analysis of this brilliant but unpopular politician in an unpublished biographical essay. Denning had seen Menzies close up since his own return to Canberra as an Australian United Press correspondent, and then as the staff correspondent for the ABC’s first Canberra news service, in the late 1930s. Although he favoured the Labor side of politics, his portrait of Menzies pinpoints the contradictions within the man who remains Australia’s longest-serving prime minister.

“The essential difficulty in interpreting Mr Menzies as a personality,” Denning wrote in late 1947 or early 1948, “is that there were several natures within the one man, natures which were contradictory and sometimes mutually cancelling.” Written in the past tense, as if Menzies were unlikely ever to lead again, Denning’s account reveals a temperament that hadn’t fundamentally changed nearly two decades later, despite Menzies’s efforts to remake his political persona:

“There was, first of all, the Mr Menzies of high attainment and ripe legend. To this Mr Menzies belongs his redoubtable scholastic triumphs; his eminence at the Bar; his standing as a constitutionalist; his recognition as a fine speaker in all the formal phases of his career; his leadership of government and opposition; his hypothecations of the liberal conception of social life.

“Then there was the Bohemian Mr Menzies, the liker of good as against elevated talk, of good wine, good food; the Mr Menzies who did not resent being admired by attractive women; the artist in good manners, in charm, in the elegant style; the Mr Menzies who inspired the thoughts that he belonged in spirit to a more exquisite century and setting. This was not the first Mr Menzies relaxing; had it been on that level, the second Mr Menzies may have done the first Mr Menzies no harm. But it was really another nature, at war with the conventional stature of the first.

“Somewhere else there was a Peter Pan Mr Menzies, the faint suggestion of an adolescent not grown up. From this Mr Menzies there came the bitter criticism of the people who did not understand him, would not work with him, were not loyal to him. In this nature he was entirely egoistic, seeing himself as the sun in a universe of pallid moons…

“Finally, there was a curious little pucklike Mr Menzies, an elfin creature of mischief and malice, never able to resist sticking pins in the world’s pants, always under temptation to twist the noses of pompous people, or to dance on the prides, the pretensions, and the illusions of nearly everybody who crossed his path.”

“All these different natures of Mr Menzies,” wrote Denning, were combined “in the person of a massive-headed, quick-eyed, wide-shouldered, tall, burly, and slightly corpulent man, who had on his hands the well-nigh impossible task of reconciling them within the personality of one individual who had committed himself to high, responsible, and public paths.”

All of Menzies’s natures were on display when he gave a nationally televised press conference a few hours after he visited the governor-general on January 20, 1966. Answering questions from the press gallery correspondents, Menzies listed his most lasting achievements (creating the Liberal Party, maintaining a “fruitful and constant” alliance with the Country Party, building closer ties with the United States, lifting funding for education); defended the government’s spending on the development of Canberra; and joked maliciously about labour minister Billy McMahon’s late (and obviously pragmatic) decision to marry.

As a cloud of cigarette smoke gathered above the rows of journalists, Menzies responded elusively to enquiries about what he planned to do in his retirement, and briskly defended the government’s decision to join the United States in fighting the North Vietnamese. Then came a question that was intended to go to the heart of his government’s economic achievements, or perhaps the lack of them. As Menzies pointed out, the question’s phrasing was confusing, but the shrewd old warhorse knew exactly what the questioner was getting at.

Journalist: Would you like to comment on the opinion that you rode the wave during your term rather than controlled it — that you subscribe to the tiger’s back theory rather than the Australian quarry theory?

Menzies: Well, I find that question somewhat incoherent, but fascinating. If you’re asking me whether I’ve been a good surfer [pauses for laughter] I can say no, the only time I ever stood in the surf on a Sydney beach I was hit by a dumper and had to go and have my face attended to afterwards.

 In fact, a debate about Menzies’s economic policies — about the best way to surf the post-war wave of prosperity while keeping away from the dumpers — had been going on within the government almost since the day it took office in 1949, and on several occasions had threatened to break into open warfare.

Despite his reference at the press conference to “the most loyal service” he’d had from people “in politics, in parliament, in cabinet,” a group of Liberal MPs had always held quite different views about how, and how much, governments should intervene in the economy — especially in banking, industrial relations and the airlines, and through the level of taxation. Emblematic of the divide was Menzies’ decision to retain in influential public service positions many of the senior officials appointed by his Labor predecessors; for the rebellious MPs and their backers (often in the finance industry), the activities of this group recalled the worst excesses of the vanquished Labor government.

*This is an edited version of a longer piece originally published at Inside Story.

Peter Fray

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