Remembering Robert Menzies

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The previous world was a very different one. Heather Henderson, Sir Robert’s daughter, who is here can speak about remembering Robert Menzies with much more authority and probably much more accurately than I could.

The Menzies world was the sort of a world that I would have some consciousness of. It began in the 1930s with the Depression and difficult times. There were arguments about trade with Japan. Menzies was nicknamed Pig Iron Bob for which he paid a high price. He was probably right to trade with Japan. I also believe that he felt that the trade embargoes imposed on Japan, especially by the United States, were only going to drive that country into a more difficult situation. It was one of the factors that put Japan, during the war, against us on the Axis side.

Some of the old correspondence reveals an aspect of Menzies most people would not have expected. In 1939 there is a letter to Bruce, then the British High Commissioner in London, which indicated clearly that Menzies felt that the British did not understand east and south-east Asia. They were making major mistakes. Menzies believed we should be advised by our own people who had our own Australian interests at heart. It was announced very shortly after Menzies became prime minister, in 1939, that missions would be opened in Tokyo, Beijing and Washington. That was the embryonic beginnings of an Australian Public Service.

Another letter to Bruce showed that Menzies thought that the powers after the war would be disposed to establish a standing army for what was to become the United Nations. By that he meant a balanced force – an army, air force and also a navy to give some strength to the international body. That’s was way ahead of his time then, and maybe way ahead of its time today, and it gives some indication of the kind of thinking of which he was capable.

Menzies was criticised a good deal over being in England too much in the early stages of the war. But I have a suspicion that he was in England because he was concerned that Australia was going to be, an unfortunate phrase, left for dead. Britain was obviously preoccupied, obviously beleaguered.

It was a very difficult time after the war. The world had been through a time when civilisation had nearly destroyed itself. Leaders in all major countries knew that they had to do better. The Second World War had started just 20 years after the end of the First World War. The United Nations was established, along with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was negotiated and published in 1948. A number of conventions were negotiated under it, including the Refugee Convention. These were designed to give legal force to the high aspirations of the Universal Declaration. Menzies signed on to the Refugee Convention 1954.

Maynard Keynes had given some hope that governments could better manage their economies, that serious unemployment could be banished. I know it’s been the fashion for many economists over the last 30 years to say that Keynes was wretched, that he didn’t know what he was talking about. But most of his writings were undertaken during the Depression when there was no economic activity. I believe Keynes was a far better economist than most of his critics since. If he had been writing about countries that were highly indebted, he wouldn’t have said, “Borrow more money.”

The post war world was a time of independence for former colonies. And we know that some of those new-born countries used their independence well and unfortunately a number used it very badly. In many ways, despite the Cold War and the potential conflicts with the Soviet Union, the end of the 1940s/50s and the 1960s were a period of enlightenment in world affairs.

It was with this background that Robert Menzies formed the Liberal Party. Quite deliberately, it was designed to be a forward-looking progressive party, undertaking experiments, in no way reactionary. He didn’t quite say in no way conservative, but then he never used the word conservative to explain the basis of the party itself. As a young candidate, I learnt one thing very sharply about the Liberal Party in the early 1950s. Candidates used to stay right away from funding of operations, campaigns for their own electorates. Ministers, Members and even the Prime Minister were not to involve themselves in fundraising for the operations of the Party. That was undertaken by a separate section of the Party, divorced from active politicians and policy makers in the Party. As I see it, that was very deliberate. The business people who founded the United Australia Party, its predecessor, virtually felt they could have a significant voice in choosing candidates and a voice in determining policy. The Menzies Liberal Party was devised of a different kind. But in today’s Liberal Party, there is more similarity in that regard to the United Australia Party than to the Liberal Party in its earlier years.

I would like to consider some aspects of policy that Menzies supported very strongly and let you see for yourself whether you think those are still relevant matters for Australia or whether we have gone off in a different direction.

The Murray Report and the Martin Report led to the Commonwealth being a major funder of universities. There were a number of elements to this. It was important that as many Australians as possible had access to higher education. The number of scholarships and living allowances that were available increased rapidly in the early to middle 1950s. It was clear that universities were going to need significant federal funding. Again, Robert Menzies had a sense of principle as to how this should happen. Because the Commonwealth was to be the major funder, it was important that universities be insulated from political interference by the Commonwealth, from micro-management by the Commonwealth so that academic independence and independence of fundamental research could be protected. So the Universities Commission was established, a high level body which consulted with universities and made its recommendations to state and to the federal governments on the future course of the development of universities. That system worked very well until Education Minister Dawkins wanted to get his sticky fingers on higher education policies so he abolished it. And the Opposition at that time, didn’t oppose that abolition. In recent times, such interference has gone even further than under Minister Dawkins.

Federalism was strongly supported not just as a political matter, not just because the Commonwealth was a federal organisation or Australia is a federal country, but because there was philosophy behind it, reasons behind it. Australia is a very large country and it’s never going to be well governed if government is to be determined primarily by majorities in Melbourne and Sydney. There is too much of Australia in other places. One of the ways of balancing this is to have states with some substance. There is also the question of the separation of powers. Do we really want all political power to be in the hands of one group of politicians in Canberra? No matter which party it might be. There was a speech made I think by Archie Cameron in the very early war years. He was acting as an independent at the time. In the speech he was praising a piece of Labor Party legislation saying it was a wonderful legislation, glorious legislation, that it would enable the Minister to preside over a number of very good things. Then he finished by saying, “This legislation gives the Minister so much power that there is only one person I would entrust with that power and that’s myself.” And so he voted against it.

There has been a lot of centralisation in recent times. The labour laws are a very obvious example. Government influence over universities is another. Various ministers and different people have made statements about the Commonwealth being the virtually the sole determinant of health and education policies. I’m not sure that in those earlier days the Menzies Government would have supported such things.

In the matter of foreign aid and humanitarian aid, there is a world objective of .7 per cent of GDP set as a target by members of the United Nations. You might be surprised to know that the year of greatest generosity of any Australian government, in all the years since the founding of the United Nations, was the last year of the Menzies Government. If you compare the figures roughly (you can’t do it exactly) with today, the Menzies figure was .56 per cent while today our contribution is .24 per cent. Less than half. So we are richer, we are wealthier, we have higher standards of living but in terms of support for disadvantaged people around the world we do less than half of what was done by the Menzies Government.

On foreign ownership, I can remember there was a fuss about the takeover of four radio stations. I’ve even forgotten which four they were. But they were described as a substantial radio chain in Australia and the takeover was to be by a British company. The prime minister went to the parliament. He didn’t use the word foreigner, he didn’t use the word English. He just said it was wrong for people who do not belong to this country to own such a powerful instrument for propaganda. The takeover was dropped.

Let me talk about migration. In 1946, when Arthur Calwell persuaded the union movement to support a major migration program, the Opposition supported it, the union movement supported it. Nobody asked for a referendum, which probably would have voted 80 or 90 per cent against it. If you had asked Melbourne if it wanted to become the biggest Greek city outside Greece, 90 per cent would have said “no”. If you asked them to vote now, I believe 90 per cent would be very proud of the contribution that Greek Australians have made to Melbourne and to Australia. That major migration program would not have been possible if anyone from Canberra or any significant person had introduced race or religion into the politics of the day. They had the responsibility not to. This isn’t to say that Australians aren’t sophisticated enough to have a debate about these things but race and religion are very sensitive issues. If you scratch a raw nerve, it’s very hard of put that nerve to sleep and sometimes it can take a very, very long while.

Billy Hughes played on anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices during World War I. We did not begin to recover from the bitternesses, even hatred between Protestant and Catholic until the middle to late 1950s. Some people in my generation would still remember the bitterness that existed between Catholics and Protestants because of the way Billy Hughes had turned the debate over conscription into an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic referendum. That did enormous harm to Australia

I mentioned the Refugee Convention which Menzies signed onto in 1954. His government adhered to the provisions of that convention. And it was still the time of the White Australia Policy even if it was being whittled away slowly piece by piece. In 1966, Harold Holt effectively ended the White Australia Policy. Gough Whitlam got rid of some legal remnants of no consequence in 1972 or 1973. Against that background, one can only imagine how that earlier Menzies Liberal Government would have reacted to the Tampa election, where race and religion played a very significant part in the politics of Australia. How would he react to an Australian wrapped in the Australian flag shouting obscenities? What would he say about that? He would have criticised that person for a gross abuse of the flag. It was never meant for that purpose and it should not be used for that purpose.

In foreign policy if Robert Menzies hadn’t been resolute there wouldn’t have been an ANZUS Treaty. The Americans didn’t want a treaty with Australia. They wanted Australia to sign the Japanese Peace Treaty. But the Menzies Government wouldn’t sign this treaty until we had some sort of commitment from the United States. It was a lesser commitment than that required under NATO, which some people wanted. NATO’s commitment is to defend, ANZUS is to consult. In the middle 1950s, around 1955-56, there was real concern over position of Taiwan and Chinese shelling of Quemoy/Matsu – the offshore islands. President Eisenhower moved the Pacific Fleet at a range to, or close to, the Taiwan Straits as some sort of a warning. The Australian government didn’t say much about it in public, nor did the New Zealand government. But Australia and New Zealand both let Eisenhower know that if there was a war with China over that issue, Australia would not be party to it – that we would stand aside – that ANZUS would not apply. And indeed it doesn’t because it applies to Australian forces and to the territories if they are attacked by another country in the Pacific. ANZUS, of course, wasn’t relevant in the conflicts with Malaysia because America wasn’t involved. It was certainly never invoked in relation to Vietnam and it was always denied that ANZUS had any relevance to Vietnam.

But now it applies to Afghanistan and it applies to Iraq. A security pact designed to maintain the integrity of Australian is being turned into a treaty to support United States policy worldwide. We really ought to work out, ourselves, whether that’s in Australia’s interests. We also support a missile shield, Bush II’s version of Ronald Reagan’s star wars. We support pre-emptive strikes and we also support the idea of Japan, the United States and Australia acting in concert to make sure that China does not become a nuisance. I can’t really imagine any idea more likely to cause concern than that sort of arrangement.

We also support the current US treatment of people in Guantanamo Bay, who for four and a half years have been outside any law, and only belatedly brought within the reach of the Geneva Convention which they ought to have been from the very beginning. We support military tribunals where the rule of law will not apply, where evidence taken under torture is accepted, where evidence will be heard in secret and in which the defence would not appear. At the time, I never really understood why Robert Menzies, in speaking of the Liberal Party and the documents that were written about it in the early days, so often emphasised the rule of law, access to the law and everything that flows from it. I do now, because we have breached the rule of law and due process in ways that I never would have thought possible.

We think that this probably only applies to people who are a bit different, maybe even people who don’t look like us. And therefore it doesn’t matter. But we will realise one day that if we don’t protect the human rights of everyone, even people who views we might abhor or hate, then the breach of human rights will one day reach to ourselves. That’s the nature of it. You only have to look at what’s happened in Australia over the last three or four years. Breaches of human rights have affected more and more people and we hear little of it. The reason we hear little is that if any journalist reports such matters, he or she goes to jail. The government now has the power to take any one of you, arrest you and detain you for a week, even another week. They can take you away and you’re not allowed to ring up a lawyer. You’re not allowed to ring up your wife or your husband to say, “I’m sorry, I’m somewhere. I can’t tell you where, but I’m alright, sort of.” You’re not allowed to make that sort of call. So you just disappear.

I don’t know if such a thing has happened to one person, ten persons, a hundred persons or a thousand, because if it does happen to anyone, and they talk about it after the event, they can go to jail for five years. If a journalist reports the circumstances within two years of the event, that journalist can go to jail for five years. These are laws of Australia. I can’t believe that somebody who believes in the rule of law, due process and equal access to the law would condone these sorts of provisions.

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, there were very real concerns about an aggressive, predatory communism. Czechoslovakia was invaded twice by Soviet tanks, Hungary once in 1956 and in the early 1960s a PKI communist group nearly succeeded in Indonesia. It took ten years of resolute struggle to overcome the communist insurgency in Malaya (it’s become Malaysia), but it was successful. Communism was regarded as a dangerous, worldwide, aggressive force. And I believe there was a great deal of justification for that point of view, in those days.

In Australia, in those years, the only significant terrorist incident that occurred was in this city. I was prime minister and we had a meeting in the Hilton Hotel. Somebody wanted to blow up Morarji Desai, the Indian prime minister, because he had a terrorist in jail and the organisation wanted that terrorist out. They had planted bombs all around the place, not around Australia but around south east Asia. Nobody came to me and said they couldn’t do their job because our laws are not adequate. But now we’ve changed the laws and I don’t think it will really help with what they are designed to achieve.

There is only one other point that I’d like to make because again I think it points to a difference. Robert Menzies had an intense sense of Australia being a country of esteem, a country that ought to be respected, that could provide weight beyond its size. He would have resented any foreigner interfering in Australian domestic politics. And I would have resented any foreigner interfering in Australian domestic politics.

Now, I’m not an apologist for Mark Latham. He was not destined to become the Australian prime minister. But Australians are capable of sorting that out without repeated comments from the American ambassador in Australia, without comments, even more extreme, from then US Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who more than once sought to tell us what to do. He told us we would have to do a lot of the dirty work if there was a war between United States and China over Taiwan. He should have been told to push off when he first said that several years ago. But President Bush also weighed in, in front of the Australian prime minister on the lawns of the White House. I regard those interventions as thoroughly offensive and totally and absolutely inappropriate. I don’t think Menzies liked being told what to do by generals, and I don’t thing he liked being told what to do by foreigners, or for that matter by anyone. And he certainly didn’t need anyone’s help to win political arguments within this country. It’s not the function of the United States and they ought not to take us so much for granted, almost as if we were another US state.

I have drawn over a few differences. The Menzies Liberal Party was a progressive and forward-looking party that did a great deal for Australia. It established the basis of modern Australia. Certainly elements of economic policy have changed markedly, but if Menzies were around today the implementation of economic policy would have changed markedly. Any judgment ought to be made against the debate and judgment of the times, not by applying different principles, or different standards to a situation that occurred many decades ago.


This is the transcript of an address by Malcolm Fraser to the Sydney Institute on July 17th 2006

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