Robert Menzies

Letter writing thrives on distance. Out of necessity, in the early years of European settlement, Australia became a nation of letter writers. The remoteness of the island continent gave the letter a special importance. Even those unused to writing had so much to say, and such a strong need to hear from home, that the laborious business of pen and ink and the struggles with spelling were overcome. Early letters reflected the homesickness of settlers as well as their sense of achievement and their need to hold on to a former life. It’s possible to see the emergence of a democratic tradition of letter writing in those needful times. Rich or poor, well educated or semi-literate, they all felt the urge to connect.

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There have been at least half a dozen previous biographies of Robert Menzies, but Troy Bramston’s new life of Australia’s longest-serving prime minister is arguably the most attractive combination of research and readability ... ... (read more)

John Howard has long been concerned with countering what he regards as the domination of Australian historical writing by the left. His project was initiated before he gained the prime ministership, most notably in his Menzies Lecture of 1996, in which he claimed that most of the distinctiveness and achievements of Australian politics were grounded in the liberal tradition. It continued during the ‘history wars’ from 1996 to 2007 – a subsidiary element in his largely successful attempt to reshape the contemporary understanding of liberal individualism. His massive new book on Menzies and his times is the summa of this enterprise.

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Menzies at War by Anne Henderson

by
August 2014, no. 363

Prime ministers seem to value longevity, whether it is Bob Hawke relishing the fact that he served longer than John Curtin and Ben Chifley combined, or John Howard relishing that he served longer than Hawke. But no prime minister is likely to serve as long as Robert Menzies’ sixteen years as prime minister from 1949 to 1966. His record is even more impressive when his earlier term (1939–1941) is included.

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Heather Menzies was ‘the apple of her father’s eye’, reported A.W. Martin, Sir Robert’s authorised biographer, and this collection of letters reveals that she was indeed, to use her father’s own words, ‘the great unalloyed joy of my life’. So much so that Ken, her elder brother, confessed to being jealous of her in his younger days. Heather married Australian diplomat Peter Henderson in 1955 and moved to Jakarta, when these letters begin, but her political education began years beforehand. In a letter that Menzies wrote to Ken (not published here), who was serving in the Australian forces during the war, he proudly describes his sixteen-year-old daughter’s ‘sotto voce comments in the galleries during speeches by such favourites as Forde and Ward and Evatt … [as] worth going a long way to hear’. This extremely close relationship and sharing of political values between father and daughter had an interesting precedent: Dame Pattie had enjoyed a similar bond with her father, the politician and manufacturer John William Leckie. Politics was the stuff of life for the Menzies family, both in Opposition and government. Heather accompanied her parents on official engagements that included overseas trips to India in 1951 and London in 1952, and travelled with them on the hustings during electoral campaigns.

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