Replay the 2019 Speaker's Lecture

Thursday, 26 September 2019 in General interest

The 2019 Speaker's Lecture was delivered by journalist Troy Bramston on 17 September in Parliament House. The full text of Mr Bramston's speech is reproduced below.

I am honoured to be invited to give this year’s Speaker’s Lecture. I thank the Speaker, Tony Smith, for this privileged opportunity. I acknowledge the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Claressa Surtees. Also members of parliament, staff, colleagues and friends. I acknowledge Heather Henderson, whom I regard as a national treasure. And I thank my parents, Jeff and Michele Bramston, and my wife Nicky, for being here.

Robert Menzies continues to loom large in Australian political life. He defined and dominated an era in Australian politics. He has never been matched for his term as prime minister or his election victories. And he remains the only prime minister to leave office at a time of their own choosing in the post-war period.

However, debate over Menzies’ life and legacy has never settled – which makes him a compelling biographical subject. Some see him as the personification of statesmanship in the 20th century. Others see him as snap-frozen in time as a stuffy Edwardian not in tune with the emerging Australia of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Liberal leaders routinely invoke Menzies and enlist him to their cause. Interpreting Menzies is core business for every Liberal leader. It is not surprising that some Labor leaders seek to delegitimise Menzies’ legacy because it remains so important to the Liberal tradition.

The continuing debate over Menzies’ place in history, his achievements and failures, and his enduring legacy, underscores his significance.

Yet it has been 20 years since a full-life biography of Menzies has been published. Sadly, this says a lot about our commitment to telling our own history and about our attitude to prime ministers. I have spent much of my life reading, researching and writing about leadership. And I’ve interviewed every prime minister since Gough Whitlam.

In this lecture, I will:

  • discuss writing the life of Australia’s longest serving prime minister;
  • reflect on his character, values, achievements and failures;
  • and conclude with some thoughts about how our politics might be stronger if we learn from his example.

When Robert Menzies retired in the summer of 1966, he bestrode the political stage like a colossus. He had served as prime minister over two separate terms – from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 to 1966. He was the principal founder of the Liberal Party – 75 years ago next month – and led it to seven election wins. He presided over a nation imperiled by war and prosperous in peace.

He was a politician who was admired and respected at home and abroad, although not universally loved. He had immense authority and stature. Australians viewed him as a safe, trusted and reassuring leader.

He even looked prime ministerial. He was over six feet tall and had had a bulky 20-stone frame. He had fleshy jowls, short silvery-grey hair and piercing blue eyes underneath black bushy eyebrows that could intimidate all on their own.

He wore buttoned-up double-breasted suits, usually with a crisp white shirt, dark tie and pocket handkerchief. He smoked fat cigars, mixed a lethal martini and liked a Scotch whisky in the evening. He often wore a felt homburg hat and carried walking sticks, some engraved with “R.G.M.” This sartorial elegance augmented his gravitas and presence.

He spoke in a honeyed voice with crisp expressiveness that was British in tone but uniquely Australian in its inflection. He filled any room, was often imposing and always the centre of attention.

For generations of Australians, Menzies was the prime minister.

He governed during a “golden age” of strong economic growth, low unemployment, increasing wages, rising living standards, a massive influx of migrants and an expanding home-owning middle class. It was a time of, mostly, prosperity and stability. And a continuation of the post-war nation-building ethos pioneered by John Curtin and Ben Chifley.

The Menzies government has a number of signature policy achievements. There was a huge expansion of universities and colleges, and support for students. Funding was provided to non-government schools which helped to end the sectarian divide. Canberra was developed into a true national capital. The United States alliance was cemented with the ANZUS Treaty. And new relationships were forged in the Asia-Pacific – which Menzies visited more than any other prime minister.

There were also mistakes and misjudgments. It is a tragedy that almost 60,000 Australians were sent to the Vietnam War – a conflict that was never property understood, ended in failure and later divided Australians. Menzies’ biggest political misstep was attempting to ban the Communist Party, which saw him depart from liberal principles and was rejected by voters. And his views on Aboriginal Australians and the White Australia Policy are jarring today – although understandable for a man born in 1894.

I found that Menzies, while respected and admired on the world stage, was less successful in foreign than domestic policy. He did not convince John F. Kennedy to support the Dutch remaining in New Guinea or to help defend Malaysia against Indonesia. His mission to Cairo to resolve the Suez Crisis, when he sided with the British and French over the United States, ended in humiliation. It is also regrettable that he was reluctant to take a stronger moral and diplomatic stand against South Africa’s apartheid policy, as other Commonwealth nations did.

Menzies was a traditionalist and a sentimentalist, but not a reactionary. He was a cautious reformer. Menzies advocated liberalism within a conservative economic and social framework. While Menzies championed free enterprise, the economy remained shackled to highly regulated capital, product and labour markets.

Menzies’ Australia is not the Australia of today – just as it is not the Australia of John Curtin or Ben Chifley.

Menzies’ longevity was also partly gifted by an opposition plagued by division and saddled with lackluster leaders in Arthur Calwell and Bert Evatt.

The aspect of Menzies’ legacy that has the most relevance today is his mastery of the art of politics and his approach to leadership. I identify five key elements in his approach to governing.

First, he absorbed the British legal tradition and admired Westminster parliamentary democracy.

He was skilled at parliamentary procedure, understood the importance of winning debates in parliament, and knew how to use the chamber for dramatic purposes. He was, after all, a born performer.

He was an effective chair of cabinet who allowed ministers to have their say and a free rein to work their portfolios, but he could be ruthless with those he judged to be poor performers.

He respected the public service, and expected frank and fearless advice from it, and was a good administrator of government.

Second, he had purpose, belief, and conviction. He knew what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it and whom he represented.

He was able to work with public servants and ministers, and his party, to develop policies, communicate them effectively to voters, and then make sure they were properly implemented.

Third, Menzies understood the importance of party management.

He was the principal founder of the Liberal Party. He developed the party’s structure, drafted its constitution, vested it with a philosophy, and led it to power and kept it there for 16 years. This gave Menzies immense authority. But this alone was not enough to be a good party manager.

He developed effective relations with the Liberal Party organisation, respected the party membership and was attentive to the needs of backbenchers.

He also understood the importance of managing the coalition with the Country Party. He respected its leaders and their views, and made sure that any disagreements were satisfactorily dealt with.

Fourth, and while it may be axiomatic for a prime minister, Menzies was an astute politician.

He was a good strategist and tactician when it came to the timing of elections, the framing and communication of issues, and exploiting weaknesses in his opponents.

He was often cautious, but knew when to take a principled stand and when to make a pragmatic decision.

The mark of any good politician is learning from his or her mistakes. Menzies was able to consolidate after repeated policy and political setbacks, and close election results, throughout his political career.

And Fifth, Menzies understood that much of politics is persuasion and advocacy.

He used his training as a lawyer, his understanding of history, and his wide reading to prepare effective speeches, write articles, and develop policies.

Menzies was a superb orator and parliamentary debater, and was without peer on the campaign trail.

He was a skilled radio broadcaster, and adapted his speaking style successfully to television, using both mediums to enhance his presentation of political arguments and policy issues to voters.

His town hall meetings were legendary. They would be packed with supporters, opponents and the undecided. Some went for entertainment and brought sandwiches, tea and coffee. Menzies’ speeches were punctuated by cheers, boos, abuse and laughter.
Attendees waved placards that read: “Pig-iron Bob” or “Ming the Merciless”. Sometimes eggs or tomatoes would be thrown. Menzies was in his element, and rarely fazed.

He gained a reputation for his sharp wit, which was not always to his advantage, even if it won a few laughs. A woman once said to Menzies: “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel.” Menzies replied: “If I were the Archangel Gabriel, madam, I’m afraid you would not be in my constituency.” A miner once interjected: “Tell us all you know, Bob — it won’t take long!” Menzies responded: “I’ll tell you everything we both know — it won’t take any longer.” A man yelled out at a public meeting, “Watcha gonna do with ’ousing, Bob?” Menzies replied, without missing a beat, “Put an ‘h’ in front of it.”

This wicked wit would often be on display in parliament. Menzies also took note of how others performed in parliament. At the commencement of Question Time, Menzies would often take a blank piece of paper and draw up a scorecard to rate his ministers. At the end of Question Time, Menzies would fold and tear the paper into tiny pieces and then – with a raised eyebrow and slight smile – drop it into the bin so that nobody knew what his assessment was.

The primary motivation for writing a biography of Menzies was discovering a series of interviews that he gave in 1972 and ‘73 for a biography that was not completed. He commissioned journalist Frances McNicoll to write his biography in 1969. She interviewed Menzies and did research but the book was never written.

In the interviews, Menzies talked about his upbringing, reflected on political events, policies, and personalities, and offered political lessons drawn from his experience.

In retirement, Menzies watched in horror as the Liberal Party was plagued with instability, cycled through a series of short-term leaders and tumbled to defeat in 1972. Menzies said he was “bitterly disappointed” with Harold Holt, who “fell from one disaster to ¬another”. He thought it was “a terrible blunder” to make John Gorton prime minister, who lacked discipline in his public and private life. Billy ¬McMahon was dismissed as “a fool” – untrustworthy, lacking in intellect and judgement, and without a shred of credibility. And Billy Snedden was dismissed as just “hopeless”.

Menzies thought none of his immediate successors were up to being prime minister. It should not be a surprise to learn that he voted for the Democratic Labour Party in 1972, and possibly also in 1969 and 1974. He suggested the Liberal Party should merge with the Country Party and form a coalition with the DLP.

Menzies thought Liberal salvation would come only with Malcolm Fraser, and was thrilled when he became leader in 1975. But Heather Henderson told me that her father was soon disappointed with Fraser too.

Menzies also revealed that he did not feel secure in his leadership until at least the 1949 election. “You can’t win with Menzies” was a common refrain. Menzies actually resigned as Liberal leader in 1947 and demanded the party get behind him. But nobody did challenge him and he remained leader. Menzies said some in the party wanted to replace him before the 1949 election with Don Bradman or Tom Playford. Dick Casey was often mentioned as an alternative leader.

One of the important revelations in Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics is that Menzies was deeply affected by the decision not to enlist in the First World War. His two older brothers, Les and Frank, had enlisted. Belle, his sister, had eloped with a solider and was banished from the family. The family was plunged into emotional turmoil. Menzies revealed that his father was so stricken with grief that he nearly died. So, it was decided that Robert, then a university student, would remain in Melbourne to look after the family.

About 40 per cent of young men enlisted to serve in the war. Menzies was unfairly branded a coward for not enlisting. This, he said, had “a very searing effect”. So, he decided to go into politics, viewing it as “public service of some kind”. Menzies added: “I just had to do something to justify my existence … I decided that I ought to go into parliament.”

The First World War was the decisive event that propelled Menzies into politics. Menzies himself said in a previously unpublished interview that this was not a reason he went into politics but the reason.

The decision not to enlist continued to have an effect on him. A key reason Menzies went overseas during the Second World War, as prime minister, and spent months abroad while his colleagues grew restless at home, was to show Australians he did not lack courage. Menzies said he had to prove that he was “not yellow”. He wanted to “set an example” and not “run away from any danger”. He was chasing his demons.

Menzies’ non-enlistment impacted on his personal life in another way – and I have learnt more about this since my book was published. While at Melbourne University, Menzies was engaged to a fellow student Phyllis Lewis. But the engagement didn’t last and nobody really knows why.

But Lewis’ family have recently been in contact with me and shared the story that has been passed down through the years. Their story is that Menzies nervously proposed marriage during a university party that was accepted, essentially, because Lewis did not want to hurt his feelings. Her reservations grew in subsequent months.

Lewis had two brothers, and one was killed in France during the war. Legend has it that the brother appeared to her in a dream and told her not to marry Menzies. Meanwhile, a boy she admired years earlier, and who had served in the war, returned home. A relationship was rekindled and cemented. So Menzies’ lack of wartime service may have contributed to the engagement being broken off. Or so the story goes.

Menzies’ vast collection of personal papers is housed in 687 boxes at the National Library of Australia. I was granted full access to this treasure trove and discovered fragments of memoirs, notes, letters, reports and verse that have not been published before.

Sitting in the National Library or the National Archives surrounded by boxes of files offers a window into history. For me, it is like stepping inside H.G. Wells’ time machine and being transported to the past.

I was able to view, for the first time, all of Menzies’ correspondence with his sister, Belle Green. They reveal an account of Menzies’ visit to Nazi Germany in 1938, where he downplayed the Nazi threat to Europe. The letters also reveal that Menzies gave money to Belle for most of his life, to supplement her income. Pattie Menzies did not approve.

I also discovered a memo that Menzies wrote after the 1943 election. He outlined the structure, philosophy and ethos of the party that would become the Liberal Party in 1944. However, Menzies then thought it should be called the “Liberal Democratic Party”.

In Menzies’ papers I also found unpublished notes and memos about the Suez crisis, how he was awarded a knighthood and the appointment of Garfield Barwick to the High Court.

In the Fairfax Media Archive at the State Library of NSW, I found records of regular donations from Fairfax to the Liberal Party in the 1940s that would add up to around $100,000 in today’s value.

And in Billy McMahon’s extensive papers at the National Library – which remain partly sealed – I discovered a memo about the founding of the Liberal Party. In 1944, a meeting was organised by businessman W.C Robinson and attended by the big media proprietors of the day: Keith Murdoch (Herald and Weekly Times), Frank Packer (Australian Consolidated Press), Rupert Henderson (Fairfax). The purpose was to discuss how organisations “on the liberal side of politics” could join together to replace the United Australia Party. Menzies was the only politician invited to attend. He outlined his proposal for a new party, which they supported.

In searching through archival boxes, I also discovered many examples of one of Menzies’ favourite pastimes: writing verse. As a student, lawyer and politician, Menzies composed poems, rhymes, haikus, odes, limericks, and doggerel. There was so much of it that I decided to include some as a standalone chapter in the book.

But documents can only tell you so much. With my wife, Nicky, and children, Madison and Angus, we visited Jeparit in January this year. Visiting a small country town some 350 kilometers from Melbourne is what I regard as a great family holiday!

Jeparit gave us a unique insight into Menzies. It is extraordinary that a boy born in the back of the family’s general store in 1894 could become prime minister – the last born in the 19th century. It is often forgotten that Menzies was not part of the establishment. The Menzies family was not wealthy. Young Robert went to school in Ballarat and Melbourne, and to university, by winning scholarships.

In Jeparit, we visited the site of the family store and the Mechanics’ Institute where Menzies read books, walked up and down Roy and Charles streets, and saw the spire that unveiled in Menzies’ honour in 1966. We visited the local school where a phrenologist had run his hand over Menzies’ boyhood skull and when it lifted off, proclaimed that he would become “a barrister and public speaker”. We also visited the largely disused town hall and looked at records and photos from Menzies’ time, and saw a petition to the governor that Menzies’ father had signed urging him to make Jeparit a town.

It was also important to talk to those who knew Menzies. I conducted several interviews with Heather Henderson, who gave me a fascinating insight into her father and the family.

There are only two ministers surviving from the Menzies government: Doug Anthony and Ian Sinclair – two grand old men of politics. Anthony – who first met Menzies as a boy – told me that the prime minister was consultative in cabinet but could be brutal with ministers who were not across their brief.

Sinclair recalled that Dame Pattie took a close interest in the development of Canberra. She would not hesitate to complain to her husband about the garbage not being collected, the power going off or the footpaths not being up to scratch. This would be the number one item at cabinet the next day.

Jim Forbes was the last surviving Liberal minister from the Menzies government. He died last month. The afternoon I spent with him in Adelaide, on the eve of his 95th birthday last year, is one that I shall always treasure. Forbes remembered that Menzies’ support to ministers in difficulty – like when he was in introducing national service – was absolute. “(Menzies) would stick with you,” he said.

Forbes, who was Minister for the Army, recalled very little discussion let alone opposition about the decision to commit troops to Vietnam. He also said the main reason was to show Australia was “a dependable ally” and to “strengthen” the alliance with the United States.

I also conducted the last interview with John Carrick – a true gentleman of politics – who gave me unique perspective on Menzies and the Liberal Party in its formative years. Carrick said that in the 1940s, Menzies had “real enemies” and there were substantial “doubts” about his capacity to lead the party.

Memories of Menzies’ time in state politics and his first prime ministership – which ended in resignation – were never far from mind before the party’s 1949 election triumph. The earlier Menzies had poor relations with many colleagues. When Menzies was told by an MP that he did not suffer fools gladly, he replied: “What do you think I’m doing now?”

I also learned a lot by interviewing public servants Lenox Hewitt and Richard Woolcott, who both worked with Menzies. Hewitt, now 102, also knew Menzies’ father when they worked together at BHP. Hewitt though the father-son relationship was somewhat strained but James Menzies was “immensely proud” of Robert.

And his staff, William Heseltine and Tony Eggleton, took me inside the prime minister’s office. Heseltine thought Menzies was a shy man. He also remembered Menzies as warm, generous and kind – unlike the public stereotype. Heseltine also agreed that the Queen – whom he later worked for as official secretary – was a little embarrassed by Menzies’ “I did but see her passing by” speech in 1963.

Eggleton also had terrific anecdotes. He said Menzies would stop his prime ministerial car just before it would reach a destination where he was to speak outside. He would hop out and Eggleton would liberally apply fly spray on his back so that no flies would distract the audience from listening to his speech. Eggleton organised Menzies’ farewell press conference broadcast live on television. Menzies insisted on having “a nervous pee” – as he called it – on his way to the parliamentary dining room where he would meet the press for the last time

I am often asked what Menzies would make of politics today. Like all of us who think politics is important, I think Menzies would be disappointed by the significant fall in trust in government over the past 50 years.

Menzies believed that politics was an honourable profession that ought to attract the best and brightest talent that the country could offer. He gave up a lucrative career in the law because he believed he had a duty to serve the nation. He thought politics should be a battle of ideas rather than a clash of personalities, political slogans and advertising campaigns. This is not to say that he eschewed political combat, but it was always geared towards a larger purpose.

Remember the campaign in the lead up to the centenary of federation which asked: “What kind of country would forget the name of its first prime minister?” I gather most Australians still know more about George Washington than Edmund Barton, even though he was critical in the founding of “a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation”.

It is more troubling that just 55 per cent of Australians aged 18–29 support democratic government compared to non-democratic government.

We should make civics education a core part of school curriculums. It is essential that we equip young people to be active and engaged citizens with an appreciation of democratic values. It should also be compulsory for students to visit Canberra and come here to Parliament House, see Old Parliament House, and other institutions like the National Library, the National Archives and the Australian War Memorial.

I’m a big fan of US presidential libraries. It will come as no surprise that I’ve even taken my wife, Nicky, and children, along to many of them! While we have some libraries and institutes dedicated to prime ministers, we can do much better. Australia should have a US-style presidential library system, supported by government and supplemented with private funding, that can: house the papers of former prime ministers; incorporate museums that tell the story of their lives and the issues they grappled with; and run seminars and lectures that serve the public interest.

Several Australian prime ministerial homes have been preserved – and I welcome Scott Morrison’s decision to purchase Bob Hawke’s childhood home at Bordertown in South Australia. But, to our shame, in recent decades the childhood homes of Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam have been demolished and John Howard’s family abode is now a Kentucky Fried Chicken. No other country would allow this to happen. In the UK or the US, they would be added to the national estate, given prestigious blue plaques and turned into museums.

Josh Frydenberg recently funded the digitisation of prime ministerial papers. This is a good initiative. So is the digitisation of parliamentary papers by the Parliamentary Library. More funding is need to bring archives into the digital age so that students, scholars and citizens can easily access the documents that shaped Australia.

I would like to see government fund the publication of books by academics, scholars and journalists. Can you believe that not every Australian prime minister has a biography written about them? The parliament should initiate a program of grants, scholarships and fellowships that lead to new books, papers, documentaries, exhibitions, websites, lectures and seminars about politics.

One idea worth emulating is the UK’s “Researcher in Residence at No. 10 Downing Street.” It is funded by a partnership between government, academia, business and charity. The inaugural Researcher, Jack Brown, just published a fascinating book about the history of No. 10.

Parliament House does a great job in promoting the work of the Senate and the House online and throughout this building. We should think, though, about making the Parliamentary Library – which does terrific work – a public institution like the US Library of Congress that is open to all.

“A nation must believe in three things," Franklin Roosevelt said. "It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

It is also imperative that political parties recruit, train and mentor future MPs drawn from a diversity of life and work experiences. Politics needs to be made a more attractive career alternative. Remuneration is not the only inhibiting factor for some. So is time away from families and friends. And being in the public spotlight.

More video conferencing and online work, family-friendly hours, collaborative workspaces, and perhaps longer sittings over fewer days, and shorter parliamentary debates, could be part of the answer. We should also consider allowing people who are not members of parliament to serve in cabinet, or on cabinet committees, which may require a constitutional change. And perhaps business, community and educational leaders could be made specialist policy envoys or asked to head up policy task forces.

We also need a greater effort to attract mid- and late-career professionals into the public service who can provide a real-world contribution to policymaking. I would also like to see government departments appoint independent in-house think tanks that examine complex issues, engage with citizens and make their views publicly known.

Four-year fixed terms for the House of Representatives terms – and an eight-year Senate – would allow governments to focus on the long-term and take some of the politics out of election timing. I welcome the review of Question Time, which will hopefully lead to a less rigid and orchestrated exchange of ideas and examination of issues. The idea of an independent Speaker like in the House of Commons has merit, even though the parliament currently has an excellent Speaker in Tony Smith. And I wholeheartedly support the indigenous voice to parliament. It has the potential to significantly improve policymaking after years of disappointment, neglect and failure.

I wish this new Parliament House had the bustling hive of activity at its centre like the old Kings Hall down the hill, where politicians, journalists and the public could meet and talk about politics. It gave the building life and energy. A review of the design of Parliament House, some 30 years on, is needed.

Today, MPs and their staff spend much time alone in their offices, working, eating and watching television. The library and dining rooms are often empty and the bar has long gone. Parliament House can be an isolating place, which must impact on the health of those who work here. The spontaneous interactions and socialising of the past have been lost. It may help to explain why politics has become more tribal and combative.

If we did just some of these things, we might be able to go some way towards:

  • addressing the declining trust in government;
  • persuading new generations that politics is an honourable profession;
  • repairing our civic dialogue and elevating policy discussions;
  • gaining a new appreciation of our political history; and
  • strengthening democracy by encouraging an active and engaged citizenry.

Let me conclude by reflecting on friendships across the political divide. There are some cross-party friendships but not many. Perhaps the best known is Josh Frydenberg and Ed Husic. Our politics is all better for these friendships and we should encourage more of them.

Menzies enjoyed friendships on the opposite side of politics, notably with John Cain Sr in Victoria, and with John Curtin and Ben Chifley. They still fought politics as hard as anyone but they also respected and admired one another, and enjoyed each other’s company.

I discovered a remarkable letter that Menzies sent to Curtin as he lay sick in bed at The Lodge in mid-1945. Menzies reassured Curtin that Chifley was doing “extremely well” in parliament, asked him not to worry and urged him to rest and get a holiday when he could. Curtin died a week later.

In 1951, there was a grand jubilee ball in Parliament House. Chifley decided not to attend. He didn’t own a tuxedo and was not much of a dancer. So, he stayed in his room at The Kurrajong Hotel. During the evening, Chifley died. The news made it way to Parliament House. Menzies, with his eyes moist, went to the stage, interrupted the band and told the party-goers to go home as a mark of respect for having lost “a great Australian”. Menzies cried that night in Kings Hall and did not care who saw him.

Menzies, Chifley and Curtin were remarkable men and their friendships tell us much about an era that is sadly long gone. But if we look to Menzies, just as we might look to Curtin and Chifley, we can learn from their life of public service. Winston Churchill once counselled a young student to “study history” because “in history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”

About the Presenter: Troy Bramston

Troy Bramston has been a senior writer and columnist with The Australian newspaper, and a contributor to Sky News, since 2011.

He was previously a columnist with The Sunday Telegraph. In addition to the Menzies’ biography, Troy is the author or editor of eight other books, including Paul Keating: The Big Picture Leader (2016), and, co-authored with Paul Kelly, The Dismissal: In the Queen’s Name (2015).