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Sir Robert Gordon Menzies KT AK CH PC QC

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Prime Minister, 26 April 1939 to 29 August 1941; 19 December 1949 to 26 January 1966
United Australia Party, 1934 to 1944; Liberal Party of Australia, 1944 to 1966 

An engaging public speaker and ‘consummate parliamentarian’,1 with an uncanny knack for electioneering,2 Robert Menzies (1894-1978) is Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, encompassing 18 years and eight election victories. His political career spanned Australia’s journey from depression and war to booming prosperity.3

Menzies was born at Jeparit, Victoria, to a politically-minded family, with his father and two uncles serving as parliamentarians.4 He attended the University of Melbourne and graduated with a Master of Laws before being admitted to the Bar in 1918. Menzies rose to national prominence in the landmark ‘Engineers’ case, which realigned constitutional interpretation favouring the Commonwealth over the states.5 In 1920, he married Pattie Leckie,6 also from a political family, and they had four children.

In 1928, Menzies was elected to the Victorian Legislative Council, and soon joined the ministry. Transferring to the Legislative Assembly in 1929, he subsequently served as Attorney-General, Minister for Railways, and Deputy Premier. He also established the ‘Young Nationalists’ in 1929 and was appointed President of the Victorian National Federation in 1931.

Menzies entered federal Parliament in 1934 and became Attorney-General, and Minister for Industry, before being appointed the UAP’s deputy leader the following year. In March 1939, he resigned from the ministry, but became Prime Minister after Joe Lyons’s death in April. A few months later, it was his ‘melancholy duty’ to announce that Australia was at war.7 With Labor and Country Party support, the Parliament enacted a National Security Act, established the 2nd AIF, and created a War Cabinet. In January 1941 he flew to Britain and the USA for defence talks; however, as the military conflict worsened and party-room divisions intensified, Menzies resigned as leader later that year.

Menzies quickly set about establishing a new ‘Liberal’ party championing the middle class, which he famously termed ‘the forgotten people’.8 After mediocre electoral results in 1946, Menzies’s successful attacks on government economic interventionism saw the Liberal–Country Party coalition dominate the 1949 election. His ensuing 16 years as Prime Minister aligned with an era of ‘economic growth, social change and political turmoil’.9 During this period Menzies enhanced Australia’s international engagement, driven by Cold War anti-communism. Accordingly, he signed the ANZUS Treaty (1951), reintroduced military conscription (1964), and sent military personnel to Korea (1950) and Vietnam (1965). Domestically, he reformed Australia’s universities, supported non-government school education, championed the development of Canberra, and established the National Library of Australia.

After 30 years in Parliament, Menzies retired in 1966 at age 71. Shortly after, he became scholar-in-residence at the University of Virginia and served three years as Chancellor at the University of Melbourne. Retirement allowed him time to write and indulge in his passion for sport. He died in 1978 and received a state funeral, at which over 100,000 mourners lined Melbourne’s streets.

Sir Ivor Henry Thomas Hele CBE
South Australian artist Ivor Hele (1912-1993) was known for his exceptional draughtsmanship and talent for portraiture and figure compositions. He studied art in Adelaide and later in Europe, and began exhibiting during his teenage years. By 1939, he had become a regular exhibitor with the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, highly regarded for his prize-winning portraits. In 1940, Hele enlisted in the army and in 1941 was appointed an official war artist. He would go on to become Australia’s longest serving and most prolific war artist, producing over 500 works. Although he also painted many landscapes, Hele was best known for his portraits, winning the SA Melrose Prize for Portraiture three times and the Archibald Prize five times, notably with his portrait of Robert Menzies. In 1969 he was made a CBE, and in 1982 was made a Knight Bachelor for his services to art. Hele was a trustee to the board of what was then known as the National Gallery of SA 1956–69. His work is represented in all major Australian national, state and regional galleries.10

Robert Gordon Menzies
by Ivor Henry Thomas Hele
Oil on canvas
105.2 x 79.6 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. W Brown, Ten Prime Ministers: Life among the politicians, Longueville Books, Double Bay, 2002, p. 11. Information in this biography was also taken from: ‘Australia’s Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies’, National Archives of Australia; ‘Australian Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies’, Museum of Australian Democracy; J Hawkins, ‘Menzies: treasurer in transition to War’, Economic Roundup, issue 1, 2011; J Brett, ‘Menzies’ Forgotten People’, Meanjin, 43(2), 1984, pp. 253–65; M Grattan, ed., Australian Prime Ministers, revised edition, New Holland, Sydney, 2008; AW Martin, ‘Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894–1978)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2000. Websites accessed 6 October 2021.
2. Grattan, op. cit., p. 203.
3.‘Australian Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies’, op. cit.
4. ‘Death of Mr James Menzies’, The Argus, 2 November 1945, p. 3; ‘Member database: Hugh Menzies’, Parliament of Victoria; ‘Obituary: Mr S Sampson’, The Argus, 27 March 1948, p. 2. Websites accessed 6 October 2021.
5. Grattan, op. cit., pp. 178–79.
6. ‘Robert Menzies’ partner: Pattie Menzies’, National Archives of Australia, accessed 6 October 2021.
7. Australian War Memorial, ‘Prime Minister Robert G. Menzies: wartime broadcast’, accessed 7 October 2021.
8. Menzies initially used the term ‘forgotten class’ in a 22 May 1942 broadcast, describing society’s middle class. See ‘Middle class praised: “forgotten group” M.P. says’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1942, p. 11, accessed 20 October 2021; and R Menzies, The forgotten people: and other studies in democracy, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1943.
9. ‘Australian Prime Ministers: Robert Menzies’, op. cit.
10. Information in this biography has been taken from: ‘Sir Ivor Henry Thomas HELE CBE (1912–1993)’ Virtual War Memorial Australia; ‘Sir Ivor Hele 1912–1993’, National Portrait Gallery, 2021; ‘Ivor Hele: the heroic figure’, Australian War Memorial; J Hylton, ‘Hele, Sir Ivor Henry (1912–1993)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 2021; ‘Hele, (Sir) Ivor Henry Thomas’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, p. 509. Websites accessed 26 March 2021.

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