When one talks about Sir Robert Menzies one is expected to show reverence for a Prime Minister who is admired as the father of Liberalism.
I am not one of those to worship at his feet. He certainly was the founder of the Liberal Party and the longevity of his rule is to be much admired. His legacy is another thing.
However, the length of his service relied heavily on an effective continuous communist scare campaign (he kicked the communist can down the street for as long as he could) that lasted for many, many years.
Masterfully and skilfully he exploited Cold War fears and the threat of Communism.
Together with a disastrous split in the Labor Party and the lack of a worthwhile leader were also distinct advantages.
In addition to these he enjoyed strong economic growth of the sheep’s back, so to speak. He nevertheless showed no sense of farsightedness for what might lay ahead.
Just how he would have performed in the chaos of today’s politics will never be known.
More British than the British he was a monarchist with somewhat of a royal fetish for The Queen.
I once saw him coming out of the Bank of Adelaide crossing Collins Street in Melbourne and enter the Australian Hotel opposite. He was an imposing figure with a sagacious intellect and sharp wit.
I still have his book Afternoon Light in my library shelves. It is an autobiography that compared with others I have read is totally boring.
He was also a cricket follower of some repute and spent many hours watching the game. In fact he spent much time overseas attending conferences in Europe and even more in his beloved England.
My first political memory of him was when under his leadership I experienced my first recession: 1960, I think it was.
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For part two of this piece I have examined a time-line of his life and made a list of what I conclude are policy failures.
I selected what follows from the National Archives of Australia. If you peruse the list I selected from you will find some worthwhile initiatives such as Colombo Plan and the ANSUS Treaty and the completion of the Labor Policy for the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme.
The two failures that remains indelible on my mind were his, without any serious thought to the consequences, were when he allowed the British to test nuclear weapons on Australian soil and second, when he committed Australian combat troops to fight in Vietnam when he did not have to.
I shall expand on these as you read through the list.
Please note that much of the research that follows comes from the National Museum Australia and where I expand on the Vietnam war and Nuclear testing I have used the recollections of Green Left Weekly (author Ken Cotterill) whose memory matches my own.
03 Sep 1939: Australia declares war on Germany
After German troops invaded Poland on 1 September, Britain declared war. The Dominions, including Australia, followed with separate declarations the same day.
Six weeks after Australia entered World War II, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced the reintroduction of compulsory defence training.He was, when in England, invited to attend the war cabinet meetings.
The next two paragraphs are taken from the National Archives of Australia:
Menzies strongly supported British appeasement policy on Nazi Germany – keep the door open for negotiation, but also prepare for war – and was as surprised as anyone else by the signing of the German–Soviet non-aggression pact.
Australia and Canada were also reluctant to sacrifice their soldiers on Europe’s battlefields for the Sudetenland. From the standpoint of domestic policy, there was no alternative to Chamberlain’s course.
(There was, actually. There was no reason or motivation for Australia to join this war it had nought to do with us).
Menzies was also concerned about Japanese intentions in the Pacific and took steps to establish Australian embassies in Tokyo and Washington in order that Canberra could receive independent advice about developments to Australia’s north.
With the end of the Nazi blitzkrieg on Poland, the period of the ‘phoney war’ meant community fear and apprehension gave way to complacency
Germany successfully invaded Denmark and Norway, and then began its assault on Belgium, Holland and France. By the end of June 1940, France had fallen and Britain, supported by its dominions, stood alone against Nazi Germany.
Menzies responded to these developments by calling for an ‘all in’ war effort. With the support of John Curtin, leader of the Labor Party, the National Security Act was amended to provide the government with enhanced powers.
23 June 1950: Communist Party ban
The Communist Party Dissolution Bill was passed by parliament. After it was enacted in October, the law was challenged in the High Court and, on 9 March 1951, was held to be unconstitutional.
12 April 1950: National Service begins
The first call-up notice was issued under the National Service Act. The Act provided for compulsory military training of 18-year-old men, who were then to remain on the Reserve of the Commonwealth Military Forces for five years. Between 1951 and 1960 when the scheme ended, over 500,000 men had registered, 52 intakes were organised and some 227,000 men were trained.
22 September 1951: Referendum on Communism
A referendum to alter the Constitution so as to grant parliament the power to outlaw Communism was lost narrowly.
3 October 1952: Montebello atomic tests
I think it fair to say that in today’s environment it would be committing political suicide for a Prime Minister to grant another nation free access to his country’s land to test nuclear devices (which were tested in the Montebello islands off W.A.)
Nuclear weapons’ testing
Ken Cotterill, in an article titled The crimes of Robert Menzies in the Green Left Weekly writes that:
By the early 1950s, Britain was desperate to gain nuclear power status. However, the US was reluctant to help them or even allow them to use testing sites in the US. The breakdown in friendship had been sparked by the fact that several British scientists had been double agents working for the Soviet Union.
Distrust further escalated when, in early 1950, British scientist Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the Manhattan Project that had created the first atomic bomb, confessed to being a Soviet spy.
What had not been detected was that Fuchs, who was born in Germany, had been, and still was, a member of the German Communist Party.
Fuchs, via a series of contacts, had passed on secrets of the workings of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. This helped the Soviet Union to detonate an atom bomb in August 1949 in what is now Kazakhstan, four years ahead of CIA projections.
The British, having been spurned by these developments, were determined to test a bomb of their own. But where? Canada was considered, as were remote islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But then British eyes turned to Australia and their old pal Menzies.
In September 1950 Menzies agreed, without any serious scientific or political consultation, to allow the British to test a nuclear weapon on Australian soil. On October 3, 1952 the British detonated a nuclear bomb on a ship — HMS Plym — off the coast of the Montebello Islands in Western Australia.
This was a site they had chosen themselves with no Australian consultation.
The bomb was as big as the Hiroshima bomb. British and Australian servicemen, watching from ships, viewed the emerging mushroom cloud dressed in clothing fit for a day on the golf course.
In 1956 the British detonated a second bomb on Trimouille Island and a third on Alpha Island, both part of the Montebello group.
Britain, with Australian help, had joined the exclusive nuclear club. Meanwhile, the radioactive fallout from the tests, thanks to the prevailing westerly winds, moved eastwards across Western Australia and towards the eastern states, the Pacific and beyond.
With Menzies’ blessing, further British atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out at Emu Field and Maralinga in western South Australia. From 1953 to 1957, there were nine tests in all.
In South Australia, Aboriginal people told of dark clouds enveloping the landscape. Servicemen, in light clothing, cleaned equipment used in the tests. Some aircrew were ordered to fly through the radioactive clouds to gather debris.
Others were ordered to drive tanks through the blast site after the explosions. None wore protective clothing.
One radioactive cloud from an explosion at Emu Field drifted over a small Queensland town and stayed there as it rained. The town later developed a cancer cluster.
On May 7, 2003, the Adelaide Advertiser ran a front page story on the mysterious deaths of 68 new-born and still-born babies that, over time, had been born to women who had been living with their husbands at Woomera, the secret weapons testing base in South Australia, north-west of Adelaide.
The babies all died during the years that atmospheric nuclear testing was taking place at Maralinga.
Unsurprisingly, former Prime Minister John Howard, in his recently published biography called The Menzies’ Era, devotes a single paragraph to the nuclear tests in Australia.
The first British atomic tests were held in the Montebello Islands, 120 km northwest of Dampier, Western Australia. Tests were then moved to Emu Field in north-western South Australia.
He poisoned his own country and countrymen with radioactive fallout.
26 January 1958: Nuclear start-up
Returning to the National Archives of Australia:
The Australian Atomic Energy Commission’s nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights near Sydney began operation. The research facility was established in 1955 after the Commission was set up under the Atomic Energy Act in 1953. It was renamed the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation in 1987.
16 November 1960: Credit squeeze (Now called a recession)
The government’s response to accelerating inflation and falling wool prices led to a recession. This was the first post-war pitfall for the energetic building industry, eager car salesmen and committed consumers.
28 April 1965: War in Vietnam
Perhaps the biggest ever cover-up in Australian political history is how we became involved in the Vietnam War.
On April 29, 1965, PM Menzies shocked a half-empty House of Representatives when he rose to speak. With gloomy voice he said that he had received a letter from South Vietnamese government to join the war.
Australian troops would be sent to Vietnam to support United States forces.
The first battalion arrived in Vietnam the following month. After March 1966, National Servicemen were sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army. Some 19,000 conscripts were sent in the next four years.
What Menzies did not say was that his government had approached the United States requesting such an invitation. When the cabinet papers were revealed 30 years later no letter was mentioned or found.
500 young men unnecessarily lost their lives and 3129 were injured. Thousands of brave ex-servicemen were traumatised by the conflict. Many committed suicide. Others became seriously ill, blaming the combination of toxic chemicals dumped on Vietnam by the Americans as the underlying cause of their illness.
The question of course is how they get away with it.
The war that we should never have been involved in cost the nation 500 young lives. All because of a bad policy decision.
5 November 1965: National Service lottery
Cabinet decided to re-introduce compulsory military service, which had ended in 1960. The National Service Act enabled government to conscript men for a two-year term with a further three years in the Reserve. Marbles denoting birth dates were drawn from a lottery barrel to select those who would be called up. Between the first ballot in 1965 and the last in 1972, some 63,000 men were conscripted.
My thought for the day
When you make a decision be careful because at the same time you do so you will also reveal your character.
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