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John Howard’s ABC documentary seeks to establish the centrality of the Menzies years in the creation of modern Australia. AAP/Alan Porritt

Today’s leaders could learn from Menzies, who built modern Australia without acting in haste

The ABC’s two-part documentary, Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, is an ambitious enterprise. It seeks to establish the centrality of the Menzies years in the creation of modern Australia, thereby emphasising the crucial importance of Robert Menzies himself in building the Australia of today.

This program is a work of historical and political revisionism. Its target is the view, expressed most forcefully by Paul Keating, that the 1950s was a time when Australia remained locked in the past in a self-induced stupor, brought about by a failure to recognise that the time of the British Empire was over.

Keating’s rhetoric is both anachronistic and an expression of a sectarian view of the world that was long dead by the 1990s. There can be no doubt that Australia became modern between 1949 and 1966, the year Menzies retired as prime minister.

Australian modernity

Two examples, neither mentioned in the documentary, of events in 1966 are emblematic of the coming of Australian modernity. One was the introduction, just after Menzies’ retirement, of decimal coinage. Gone forever were the days of dinars, zacs and tres.

The other was the closing of Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre. This marked the funeral rites of Australian vaudeville, once dominated by Australia’s greatest comic genius, Roy Rene.

The documentary captures this transformation to modern Australia quite well in two ways.

One is its depiction of the growing affluence of Australian society under Menzies, as Australians sought a home of their own and consumer goods.

The other was in the Menzies’ education revolution, whereby the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for funding universities and began to provide money for non-government schools.

Menzies’ advances

Modern Australia would be both addicted to consumer goods and increasingly come to see education as the panacea for its problems. What was dying was an older version of Australia that existed largely to supply the metropolitan part of the empire with primary produce.

It also included a vision of Australia as a rural civilisation in which ordinary people could own their own small farm. That vision was finally put to rest in the 1950s.

Australia was confirmed as an urban civilisation, which nevertheless would become wealthy by selling mineral products to Asia. Menzies’ role in the creation of that new order is confirmed in terms of the way in which he opened up trade with Asia.

Menzies’ great virtue, which can be seen by watching him in this documentary, is that he was not in a hurry, as compared to, say, Gough Whitlam.

Robert Menzies’ great virtue was that he was not in a hurry as prime minister. AAP

Menzies’ demeanour and carriage were those of someone who was relaxed and comfortable, who was willing to make what changes needed to be done, but would not force the rate of change as do many 21st-century politicians. For him, liberalism had its traditional Australian meaning of good government.

It is often forgotten that when Menzies came to power in 1949 Britain was still a major destination for Australian exports, and those exports were largely primary produce. The shift away from trade with Britain occurred during the Menzies years, and Australia adjusted accordingly.

Now, it might be argued these changes would have occurred under whatever government was in power and that a Labor government would have been more progressive. That would be to read today’s politics back into the 1950s.

Labor was far more supportive of White Australia than the Liberals; there is a lovely scene in the documentary in which Labor leader Arthur Calwell gives the big NO to Asian immigration. The Labor Party of the 1950s was not a party of educated individuals; it was locked into the past far more than the Liberals.

Explaining history

There are two facets of any attempt to explain history. One is composed of long-term social, economic and cultural changes. The other is the day-to-day events, especially in the world of politics.

In the first facet, this documentary succeeds in portraying very well the way in which Menzies played a key role as a midwife of modern Australia.

In the second area it might be seen as being less successful. One reason for this is that when one looks at political change it is always complex.

Books can deal with this complexity; documentaries by their nature must reduce complexity to simplicity. For example, I cannot recall a single reference to the Country Party in the documentary – and yet the Country Party played a crucial role in Menzies’ political career.

If any event holds the key to Menzies’ long term as prime minister it was the 1954 election and its consequences. This did not seem to be treated adequately in the documentary.

There is discussion of the Petrov Affair, presumably because it provides good footage, but no real explanation as to why the defeat was so devastating for H.V. Evatt and the consequences so dire for Labor.

Here, it seems to me is the prime example of the benefit of Menzies’ “steady as she goes” approach. Labor tore itself apart because of two men who were in too much of a hurry, Doc Evatt and Bob Santamaria.

In 1952 and 1953 it really looked as if Labor was certain to win in 1954. This raised both Santamaria’s and Evatt’s expectations, which, among other things, encouraged Santamaria in his task of “permeating” the Labor Party in the hope a Labor government would be able to put into place his utopian scheme of re-Christianising Australia.

Defeat devastated both men and helped create the circumstances under which Menzies was presented with the Labor Split. John Howard is right, Menzies’ calm hands on the ship of state ensured his government calm waters with a light breeze, while the clash of personalities of Evatt and Santamaria pushed Labor towards the rocks.

Howard is also correct in emphasising that a united Labor would have won back government. The claims by journalist Greg Sheridan that Labor was unfit to govern and had a number of senior figures who were closet communists only make sense when it is realised Sheridan is a one-time Santamaria operative.

Documentaries unfortunately cannot help but simplify. Once one allows for this, one can only say that Howard has achieved his goal of linking Menzies with the changes that created, for better or for worse, a new “modern” Australia.

Menzies was not opposed to change; for example, he welcomed the advances of modern science. But he also understood that not all change is good. Unlike later politicians he did not seek to rush Australia into the future.

Part two of Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia will air on ABC1 on September 25.

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