John Howard likes to link himself to the Liberal Party’s founder, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, but other than the tenacious grip on power and a tendency to bushy eyebrows, there are few connections. Ironically, the real connections are between the new Leader of the Opposition and the working class boy who became the Queen’s Man in Australia.
A bit over 20 years ago I found myself reconsidering a long-held tribal objection to Robert Gordon Menzies. My childhood had been coloured by parental accounts of ‘Ming the Merciless,’ ‘Pig Iron Bob’ and ‘that snob’ who spoke in fruity tones on the radio. But then, through my research on Menzies’s close friend, Lionel Lindsay, I came to know another Menzies.
From Peter Lindsay, Lionel’s son, I heard of the Prime Minister who would call by their house when he was in Sydney and sit in the kitchen where the two would talk for hours. Peter said he could never get a word in edgeways, which almost didn’t matter because they were both so amusing and erudite at the same time. They had become friends in the late 1930s when Menzies was Attorney General and Lionel publicly abandoned his political conservatism to denounce Franco’s actions in Spain. ‘I hear you are a bit of a Red, Lionel,’ said Menzies when they first met. And from this friendship came the letters.
Lionel Lindsay was one of this country’s great letter writers. He wrote as easily as he spoke, and almost as often. Most of his letters are lodged in the Mitchell Library in Sydney, the La Trobe Library in Melbourne, the Queensland State Library and the National Library of Australia. I saw the Menzies correspondence in the La Trobe, but copies of it are also in the National Library.
The first bookplate
At first there are letters about designs for the two bookplates Lindsay made for Menzies. One is official, and presents the distinguished symbols of his public life: the barrister’s wig, the law library, the despatch box, the decanter of port and the Declaration of War.
The other, dated about 1940, is personal and shows the subject as a small boy, fishing for a sceptre. His friends always supported Menzies’s ambition even when his colleagues didn’t.
Lindsay’s letters to Menzies are immediate, passionate, and sometimes bigoted. They give a lively commentary on his opinions of Labor politicians and the media, especially Fairfax, his admiration of Arabs and his dislike of the formation of the State of Israel. Menzies’s letters are less frequent. Even before he became Prime Minister, the politician had less time at his disposal than the older artist. But when they come, they show the politician in a relaxed mode, writing to a person whom he knew would give unquestioning approval of his actions.
The letter that Menzies wrote on 13 October 1943, after he was elected leader of the Opposition, is the one that is most Kevin Rudd-like both in its humour, and in the way Menzies describes the way a reluctant group of parliamentarians finally recognised that when push comes to shove, a political Party has to elect talent if it wants to win. Labor has taken some years to reach the same conclusion, and in all fairness to Beazley, in the end he exited with more grace than Billy Hughes.
The letter also indicates some of the reasons for the long-term enmity between Menzies and the Country (now National) Party, and Menzies’s opinion of the capacity of some of his colleagues.
There are other parallels between Menzies and Rudd. Neither of them can be described as a son of the political establishment. They did not owe their rise to family connection or other privilege. Menzies was the child of a shopkeeper, the grandson of a gold miner. In Creswick, his mother’s childhood home, miners and their children were at the bottom of the social scale. It was unusual for the son of a shopkeeper to win a scholarship to boarding school, and full scholarships to university were as rare in Menzies’s youth as they are today. His rise was driven by his brilliant academic mind and was the most brilliant advocate at the Victorian bar before turning to politics.
The second bookplate
Rudd is the son of a share-farmer. His family became temporarily homeless after his father died. Rudd is one of the many beneficiaries of those few years when this country properly supported its students, and he took full advantage of the opportunities open to him. Foreign Affairs has been a traditional recruiter of the best honours graduates and Rudd’s first direction was towards a stellar diplomatic career.
There are of course differences between the two.
As a man of his generation, Menzies looked to the old British Empire as a source of approval (and had a highly romanticised vision of the Queen). So he looked to the past, but courted the dominant United States.
Even as a child, Rudd was fascinated with China and was astute enough to recognise it as the coming superpower, while paying respects to the overblown USA.
Menzies was apparently seen at his best in parliamentary debates, over dinner, and in letters to his old friend Lionel Lindsay. Rudd’s droll wit comes to the fore on Channel 7’s Sunrise program. Television had to reach its full potential in the Menzies era.
What both Rudd and Menzies have in common is a passion for education they understand more than their privileged colleagues ever could, that individuals and a country rise or sink on the value of intellectual capital. Even more than Gough Whitlam, Menzies was this country’s great education Prime Minister. He funded new and established universities, and created a mass scholarship system for bright students to attend them. He brought Commonwealth funding into schools. The scholarship boy repaid his debt to those who had shown faith in him and we are still reaping the benefit of the investment that the Menzies Government made in this country.
It remains to be seen how far Rudd shoots as Labor’s rising star. His first major statement has been on the need to properly invest in education if Australia wishes to have a viable future. It is much in the Robert Menzies tradition.
As the pieces for this year’s political chess game are coming into play, the parallels between Rudd and the rise of Menzies are looking even more apparent.
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