Stephen A. Chavura and Greg Melleuish, The Forgotten Menzies: The World Picture of Australia’s Longest-serving Prime Minister (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2021).
There is a world of difference between “amnesia” and “forgetting”. The former is an involuntary experience, the reality of physical processes undermining one’s memory. Often, the latter is a more deliberate phenomenon, a decision “not to recollect”, a choice “to cease to retain in one’s memory” certain inconvenient details.[i] This distinction profoundly shapes the ways in which political parties and organisations formulate and deploy their own histories. For the operative, speechwriter or commentator, there is a difficult balance to be struck between the historical impulse to remember and explain and the expedient political imperative to forget that which is inconvenient.
At the beginning of The Forgotten Menzies, Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish call attention to this very problem with respect to the modern Liberal Party’s self-narratives about Australia’s longest-serving prime minister. That Menzies has become “a pawn in a modern ideological war within the party he started” is, as they see it, a lamentable impediment to a sound understanding of Menzies as a political actor, and more particularly, a barrier to an appreciation of the ideas and worldview that informed his actions (p. 4).
Having identified this problem, Chavura and Melleuish offer up this book, which they suggest enables us to escape the narrow and constrained ideological combat surrounding Menzies’ legacy. It is somewhat surprising to then find them stepping down into those same ideological trenches from the outset, and taking the fight back to Donald Horne, Manning Clark and Paul Keating on the left. It is perhaps even more surprising, having bemoaned the factional mobilisation of Menzies’ legacy within the Liberal Party, to find the authors denouncing former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s interpretation of Menzies, but not those of his predecessor or successor. Moreover, the book ends as it begins, with a sideswipe against the left via a sarcastic endnote denouncing “wokeness” and modern “identity politics” (p. 173).
The book rightly suggests that it is unproductive to classify Australia’s twentieth-century liberals into neat groups characterised by either the individualism of John Stuart Mill or the conserving instincts of Edmund Burke, but the authors repeatedly nominate the latter as Menzies’ true ideological precedent. The modern Liberal Party ought not to be understood as two rival factions embodying either the philosophy of Mill or Burke, but to the extent that this perception exists, this book may implicitly support the conservative forces’ interpretation of Menzies’ worldview.
Despite those forays into the combative arena, this book does much to reconsider and give greater nuance to our understanding of what liberalism meant to one of the Liberal Party’s leading creators. Chavura and Melleuish perceive Menzies as a “cultural puritan” with a streak of “British idealism”, twin philosophies that the young Menzies imbibed during his formative years in the intellectual milieu at the University of Melbourne in the 1910s. The authors have succeeded in giving that milieu a colour and vibrancy that makes for instructive reading. That these strains of thought existed in Melbourne at the time, they have proven convincingly; much care is taken to revisit the writings of Menzies’ contemporaries. That Menzies shared with this cohort an enduring interest in the British personality and spirit as an antidote to the triumph of materialism in all its forms is also well proven. That Menzies could synthesise, communicate and perform these same ideals in his writings as a student, Chavura and Melleuish have also proven convincingly; Menzies’ contributions to the Melbourne University Magazine, for instance, make for interesting reading, and go a long way toward supporting the authors’ arguments. Further, the authors’ efforts to situate mid-twentieth century Australian liberalism in its broader protestant – and specifically culturally but non-dogmatically puritan – context is a particularly commendable one.
As a piece of intellectual history, this book is richly illustrative. Too often, however, correlation is equated with causation. It is taken as given that Menzies shared the same puritan and idealist beliefs as individuals including Alfred Deakin, W.K. Hancock and F.W. Eggleston, purely because they were contemporaries, and used similar patterns of language. There was, it seems, a shared idealist language about the British Commonwealth between Menzies and Hancock, which supports the book’s argument about common British “cultural patterning” (p. 8). In some cases, though, a shared cultural pattern is assumed rather than proven. For instance, the authors note Deakin’s “spiritualist” worldview (p. 43), and identify a preoccupation with “the spirit of man” on Menzies’ part (p. 98). The picture here is one of a shared British idealism, a conclusion that arguably overlooks the distinctly introspective and self-exploratory characteristic of Deakin’s spirituality compared with the larger imperial and anti-materialistic qualities of Menzies’ notion of human spirit.[ii]
In accounting for Menzies’ approach to higher education, the authors’ thesis that Menzies’ educational philosophy was that of a cultural puritan, British idealist and believer in ‘aristocratic liberalism’ is more carefully substantiated with reference to speeches, writings, and the iconic “Forgotten People” radio talk, broadcast by Menzies in 1942.[iii] Chavura and Melleuish offer a compelling insight into Menzies’ understanding of the role of universities, which he saw as bastions of human spirit with a role in limiting the spread of collective and personal forms of materialism. However, perhaps more could have been said regarding Menzies’ public speeches on this matter. Who were these utterances for? What immediate political outcomes were they intended to have? Certainly, more rigorous analysis could have been applied in this regard.
The Forgotten Menzies assumes a continuity and consistency of thought across time. The authors draw a straight line from Menzies’ student days, through his Forgotten People broadcasts, to his decision to involve the Commonwealth in funding higher education. The connections are reasonable, but good history recognises context and contingency in a way that can never be represented in a straight line. More importantly, others in their studies of Menzies have rightly noted the ways in which his views on some matters changed in response to circumstances, not least of all the matter of Communism in the late 1940s as Allan Martin’s two-volume biography of Menzies has shown.[iv]
Finally, there are major contextual omissions in this work. The Cold War, such a defining feature of how Menzies’ worldview came to be understood, was mentioned once. The issue of race, which fundamentally conditioned the way that Menzies and his ilk saw the world and conducted their foreign policy in a period of decolonisation, is not mentioned at all.[v] The book has much to say about the subject’s belief in the British Commonwealth, but nothing about his attitude toward the United Nations; this in itself tells us something about the imperial and racial underpinnings of Menzies’ worldview. These omissions are, I would suggest, instances of the same complex and multi-faceted acts of forgetting that the authors deride at the outset.
[i] “forget, v.”, Oxford English Dictionary online, March 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.virtual.anu.edu.au/view/Entry/73319?rskey=jpyfum&result=3 (accessed April 23, 2021).
[ii] See Judith Brett, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Brunswick: Scribe, 2017), pp. 39 – 42.
[iii] Originally delivered as a series of radio speeches in 1942, the “forgotten people” broadcasts have become central to both scholarly analysis and popular mythology about Robert Menzies, who published them as a book in 1943. For a more comprehensive analysis of the complex political and ideological dimensions of these speeches, see Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1992).
[iv] Allan Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, vol. 2 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1999), p. 577.
[v] This, I would argue, is a major omission, given that both Allan Martin and Troy Bramston have noted this issue. See Martin, A Life, vol. 2, p. 578; Troy Bramston, Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics (Brunswick: Scribe, 2019), pp. 210 – 11.