The Young Menzies by Zachary Gorman

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Zachary Gorman’s little book of two hundred odd pages creates a loose coalescence of points of view and opinions bound by their relationship to the young Menzies. Most are complimentary to him, while others aim for impartiality. None set out to chastise Menzies or find fault with his policies. After all, he is the great white knight of the Liberal Party. One would expect no harsh criticism in such a publication. However, with ten distinguished scholars contributing an essay each one could expect something substantial to appear. That is what we get.

It is now many years since I read Afternoon Light and I must confess that for all those decades my memories of Menzies were of a big bloke born into privilege. That this was not so was new information. A second assumption was that brilliance and knowledge stuck to Menzies without effort from him. It was enlightening to learn of a primary school lad working away at his books until midnight each night. Menzies clearly earned every reward that came his way. Gorman’s comment that the esteem in which Bob Menzies was held reflected the burgeoning global respect for the country that he led was true for the Menzies’ decades but might be more difficult to argue in the present.

Gorman makes the point that this collection of articles expands upon its predecessors in scope and range. He mentions specifically the earliest influences on Menzies up to his impact and legacy in the years following his retirement. I mention these years deliberately because they conflict with the stated focus of the book viz., Menzies Success, Failure, Resilience 1894 – 1942. Either the book is unfortunately and wrongly named or it contains information that lies outside its stated parameters. Menzies, at or after retirement, is hardly a ‘young Menzies’ anyway.

A more apposite judgment of how Menzies dealt with conflict, with political disorder, requires immersion in specifics. Such matters as the White Australia policy, industry protection, compulsory arbitration, the role of women, and the place of the original Australians in the development of Australia as a nation are useful representatives of the Menzies-style of government. They provide insight into the way that Menzies chose to bring ideals and political realities together. David Kemp’s contribution to the volume under discussion has a useful contribution to this area.

With ten individual views in a small book, it is to be expected that some arguments would border on the naïve. Menzies reveals himself as a mature-headed lad even during his student days. Conceited and brash and insensitive perhaps. But to claim as Bramston does, that Menzies set out to ‘show people that he was not without courage’, that ‘he had to show the world that he was not yellow’, over-simplifies a very complex affective process. I wonder, too, what the broken engagement story has to contribute to the developing image of Menzies.

Today’s education systems might be in a less parlous state if Menzies were still in charge. Regarding the humanities as necessary for secondary teaching and vocational education but of little use to anyone else is short term thinking. People need more than maths and science to provide a universal education, knowledge that stands students in good place for coping with a world that is greater than maths or science, an education that fits a student for interrelationships with men and women of all persuasions. Greg Melleuish covers this material in his chapter.

Judith Brett claims that Menzies would have awarded the number one gong to Alfred  Deakin as the greatest Australian prime minister. This is mere speculation and I intend having no part of it. I’d have thought, not necessarily facetiously, that Menzies’ choice may well have been himself.

There is much to admire about Menzies, not least of which was his personal integrity, his conviction, civility and principles. David Furse-Roberts explains how the Presbyterian faith nourished his philosophy of liberalism and anti-sectarianism. More telling than all the ‘-isms’ one might find is the hot backside the boy received courtesy of his father when the boy strayed. Direct action and             convincing role modelling seem the more efficient communication devices.

This is an excellent book. It communicates well, does not mess the reader around, and teaches.

The Young Menzies


by Zachary Gorman (editor)


ISBN: 978-0-522-87922-3

$49.99; 249 pp

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