The Menzies Watershed edited by Zachary Gorman

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The second volume of Zachary Gorman’s work is called The Menzies Watershed, a singularly appropriate title for the second of a research study which will eventually cover four volumes.

Volume No. 1 focussed on Menzies’ career in 1884 – 1942 and covered the journey of a politician in his earliest years. It is a description, penned by writers of various capabilities, whose judgments record an era when religion pervaded politics and Menzies, himself, became a star barrister eventually leading him to win the highest of political offices. So much for Book 1.

Book 2 consists of the writings of a different group of scholars who focussed on the long Menzies hegemony of Australian politics. It embraces the watershed period so important because it represents a big change in how people act or think. It is the time when the most successful political party to date in Australian history was formed. This began a twenty-three-year unbroken period, when, in a resolute partnership with the Country Party, Menzies returned from the political wilderness to assert his dominance over opposition parties in five electoral victories.

There is little argument that Menzies was the founder of the Liberal Party in Australia, yet scholars such as Hancock continue to provide forceful if somewhat empty arguments that others deserve the credit. Nicolle Flint does much to redress the situation by promoting ten intertwined reasons for supplying Menzies with the necessary credit. Commonsense suggests that not only did Menzies create the Liberal Party but, through his leadership and electoral success, ensured it thrived and prospered.

Lucas McLennan makes the point that Menzies’ success in leading a long-term government was based on the core feature of anti-communism. Furthermore, McLennan sees Menzies supporting an argument based firmly on the English tradition of ordered liberty.

Few scholars support the view that Menzies was an original, creative thinker. Rather it is generally accepted that Menzies campaigned in 1949 on a policy platform that supported free enterprise and freedom of choice. Tom Switzer has shown that the policies of the outgoing government of Ben Chifley were not immediately discarded. Many of the Labor Party’s interventionist policies were left unchanged. While Menzies gave voice to the classical liberal philosophy of limited government based on competition and wideness of choice, there is no evidence that he set out to destroy the central tenets of his predecessor’s policies. Critic Tom Switzer is clear on this (46). Menzies suffered at the hands of his less gifted colleagues in 1941, but managed to arise more powerfully in the election of 1946.

Menzies’ long tenure in office did not represent any major economic realignment. Rather, his thinking is regarded as flavoured with a deep respect for the public service and Australia’s protectionist economic institutions. His radio talks to the ‘forgotten people’ have become institutionalized.

Andrew Byth draws attention to new sources of ideas, in particular those that have their genesis in places external to the Australian environment. The expert writers who share their thoughts with the ‘watershed’ contribute significantly to the picture of an intellectually strong, managerial-thinking Prime Minister. Menzies’ strength as an effective Cabinet administrator and as a party manager, as an effective ‘reacher-out’ to senior bureaucrats for aid in shaping policies lie at the centre to the Prime Minister’s success.

Andrew Blyth might readily be quoted, and his words reiterated:

… ‘I contend that, among the many achievements of the Menzies era the sowing of seeds for the contestability of advice and the think tank experiment in Australia are among them’ (75).

With regard to management, there seems to have been strong agreement among colleagues and research personnel. The importance of managing the Country Party was held in high regard. Troy Bramston remarks that Menzies had a good relationship with Fadden and an especially strong relationship with McEwen. “Menzies made sure that any disagreements over policy, political strategy, and ministerial appointments were satisfactorily dealt with” (101). Compromise was Menzies way. “Menzies was the chairman, and McEwen was the managing director” (Sinclair, quoted Bramston).

Menzies had come to power in 1949 promising a new era of free enterprise. He achieved success in ending petrol rationing, obtaining dollar loans, and forestalling American intervention in the wool industry. (David Lee). Menzies began his reign with a well-determined strategy that managed government at the national level. By the time he was ready to  retire, he demonstrated comfort negotiating with international authorities. Furthermore, he was adept at supervising an authority such as Sir Percy Spender. He hurried, and stumbled over, the Petrov affair and in handling the foundation of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. One could argue that, at such times, Australian Government had grown so complex that others held significant authority, and therefore responsibility.

The Menzies Watershed is a collection of  superior, scholarly works that will attract the reading of researchers in years to come. Its value as a resource book cannot be overstated.

The Menzies Watershed – Liberalism, Anti-Communism, Continuities 1943 – 1954


Edited by Zachary Gorman


ISBN: 978 052288 020 5

RRP Hardback $50.00; 288pp

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