MENZIES Robert Gordon

Position
Attorney-General
Years active
12 October 1934 ‒ 20 March 1939
Portrait of Robert Gordon Menzies - Prime Minister Menzies broadcasts the announcement that Australia is at war, 1939

SIR ROBERT GORDON MENZIES KT AK CH PC KC 1894–19781

Robert Gordon (Bob) Menzies was born in Jeparit, Victoria on 20 December 1894, fourth of the five children of coach-painter turned general storekeeper James Menzies and Kate, née Sampson. Both his father and mother were Australian-born, with Scottish and Cornish forebears respectively. With his father a lay preacher in the local Nonconformist Church and prominent in a range of community affairs, including as the member for Lowan in the Legislative Assembly from 1911-20, Menzies grew up with a strong sense of public duty. Boarding with his paternal grandmother, he first attended the Humffray Street State School in Ballarat. Outstanding academically, he topped the State scholarship examination in 1907 winning two years' tuition at Grenville College in Ballarat, before another scholarship took him to Wesley College, Melbourne.

Further success won him an exhibition, leading to a brilliant undergraduate career, abounding in prizes, at the University of Melbourne. Prominent in student affairs he held a commission in the Melbourne University Rifles regiment, was editor of Melbourne University Magazine in 1916, and served as president of the Students' Representative Council. Studying his favoured constitutional law under the eminent professor, William Harrison Moore, Menzies graduated with a Bachelor of Laws in 1916 and a Master of Laws in 1918. Reading with leading barrister Owen Dixon, Menzies was admitted to the Victorian Bar on 13 May 1918 and quickly established a highly successful legal practice. He made his place in Australian legal history in 1920, at the age of 25. As sole advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers he appeared in the High Court against a team of distinguished counsel which included Wilbur HamEdward MitchellJohn Latham, and Herbert Evatt, and won. The Engineers' Case2 was regarded as a landmark in the positive reinterpretation of Commonwealth powers over those of the States.

On 27 September 1920, Menzies and Pattie Maie Leckie, whose father was a manufacturer and politician, were married at the Presbyterian Church in Kew, Melbourne. A notable public speaker, already possessed of a considerable presence, Menzies became active in the Victorian branch of the National Party. In 1926 he joined a local movement which helped to defeat an attempt by Prime Minister SM Bruce to augment federal power in industrial relations and other areas. Elected to the Legislative Council in a by-election in East Yarra in 1928, Menzies won the seat of Nunawading in the Legislative Assembly the following year, and served for eight months as minister without portfolio. In 1929, aged 35, he was made King's Counsel (KC) – the youngest in Victoria at the time.

A founding member and leader of the Young Nationalist Organization, dedicated to the reform of the National Party, in 1931 Menzies became president of the Party's peak public body, the National Federation. The first 'Young Nat' to attain cabinet rank, he was State Attorney-General and Minister for Railways from 1932 to 1934 in Sir Stanley Argyle's government, and acting Premier in 1934. During this period, while continuing to run his legal practice, Menzies was drawn into federal politics as governments in Australia struggled to combat the Great Depression. A staunch supporter of the economic measures advocated by Joseph Lyons, then acting Treasurer in the federal Labor government, Menzies was influential in persuading Lyons to leave the Labor Party to become leader of the new United Australia Party (UAP) in 1931. Successful in the December elections that year, Lyons became Prime Minister.

Persuaded by Lyons to shift to the federal arena, Menzies was elected to the seat of Kooyong, replacing John Latham, on 15 September 1934. Returned to power with a reduced majority, the UAP formed a Coalition government with the Country Party. Appointed to Cabinet as Attorney‑General and Minister for Industry, Menzies was almost immediately embroiled in a public debate. Forced to defend controversial government policy, with which he was not comfortable, concerning the denial of official entry to Australia of peace activist Egon Kisch, Menzies was portrayed by political adversaries as illiberal and opposed to free speech. Again hindered by some procedural inconsistencies, his determined execution of a Cabinet decision to break a waterside workers' strike in late 1938 earned him the sobriquet 'Pig-iron Bob' and contributed to his reputation as being ultra-conservative. As Attorney-General he contributed several personally signed advices on varied issues to the Opinion Book before he resigned from Cabinet on 29 March 1939, in protest at postponement of the government's promised national insurance scheme.

Menzies gained recognition as a statesman, and a marked affection for British culture, during official visits to England in the mid-1930s. He was appointed to the Privy Council in 1937. After Lyons died on 7 April 1939, Menzies became leader of the United Australia Party. When the Country Party, led by Sir Earle Page, refused to work in coalition with him, Menzies formed an all UAP Cabinet and was sworn in as Prime Minister on 29 April 1939. On 3 September that year he announced Australia's entry into the Second World War. Laying the foundations for administration of the war, he supervised the recruitment of military forces and arrangements for national security and set up a bipartisan Advisory War Council. In early 1941 he travelled to London – for the first time by air, on a QANTAS flying boat – to press for greater military protection for Singapore, and to assert Australia's right to involvement in decisions affecting its troops.

On the domestic front he was beleaguered by the loss of three Cabinet Ministers in an aircraft crash near Canberra in August 1940, a marginal win for the restored Coalition in the elections held the next month, rejection of his attempt to form a national all-party government and internal dissent about his leadership of the UAP. Sacrificing his leadership to what he believed was best for the war effort and the unity of the government parties, Menzies resigned as Prime Minister on 29 August 1941 and was succeeded by the leader of the Country Party, Arthur Fadden. Menzies was replaced as UAP leader by veteran parliamentarian and Attorney-General William Morris Hughes. Within weeks, the two independents who had been part of the Coalition government switched allegiance, putting Labor into office without an election.

Again party leader, and leader of the Opposition in the seventeenth parliament from September 1943, Menzies was subsequently influential in founding the Liberal Party. Still in Opposition after the 1946 elections the Liberals gained political ground through vigorous resistance to bank nationalisation proposals in 1947 and the 1948 attempt to extend through a referendum the government's wartime control over rents and prices. On a platform which took full advantage of anti-socialist sentiment fuelled by such controversies and particularly by communist-inspired strikes, the Liberals won the 1949 election and formed a Coalition government with the Country Party.

Prime Minister again from 19 December 1949, Menzies led the Coalition to victory at the next six general elections: in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963. Among his proudest achievements he counted strong defence alliances, the extension of federal involvement in education and the ongoing development of Canberra as the national capital – including the long-delayed construction of Lake Burley Griffin. Presiding over the longest period of economic prosperity in Australia's history, Menzies held other ministerial positions at various times and travelled widely domestically and overseas on government business, on occasion representing both Australia and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Made a Companion of Honour (CH) in 1951, Menzies in 1963 became the only Australian appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to the Order of the Thistle (KT), an honour in the gift of the reigning monarch. The many awards and distinction he received during his life included appointment to the US Legion of Merit in 1950, and Japan's Order of the Rising Sun in 1973. He received his first honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Melbourne in 1942, and later honorary degrees from the Universities of Queensland, Adelaide, Tasmania, New South Wales, and the Australian National University and from 13 other universities in Canada, the United States and Britain, including Oxford and Cambridge. Honorary fellowships included those from the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. The Australian Academy of Science, the establishment of which he had supported in 1954, made him a fellow in 1958. A man who enjoyed sport as well as more academic pursuits, in 1951 he initiated 'Prime Minister's XI' cricket matches, a contest between an Australian team picked by the Prime Minister and an overseas team.

After a record 16 years as Prime Minister, Sir Robert retired on 26 January 1966 at the age of 71. The last Australian Prime Minister to leave office voluntarily, he remained active in public life. In July 1966 he travelled to England for his installation as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle. This ceremonial title afforded him a uniform and an official residence at Walmer Castle, which he used during regular return visits. Taking up a scholar-in-residence invitation from the University of Virginia at the end of 1966 Sir Robert presented a series of lectures, published the following year as Central Power in the Australian Commonwealth. From March 1967 until March 1972 he was Chancellor of the University of Melbourne. A debilitating stroke in 1971 limited his mobility in the last years of his life. Extremely well read, quick-witted and possessing a superb command of language, Sir Robert wrote two volumes of memoirs – Afternoon Light was published in 1967 and Measure of the Years in 1970. On 7 June 1976 he was appointed a Knight of the Order of Australia (AK), an honour instituted just days before.

Survived by Dame Pattie, one of their two sons and their daughter, Sir Robert died of a heart attack at age 83, on 15 May 1978 in his home at Malvern, Melbourne. His state funeral at Scots Church in Melbourne on 19 May was attended by Australia's leading politicians, representatives of international governments and the Prince of Wales, on behalf of the Queen. Over 100 000 people lined the route from Melbourne to Springvale Crematorium where there was a private family service, followed by a 19-gun salute. A memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey, London, in July 1978. In June 1996 Sir Robert's ashes were buried with those of his wife in the newly established Prime Ministers' Memorial Garden in Melbourne General Cemetery. His estate included generous legacies to four universities. Among numerous things named in his honour was the federal Division of Menzies in Victoria, created in a redistribution of electorates in 1984.

  1. Biography written by Carmel Meiklejohn with reference to:
  2. Amalgamated Society of EngineersAdelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920) 28 CLR 129.

Opinions by this author

Opinion Number Subject Opinion Date
Opinion Number. 1573

APPROPRIATIONS
APPROPRIATIONS: POWER TO…

Opinion Number. 1574

PORT AUGUSTA TO RED HILL RAILWAY: COMMONWEALTH…

Opinion Number. 1584

taxation
taxation: validity of…

Opinion Number. 1617

elections
timing of resignation of…

Opinion Number. 1621

Daylight Saving
power of commonwealth…

Opinion Number. 1642

TELEVISION
WHETHER Wireless Telegraphy…