Sunday, August 3, 2003


Robert Gordon Menzies, long-serving Prime Minister of Australia -- both before and after WWII

I am myself a great fan of Menzies and something I always find amusing is the way commentators recognize his greatness but are puzzled that they can never think of anything much he that actually achieved. But that is of course the whole point. Menzies was such a strong figure that he did what very few politicians can do -- he successfully resisted the pressures from almost all special-interest groups to legislate in favour of them at the expense of the community as a whole. Doing nothing was his great achievement. The torrent of legislation to which all governments subject us was a comparative trickle under Menzies. He generally resisted the urge to meddle. And under him Australia was peaceful, calm and secure -- with unemployment negligible and living standards steadily rising. Contracts were enforced, criminals were punished and taxation was a fraction of what it is now. There was welfare for those who really needed it and there were scholarships that enabled children from working-class backgrounds to go to university if they had the ability. I myself was a recipient of one such scholarship. My father was a lumberjack who thought that even secondary education was a waste of time. So Australian conservatives only have to remember the world of Menzies in the 1950s and 1960s to realize that their ideal of a much smaller and fairer government is far from an impossible dream.

Saturday, August 2, 2003

Sir Robert Menzies

Today's story concerns Australia's redoubtable conservative Prime Minister Menzies. The time was the early 1950s and the height of the Communist scare. Many conservatives thought the government was not doing enough to combat Communism and some senior Ministers in the Menzies government agreed. Menzies was however a notable lawyer by profession and declared that a recent High Court case limiting Parliament's powers in the matter had to be respected. This was felt to be an inadequate response so a triumvirate of senior Ministers got together and decided that Menzies had to be deposed, a State of Emergency declared, the Communist party banned and a major expansion of the armed forces undertaken. They decided to deliver an ultimatum to this effect to Menzies himself. Menzies was too imposing a figure simply to be bypassed. They decided to make a surprise call on Menzies one Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon in Australia of that era was a time when NOTHING happened. The shops were closed and, if there were no major sporting event happening, people just pottered in the garden, took rubbish to the dump or took a big nap to catch up on sleep missed during the week.

The triumvirs arrived at the Prime Ministerial residence and, as well-known figures, were immediately ushered into the presence of the great man. And what was the great man doing at the time? He was in the greenhouse transplanting tomato seedlings so there would be a good crop for the kitchen! It was the sort of hobby activity any Australian might be doing on a Saturday afternoon in that era. Its sheer normalness and ordinariness did however undermine the resolve of the plotters and Menzies, being a wily old bird, probably realized that something was in the wind so continued to engage them in conversation about tomatoes, the seasons and gardening. When he had finished his transplanting, Menzies asked them to take afternoon tea with him -- which they of course accepted.

During tea Menzies asked them to what he owed the privilege of their visit but with all momentum lost by then all one of them could do was to say weakly that they had come to seek his views on the Communist menace. Being famously quick-witted, Menzies told them that he just that day had come to a major decision on the matter. He had decided to hold a referendum on banning the Communist party. As a referendum is an impeccably proper democratic procedure they could hardly argue -- though all those present would have been aware that referenda are normally lost in Australia. And so the rebels went empty away -- foiled by tomato seedlings.

The referendum was of course held -- and it was lost.

The story was relayed to me many years ago as "inside knowledge" by someone who was in a position to have such knowledge so I have no way of verifying it but I think it conveys very well the sheer mundane safety of Anglo-Saxon political life as it used to be -- the very opposite of the high drama that plagues politics in most of the rest of the world.