Few leaders have had as profound an effect on Australia as Sir Robert Menzies. In a political career spanning nearly four decades, including a record eighteen years as Prime Minister, this son of a shopkeeper from country Victoria moulded a British dominion with a closed economy into a nation that looked outward – not just to Britain, but also to the United States and the Asia-Pacific region.
In 1928 Menzies was first elected to the Legislative Council of Victoria as a member of the Nationalist Party. The next year he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Nunawading, and, from 1932, came to serve as Victoria’s Attorney-General and Deputy Premier. It did not take long for Menzies’ influence as a rising powerbroker to affect national politics. He played a major role in drawing Joseph Lyons, a minister in the federal Scullin government, away from the Labor Party. The Nationalists reformed into the United Australia Party (UAP), with Lyons as its leader. After the 1931 federal election Lyons became Prime Minister at the head of a UAP government.
Entering National Politics
The retirement of the Federal Member for Kooyong before the 1934 election gave Menzies the opportunity to transfer from Victorian to Federal politics. He took the seat and, as a marker of his talents and influence, was immediately appointed to the Cabinet as Attorney-General and Minister for Industry. Within a year, he became the deputy leader of the UAP.
Menzies spent much of his early parliamentary career abroad, representing Australia in legal cases before the British Privy Council, in trade negotiations, and at the jubilee of King George V. Domestically, he was interested in defence preparations, industrial relations, and promoting national insurance. When the Lyons government abandoned national insurance in March 1939, Menzies was infuriated and resigned his portfolios, moving to the backbench. Three weeks later, with the deputy leadership still vacant after Menzies’ resignation, Prime Minister Lyons died.
Resignation and Resurgence
Returning to Australia, Menzies was under intense pressure; perceived as arrogant and condemned for leaving his country at such a critical time. In August 1941, his position untenable, he resigned as Prime Minister. However, his resignation was not enough to save the UAP government – the parliamentary crossbench threw its support behind Curtin and the Labor Party.
Ceding office was a setback, but Menzies used it as an opportunity to refresh himself, and then to rejuvenate his political career. As part of this, he built a relationship with the Australian people by speaking to them directly in weekly radio broadcasts. In these he outlined his vision for the post-war period and championed the Australian middle class – those who he named as ‘the Forgotten People’ in a famous address in May 1942.
Menzies also reconstructed the non-Labor side of Australian politics after losing the Prime Ministership. In 1944 he launched the Liberal Party of Australia: his greatest political legacy. He had created it personally, drawing together many political organisations that were opposed to Labor. In forming this broad-based political organisation, he also rebuilt himself as an organiser, leader, and statesman. Five years after his party’s formation, Menzies returned triumphant to the Prime Ministership as the Liberal Party won a decisive victory at the 1949 election. The Liberal Party, in coalition with the Country Party, would hold office until 1972.