Life of Sir Robert Menzies

Life of Sir Robert Menzies

1894

20th December: Robert Gordon Menzies was born in Jeparit in Victoria's Mallee district, the third son and fourth child of James Menzies, a store keeper and one-time coach painter, and Kate Menzies née Sampson, the daughter of a mining trade unionist. James Menzies was to sit in the Victorian Legislative Assembly as member for Lowan from 1911 to 1920 and his brother-in-law, Sydney Sampson, in the federal House of Representatives as member for Wimmera from 1906 to 1919.

1899-1907

Attended state schools in Jeparit and Ballarat.

1908

Topped State Scholarships Examinations and continued schooling on scholarships at Grenville College, Ballarat.

1910

Family moved to Melbourne where a scholarship took Robert to Wesley College, a Methodist private school. He was influenced by his Head Master, L. A. Adamson, and his English teacher, Frank Shann.

1913-16

Studied law on a bursary at the University of Melbourne where he was much influenced by Professor Sir (William) Harrison Moore, Dean of the Faculty of Law.

1916

Graduated with first class honours in law and won Bowen Essay Prize.

1918

Admitted to the Bar where he read with Owen Dixon, a future Justice and Chief Justice of the High Court.

1920

Was the sole counsel for the successful party in the landmark constitutional litigation: the Engineers' Case. Menzie's arguments convinced the High Court to depart from its earlier approach and adopt a broad reading of Commonwealth powers - an approach which survives to this day. Married Pattie Leckie, whose father, John Leckie, had sat in the House of Representatives for Indi and was subsequently elected to the Senate.

1928

Elected at a by-election to the Legislative Council or Upper House of the Victorian Parliament as a Nationalist member for the East Yarra Province. After a few weeks he was appointed a junior Minister in Sir William McPherson's administration.

1929

Early that year with two others he resigned from the McPherson Ministry in protest against a concession made to the Country Progressive Party, a breakaway from the Victorian Country Party. Having already established a successful and extensive practice as a junior, he was appointed a King's Counsel and in the election of December of that year was elected as the Nationalist member for Nunawading in the Victorian Legislative Assembly or Lower House.

1931

Played a significant role in the formation of the United Australia Party, which was to absorb the Nationalist Party, and in bringing Joseph Aloysius Lyons, a one-time Labor Premier of Tasmania and a former Minister in the Scullin Labor Government, into the non-Labor fold.

1932

Was appointed Attorney-General and Minister for Railways in a United Australia Party and United Country Party composite Ministry led by Sir Stanley Argyle. The United Country Party was the name adopted by the Victorian Country Party after it had accepted terms for the readmission of the Country Progressives.

1934

Contested and won the federal seat of Kooyong in the election of that year. The UAP and the Country Party, led by Dr. E. C. G. (later Sir Earle) Page, finally agreed on the conditions for forming a composite Ministry to replace the all-UAP Ministry which had governed since 1931. It was in this Ministry that Menzies, before he had even been sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives, was appointed and duly sworn in as Attorney-General and Minister for Industry.

1935

Menzies, as member of the official party attending King George V's Silver Jubilee celebrations. He also made his first appearance as an advocate before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

1936

Impressively but unsuccessfully presented the Commonwealth Government's case in the Privy Council appeal, James v. the Commonwealth. This decision, a significant case involving Section 92 of the Constitution, gravely affected both Commonwealth and State systems for orderly marketing.

1937

Was appointed a member of His Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council. In an election that same year the Lyons-Page Government was comfortably returned to office.

1938

Visited England on trade negotiations and also visited Europe. This visit could well have started or intensified a deteriorating relationship with the mission's leader, Sir Earle Page, the Country Party leader and Minister for Commerce. Menzies unsuccessfully proposed that Australia should adopt the Statute of Westminster of 1931.

1939

On 14th March Menzies resigned from the Lyons Ministry and from the Deputy Leadership of the United Australia Party on the issue of National Insurance. On 7th April Lyons died suddenly and Sir Earle Page was commissioned as Prime Minister on the understanding that he would make way for the new leader of the UAP once he was elected. Menzies became Prime Minister; On 3rd September Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Nazi Germany after its invasion of Poland.

1940

On 21st September an election was held. Menzies just scraped home but thereafter relied on the support of two Independents to remain in office.

1941

January-May: Menzies made a visit to the Middle East, Britain, Canada and the United States, extending his time in Britain three times with the approval of the Cabinet. The reason for this lengthy sojourn was his concern that without his presence Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister since May 1940, would be less than mindful of Australia's interests as a fellow belligerent.

29th August:

Menzies resigned the Prime Ministership in favour of Arthur Fadden, the leader of the Country Party. Menzies remained leader of the United Australia Party.

3rd October:

Fadden's administration was defeated on its budget when the two Independents on whose support his government had relied crossed the floor. On being assured by these Independents that they were prepared to support the Labor Party in office, the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, commissioned the Labor leader, John Curtin, as Prime Minister. When the UAP refused to back Menzies as their leader in his desire to be Leader of the Opposition and opted instead for Fadden, Menzies resigned his party's leadership in disgust and became a backbencher for the first time since entering the Federal Parliament in 1934. W. M. Hughes was elected as UAP leader.

1942

Menzies through a network of commercial radio stations began a series of broadcasts. These included one entitled "The Forgotten People". The series continued into 1944.

1943

The Opposition parties led respectively by Fadden and Hughes were defeated in a landslide in the election held on 21st August. The Curtin Government also gained a majority in the Senate for the first time. In the wake of this electoral humiliation, Menzies, not without a contest, was able to reclaim the Parliamentary leadership of what was left of the UAP. He was then able successfully to stake out his claim to become Leader of the Opposition for the first time.

1944

Menzies successfully led the Opposition parties against the Fourteen Powers Referendum. Menzies was also to the forefront in calling conferences in Albury and Canberra to discuss the formation of a new non-Labor party. 1945 On the resumption of Parliament on 21st February, Menzies was able to announce that "in consequence of the formation of the Liberal Party of Australia, those who sit with me in this House desire to be known in future as members of the Liberal Party". On 5th July, John Curtin died. On his election as party leader, J. B. (Ben) Chifley was commissioned as Prime Minister.

1946

Late in September an election was held in which Chifley led his government to victory. Although he lost six seats in the House of Representatives, he consolidated his party's hold on the Senate with Government and Opposition dividing 33-3. For Menzies the piecemeal gains in the House brought little comfort. Labor still governed with 43 seats to the Opposition's 29.

1947

On 16th August the Cabinet with Chifley presiding resolved to nationalise the private trading banks. Menzies mounted a major attack on the legislation and the Government’s nationalisation policies. Although the legislation breezed through the Parliament it was ultimately defeated when the High Court and later the Privy Council pronounced it invalid.

1948

Menzies visited Britain and Europe. On the strength of his observations there, especially of the Berlin blockade so closely following the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, he reversed his previous opposition to the idea of banning the Communist Party.

1949

On 10th December, Menzies led the coalition parties in convincingly defeating the Chifley government. Although his majority in the House of Representatives was substantial, a Senate majority was not one of the fruits of victory. This was due to the outgoing Government's enlargement of both Houses and its substitution of proportional representation for the preferential system in Senate voting.

1950

On 27th April the Communist Party Dissolution Bill was introduced and was eventually passed. While on a visit to the United States, Menzies was invested as a Chief Commander of the Legion of Merit.

Menzies commits Australian troops to be part of the United Nations force in the Korean War.

1951

An election for both Houses was called for 28th April, the second double dissolution of the Commonwealth Parliament - the first had been called in 1914. Menzies was returned with a slight reduction in his majority in the House of Representatives but with a comfortable working majority in the Senate. Chifley died shortly afterwards and was succeeded as Labor leader by Dr. H. V. Evatt. Referendum proposals to overturn the High Court's earlier invalidation of the Communist Party Dissolution Act were defeated. This was considered a significant triumph for Dr. Evatt. Menzies was gazetted a Member of the Order of Companions of Honour (CH).

1953

An election for half the Senate enabled the Government barely to retain a working majority in the Upper House.

1954

In April, following the defection of MVD Officer Vladimir Petrov, Menzies established a Royal Commission on Espionage to examine the extent of espionage in Australia. An election on 29th May for the House of Representatives alone confounded the expectations of many by resulting in the Menzies Government's narrow return to office.

1955

A catastrophic split in the Labor Party precipitated by the erratic conduct of Dr. Evatt ensured the comfortable return of the Menzies Government at an election held on 10th December for both Houses. The breakaway Democratic Labor Party, as it came to be known, directed its preferences away from the ALP and to the coalition in this and in subsequent elections.

Menzies committed troops to the Malayan emergency.

1956

Menzies appoints Sir Keith Murray to inquire into the state of Australia’s Universities. The recommendations of the Murray committee, adopted by the Menzies Government, brought about the most significant change to Australian universities ever. Menzies established the Australian Universities Commission and provided substantial funds for better research and teaching facilities, higher academic salaries and Commonwealth scholarships.

Menzies led an international delegation to persuade President Gamel Abdel Nasser not to nationalise the Suez Canal

1957

Menzies established the National Capital Development Commission to consolidate the development of Canberra as the National Capital. He begins moving Government Departments from Melbourne to the Capital.

1958

The Menzies Government was comfortably returned to office with majorities in both Houses.

1960

Menzies commits funds to the construction of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. The lake was part of Walter Burley Griffin’s original vision for the city.

1961

Arthur Calwell, almost led Labor to victory in an election in December. Popular discontent with the Government's deflationary policies and restrictions on credit worked in Labor's favour. Menzies continued in office with a working majority in the House of Representatives of one.

1963

Menzies was created a Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (KT), At the end of the year Sir Robert Menzies restored his party's fortunes with a comfortable election victory in an election for the House of Representatives.

1964

At the end of the year Menzies successfully led the Government in an election for half the Senate. This proved to be his last campaign.

1965

In April Menzies committed the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment to South Vietnam. Australian military advisors had been in Vietnam at the request of the South Vietnamese Government since 1962.

1966

On 26 January Menzies retired as Prime Minister of Australia and as Parliamentary leader of the Liberal Party. In July Menzies was installed as Sir Winston Churchill's successor as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This appointment had been made by the Queen while he was still Prime Minister on the recommendation of Harold Wilson, the British Labour Prime Minister.

1977

Menzies was invested as a Knight in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AK).

1978

Menzies died at his home in Haverbrack Avenue in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern on 15th May. He was given a State funeral. This was attended by many dignitaries from all over Australia and from overseas.

Robert Menzies: A Life of Liberalism - A Documentary

The Menzies Research Centre has produced a new documentary on the life of Sir Robert Menzies. The thirteen minute film tells the story of how a man from a small country town, through his own hard work and effort, rose to become Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. It also details how Menzies’ liberal philosophy laid the foundations for Australia’s post-war economic prosperity and social policy success. Menzies never forgot that an Australian government’s primary purpose is to create economic and social conditions to allow families and small businesses to prosper.

30 June 2008

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RG Menzies House
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