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|Sir Robert Menzies
longest serving Australian Prime Minister in history
Robert Gordon Menzies was born in Jeparait, Victoria, Australia, on December 20, 1894, the fourth of James and Kate (Sampson) Menzies' five children. He received his basic education at Ballarat's Humffray Street State School, after which he attended Grenville College, Wesley College (in Melbourne), and the University of Melbourne. He received his LL.B. from the latter in 1916, and his LL.M. in 1918.
Admitted to the Bar on May 13, 1918, Menzies established a general practice in Victoria, with a special interest in constitutional law. In 1920, as advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he won in the High Court of Australia a case which proved a landmark in the positive reinterpretation of Commonwealth powers over those of the States. The court's verdict brought Menzies "sudden fame," as well as the financial and social means to get married, to Pattie Maie Leckie on September 27, 1920. In 1929 he became a King's Counsel, the youngest ever in Victoria. He continued to practice law until his first election as Prime Minister.
Early Political Career
Menzies began his political career in 1928, when he was elected to the Victorian State Parliament as a Nationalist Party candidate for the Legislative Council seat of East Yarra. He resigned from that seat after being elected for the Legislative Assembly seat of Nunawading in 1929. He served as Honorary Minister from 1928 until 1929, as Attorney-General and Minister for Railways from 1932 to 1934, and Acting Premier in 1934. He quit state parliament in 1934 to contest the federal seat of Kooyong as a United Australia Party (UAP) candidate.
After winning the federal seat of Kooyong, Menzies immediately became Attorney-General and Minister for Industry in Joseph Lyons' United Australia Party government. He held these positions until March 1939, and was also deputy UAP leader from 1935. He resigned from Cabinet in March 1939 in protest against the government's failure to implement its national insurance scheme.
First Term as Prime Minister
Joseph Lyons died on April 7, 1939, and was succeeded by a caretaker government led by Country Party leader Earle Page. Menzies was elected leader of the UAP after Lyons' death, and took over as Prime Minister on April 26. His government came under immediate attack in Parliament from Page, who had favored the recall of former Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce. Refusing to work with Menzies, Page took the Country Party out of coalition with the UAP.
As Prime Minister, Menzies announced the declaration of World War II to the people of Australia on September 3, 1939. He formed a war cabinet on September 15 and subsequently oversaw Australia's entry into the war. Losses to the Labor Party in the general elections of September 1940 severely weakened Menzies' coalition government, and continuing dissension with the coalition prompted Menzies to resign as UAP leader and Prime Minister on August 28, 1941. He was succeeded by Country Party leader Arthur Fadden, but Fadden held office for only 40 days before being defeated in Parliament, making way for John Curtin's Labor government on October 7.
Menzies returned to Parliament after losing the Prime Ministership, but had very little influence over the direction of the UAP until being re-elected its leader in September 1943, at which time he also became Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. By this time, however, Menzies knew that the UAP had lost most of its strength, and in 1944 he helped found the Liberal Party and became its first leader. In terms of winning elections, the Liberal Party has since become the most successful party in federal politics.
Curtin died in office in 1945 and was succeeded by Joseph Benedict Chifley. Although the Liberal Party and its coalition partners gained a few parliamentary seats in the 1946 general election, the Labor Party kept its majority in Parliament and Chifley was able to stay on as Prime Minister.
Second Term as Prime Minister
A series of Communist-inspired strikes, controversies over Labor's wish to nationalise private banks, medical practitioners, transport and communications, and mounting public impatience with continuing wartime austerity measures allowed the Liberal and County parties to dominate the general election of December 10, 1949. The two parties formed a coalition government on December 19, with Menzies as Prime Minister and Country Party leader A.W. Fadden as Deputy Prime Minister. Menzies subsequently led the Liberal-Country Party coalition to victory at the next six general elections: in 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, and 1963.
One of Menzies' key goals in the early years of his second term as Prime Minister was to stamp out Communist influence in the union movement and end disruption caused by strike action. Parliament passed the Communist Party Dissolution Act in October 1950. The Act was immediately challenged in the High Court by ten trade unions, and was declared invalid in March 1951. Menzies then sought power to outlaw the Communist Party through a referendum in September 1951. That attempt also failed.
Menzies' government sent Australian armed services to the Korean War between 1950-1953 and signed the ANZUS treaty with the United States and New Zealand in 1951. In 1954 Australia was one of the founding members of SEATO. One particularly important excursion abroad was his trip to Cairo in September 1956 as head of a five-nation delegation mediating in the Suez crisis. Menzies' mission failed, and many commentators regarded his intervention as a fiasco. From 1962, the Menzies government sent military observers and then troops, including conscripts, to Vietnam to assist the South Vietnamese government and U.S. military forces in the war against the Communists.
Two major public spectacles of the mid-1950's became the focus of both national and international attention -- the Royal Tour of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1954 and the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956.
As well as being Prime Minister, Menzies at different times held other ministerial and acting ministerial positions, including Defence Coordination, Information, Trade and Customs, External Affairs, External Territories, Treasury, Attorney-General, and responsibility for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
Menzies retired as Prime Minister on January 26, 1966, and was succeeded by Harold Holt, the Liberal's deputy leader. His total of 18 years as Prime Minister, and his unbroken 16-year tenure of office during his second period in the position, is the longest of all Australian Prime Ministers. He resigned from Parliament in February 1966. Knighted in 1963, he was further honoured in 1965 by being appointed Constable of Dover Castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports.
Robert Gordon Menzies died in Melbourne on May 15, 1978 and was given a state funeral.
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This page was last updated on October 26, 2017.