Critics like to describe Robert Menzies' unbroken term in office from 1949 to 1966 as wasted or slothful. It is a common complaint that left-wing partisans make against conservatives. What those critics fail to understand is that it is not the purpose of a conservative to cause radical upheaval in society. A conservative believes in stability, security and an order that allows individuals to pursue their own dreams and ambitions, not become playthings for the social ambitions of others.
Sir Robert Menzies was just such a conservative. He is the towering figure of Australian politics: the founder of one of its two enduring political parties the Liberal Party and the country's longest-serving Prime Minister. In a time of considerable international upheaval, Menzies presided over a long period of domestic stability.
Menzies' time was the period of the postwar baby boom. Returning soldiers and others confident of their economic future began to put down roots and raise their children. The fertility rate peaked in Australia in 1961, and then began a long and steady decline that lasted right up to the end of the century. Helped by a strong immigration program, Australia's population grew by more than a fifth during the 1960s.
Those returning soldiers, nesting families and postwar immigrants all needed somewhere to live. Mostly that meant building a new house on the suburban fringe of the capital cities. The great Australian dream was "a home of your own on a quarter-acre block." Menzies understood this aspiration perfectly. His most important broadcast in the lead-up to the formation of the Liberal Party was in 1942 on "the forgotten people." The real life of the nation," he claimed, was not to be found "in the petty gossip of the so-called fashionable suburbs or in the officialdom of organized masses." It was in the homes of those raising children. "The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole."
The family home is still the most important asset for the majority of Australians. It is the place to nurture a family and eventually the means to pass on a financial legacy to children. These are the values of conservative Australia: home, family, self-reliance, self-improvement. They were values that Menzies learned in his own life. He was the son of a grocer in a small town in western Victoria, where the young Menzies excelled at school and university, winning scholarships and prizes on his way to a successful career as a barrister in Melbourne, then the federal capital. His success came from natural talent, hard work and independence. He learned those values in his own closely knit family, a people of modest means but independent spirit. In his "Forgotten People" broadcast he declared: "If human homes are to fulfill their destiny, then we must have frugality and saving for education and progress."
Menzies associated education with progress, presiding over a large expansion of Australia's university sector. (Ironically, many of those academics who benefited from the expansion of university education became ferocious critics of Menzies and his party.) He began Commonwealth funding to independent schools, which meant expanding the role of the Commonwealth government into areas traditionally the preserve of the states. But he was enough of a constitutionalist to respect federalism, and would be shocked to see just how powerful Canberra has become today.
Australian citizenship was introduced in 1949; up until then, Australians had described themselves as British citizens, and been told they were part of an empire on which the sun never set. Maps of the world were distributed to schools with colors to show the British Empire covered roughly a quarter of the world.
But it was an empire that was fading. In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared that decolonization's "wind of change" was blowing through Africa. By the end of the 1960s, Britain had set a timetable to withdraw all its military forces east of Suez. Australia had already set its security arrangements in another direction – with the U.S. in the ANZUS alliance of 1951. A fierce opponent of communism which he saw as inimical to individual freedom, and as enough of a security threat that he tried to outlaw it Menzies' Australia could not be neutral during the Cold War. In 1962 Australian military advisers were sent to train South Vietnamese forces. In 1965 the first Australian battalion was dispatched for combat in Vietnam. In order to support the buildup of forces for the Vietnam War, conscription was reintroduced in 1964. (A previous scheme had been ended in 1959.) The universities that Menzies had enlarged and endowed became major centers for agitation both against the Vietnam War and the politics of conscription.
By then, American popular culture was spreading around the world. In some ways it was subversive. Social trends in the U.S. were transmitted quickly to Australia: the youth revolution, women's liberation and the antiwar movement. These developments challenged authority and established values, and in the latter part of the 1960s, the stability that Australia had enjoyed for so long began to draw to an end. It was the passing of an era: Menzies' era. But his political movement would go on to prove the most successful in Australian politics. His values self-reliance, reward for effort and social conservatism remain deeply ingrained in the Australian character.
Peter Costello was Australia's Treasurer from 1996 to 2007, the longest serving in the country's history. He is a member of the Liberal Party