The Price of Nostalgia: Menzies, the "Liberal" Tradition and Australian Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Perhaps, if I reach a ripe age, I will be a curio because I once lived a few week-ends in great country houses of England. (1) (Robert Menzies, Diary, 20 April 1941)

It is a feature of Menzies' long rule that little of what he does seems to matter much. His great talent is to preside over events and look as if he knows what they are all about. His few active interventions have been mainly failures [...] It is a feature of his rule that most of the things in which he seemed to believe when he regained office in 1949 did not happen [...] His attitude has been largely nostalgic; he has regretted much of what he saw of Australia in the 1960s. (2) (Donald Home, The Lucky Country, 1964)

Robert Gordon Menzies, the subject of Donald Horne's scathing assessment in The Lucky Country, was Prime Minister of Australia for almost one-fifth of the century. His first prime ministership, in the early years of the Second World War, was brief and came to an inglorious end when he was tipped out by members of his own party. His second period in office lasted over sixteen years, and encompassed much of the period that Eric Hobsbawm has called capitalism's "Golden Years". (3) Although nearly defeated during a 1961 recession, no other figure has approached his dominance of the federal scene.

Any consideration of the existence of a Liberal Party tradition in Australian foreign policy, then, would need to find a prominent place for Menzies. Although he served only for two years as Minister for External Affairs (1960-61), Menzies played a major part in seeking to define Australia's place in the world between the 1930s and the 1960s. The office of Prime Minister had, since federation, played a dominant role in the formulation of Australian foreign policy, not least because communication with the British Government occurred directly through that channel. (4) However, the development of the Department of External Affairs from the late 1930s, and the growing importance of Australia's relationship with the United States and therefore of the Washington Embassy after 1939, combined to shift the centre of gravity in Australian foreign policy away from the prime minister. This trend became clear during Menzies' 1950s prime ministership; yet he was still able to play a dominant role on many issues, especially in matters that touched on relations with Britain and the Commonwealth. (5)

These changing configurations of political, diplomatic and bureaucratic influence help to explain an otherwise puzzling paradox of Menzies' long prime ministership, and one that largely conforms with Home's assessment: that he was personally peripheral to many of his government's major landmarks in foreign and defence policy. These include the commitment of troops to Korea (1950), the formulation and development of the Colombo Plan (1950), the signing of the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand and United States) Treaty (1951), in all of which Percy Spender was the moving force; and the Trade Agreement with Japan (1957), of which John McEwen was the architect. (6) Moreover, Garfield Barwick and the Department of External Affairs (DEA), much more than Menzies and the Prime Minister's Department, were the drivers of Australia's restrained and ultimately successful response to Indonesia's "Confrontation" of Malaysia (1963-6), even while Menzies allowed himself to be persuaded that Barwick and DEA's policy of a "carefully graduated response" was worthy of support in the interests of friendly relations with Indonesia. (7) Perhaps Menzies' most important contribution to Australian foreign policy was to allow ministers such as Spender, McEwen and Barwick (and, to a lesser extent, Casey and Hasluck) the scope to exercise their own talents while remaining open to "rational argument" on particular issues. (8) Menzies arguably exercised the greatest influence in connection with a relationship that would become progressively less important to Australia during his prime ministership, and especially in its twilight years (1963-6)--notably, Australia's relationship with the United Kingdom. …