Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, has been honoured by the Menzies Foundation with the launch of the Menzies Virtual Museum, a website which documents the life of the founder of the modern Liberal Party.
Menzies was twice Prime Minister: from 1939-41, and from 1949-1966. He retired undefeated after 16 continuous years as prime minister, having served a total of 18 years, 5 months and 12 days.
Menzies became Prime Minister following the death of Joseph Lyons on April 7, 1939. Leading Australia into World War II, Menzies’ government steadily disintegrated, riven by personal and political rivalries. Menzies resigned on August 29, 1941. Shortly afterwards, his successor, the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden, was defeated on the floor of the House of Representatives, after two independent members shifted their support to the ALP’s John Curtin.
Despite taunts that “Menzies couldn’t lead a flock of homing pigeons”, and memories of his actions in supporting sales of pig iron to Japan, which resulted in the derogatory label “pig iron Bob”, Menzies formed a new political party out of the remnants of the United Australia Party. Meeting at Albury late in 1944, the Liberal Party was born.
Menzies was returned to office at the federal elections of December 10, 1949. By this time, the Cold War whilst dividing the world, worked to Menzies’ political advantage. The Petrov Affair of 1954 was followed by the ALP split of 1955, guaranteeing further terms for the Liberal-led coalition. Despite nearly losing office during the recession of 1961, Menzies was returned for a seventh term with a large majority in November 1963, a week after the assassination of President Kennedy. He retired in January 1966, after serving just over 16 years.
The website in its first stage contains a time line spanning Sir Robert’s life from 1894 to 1978. It contains 750 images, several sound and film clips and 25,000 words of supporting text.
The time line is organised on three levels:
- the life and times of Sir Robert Menzies;
- people and events that shaped Australian history during that time; and
- world events that took place during those years.
The virtual museum is the work of the Menzies Foundation at Clarendon House in East Melbourne. It was launched by John Howard, who is less than a year off becoming the second-longest serving prime minister since Menzies.
Text of speech given by Prime Minister John Howard at the launch of the Menzies Virtual Museum.
Thank you very much Sir Daryl, members of the Menzies family, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great delight for me to be here today. I think it’s the first time I’ve actually…it’s not a virtual visit it’s a real visit to this building and the ambience of it fits the man whom the foundation honours. And I do want to thank the tremendous efforts of those who’ve supported and run the Menzies Foundation over the years and I see around the room many of the people who’ve guided the foundation. It has been a truly non-political body and I’m delighted to acknowledge here amongst others the presence of Frank Crean, the former Federal Treasurer and parliamentary colleague of mine for a number of years. And it is right and fitting that these foundations are supported and conducted in a totally apolitical fashion.
The foundation over the years has carried out a tremendous amount of valuable work in supporting wide range of scholarship and research and public health activities. The items that were mentioned by Sir Daryl and I know something of the Menzies Centre in London and it’s very pleased that the federal government was able to provide it with some additional support of some $5 million a couple of years ago. I understand that when the foundation was established and when Clarendon Terrace was restored for the National Trust in 1981 a museum of Menzies memorabilia was very high in your aims. And I also know the difficulty you had to achieve this and you considered different ways of honouring Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. That special video you produced ‘Menzies in his Time’ in 1994 was an important part of the historical work of remembering the man.
And I’m quite excited that you have decided to launch this, or invite me to launch this virtual museum because what it does is to bring in contact with modern communications and technology the life and times of this remarkable Australian who in the view of many, myself included, is the greatest Prime Minister that this country has had and whose contribution covered such a remarkable period of this country’s history. Someone who had his first vote in the election that Menzies went closest to losing, namely 1961, and in those days you had to wait until you were 21 to get a vote, I of course, all my conscious political years from the time I started following politics and the first election I followed with any degree of interest was 1949 which was the one that brought Menzies to power and amongst other things ended petrol rationing. And seeing that I was the child of a garage proprietor in inner-Sydney we thought that was a pretty terrific policy and there was much enthusiasm and rejoicing when the election was called.
But he was a remarkable figure. He had an extraordinary influence on this country and I think what is important about today is that it’s another way of reflecting on the history of that period of time. We are getting better in Australia at remembering past events, we’re getting better at honouring people who’ve made a previous contribution and I think we have to go a lot further because we have remarkable personalities and remarkable characters in all aspects of our life as a nation and to be Prime Minister of a country even for one years involves a lot of work and a lot of achievement but to do it for 16 years is quite amazing. And in that time he presided over enormous prosperity in this country but very importantly his memory is being honoured in a way that he would be very proud of.
I remember watching on television his final press conference in 1966 and he was asked to nominate some of the things for which he would want to be remembered and one of the things he singled out was the contribution of his government to higher education and it’s therefore appropriate that the work of the foundation has been very much about encouraging and nurturing the intellects and the scientific and engineering and medical and legal aspirations of so many young Australians. And as I walked in with Daryl Dawson he pointed out that honour board, if I can describe it, of those people who benefited from the foundation’s support. I think that is a terrific way to remember him because he was a great intellect. He cared about scholarship, he cared about the precision of the both spoken word and the written word. There hasn’t been a more eloquent public speaker in my experience than Robert Menzies and having heard the recordings of the greatest around the world I don’t think there was anybody who could hold a candle to him in terms of his capacity to seize a moment and articulate it in a fine way and that could only be possible because he had a well disciplined mind and the fact that his memory is supported through this foundation, the aspirations of people who would emulate that I think is a wonderful thing.
I think this virtual museum will be an invaluable educational resource particularly to young Australians. Daryl has mentioned that it contains 750 images from all periods of Sir Robert’s life. I will look forward to browsing through it with great interest having read with great interest the two volumes of Alan Martin’s biography of Robert Menzies. And biographies are a wonderful part of understanding the rich political history of this country and I’m so delighted that it was possible for John Gorton’s biography to be completed and for me to be able to launch it shortly before John’s death because that was a very interesting and active period let me put it in the politics of Australia and particularly the politics of the Liberal Party at that time. But it’s all part of the pattern and it’s all part of the colour of Australian public life and Australian political life. And I understand that the future features will include such items as extracts from speeches and essays under the title of ‘The Forgotten People’, broadcasts that have now come to be seen as quite seminal in forming the attitudes and the values of the party that Menzies led back into office in 1949 and therefore had such an enormous impact on the future of this country.
So I want to congratulate everybody involved in the development of this website including your previous Executive Director Eric Wigglesworth, your current Director Professor John Coghlan, and your General Manager Sandra Mackenzie. It gives me very great pleasure therefore to officially launch the Menzies Virtual Museum.