Sunday, 2 October 2016

Ming Misremembered

Image courtesy

John Howard has been hosting an ABC production called Building modern Australia - Howard on Menzies.

It is hagiography rather than history. Howard mythologies Menzies to the point that you find yourself waiting for the suggestion that he (Menzies – not Howard) should be canonized. I suspect that the only obstacle in the way of that suggestion is the fact that Menzies was Presbyterian and Howard (nominally) Anglican.

Howard forgets that some of us (and here I am giving my age away – gentle reader) lived through the Menzies era, or some of it.

To believe that everything was rosy during Menzies’ period as PM ignores the historical statistics.

When I was a kid, there was a joke doing the rounds about Bob Menzies. My Dad, who was not renowned for telling jokes, repeated it in my presence on a number of occasions.

It went something like this –

Bob Menzies was surfing at Bondi one Sunday when he was caught in a rip. It was early in the morning and no lifesavers were on duty. Menzies would occasionally take early morning swims to avoid the crowds.

A teenager – a strong swimmer - saw that he was in trouble, and swam out to his aid, dragging him to the beach.

An exhausted and grateful Menzies said to the youth – “Lad, you’ve saved my life. I am the PM; I can give anything you want. What can I grant you?”

After a brief hesitation, the teenager said – “Can you organise me a state funeral?”

“Certainly”, said Menzies, “but that’s a strange request for one so young. Why do you want a state funeral?”

“Because”, said the young man, “If my dad hears I’ve saved Bob Menzies, he’d kill me.”
Ming in his day was not as universally loved as Howard mythologizes.

His failures were many.

He did, in fact, run budget deficits for the last nine years of his reign. When he left office, national debt was running at 41% of GDP. His deficits were proportionally greater than those chalked up by Swan. Remember the bitter criticism of deficit budgets thrown at the Labor treasurer by Abbott, Howard, Hockey and Co. Apparently that practice was OK in Menzies' day.
In 1950 he attempted to ban the Communist Party. The Communist Party Dissolution Bill was passed by parliament. After it was enacted in October, the law was challenged in the High Court and, on 9 March 1951, was held to be unconstitutional. The Court ruled that parliament could not invoke its defence powers to rule an association unlawful when the nation was not at war.

(Menzies seemed to believe that what was possible in wartime was also a goer in times of peace. This eccentricity in policy making reared its head again when he introduced conscription in peacetime – but more on that later)

He had another go in 1951 and sought approval this time for the federal government to ban the Communist Party of Australia by referendum. It was defeated. This approach has an eerie similarity to what we've been hearing from One Nation about Muslims recently.

But back to conscription. Menzies introduced conscription in peacetime on November 10, 1964; the necessary amendments to the Defence Act were made on April 6, 1965. This was despite the fact that it had never been a feature of Australian defence policy before, and referenda on the issue, introduced by Billy Hughes, had twice been defeated in World War One. 

It’s not difficult to understand why Menzies didn’t take this issue to a referendum. Despite the hysteria about “Reds under the bed” that he, and later the DLP had whipped up at the time, a majority of Australians didn’t want a bar of it. This had become abundantly clear by the time of the 1970 Moratorium marches.

The act of introducing conscription in peacetime did more to alienate a whole generation of Australians towards the Coalition that anything before or since. That gets small mention in the TV series. 

I guess it wouldn’t neatly fit the narrative.

The fact That Menzies dodged service in the First World War is also omitted.

It’s hardly a surprise to see Howard rewriting history to deify his predecessor. He behaved very much like Menzies. The best examples of this are his approach to the US alliance. Menzies gave secret undertakings to the US that Australia would be prepared to give legitimacy to a much increased US involvement in Vietnam through provision of Australian troops1. This was mimicked by Howard, nearly 40 years later in reference to Iraq.. 

The difference between Howard and Menzies was that the former wasn’t ruthless enough to send conscripts to fight in peacetime, or perhaps had learned from the history.

Howard, like Menzies, also whipped up fear to maintain power. In the case of Menzies, the target was Communism; in Howard’s case terrorism. 

There are some of us who have lived long enough to have seen it all before, and some of us that were part of that lost generation of conscripts...

1. WAR FOR THE ASKING: How Australia Invited Itself to Vietnam - Michael Sexton – New Holland - 2002

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