Childhood & Early Life
Robert Menzies was born on 20 December 1894, to James Menzies and Kate Menzies, in Jeparit, Victoria, Australia. He was the fourth of the five children of his parents. His father, James, was a general storekeeper and community leader. In 1911, James was elected to the Victorian Parliament and moved to Melbourne with his family.
Robert was educated at Humffray Street State School in Bakery Hill, and later at Grenville College in Ballarat. He graduated from the University of Melbourne with First Class Honours in Law in 1916.
When World War I started, he was in university and held a post in the campus militia unit. However, he resigned while others of his age were trying desperately to sign up.
He was an outstanding student and won several academic prizes and scholarships. In 1916, he became the editor of the Melbourne University Magazine (MUM).
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Robert Menzies was admitted to the Victorian Bar and the High Court of Australia in 1918, and specialized in Constitutional law. In 1920, he won a landmark High Court case for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. Thereafter, he became an accomplished lawyer and was appointed a King’s Counsel in 1929.
In 1928, he became a member of the Victorian Legislative Council, representing the Nationalist Party of Australia from East Yarra Province. Soon, he became a minister without portfolio in a new minority government led by Prime Minister William McPherson. The following year, he moved to the Legislative Assembly as the member for Nunawading.
In 1929, he created his party's youth wing, Young Nationalists and became its first president. From May 1932 to July 1934, he was the Deputy Premier of Victoria. He also held the portfolios of Attorney-General and Railways.
In the 1934 Federal election, he transferred to federal politics representing the United Australia Party (UAP). He was allotted the Ministry of Industry and Attorney-General position, in Lyons’ government.
In 1937, he became a Privy Councillor. Next year, as Attorney-General of Australia, he officially visited Nazi Germany. He sincerely supported the pacification strategies of the Chamberlain government in London, and strongly believed that war should be avoided in any case. Nevertheless, increasingly he realised that the peace efforts were futile and that war was unavoidable.
Meanwhile at home, hostility increased between him and Sir Earle Page. Things became especially ugly after Page became the Acting Prime Minister during Lyons' illness. Menzies later became deputy leader of the UAP. Around this time, he got involved in an industrial battle with waterside workers, earning the nickname ‘Pig Iron Bob’ from his adversaries.
After Lyons's death on 7 April 1939 Menzies was elected leader of the UAP on 18th April and eight days later, sworn in as Prime Minister. This resulted in a crisis, with Page refusing to serve under him.
As a result, Menzies formed a minority government. Within a few months, Page was overthrown as Country Party leader and the Country Party was taken back into his government in a full-fledged alliance.
On 3 September 1939, World War II began with Britain and France declaring war on Germany. Immediately, he announced Australia at war as well in support of Britain, and delivered a national radio broadcast on the same day.
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Two days later, he summoned the parliament and solicited all-purpose support as the government was faced with huge war time responsibilities. Page and Curtin as party leaders, promised their support. Menzies was anxious about the military risk from Japan and continually pushed London for a conciliation policy.
In the 1940 election, his coalition government lost the majority and this resulted in a hung parliament.
Next, with the support of Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson, he formed a minority government. John Curtin, the leader of Labour party, declined to form a war coalition, but agreed to participate in the Advisory War Council.
In 1941, he visited Britain to discuss war strategies with Churchill and other leaders. While travelling to the UK, he visited the Australian troops serving in the North African Campaign. Meanwhile, his position at home weakened.
After he returned, he was forced to resign on 27 August 1941. This harsh behaviour of his colleagues upset him and he almost left politics. A joint UAP-Country Party conference selected Arthur Fadden as Coalition leader cum Prime Minister and persuaded Menzies to become Minister for Defence Co-ordination.
Gradually, he gathered huge support through his numerous radio appeals to ordinary citizens whom he called ‘the Forgotten People’. These appeals were broadcasted regularly every week, starting November 1941.
In October 1941, Fadden's government fell and Curtin formed a Labour minority government. Fadden became the Leader of the Opposition and Menzies receded to the backbench. In the 1943 election, Labour party emerged victorious. Menzies regained the UAP leadership and the Opposition Leader position.8In 1944, he predicted the inevitable weakening of UAP. Thus, at the Canberra conference on 13 October 1944, fourteen parties decided to unite as one new non-labour party, the Liberal Party of Australia. The next year, Curtin expired and was succeeded by Ben Chifley.
In 1947, Chifley’s effort to nationalise Australia's private banks was widely criticized by the middle-class. Menzies successfully exploited this opportunity. During the election campaign of 1949, he resolved to fight for free enterprise, counter inflation, extend child endowment, and end petrol rationing.
The Liberal/Country Coalition won the 1949 election and Menzies resumed Prime Ministership on 19 December 1949. He continued in office for the next sixteen years, winning seven general elections. The period was marked by Australia’s amazing economic growth. He took voluntary retirement on 26 January 1966, at the age of 71.
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At the end of 1966, he assumed the scholar-in-residence position at the University of Virginia. He presented lectures which were published next year as ‘Central Power in the Australian Commonwealth’. Later, he also published two volumes of memoirs.
In March 1967, he was elected the thirteenth Chancellor of Melbourne University, serving a five-year term.
Awards & Achievements
In 1950, he was awarded the Legion of Merit (Chief Commander) by US President Harry S. Truman.
In 1951, he was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH).
He was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Western Australia and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of New South Wales.
In 1963, he was appointed Knight of the Order of the Thistle (KT). He is the only Australian ever to be appointed to this order.
In 1973, he was awarded Japan's Order of the Rising Sun, Grand Cordon First Class.
In 1976, he was appointed the first Knight of the Order of Australia (AK).