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At home in the Ming dynasty

19 October 2013 3,472 views No Comment

BELIEVE it or not, our eloquent, long-serving conservative prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies was tongue-tied as a child and terrified of public speaking.

Menzies was born in the small Victorian country town of Jeparit in December 1894, the year of the second great shearers’ strike. His father ran a general store.

As Menzies’ daughter, Heather Henderson, points out in this memoir, after having been a student at Melbourne’s prestigious Wesley College, her father became a successful barrister and then Victoria’s, and later Australia’s, attorney-general. After a disappointing and divisive prime ministership from 1939 to 1941, Menzies was re-elected to our highest office in 1949.

Remarkably, the politician with a magnificent voice and a ready wit won seven federal elections in a row. In 1966, unusually for a politician, he resigned from the prime ministership at a time of his own choosing.

A clue to what is sometimes disappointing about this often revealing book is that Henderson, who is 84, confides that her use of language is different from that of the much younger editors at her publisher, and “the result has been a real compromise”. The narrative voice that drives ‘A Smile for My Parents’ is as a consequence often fractured and confused.

Then there is the problem that many of the photographs in the book are undated, as are a number of statements in the text. Henderson is largely uncritical of her father’s behaviour, especially as a politician, and makes claims that cannot be verified.

Henderson writes that, as prime minister, Menzies “always told his opposite number before he made any important announcement in the house”.This was, she adds, because of her father’s “great respect for parliament”.

Is Henderson not aware that at 8pm on April 13, 1954, shortly before that year’s federal election campaign was about to begin, Menzies announced dramatically in the house that a senior Soviet diplomat, Vladimir Petrov, had defected and the Coalition government had established a royal commission on Soviet espionage in Australia?

This crucial announcement was made in the absence from the house of Labor’s volatile leader, HV Evatt, who was attending a Fort Street High School old boys reunion in Sydney. Although it is hard to determine the immediate political effect of the Petrov affair and the royal commission, it seems indisputable that it contributed to the defeat of Labor in the 1954 federal election and the consequent ALP split in the mid-1950s. Yet the Petrov affair is not even mentioned in this book.

Henderson is on stronger ground writing about the details of her home life in Melbourne and at The Lodge in Canberra, presided over by her beloved Ma, Pattie Menzies. The same applies to her father’s love of sport, especially cricket. Indeed it was Menzies who established the tradition of a Prime Minister’s XI. Menzies was also a passionate supporter of Australian rules football and was for some years the No 1 ticket holder of the Carlton Football Club.

As Henderson’s memoir makes clear, Menzies certainly liked a tipple. Here is the recipe for one of his favourite drinks, a southerly buster: “Equal quantities of Brandy, Gin, Whisky, Lime Juice, plus 2 or 3 drops of Angostura Bitters. Mix with Ginger Ale. With or without cherry.” This concoction is something that would have made Jeeves and Bertie Wooster proud.

It is certainly intriguing to be told by his daughter that he revelled in the nickname “Pig Iron Bob”, bestowed on him by trade unionists in 1938 in response to his tough stance as attorney-general and industry minister towards the waterside workers who refused to load scrap iron heading for Japan.

Similarly, it’s to the great advantage of this book that Henderson recalls her father’s witty responses to interjectors at his public meetings. “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel,” someone yelled at a packed meeting. “If I were the Archangel Gabriel,” Menzies replied, “you would not be in my electorate!”

‘A Smile For My Parents’
By Heather Henderson
Allen and Unwin, 312pp, $29.99

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIANOCTOBER 19-20, 2013, Review, Books pp 24-25