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Robert Gordon Menzies

(1894—1978) prime minister of Australia

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(b. Jeparit, Victoria, 20 Dec. 1894; d. Melbourne, 15 May 1978)

Australian; Prime Minister 1939–41, 1949–66 Menzies grew up in the tiny Victorian country township of Jepari, where his Presbyterian parents had a store. His excellence in his studies quickly earned him scholarships to Wesley College, Melbourne, and Melbourne University, where he completed a prize-filled law degree. From constitutional law he entered the Victorian parliament as a conservative, and then shifted to federal politics in the mid-1930s, where he initially rose as rapidly as he fell. As Prime Minister from April 1939 to August 1941 he struggled to control a disintegrating coalition of conservatives and was accused of aloofness. He was forced to resign, but reinvented his political image and helped to redefine conservatism in the form of the new Liberal Party, born in 1944. He led the Liberals, in coalition with the Country Party, to a huge electoral victory at the end of 1949, and remained Prime Minister for more than sixteen years, thereby inspiring the reference, ‘the Menzies era’.

Menzies's spectacular reign as Australia's longest serving Prime Minister is attributed to a number of factors. He targeted the suburban middle class, with special attention to women, in his electoral platforms; he fuelled the fires of division within the Labor Party by highlighting the danger of Communism, domestically and in his foreign policy; he presided over a period of strong economic growth and high employment, largely based on exports of Australian primary products; and he employed to full advantage his unrivalled speaking skills and commanding presence. During his reign, Australian military forces fought in Korea and Malaya; and, in his last fourteen months before retirement, he introduced compulsory military service (with liability for service overseas) and committed Australian troops to Vietnam.

Menzies has been criticized for his lack of innovation, for languishing in office during an economically fortunate era while clinging to his strong attachment to the British empire and royalty, rather than initiating economic and other reforms. While these criticisms still surface, in recent years there has also been a trend towards re-examining the Menzies era for its stability, and for Menzies' commitment to socially centred liberal values.

Menzies became Knight of the Thistle in 1963 and succeeded Churchill as Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1965. Shortly after his retirement he became chancellor of Melbourne University.

Subjects: History

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