Following an op-ed in last week’s AJN by Labor MP Mike Kelly, which was critical of Sir Robert Menzies, Josh Frydenberg – who sits in Menzies’ old seat of Kooyong – and former Howard government minister David Kemp respond.
IT is said distraction is the last refuge of the desperate.
In Mike Kelly’s case this is more than apt. In an attempt to explain away Labor’s abstention on the UN vote for Palestinian state observer status and Bob Carr’s aggressive campaign to distance Australia from Israel, Kelly has opened a new front in the history wars (“Labor’s abstention explained” AJN 18/01).
His portrayal of Sir Robert Menzies as a Nazi sympathiser and appeaser “not concerned for the fate of the Jews of Germany” is a despicable slur. Kelly’s claims are not only patently false but intellectually dishonest.
Menzies understood the true nature of the Nazi threat, referring in his memoirs Afternoon Light, to the “sinister figure of Hitler”. When it came to attributing responsibility for the war, Menzies made clear “the guilt was that of Germany alone”.
Following a four-day visit to Germany in July 1938 (not the “several weeks” Kelly claims) Menzies, in fact, was shocked by the Nazis’ destruction of the liberal and democratic features of Germany, and by the apparent willingness of the German people to accept this. He wrote about the “somewhat queer atmosphere of Germany”, and told Dr Schacht, the president of the Reichsbank, that “the real danger of the regime was that the suppression of criticism would ultimately destroy Germany”.
Far from unrealistically believing peace could be preserved, on his return he expressed his deep concern at the parochialism of the Australian states in resisting Commonwealth plans to prepare for war. He told the Constitutional Club of Sydney in October that:
“Few people of the Commonwealth fully realised that the European crisis might involve hostilities in Australian waters – that war might be something that would come to Australia, and not merely something that was happening 12,000 miles away” (SMH, 25/10/1938).
Kelly refers in his article to the distress of Dame Enid Lyons, wife of prime minister Joe Lyons, at comments by Menzies in his speech to the Constitutional Club about the issue of national leadership. Kelly greatly misrepresents what Menzies said and the reasons for Enid Lyons’s distress.
In his speech, Menzies contrasted the “good natured, easy-going”, head-in-the-sand attitudes of Australians with the patriotic fervour the German dictatorship had been able to whip up, especially in young people. He said that Australia needed leadership that could inspire a sense of patriotism among Australians.
It was Menzies’ call for inspiring leadership, at a time when Enid Lyons’s husband was in the Lodge, that she could not forgive. Enid Lyons saw Menzies’ speech as a criticism of her beloved Joe. Kelly’s claim that Menzies “contrasted the quality of the leadership of Lyons as PM unfavourably with that of Hitler” is totally false, as is the implication that Enid’s reaction was related to the treatment of Jews in Germany.
Menzies’ biographer Allan Martin has examined closely Enid’s reaction and concludes that she was wrong in taking Menzies’ general comment about the importance of leadership and a greater sense of unity as a criticism of her husband.
Again, Kelly’s implication that Menzies admired Nazism based on his deeply ironic comments in his letter to his sister Belle in 1938, in which Menzies refers to the Germans’ “magnificent” abandonment of liberty and plunge into irreligion, reveals just how far Kelly is prepared to go to distort the truth. The defence of liberty was perhaps Menzies’ supreme political value, and his point to his sister was the same as his public remarks.
In quoting Christopher Waters’s study of appeasement in Australia, Kelly fails to mention Waters’s conclusion that: “Many aspects of the Nazi system were totally alien to Menzies. The attorney-general was mystified by the German people’s acceptance of their loss of legal and political rights under Nazi rule … Menzies was no fascist. He was a committed democrat” (Waters, p.66).
The suggestion that the Lyons government (and Menzies) were unwilling to do anything about the plight of Jews in Europe is again false. In fact the Australian government under both Lyons and Menzies greatly expanded the immigration intake, over John Curtin’s and Labor’s resistance, and many thousands of Jewish refugees had entered Australia by the outbreak of war.
It would not have been an easy decision for Menzies to send Australia to war in September 1939.
With America remaining neutral and Great Britain preoccupied in Europe, Australia looked with fear to a rising Japan in the East.
The invasion of Manchuria had taken place and Australia’s rearmament was still underway.
Nevertheless Menzies had the fortitude and foresight to put Australia into battle to defend freedom and help defeat the tyrannical Nazi regime and Japanese militarists.
Curtin’s isolationism was, indeed, the most dramatic example of the “head in the sand” attitude that Menzies criticised. Billy Hughes said of Curtin at the time:
“The honourable gentleman says we must close our ears to the piteous cries of the oppressed, because otherwise we will be endangered … The day may come when this small nation will cry aloud to the world for help, but what will the world say if we adopt and pursue the policy of selfish isolation outlined by the Leader of the Opposition?”
Curtin had even opposed the government’s rearmament program, because in his “class war” view of the world, as his biographer David Day has written, Curtin believed “that it was serving the interests of the arms manufacturers rather than the workers”. Curtin, to be fair, struggled to lead a deeply divided party in which the anti-Semitic “Jack” Lang was still a powerful force, and in which “white Australia” evoked passionate adherence.
“In my opinion,” Menzies said in a message to Chamberlain in October 1939, “the immediate object is to win the war and win it in no uncertain way, since a patched-up and premature peace would inevitably expose us to a series of events similar to those of the past few years.”
It was Menzies, without Curtin’s support, who prepared Australia to resist the fascists and Nazis.
“The Labor Party,” Curtin said “is opposed in principle and in practice to Australians being recruited as soldiers in the battlefields of Europe.”
In his more than two years as prime minister after Lyons’s death, Menzies put in place the fundamental decisions that enabled Australia to fight the war successfully. As F.G. Shedden, the public service head of the Department of Defence, and the man largely responsible for Australia’s war organisation, was to write to Menzies in December 1942 after his resignation:
“Tribute has yet to be paid to the great foundations laid by you at a time when you lacked the advantage of the effect on national psychology and morale of a war in the Pacific.”
Throughout the period of his prime ministership, Menzies’ commitment to victory would remain steadfast, even during the darkest days of May 1940 when France was being overrun and senior colleagues like Stanley Melbourne Bruce, Australia’s high commissioner to Britain, contemplated defeat.
Menzies worked to focus the British on the importance of the war in Asia and the Pacific. Like Churchill he understood the importance of America to the Allied war effort and made it a priority for Australia to have independent representation in Washington, appointing our first ambassador to the United States in 1940.
None of these important facts are cited by Mike Kelly, just as he regrettably ignores the Labor Party’s virulent isolationism during this period.
Not until Germany made its ill-fated decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941, in breach of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, did many in the Labor Party, along with those in the labour movement’s prominent communist wing, concede Australia’s interest in defeating the Nazi regime.
In attacking the legacy of Menzies, Kelly only makes a passing reference to the strong support Israel received during the 1956 Suez crisis from the Australian government led by Menzies.
Menzies was to say in the Australian Parliament that “the people of Israel have a perfect right to know that their national integrity will be respected.” Together with external affairs minister Richard Casey, Menzies laid the blame for the crisis firmly at the feet of Egypt and its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, providing Israel with a supportive international voice at a difficult time.
In fact, throughout his life Casey was not only a strong defender of Israel but a great admirer of the Jewish people, praising their courage and saying their values were an “example to the world”.
Another issue raised by Mike Kelly is the Australian government’s decision to exclude leading communist Egon Kisch during the mid-1930s. This matter is dealt with at length by Allan Martin.
The decision to exclude Kisch was taken by interior minister Thomas Paterson before Menzies became attorney-general and followed Britain’s decision to exclude Kisch “because of his subversive views”. Kisch was prominent in the anti-war movement and his exclusion had nothing to do with his Jewishness, a point Kelly carelessly overlooks. A New Zealander, Gerald Griffin, who had spent a considerable time in Russia, was excluded at the same time for similar reasons.
In Mike Kelly’s effort to paint the Labor Party as the true friend of Israel, he places great store on H.V. Evatt’s role at the United Nations at the time of Israel’s independence. Again, some balance is required.
Evatt did play an important role as chairman of the ad hoc committee that paved the way to partition, but the hagiography should not yet be written.
Harry Levin, Israel’s first consul-general to Australia, wrote in September 1949, “Some keen observers seem to feel that there is nothing at all that Evatt holds dear; even his friendship for Israel, they say, will last no longer than it suits his personal ambition. Evatt himself is making it clear that he expects financial support for party funds from local Jewish leaders and he expects them to transmit the funds through him personally …”
In his attempt to rewrite history in order to portray the Liberal Party as unfriendly towards Israel, Kelly points to Malcolm Fraser’s “strong anti-Israel sentiment”. It is important here to point out Fraser’s strong support for Israel during his eight years as prime minister.
Isi Leibler has said of Fraser: “I retain fond memories of my genuinely warm association with Malcolm Fraser when he was prime minister and I headed the Australian Jewish community. Our relationship was based on shared values and my appreciation for his inestimable assistance on behalf of Soviet Jewry, ensuring that, while I was in Moscow, the Australian embassy provided support for my efforts on behalf of Jewish dissidents. I also recollect that in those days he was enthralled with Israel and he would spend hours discussing and enthusiastically lauding the achievements of the Jewish State.”
Unfortunately these sentiments are not acknowledged by Kelly.
Finally, it must be said that throughout his life, Sir Robert Menzies exhibited a marked degree of respect and admiration for the Jewish people.
He placed a great premium on religious faith and sought to promote tolerance and diversity in Australia. Indeed, one of his outstanding legacies was his commitment to state funding of non-government schools, leading to the funding of Jewish day schools.
At the many Jewish events he would speak at during his political career, from birthday celebrations for Sydney’s Great Synagogue to opening the Jewish War Memorial Synagogue in Canberra, he would speak openly of his friendships and associations with Jewish community leaders like Rabbi Brodie and Baron Snyder, saying in the company of the Jewish community “I feel completely at home.”
Robert Menzies was the man who revived liberal thought and lifted the standards of Australian politics, and was the strongest opponent of socialist class-war rhetoric and the supporters of fascist ideas. Australians today should acknowledge an immense debt of gratitude to Menzies for his unfailing support for individual liberty at its moment of greatest challenge, for his opposition to those who were impressed by the overseas dictatorships of the ’30s, and to the national division, class war, isolationism and socialist utopianism being fostered from within the Labor Party at the time.
For Mike Kelly to seek to dishonestly misrepresent the Menzies legacy simply in order to promote Labor’s credentials towards Israel at a time they are being called into question is very unfortunate indeed.
Josh Frydenberg is the Federal Member for Kooyong, the seat Robert Menzies held from 1934-66. David Kemp is a former minister in the Howard government and editor of the new edition of Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy.