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Menzies and Asia: time for a reappraisal

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 9 July 2012

History has not been kind to Sir Robert Menzies. Australia's longest serving Prime Minister who never lost a contest as an elected official, might have expected a little more from his collective total of 18 years of leadership. Instead his political opponents have been almost unanimous in their condemnation of him as a kind of antipodean Colonel Blimp, clinging to Britain as the colonial mother long after it was political to do so, timing his many visits to London to coincide with Lords test matches, resplendent in MCC blazer in the members' enclosure.

This has been taken up by historians in subsequent decades, coupled with the more serious allegation that his Anglophilism had retarded Australia's relationships with its Asian neighbours; condemning it to an irrelevance which had to be repaired by the Whitlam and subsequent governments from the 1970s onwards. It is a theme that has tended to become more strident as time goes on and the rewards of trading with Asia, and especially China, more obvious.

This conventional wisdom is challenged by Associate Professor David Martin Jones of the University of Queensland and Andrea Benvenuti, a senior lecturer in international studies at the University of New South Wales. Writing in the Australian Journal of International Affairs, they make a compelling case for reinstating Sir Robert as a true and committed internationalist.


They claim that while the Menzies Government did continue to orientate itself towards Britain and then later the United States, it did have an Asian policy, but one that was necessarily restricted by the situation existing in the region in the quarter century that followed World War II.

China was emerging from Japanese occupation and a ruinous civil war, locking itself into the Maoist straightjacket which was to stunt its potential and throw it into periods of chaos for decades; Japan lay defeated and devastated; Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia were more involved with extracting themselves from colonialism and Vietnam was riven by conflict.

Britain, on the other hand, remained a safe market. Rebuilding after World War II it increasingly needed Australian agricultural products as rationing ended and a degree of prosperity began to return. In 1950 almost 30 per cent of Australia's exports went to the 'mother country' and given the perilous state of a world still recovering from a hot war and about to plunge into a cold one, it would have been folly to tinker with such a reliable market.

As Jones and Benvenuti point out, while it was certainly true that Australia under Menzies remained eager to maintain strong economic and trade ties with Britain "nevertheless, it is too quickly forgotten that post-war Asia was a region ravaged by war and bedevilled by poverty. Regional trade links were not obviously viable".

However, when nascent opportunities began to show themselves, the Menzies Government was not slow to respond. The Japanese economic miracle got seriously underway in the late1950s and early '60s and the negotiation of a bilateral trade agreement with the old foe as early as 1956-57 was an act both of extreme political courage (considering public opinion at the time) and economic foresight. As a result, by the 1970s Japan had become Australia's most important trading partner, a title it retained until supplanted by China only in recent years.

Times were changing; Britain not unreasonably was seeing its destiny in its own neighbourhood and sought to enter the European Common Market. That certainly brought an end to the cosy trading relationship that existed between the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, including Australia, and subsequent governments in Canberra really had no other choice than to seek their destiny elsewhere.


But it was a case of making a virtue out of necessity and really it did not take huge foresight to project to an increasingly prosperous Asia that would be the obvious market for what Australia could produce. Governments in Canberra that followed Menzies rode the Asia wave, cautiously at first, and then with increasing delight as China's conversion to economic liberalism drove the wave higher and faster on a journey that many seem to think will never end. That, of course is just as much a fallacy as those who thought Britannia would permanently rule the waves, but it is an argument for another day.

It seems quite obvious to state that the Menzies Government was a product of its time. In the post-war world Australia's trading future was still bound up with Britain, while Asia was an unknown and very uncertain quantity. Apart from Japan there were modest increases in trade with neighbouring countries (up to 12 per cent of total exports by the beginning of the 1970s) and that was probably just about what the region could reasonably absorb at the time.

There is no doubt that Sir Robert admired Britain, its traditions, its steadfast refusal to throw up its arms and accept the German occupation of Europe when that seemed the only reasonable course of action. He readily accepted ancient and anachronistic titles such as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle which allowed him to take up residence at Walmer Castle during what became annual visits to the UK in retirement.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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