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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 990


Photo of Menzies, Robert

Menzies, Robert

Period of Service: 19/12/1949 to 26/01/1966

More information about Menzies, Robert on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 14/09/1964

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 990

Speech by the Prime Minister, the Rt, Hon. Sir Robert Menzies.
Mr. Chairman I've bean misled and I've been misled by that
deplorable character Maley ( Laughter). I understood from him
that today was my 301h anniversary. I am no doubt quite wrong,
but there you are. But I thought it was I didn't look it up,
and when I had people coming to me earlier and saying " Many
happy returns of the day", a somewhat fantastic wish you will
agree, I was still under the illusion that it was today, but
now it's tomorrow. So I suppose I'll have to make a little
speech and then make it retrospective to tomorrow, hoping that
I survive so long. Now I was told that what you would like to hear,
as briefly as possible would be some retrospective views of
affairs, people, since I came here first in 1934. Or as Ray
Maley, with that exquisite capacity for an original phrase
that characterises the Press, said to me " Wandering Down
Memory Lane" ( Laughter). Well, I will first of all wander down it about
Canberra itself because at that time in 1934, Canberra had
6,000 people, and you could positively stroll around the whole,
beat the bounds, in two hours with no difficulty, Now it's a
large place and getting larger. In 1934, it did not have
municipal self-government, a state of affairs that still continues.
( Laughter) Back in 1934, in the Lyons Government, we had a
Budget I haven't had a chance of looking up the precise
figures but I would say something of the order of œ 75 Mo for
the year, the Commonwealth Budget. I, myself, in 1939 by a
temporary but speedily corrected error, became Prime Minister
and introduced the first œ 100M. Budget. Happy daysl ( Laughter)
Even then, I have no doubt that some of the newspapers here
represented complained of the gross extravagance of public
expenditure and said that it ought to be cut down, We spent in a
delirium of excitement in 1935-6-7, around that time, œ 15M. a
year on social services and it's no-. w somewhere between œ 400M,
and œ 5OOM. and is conceded by everybody to be grossly inadequate
( Laughter) but that was the position at that time.
We had, in theory, an External Affairs Department.
We didn't really have a Department, we had a Minister for External
Affairs, because George Pearce about whom I will say something
later on, was Minister for Defence and Minister for External
Affairs. Instead of masses of young men and women who now have
their being in the External Affairs Department and who are the
masters of all the most subtle intricacies of the United Nations'
procedure, so important for somebody, in those days, George
Pearce, the Minister," Hoddy" Hodgson he was the Department,
and there was the stenographer and she was the other part of the
Department. ( Laughter) We had a High Commissioner in London.
We had no other diplomatic representative anywhere in the world.
Those were days of noble simplicity. Today, of course as you
know we have High Commissioners and Ambassadors aroun the
world and we have an External Affairs Department of a fully
sophisticated kind with all sorts of aspects of international
affairs being dealt with. Very hard to believe that when I was

first here in this very place, in this hotel, we had none of
these things. I don't think we had any Trade Commissioners at
that time. We may have had. If we had, they existed in
perhaps New Zealand and Canada, but we had no organised Trade
Commissioner service of the kind that we now have. In other
words, these were days of almost Spartan simplicity in administration.
The complexities of international trade the complexities
of international affairs had not yet fully developed,
they had not yet been complicated by all the explosive effects
of the Second World War and those events that happened after the
Second World War and I th-nk the result was, in those days,
with fewer Min. sters than we now have, it was found possible to
have a certain amount of civilised leisure Ministers were
well known to be seen on the late lamented golf course, playing
golf. Indeed their fraternity with the Heads of Departments
on the old Canberra golf course postponed the introduction of
the Lake for a long, long time, ( Laughter) Which reminds rne
that of course we had no lakeo We had none of these things
that we are nw beginning to take for granted.
Now I just said to you that there was a certain
simplicity about life. That's quite true. If there was a
conference in Iondon it was a conference between a limited
number of people all of whom understcod each otheri It had
none of the complexities that have come with the new Ccmmonwealth.
Indeed, nobody in those dayz could have envisaged
what was going to happen as colony after colony came to self-
Governm-nt and to independent statehood,
Well, of course inevitably, moving over thirty
years, the complexity of matters to be dealt with by governments
has expanded almost by geometrical progression, I can give
evidence about this because I ii the only extant creature who
was a Prime Minister in 1939 and 1940 and 1941 and who is still
a Prime Minister in this year of grace '" Grace", I think, is
the right word. ( Laughter) But anyhow, I ghcught that I had
plenty to do at that time and indeed I did, I worked seven
days a week and there are only seven days in the week. I would
say that the complexity and mass of matters coming across my
table today is double or treble what it was a-that time,
twenty-five years ago,, This goes for everything,
The sturdy individualists in the country who resent
any political interference apply for it every week. The
manufacturers who oh, I must be careful because I have to
speak to them this week sometime ( Laughter) what I will
call the sturdy believers in private enterprise who think the
Government ought to keep out of it are with us every week or
with the Tariff Board every week or with something or other
every week. There is hardly a section in the community today
that doesn't in one breath protest its undying hostility to
government activity and in the next breath, pray for it.
It isn't a wonderful or a remarkable or a regrettable
thing that the number of Ministers has perhaps almost doubled
since I first came to Canberra, it has been necessary and I
venture to say that if the complexity of modern affairs and the
demands made on governments both continue their pressure, there
will be more Ministers and more Ministers in time to come, and
a bigger and bigger Parliament in time to cone.
I mention it to you because I know it is not of your
own malice but under the instructions that you will be given, or
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your successors will be given, that you must criticise every
increase of any kind, and say that it is nonsense; that what
the Government needs is fewer Ministers and not more. Well,
all I can tell you is that if we had fewer there would be one
interesting consequence, because if you reduced the number of
Ministers and you thereby increased the responsibilities coming
to each Minister, you would make him more and more dependent on
his Departmental officers. You have only to reduce the number
of Ministers far enough to create ultimately a complete
bureaucracy. It's worth thinking about,
A Minister must have sufficient opportunity and
time, if he is a seriously-minded person to master the problems
of his Department, and if he does, he will be able to place the
proper value on the highly competent professional advice that
he will get from his Department. Eut if he is so pressed
always against the clock, that he just has to say, " Well, look
I haven't time to answer this problem, So-and-so, my Departmental
Head is a very wise and experienced fellow and ho reccmmends
so-and-so, i11' say eyes'", Now this is worth thinking about,
It is worth thinking about.
Cabinets don't cost mucho Really they don't if you
look at the broad saeep of national affairs. I would sooner have
too many than too few, because I believe that the best kind of
government arises when Ministers have enough cnergy and time to
think about their own problems and to form viewJ, and enough
time to put the proper value on the advice they will get, as
they will get iz, from vhat in my opinion is one of the greatest
civil services in the world. But we must have balance, and
that's why, looking back over this time, I see an enormous
increase in numbers and I believe that it's been justified.
Well now, I must push on. I've said to myself for
the last two or three days, " How does the standard of debate in
the House compare new with what it was thirty years ago?" Well,
I think on the whole it's better. There are two reasons which
make me interested to find myself admitting to myself that it
is better. One is that there are two very good reasons why it
should be worse. One reason is that people, constituents ( I have no
complaint about my own; they have remarkable patience and
endurance) but people, constituents, will write an enormous
amount of correspondence to a member, a private Member of
Parliament, and if he is going to answer them and deal with all
the details that they want him to deal with and go to the various
Departments and got the necessary answers, then he's going to
have a pretty small amount of time to sit down and do that good
hard sweat and study that is necessary if anybody is going to
make a considerable speech.
The volume of constituency work, of course, grows
and grows and grows every year because we are always having some
new proposal, there is some new social service, there are some
new changes in the rules of social services, there are changes
in trade treaties, changes in the tariff schedules. There are
masses of things of this kind, and on all of them, the Member
is going to be at the receiving end. Therefore, when I consider
their constituency and correspondence and interviewing work, I
would have expected as a more or less detached observer, to find
that the standard of debate had fallen since those more spacious
and leisurely days when I first came to Canberra. Now I am
happy to say I don't think the standard of debate has fallen,
on the whole. I can hear, I think, a higher percentage of
thoughtful constributions to debate than I could have at that time.
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I was a bit nervous about broadcasting. Very
nervous about it because,...... broadcasting, of course has one
great advantage which all you gentlemen of the Press will
understand perfectly. : It does mean that if anybody cares to
listen to you, he does know what you said, ( Laughter). You
understand me perfectly, But I gather that only abou* one or
one and a half per cent, of the people listen. That's, as a
corrective factor not perhaps as great as it might have been,
But in the early days, I felt that it was almost ludicrous when
the broadcasting came in and we had these things standing up
you know, these microphones. Somebody described it as looking
like the petrified forest.
In those days, gentlemen, private members who sat
round here, would be seen to be moving very anxiously to the
nearest microphone when they were about to deliver a speech.
There was then a non-technical theory that you had to be close
to the wretched instrument to be heard by your constituents.
And indeed, some of you will remember that on one celebrated
occasion one member of happy memory was having a little
difficulty with his upper denture in the course of making a
speech. There was a certain clatter and occasionally a hissing
and a certain amount of obscurity which produced, I regret to
say, some laughter in the House. He said, " It's all right. It's
my upper set. By the way, Doc., ( addreasing his dentist who
lived in some place 500 miles away), by the way Doc, don't forget
Itve goc an appointment witn you on Saturday morning," ( Laughter)
Well, there's another comment I'll make. on thar, I
thought that broadcasting with this business of getting into
line with The microphone would produce mo-e and more set speeches
and less and less debate. I think in the long .' un that hasn't
happened. It did in the start. It was quite clear that ic
didn't matter what Jones, Brown or Robinson had said, Smith was
going to say his piece into the nearest microphone and his
constituents, as he hoped, would be listening to him and they
would then understand, I think all that has rather died away.
I think on the whole there is more debating in the i; rue sense,
more cut and thrust more answering of arguments to and fro now
than there was in the two or three yeals after broadcasting was
introduced. And from that point of view, I think there is much
to be thankful fore
I would think, on the whole, the average level of
debate, yes, has risen, There are many thoughtful speeches, I
was tempted to think that might be due, particularly in recent
years to a rising level of educational attainment, until I
remembered myself that formal education let's remember it
has hardly ever been the test of distinction in the political
field, George Pearce, about whom I will speak a little later,
who was a very great Parliamentarian, was a bush carpenter.
His formal education terminated no doubt, when he was thirteen
or fourteen years old. You can t go by that. Some people have
talents and improve them all the way through their lives and some
people have some talents and improve them early and neglect them
later. The real test is whether a man has a continuing mental
attack on the problems that he deals with. And from that point
of view, I think that the debate which has improved, I think has
not improved solely because of formal education though that s
of great assistance, but has improved because it is increasingly
seen how serious a matter the government of the country is.
Now I wish I could say that I thought the standard of
reporting had risen. I don't think it has, quite frankly. I
remember saying to John Curtin, when he was Leader of the
Opposition, " You know, John, you can splak, why do you read?"
and he said, " Well, I ar an old journalistic sweat, but you know,
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if I want to be reported, I must hand it out.', Now,, there is a
bit of truth in this,, isn't there? A bit of truth. A recent
debate in the House tat 1 listened to with great interest
consisted of one speech that was read and a reply that was
brilliant and destructive of the whole argument, but it was
the first one that arrived. I don't think, if you will allow
me to say so, that the standard of reporting has been maintained,
and that is, I think to a substantial extent, the responsibility
of Ministers who real out Second Reading speeches and of other
people who read out speeches in the course of debate and find it
convenient to hand them over.
The whole glory of Parliamentary debate is that it
is debate, that it has cut and thrust and nobody ever produced
any cut or thrust by the more process of producing a piece of
paper. This is the clash of minds. It is the debate which
swerves from one side to the other under the pressure of events,
which accommodates itself to a new argument, to a new thought,,
This is the most fascinating thing in the world.
It is because of this, you know, that W inston, when
the House of Commons wasi to be rebuilt after the W~ ar, said,
" We will not have it any bigger. de will not have a House of
Commons that can hold all the Members of the House of Commons,
Peoples strangers to his way of thiinking, thought, " Well how
crazy.' 3 But they did it.~ because the whole idea was tha if you
have a place so vast and wide that all tho intimacy of discussion
disappears, you might as well have Parliamentary debate corducted
by a series of essays printed and distributed and a division list
at an appropriate time. The importance ol' Parliamentary debate
is, I think, something, wel~ in myrid, it is something essential
to the continuation of democracy. And that's why I am glad to
say that I think, on the whole, the average level of debate is
better now than it was when I came up here.
Now, Itvo been going a long time and therefore
perhaps I might just say a few words to you about some of those
who have boen here and who are no longer alive. It would be
impertinent of me to discuss the living. -But there have been
some very interesting people here and I have time only to mention
four or five of them to you.
There was Mr. Lyons himself, the first Prime Minister
under whom I served. He had a bland manner. He had a genial
manner. He was the perfect family man. This has great appeal
in Australia, and vory properly but it is sometimes not realised
that Lyons was a positively brilliant Parliamentarian. I don't
think I ever knewr a better. Let mne explain to you what I mean.
You fellows have all known, you've seen this. Question
time, and Se-and-so has got a curly one and unless a Minister
knows what it is about, he may easily foozle it a little or he
may be driven back into a series of requests to put it on the
Notice Paper; this is a testing time, Question Time Without
Notice, remember on two or three occasions when I was his
Attorney-Generaol going to Mr. Lyons and saying, " I just heard a
very nasty question, a very difficult question is going to be put
to you today. It is a rather complicated matter and there is no
earthly reason why you should have heard of it." And he would
say " Well, no, I haven't, but do you knew about it?" And I
would say, " Yes, I've managed to." And he would say, " Well, sit
down and tell me." Then I would explain this matter as best I
could. And then I went away in my then youth and innocence, saying
to myself, " I hope he remembers what I've told him." 1 This was a

stupid thought of mine because sure enough, up came the question
and, sure enough, up Lyons got and made a repy so charming, so
bland, so accommodating, which didn't answer a single point
( Laughter) that I had mentioned, that when he sat down, the
questioner who had begun full of malice, would be seen smiling
and saying, " Thank you very much." ( Laughter) Now, this is not
to be sneezed at. ( Laughter)
When they say a man is a great Parliamentarian,
you must never just think that means he has been in Parliament
a long time. It means that he knows every noise and every creak
in the machinery and he understands the human beings who are in
Parliament and is able to proceed without becoming involved in
avoidable arguments or talking himself out of his own Bill.
We've seen all these things happen, haven't we? I think that
Joe Lyons was a great Parliamentarian. I learned a lot from
watching him and listening to him. Not enough, but a lot.
Well, then, the next man I want to mention is the
late Mr. Scullin. Now, he was Prime Minister before I came here.
He was Prime Minister from the end of 1929 until the end of 1931,
beginning of 1932 and I came here about this time in 1934, and
when he had been defeated and when the United Australia Party
came in, Scullin became the Leader of the Opposition as a former
Prime Minister and he held that post for oh, I've forgotten
two or three years perhaps. Then he announced he was retiring
from it. I was staying in this Hotel( which then, of course,
I hasten -Lo say, was not as good as it is now) and so was he and
we walked down together to the House, and I said " Sir, why are
you retiring or is that an impertinent question?" He said,
" No. I don't mind telling cu. You see I had a short but
very torrid time as a Prime Minister." ( Ho encountered the whole
blast of the Depression). " Well, I know what happens in the
Prime Minister's Office. I know how many matters are the subject
of despatches, of cables with other governments and other people
and there are some things you would love to be able to talk about
which you can't talk about because they are in a certain stage
of negotiation. Now ( he said) the only man who ought to be the
Leader of the Opposition is a fellow who has never had that
responsibility so he can put all the embarrassing questions in
the world. I can't and I won't because I know what is going on
inside the Administration and so, I am disqualified by former
office." I was very impressed by this though I didnt
follow the example ( Laughter) lateronmyself. But let it be remembered,
this was completely illustrative of Jim Scullin. He was a very
fine man. He was a nan of sensitive honour and integrity. Ho was
indeed. I don't think he was a very great thinker, if I may say
so, with respect, you know. He wasn't one of the great statesmen
in that sense, but he was a man of intelligence and activity
and an acutely conscientious man, and I think that the Labour
Party was indeed fortunate to have a man of his quality, even
for this brief period in which it was in office in 1930 and
1931. Now, of course, no talk about these people would be
complete without mentioning Billy Hughes. ' ell, I can't say
too much about this because I saw Hughes only in his declining
days 1934, well, he was never going to be Prime Minister again.
He had a beautiful waspish wit which could be produced out of a
blue sky in Cabinet, but quite frankly, his ideas were no longer
constructive and his estimates of public opinion, an element to
which he attached a great deal of importance, were not very
frequently right. Now, I don't know. I am going to read / 7

Fitzharding's book on Billy with loving care because I would lile
to discover a few things about him. All I want to say is that in
my time there was nothing about that he had to do or say which
would exhibit more than a gleam of what he must have been at an
earlier stage in his life. But his wit was devastating, and his
use of his deafness, masterly. ( Laughter)
ii rnenii2El on onk u cujlcn, fuL-axaaple, he brought
up a proposition in the Lyons Government which was so hopeless
that even the rest of us, in our ignorance, realised how hopeless
it was; he didn't get a supporter. Everybody said, " No" for a
variety of reasons. Now in those days those old days, we didn't
have a Secretary to the Cabinet, we didnit have Jack Bunting
sitting around or somebody making notes. The Junior Honorary
Minister we even had those at that time, illegally but the
Junior Honorary Minister was supposed to retain some memory
and the Minister concerned would put his submission over and get
the Prime Minister to say " approved". This was the record.
I remember one day when Billy had brought up some proposition
which was really too bad for words you see ( Laughter) and we
all picked it to pieces, Out he had taken his little machine out
of his ear and so at the end of it all , he picked up his submission
and passed it over to Lyons and said, " Well, I take it you can
sign this." ( Laughter) I said something just a while ago about George
Pearce. You know, there was a great legend about Pearce. Because
He had gone in almost at the same time as t3illy, though from
another State, because he had followed Billy's fortunes in
crossing the floor of the House, the tradition was that George
Pearce was a sort of Vj. car of Bray. I would just like to tell
you that in my opinion, speaking about Canberra, I have never. sat
in Cabinet with an abler man than George Pearce. This ne~ ds to
be said in justice to his memory. He was a man of extraordinary
experience, of course, and he ' had great wisdom and he wasn't just
somebody who could say, " Oh well, you know, I remember." He
would . analyse a problem just like that, and having analysed it,
he didn't leave all the loathsome bits and pieces on the table as
so many people do, if they analyse a problem, but he Ilways knew
which one to pick out and say, ,, Vell, now, that's the thing.
Thats'sthe determining factor," and give you his reasons for it,
and his influence on these matters was tremendous and not negative
but positive at all times. Some day, justice will be done to
George Pearce. As it is, I look back on my great good fortune
to have sat in a Cabinet with him for three years, as one of the
things in my life. Well, then, I have just time to mention quite
briefly two men who deserve far more than some mention. One is
John Curtin and one is Ben Chifley. I can speak a little about
them because they have gone.
Curtin and Chifley will never be understood until
you realise that they were utterly different. I have never known
two men more unlike. They were great friends but two men more
unlike, I would never expect to see, because Curtin's instincts
were towards a sort of broad philosophical approach to matters.
He liked nothing better than to sit down and put his feet on
the table and have a talk to you about something that didntt bear
on the Bill before the House but bore on the general philosophy
of politics or indeed of the world. He was not the greatest
speaker in the world, with great respect, because he leaned. too
much to long Latin endings which rather blurred the fine edge of
his speech. But he was a very good speaker, of course, and
would have been greater but for that. This was part of his I
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makeup. He did have the kind of mind which liked to range over
a wide variety of problems and if he had had the opportunity
in his life of professing one of these subjects in a university,
he would have done it with great distinction. He was, of course,
a charming man, a delightful man, and a good friend.
Chifley was just about the opposite because his
mind didn't range over a wide variety of objects. He dealt with
the economic problems and financial problems. He had had no
preliminary training for them. He achieved a complete mastery
of them. He didn't aspire to be a great speaker because his
voice was against him but he still spoke to the point, and he
was a great man to be able to sit down with and discuss matters
with. I would say that he had immense strength in a narrow
field. Curtin's strength was distributed over a variety of
fields. I think that if John Curtin hadn't had Ben Chifley as
Treasurer, his Government might have fallen earlier or something
else might have fallen out differently. Two utterly different
men. Now, it is easy to say that Chifloy.... well, he
was an enginedriver and he lacked formal education. True
enough, and yet, you know, one of the interesting things about
that man was that I discovered over a period of years that he
had what I thought, at any rate, an almost immaculate literary
judgment. He read widely, his judgment was good, he could
determine what was shoddy and rwht was not. It was an illuminating
experience to sit with him on the Literary Fund when from
time to time we advised about publications and fellowships and
the like. He had clear views, strong views; I thought
tremondously informed and sound views on these matters and it
was entirely to his credit that while I was thinking of some
very periphrastic way of explaining this, you know, so as not
to hurt anybody's feelings, he was quite capable of sitting
up and saying, " Well, if you don't mind, Miss So. and-so, I
think it's all bloody nonsense," ( Laughter) which shows the
immense advantage in life of having for a time been an enginedriver
and not a barrister. ( Laughter)
So there they were, two different men. The Labour
Party, if I may say so, has great reason to be thankful to them
and I venture to say that onch of them in his turn contributed
to making tnis Parliament a place of some distinction. Let me
saLy gentlmen it is a place of some distinction. It has had,
over the whole of its history, a number of men of great
distinction and we do well to recognise that. I get pleasure
out of it as I look back over these thirty years. Indeed, as
I look back over the thirty years and remember all the people
who mattered who emerged like that, I take leave to doubt
whether I will have many happier memories at the end of my
life than recalling them and the work that they did.

Transcript 990