Wartime leadership on show in Menzies exhibition at Old Parliament House

IF the Museum of Australian Democracy’s new exhibition, “Menzies: By John Howard” curated, “however tenuously” as the curator himself put it, by former Prime Minister John Howard, serves to demonstrate anything, it is the vast gulf which lies between the Menzies and his admiring successors.

Menzies, key image, courtesy AWM

Menzies, key image, courtesy AWM

For the very photograph chosen as the key image for the exhibition shows Menzies manning the movie camera with which he documented history, a sure sign that in his mastery of technology as well, as his promulgation of free tertiary education for all Australians, he was well head of his time, not behind.

The crowd that turned up to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s launch of the exhibition this morning was a somewhat greying Who’s Who of True Believers from the Right.
An unabashed admirer of Menzies, Mr Howard has put together a small but crystal-clear exhibition looking at Robert Gordon Menzies’ first prime ministership from 1939 to 1941 – 75 years ago.

John Howard talks to the crowd

John Howard talks to the crowd

Director of the Museum, Daryl Karp, welcomed Mr Howard and Heather Henderson, the daughter of the late Sir Robert Menzies, to “the newest national Museum on the block.”

Introduced by Federal Arts Minister and Attorney-General George Brandis, Mr Howard sketched the career of his celebrated predecessor, showing how Menzies had put his mark on modern Australia, not just his first period as Prime Minister, but during his second period as Prime Minister until 1966.

But it was really that earlier period which was the subject of his exhibition. “He was given a tremendously difficult hand. He arrived as prime minister when his government was running out of steam and the world was sliding towards war,” Mr Howard said.

And he was no milk sop. “… he didn’t go [to London] as some “cap in hand” colonial,” Mr Howard said, “He went there determined to do what had to be done … to get Churchill and the British to understand how exposed Australia really would be if Japanese attacked.”

Items on display in the show include significant items from private and national collections and from the Menzies family. Visitors will see the Prime Minister’s desk, personal diaries, written exchanges with John Curtin and films from his 1941 trip to meet with Churchill and Roosevelt.

As for turning into a curator, Mr Howard told those present that if you ever imagined anything of the sort, it would have been in connection with cricket, not politics.

Mr Howard and Mr Abbott under Menzies portrait

Mr Howard and Mr Abbott under Menzies portrait

Prime Minister Abbott was in wartime leadership mode as he outlined his views about the need to revisit history, and especially to focus on the wartime leadership which Menzies assumed shortly after became Prime Minister.

While he praised Menzies’ period in which he presided over a golden era of expansion in Australia, he emphasised his period of leadership in a war where there was unanimous agreement about the difference between good and evil. Those present wondered if he might have been drawing a parallel with present-day circumstances.

Menzies inherited a fractious political scene, Mr Abbott said, and learnt lessons during his first premiership that laid the foundations for his second, especially the lesson that “Human beings are delightfully illogical.”

In the personal view of Prime Minister Abbott, it would be evident in this “expertly curated” exhibition, how Menzies had shaped our national attitudes with his emphasis on family, small business and traditional values.

“Menzies: By John Howard”, at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House daily from 9am–5pm until September 2015.

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