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Menzies' leadership crisis was at least as deep as Abbott's

By Alexander Morgan - posted Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Tony Abbott isn't the only conservative leader that knows what it is like to be going through a leadership crisis. Despte his longevity and eventual successes as prime minister, Liberal Party founder, Robert Menzies, suffered more than a few leadership battles in his time. Everybody with an interest in political history knows how Menzies struggled in his first term of office (1939-1941) and how he was eventually forced to resign as leader of the United Australia Party during the midst of WWII. Equally, everybody knows about his triumphant return to the Lodge after eight years in the political wilderness, to go onto become Australia's longest serving prime minister. However, it was Menzies' first leadership battle which is a much lesser known story despite the fact that in early 1939 it almost appeared as though Menzies may never become prime minister at all.

The beginning of 1939 was a deeply frustrating period for Robert Menzies and his growing leadership ambitions. The incumbent prime minister, Joseph Lyons, had spent over seven years in the nations top job and looked certain to overtake Billy Hughes as Australia's longest serving prime minister. Lyons, although aging and struggling to deal with a disunited cabinet, appeared to be the only person capable of holding together the UAP long enough to make to the 1940 election. The UAP, which had been formed by Lyons in 1931 after he had defected from the Labor Party, had comfortably won the 1937 federal election and had no major reason to depart from the popular prime minister. By March 1939, Menzies who was frustrated with Lyons and at his stalled ambitions resigned his cabinet position as attorney-general, citing however, the governments abandonment of its national insurance scheme. Menzies now found himself in the political wilderness for the first time.

Less than a month after Menzies' resignation, tragedy struck the Australian prime minister. On 4 April 1939, Lyons was rushed to St Vincents Hospital in Sydney where he would die three days later on 7 April. With the nation mourning the loss of the first prime minister to die in office and the fact that since Menzies' resignation the UAP had no deputy leader, Australia faced "a constitutional position without precedent in Commonwealth politics", according to the Canberra Times. The Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, quickly commissioned the Country Party leader, John McEwen, as prime minister until the UAP elected a new leader. Initially Menzies was not even considered a contender by the press, as it was assumed that either treasurer, Richard Casey, or former prime minister, Billy Hughes, would take over from Lyons. Added consideration was also given to the fact that the next UAP leader would almost certainly become a wartime leader with Europe finding itself on the brink of war. Astonishingly, it took the UAP almost two weeks to find a new leader at a time where the nation could have found itself at war any day and without a permanent prime minister.


Before the ballot was held on 18 April there was one other major contender for the UAP leadership, former prime minister Stanley Bruce. Both Casey and Page advocated that Bruce, Australia's influential high commissioner in London, was the only person capable of leading a united country in the tumultuous times that the nation faced. The Argus reported that "...unless some completely unforeseen development intervenes parliamentary members of the party will tomorrow invite Mr. Bruce to become leader and Prime Minister". This was not the first time or the last time that Bruce would be considered for a return to the prime ministership. Before his death Lyons unsucessfully advocated directly to Bruce that he return from London to resume the job he last held in 1929 so that Lyons could retire to his home state of Tasmania. Whilst Bruce declined on that occasion, the speculation was in the press in April 1939, that Menzies himself would resign his seat of Kooyong which Bruce would contest and Menzies would take Bruce's job in London. Even if Menzies decided to run for the leadership of the UAP against Bruce it was widely assumed that Bruce would secure a comfortable victory over Menzies and his old predecessor, Hughes. Nevertheless when the ballot was held a four way ballot for the leadership broke out.

As expected, Hughes ran for the leadership along with Menzies, Casey and surprisingly former cabinet minister, Thomas White. After three ballots Menzies finally triumphed. White was elimated first, followed by Casey and in a one on one contest with Hughes, Menzies narrowly scraped in by a reported four votes. However this was not the end of the leadership crisis, nor was it even certain that Menzies would still become prime minister. Page as the Country Party leader had taken a personal dislike to Menzies due to his alleged disloyalty during the final months of the Lyons government. As a result, Page not only continued his talks with Bruce but also declared in the parliament and privately to the Governor-General that he would not serve in a coalition government led by Menzies. The leadership crisis would remain unresolved for another eight days and spread to the floor of parliament.

On 20 April when parliament resumed, Page who was still acting as prime minister, launched an extraordinary and personal attack upon Menzies. Accusing Menzies of lacking courage, loyalty and judgement, Page attacked Menzies for resigning from the Lyons government, giving a provoking speech on leadership, and for failing to serve in World War I (something that would be used against Menzies during his entire career in politics). Page again advocated his position for the return of Bruce, however promising to resign his commission to the Governor-General in favour of Menzies. The Bruce idea never eventuated and on 26 April Menzies and his first ministry was finally sworn in as a minority government, minus the Country Party and despite the fact that Labor was the single largest party in the House of Representatives. Months later the attack on Menzies cost Page the leadership of the Country Party and a Menzies-Fadden coalition was formed.

The rise of Menzies to the office of prime minister was a long time in the making and at many times it seemed increasingly unlikely. It was certainly an extraordinary time in Australian politics, not only to lose an Australian prime minister for the first time but to have no clear successor as the world headed towards its second major war of the 20th century. Indeed there was some element of luck in the case of Menzies for if it was not for Lyons' death and Bruce's decision not to return to Australia, Menzies might never have become prime minister at all. If there is one lesson that our current prime minister can take from Menzies' experience it is that politics brings with it exceptionally difficult and often unpredictable obstacles, however he only needs to look to his party's founder as an example that even the toughest situations can be overcome. Menzies probably faced one of the most dramatic leadership crisis' of the 20th century in Australia, besides of course the Whitlam Dismissal, overcame it and then would have to go through it all again in 1941 only to return to power in 1949 and become Australia's longest serving prime ministers.

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About the Author

Alexander Morgan is a politics graduate from the University of New South Wales.

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