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  Issue No 94 Official Organ of LaborNet 04 May 2001  




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Il Duce Roberto?

His modern-day fan club might not like it, but Rowan Cahill argues wartime PM Robert Menzies sailed close to the winds of Fascism.



Eight days after the start of World War II, Prime Minister Robert Menzies wrote a letter to Australia's High Commissioner in Britain, former Prime Minister and Left basher Stanley Bruce.

Menzies confidently expressed his opinion to Bruce that Hitler "had no desire for a first class war" and would offer peace talks after defeating Poland. In the words of Menzies, "nobody cares a damn about Poland".

The full letter became public a fortnight ago as part of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Lecture given by the historian and economist Dr. John Edwards.

One Glass Too Many

Springing to the defence of Menzies, his biographer Allan Martin was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald saying that the letter was probably the result of a reflective mood by Menzies "late at night with a glass in hand", suggesting it did not warrant serious attention. Possibly one glass too many, Allan.

Rightist think-tanker Gerard Henderson noted that the letter was surprising and unwise given the outbreak of hostilities, but pointed out that Menzies "was an appeaser before the war, like nearly everyone else". Quite right Gerard; there was an active, if persecuted and prosecuted, anti-appeasement and anti-fascist Australian Left, though I think you scrimp on its magnitude.

Rather than a surprising tippled lapse by Menzies, the letter from the Prime Minister's Canberra office on 11 September 1939, is a clear statement of a political position conservative myth makers have tried to hide from history.

Nazi Tour

Robert Gordon Menzies, Liberal Party founder and hero of John Howard, liked strong government. On 6 November 1938 he told a Presbyterian church audience that a government "founded on licence would destroy itself ", and went on to call for more "national powers" to help the development of a "national spirit".

A fortnight earlier he had told a Melbourne audience that the enthusiasm for service to the State evident in Italy and Germany "could well be emulated in Australia". His comments were based on his European tour earlier in 1938 which took in Nazi Germany, and high level Nazi briefings courtesy of the recommendations he received from the Nazi Consul-General in Sydney and the Nazi Ambassador in Britain.

Menzies was an appeaser of considerable magnitude. In London on 3 March 1941, as part of a four-month visit, Menzies told an international audience of business representatives, journalists, and diplomats, that Australia had no quarrel with Japan, and wanted to "draw closer to Japan and appreciate its problems".

In mid-1940 his government had pressured Britain to close the Burma Road, effectively starving China of vital supplies required for its struggle against Japan. In 1938 Attorney-General Menzies had used draconian powers to smash the ban by Port Kembla (NSW) wharfies on the export of pig-iron ("war supplies") to an aggressive, expansionist Japan. It was during this dispute that Menzies earned the derisory nickname Pig Iron Bob.

Harassment of the Left.

A vocal, growing and energetic Australian Left increasingly opposed fascism, Nazism, Japanese militarism, and appeasement during the 1930s.

Conservative Federal and State governments retaliated with harassment, including special legislation, extensive use of security services and police, prosecutions, imprisonment, the curtailment of civil liberties, while the thuggery of anti-leftists was tolerated.

Censorship was a repressive feature of Australia during the 1930s. Some 5000 titles were banned, including many left-wing works. Australia ranked as the most repressive English speaking nation.

Menzies, either as Attorney-General or Prime Minister, was in the vanguard of this overall authoritarian process.

The Hidden Appeasers.

Australian pro-Japanese appeasers included respected public figures, influential media personnel and academics, and prominent members of social, business and financial elites. Dr. Drew Cottle has studied these and, with patient archival detective work, demonstrated their collaborationist potential and intent (The Brisbane Line: a reappraisal, PhD thesis,

Macquarie University, 1991).

Unlike fellow well-heeled collaborationists in Europe, however, history and the Curtin ALP government denied them the opportunity to show their colours.

It serves Rightist purposes to gloss over the closeness with which Robert Menzies sailed to the fascist wind in the 1930s, as it does to keep the extent of highly placed collaborationist sentiment in the political closet. A great deal of Liberal Party and Rightist "legitimacy" depends upon it.


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*   Issue 94 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Global Action
The CFMEU has been a world leader in fighting the war on global corporations. John Maitland has been one of the generals.
*  Unions: Sisters United
In her May Day address, Bus Union state president Pat Ryan looks at the role women have played in the labour movement.
*  Politics: M1 and the Trade Unions
Phil Davey was one of the forces behind S11 but chose to sit out M1. He looks at this week's action.
*  History: Il Duce Roberto?
His modern-day fan club might not like it, but Rowan Cahill argues wartime PM Robert Menzies sailed close to the winds of Fascism.
*  International: Cuban Call for Global Labour Rights
An international meeting of union representatives in Cuba has vowed to start a campaign to defend workers rights from the effects of globalisation.
*  Economics: The G-Word
ACTU President Sharan Burrow asks if there's a better way forward for global trade.
*  Media: Birth Of A Nation
East Timor's young journalists are struggling with language barriers and technical difficulties most Australian media professionals wouldn't be able to comprehend. But they're keen and eager to learn.
*  Review: The Tremulous Hopes of the Fifties
Behind the the good times mythology of the 1950s was a desperate quest for the ordinary.
*  Satire: Teen Angst Poems a “Danger”
The Teen Angst Gun Massacre Affair has broadened, with staff at the NSW Department of Education revealing that “gangs of conspirators” have been found operating out of high school poetry competitions.

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