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North Melbourne Books: It's been twenty years since we've had a biography of Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister. What made you want to take up the challenge? What appealed to you about researching Menzies' life?
Troy Bramston: The discovery of a series of interviews that Menzies gave in the 1970s for his official biography that was never completed was the motivation. I was lucky to secure access to them at the National Library of Australia and when I sat down and read the transcripts and listened to the tapes, I was stunned. This was a Eureka moment for a historian and they deserved to go in a book that told the story of his life and examined his legacy. So many historians have ignored his papers at the National Library - 650-plus boxes - so I went through them and found lots of new material: diary notes, letters, memos, photos and verse. I wanted to make sure what I wrote was written as much as possible on primary sources and would be fresh.
NMB: Robert Menzies uses new material, most notably previously unreleased interviews with Menzies. You also conducted many interviews yourself with people who knew Menzies. What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learnt?
TB: I interviewed the surviving ministers, several of his staff, some public servants and his daughter, Heather Henderson. They all knew different aspects of Menzies, which was useful in unpacking what he was really like in cabinet, in the party room, in his office and at home. I was struck by his shyness and his kindness towards staff, which is not the Menzies that the public got to see. He had a friendship with John Curtin and Ben Chifley - two Labor PMs - which was much deeper and genuine than I had realised. The Menzies-Curtin letters are very affectionate. I discovered that Menzies cried the night Chifley died, and did not mind who saw him.
NMB: Menzies can be a divisive figure, yet your portrait remains balanced and judicious. We learn of a man both brilliant and flawed. What's your view of Menzies' character and legacy?
TB: This is a great story of a man born in 1894 in a small country town in Victoria who became prime minister. He wasn't from the born-to-rule set or the establishment. He was a man of decency and integrity, and he was in politics because he believed in public service. That matters. He has some big achievements such as expanding universities, funding non-government schools, developing Canberra, the ANZUS treaty and signing a trade deal with Japan. But there are significant misjudgements such as the Vietnam War and he maintained the White Australia Policy, was reluctant to condemn South Africa's apartheid regime and had retrograde views about Aboriginal Australians. But he reflected the views of many people born in the 19th century. So I tried to provide a balanced account of his life and legacy.
NMB: Federal politics today is particularly volatile in turning over prime ministers. What can today's politicians learn from Menzies?
TB: He lived a long life with many ups and downs and he was often written off but he always learnt from his mistakes, rebuilt his standing and consolidated his position. So how he did it and became the longest-serving PM makes for a compelling story. The most relevant aspect of his legacy today is how he practiced politics rather than the enduring nature of his policies. Politicians can learn a lot from him, such as how to manage a party, run a proper cabinet process, articulate values and communicate effectively, and develop and implement policy.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I'm reading Robert Caro's Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, which is terrific, but of course his fans (like me) would rather read the concluding volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography! I enjoyed Jon Ward's Camelot's End about the battle between Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1980. And I recently read Sally Young's Paper Emperors about the newspaper industry in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Scribe Publications $49.99