FILM | HOWARD ON MENZIES: BUILDING MODERN AUSTRALIA | ABC DVD
The so-called History Wars were a feature of John Howard’s prime ministership. This ABC documentary shows political retirement has not dimmed the former prime minister’s appetite for some retrospective rumble.
Howard on Menzies sees Howard defend his role model and hero, Robert Menzies, from accusations that he was primarily a lucky, albeit cunning, leader who coasted along on the back of an unearned economic boom while Australia stagnated culturally and socially.
The chief accuser in this two-part series is Paul Keating, but only in file footage of typically stinging parliamentary exchanges. Apparently neither he nor Howard were keen on being in an interview room together.
Instead Howard talks to the likes of Malcolm Turnbull, Rupert Murdoch, Alexander Downer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Thomas Keneally, all of whom provide genial, even nostalgic, reflections on the Menzies era.
Bob Hawke, and to a lesser extent Barry Jones, are the major voices from the Labor side and they venture some measured criticism of Menzies.
Howard’s case for Menzies being proactive is most persuasive in the first episode.
He shows that Menzies, having been dumped by his own side during World War II, responded by defining and building a constituency of middle class voters to be represented by a new party, the Liberals.
So successful was this that Menzies reigned for 16 years from 1949, winning seven elections before retiring at age 71.
Of course, there was some luck involved. Menzies had close-run elections in 1955 and 1961, where he was saved respectively by the Petrov Affair and the subsequent Labor split.
The program argues that Menzies shaped his times by pointing to a handful of innovative policies such as university expansion and scholarships, opening trade with Japan and funding Catholic schools.
However, the doco admits Menzies did not address historical hangovers like the White Australia Policy or Aboriginal dispossession.
Perhaps the main problem with this well-made but somewhat sepia-tinged effort is that Howard is largely on the defensive, trying to retrofit Menzies as an agent of progressive social change when clearly that wasn’t the strength or intent of his prime ministership.