The Measure of the Years (1970) by Sir Robert Menzies is a series of essays on various topics by Menzies, Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. The book has essays on the development of education under Menzies, New Social Services that his government created, the development of Canberra, the Morale of the Civil Service, Stability, Capital and Development, relationships with Asia, various aspects of the practice of Law, Cricket and most a fascinating recollection of the Petrov Spy Case and the reaction of Doc Evatt.
Menzies as a writer is a man who, in the 21st Century, is definitely from a different age. The book is written using words and phrases that are now dated. But Menzies does write well, cleverly and with humour that still comes through after many years.
On economic matter Menzies shares fundamentals with the modern day Liberal Party, his statement that “The Greatest function of a democratic government is to create a climate in which enterprise will flourish and productivity will increase.” is one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Liberal pamphlet of 2012 but some of the ways of achieving this have clearly changed. There is a chapter on how the government created the twin airlines policy that is, with retrospect, amusing.
On foreign affairs Menzies says some really interesting things about Asia, pointing out that from the start his government engaged with Asia and entered into important trade agreements with Japan in the early 1950s and also used ‘soft diplomacy’ cleverly with the Colombo Plan to engage with Asia. It is fun in retrospect to discover that Menzies rebutted the often heard claim that Asia has been neglected by the previous government regardless of what that government is.
The chapters on education, that show what Menzies thought of education and how his government expanded the system considerably are dry but interesting. The chapter on Canberra is also interesting and has the anecdote that Menzies named the Lake and that had it not been named after Burley Griffin there is a considerable possibility that it would have been known as Lake Menzies.
Menzies had a successful career as a lawyer before entering politics and the book has a few chapters on being a lawyer that show quite a bit of Menzies humour and his deep respect for Sir Owen Dixon.
The Chapter on the Petrov Affair is a highlight of the book stating what happened and how badly Evatt reacted. Menzies calm demolition of Evatt is convincing. He also, very kindly, does not write that Evatt certainly later rapidly declined mentally later and that there is a reasonable probability that Evatt was declining while reacting to the Affair. The central claim of Evatt, that the Petrov defection was timed by Menzies to win an election is demolished.
The book gives some insight into Australia’s longest serving and arguably most important Prime Ministers. It gives an indication of the qualities that Menzies had that made him so successful in politics. The book can drag on a little but it well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand Australia.