Letters to My Daughter is a collection of letters written by former-Prime Minister Sir Robert “Bob” Menzies to his daughter, Heather Henderson, between 1955 and 1975.
It might come as something of a surprise that someone of my political bent would have an interest in reading about Bob Menzies, father of the Australian Liberals, especially given that in my recent research Menzies featured as the spectre of evil, Money and Conservatism. There are numerous reasons why I decided to pick up Letters; suffice it to say I was interested to discover more about the man himself, about conservative Australian politics in the period covered by the book and to read about the man from a less hostile viewpoint than the Australian Communist Party.
And what a joy it turned out to be! Menzies and his daughter enjoyed a close and friendly relationship, as is evident in the letters, and they give the reader an excellent insight into the personal lives of the Menzies, of the Australian political scene and, to a lesser extent, British and American politics. Henderson has done an excellent job of editing the letters together and annotating them with information that makes sense of quotes and references that might otherwise slip by the reader.
Menzies was no less a writer than he was a speaker. Being a man of an age when education inspired rich, witty and intelligent conversation the letters are interesting and amusing at once when dealing with trivial matters and more serious concerns. On receiving news that his daughter had given birth to her second daughter Menzies wrote:
“When the news came during a luncheon I was giving at Parliament House, I fell into a sort of trance of pleasure. …True, as I wrote to you previously, I would have liked a grandson. As against this, and speaking solely from my own experience, I love daughters. There are other compensations. Probably on the principle of physics that ‘action and re-action are equal and opposite’, a boy would have grown up to be a Communist MP, treating my memory with proletarian disrespect!”
His analysis of issues in Australian and international politics are also very interesting and, more often than not, quite accurate. His views on American elections, John F. Kennedy, “Dick” Nixon are fascinating, especially when placed into the context of how events turned out.
After his exit from politics, Menzies felt that while the world “[had] moved on, and that [he perhaps had] not moved with it”:
“The London Times used to be regarded as the sheet anchor of the reflective man, but every time I open it now the front page is devoted either to the death of the manager of the Beatles (with a subsequent obituary notice to which I could never aspire myself), or to the caperings of some of the eccentrics in the current generation called ‘Flower People’ or something.”
Certainly his attitude towards Australian politicians and politics grew more critical as the years progressed; in some of the earlier letters Menzies writes of “Brother Bert” (H. V. Evatt) and other contemporaries more sympathetically than I had expected but by the early 1970s politicians on both sides of the House were subjected to Menzies’ sharp criticism. Perhaps the change is due to the evolving relationship between father and daughter; perhaps it is due to age – either way it is clear that Menzies had a dire opinion of the Liberal Party in his final years and did not think much of the younger generation that was taking over his party.
I specifically mention this because Menzies is often cited as an inspiration for modern-day Australian conservatives and members of the Australian Liberals; John Howard in particular. Yet Menzies’ politics are as different from modern conservatism as Ben Chifley’s are from the ideology driving the Australian Labour Party today. After reading Letters I can’t help but raise an eyebrow to claims that Howard was mentored or desired to emulate Menzies as his ideology and style, not to mention the thuggish approach to Parliamentary politics*, are remarkably different. But, I shall continue to read as I may be proven wrong.
Letters to my Daughter provides a unique viewpoint into Australian politics and history that otherwise would be lost – many thanks must go to Heather Henderson for making sure the letters were published. Unlike Lazarus Rising (which could only be more mind-numbing if it actually fell out of the bookshelf onto your head), Letters to my Daughter is an entertaining and captivating read and I highly recommend it to people of all political persuasions.
Published by Murdoch Books, widely available. RRP: $39.95.
*Exhibited by the ALP and the Liberals equally.