A Smile for My Parents

1 October 2013

Book Launch at The Menzies Foundation

Speech by Hon. Josh Frydenberg MP

Josh Frydenberg and Heather HendersonA Smile for My Parents is a remarkable new book. Its pages spring to life with little known anecdotes and vignettes about the lives of two special Australians, Robert and Pattie Menzies. Its author, Heather Henderson, has successfully achieved her aim of bringing her parents "to life as real people" and showing why the former Australian diplomat and war veteran Walter Crocker was right when he once said to her "you are one of fortune's most favoured children". As readers we learn early on of the proud Menzies and Leckie families: both close-knit, with Christian values, links to country Victoria and steeped in political tradition. Robert Menzies' parents on both sides had family members in the state or federal parliament and Pattie Menzies' father, John Leckie, was the member for Indi and later a Victorian senator who served in his son-in-law's cabinet.

Something Leckie would not have foreseen when decades earlier a young and nervous Robert went around to seek permission from John to take his daughter's hand in marriage. Finding Leckie pruning the roses, Menzies couldn't quite get the words out, leaving Leckie to go inside and say to his daughter, "I just wish Robert would get on with it". The author opens our eyes to Robert Menzies' love of poetry and literature and his workmanlike approach to perfecting the art of public speaking. As a young boy he was late to offer his first words, doing so aged three; he was later to say that was only because he didn't want to make a fool of himself by making mistakes. His uncle Syd Sampson attended Menzies' first political speech, afterwards telling him it might have been good if it were being delivered at the High Court, but that it was inappropriate for a political meeting. For Sampson, a good political speech involved speaking simply, introducing a little humour and to keep repeating a few uncomplicated ideas.

Menzies took this advice on board, developing a devastating technique later summarised in a letter he wrote to his granddaughter Edwina: "When I had a big speech to make in the house, I would begin by making brief notes merely as a reminder to me as to what my line of argument was to be and relying upon the moment to produce the words in which I would clothe the ideas". This combination of logical, lucid argument with towering oratory saw Menzies' speeches, be they delivered at the local town hall in Kew or from the pulpit of St Paul's Cathedral in London in a tribute to his friend Winston Churchill, captivate and inspire a generation of young Australians. It even didn't matter to Menzies if there was an interjector or two. The book is replete with examples of eager hecklers at Menzies' public gatherings finding they came off second best. One of my favourites was when he said to one lady who was continuously interjecting, "Madam, I have no objection to your speaking in this hall, provided you do so some other night, or that you pay half the cost of hiring the hall tonight". Another angle of Sir Robert s life which is so beautifully elaborated in this book is his abiding friendships across the political aisle. There were, of course, his close Coalition colleagues - Eric Harrison, Artie Fadden, Alex Downer and Doug Anthony - but what may surprise some people who take the adversarial nature of today's politics as a guide was Menzies' friendships with Labour MP Jim Cope and Labour prime minister John Curtin. After Menzies' death, Cope wrote to Pattie, saying her husband "was a great statesman, respected and liked despite any inevitable political differences" and that his "name joins the list of immortals in world and Australian politics". In 1941 Curtin wrote: "Dear Bob, I thank you wholeheartedly for the consideration and courtesy which never once failed in your dealings with me. I wish you good health and fair going. Your personal friendship is something I value, as I hope and know you do, as a very precious thing". Even after Labour minister Eddie Ward, a trenchant critic, died, Menzies got up to say some gracious words in the house. Jim Killen asked Menzies how, after all Ward had said about him, he could bring himself to say such kind words. "Killen," Menzies replied, "there's something good to be said about every human being. Who knows, in the course of time we might even think of something good to say about you".

Menzies' sense of decency also characterised his relationship with the bureaucracy. From the civil service Menzies expected professionalism and loyalty, not political affiliation. Indeed, one young man from his department who came to see him made the mistake of saying: "I am so pleased you won. I voted for you." "In that case," said Menzies, "you are no use to me". Menzies wanted public servants who would tell him as it was, not as they thought he would want it to be. One could be forgiven for thinking that, as Australia's longest serving prime minister, Menzies had little time for matters outside politics. But this notion is quickly dispelled by Henderson, who recounts her father's interests in recreational sport: walking, tennis, fishing, snooker (where he learned from the great Walter Lindrum) and cricket. So great was his affection for cricket that Heather tells the hilarious story that he once planted willow tree in his back yard so that one day it could be chopped down to make a cricket bat or two. Menzies' experience as an amateur home-movie maker and his friendships with actors Danny Kaye and Mary Martin also get an airing in the book. These outside pursuits are important, not just in understanding Menzies' personality but also his success. For as his daughter writes: "His success in the field of politics was due in large measure to the balance in his life". But the key to Menzies' success is not his wit, his intellect or his outside interests but his remarkable partnership with Pattie. Mama, as Heather affectionately calls her, is described as "a woman of steel, not hard but determined and strong". She was never one to take a backward step, as a South African news organisation discovered when it interviewed her: "Mrs Menzies, is it true that you can cook?" "I am Australian," she replied. "If I could not cook that would be news!" A loving mother and homemaker, Pattie Menzies was a prominent figure in her own right, supporting community causes such as the Women's Hospital, hosting functions for the wives of parliamentarians and foreign diplomats, and giving speeches. Her popularity rubbed off on her husband; it was common to hear the refrain: "Not sure about old Pig Iron, but that little woman, she's a beaut, so he can't be too bad after all."

And it is here I wanted to end with my own personal story. Two weeks ago I was at a function in my electorate at the North Balwyn Bowls Club. I was talking to the women helping out in the kitchen and one apologised, saying sorry Josh, I couldn't vote for you - "my family has always been Labour". "In fact," she said, "my dad was a politician." I asked her surname and she said it was Ward; now called Dorothy Barnes, she was Eddie Ward's daughter. She told how Pattie Menzies invited her and her mother to a special lunch she was hosting for politicians' wives. Dorothy's told Pattie that with a 10 month old child she wouldn't be able to attend. "Come along," Pattie said, "bring your child and I will look after her". And she did, ensuring Eddie Ward's daughter could enjoy the event. Fifty years on she has never forgotten Pattie Menzies' act of kindness. This story is no doubt one of the thousands remembered and retold around the nation about two of the great figures of Australian political life, Sir Robert and Dame Pattie Menzies. This book speaks volumes to their generosity, their humility and their humanity. It is an important book and an enjoyable book and to Heather Henderson, its distinguished author, we are eternally grateful.

Josh Frydenberg is the Member for Kooyong and Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister.

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