The best thing I can say about Howard on Menzies is that it largely met my expectations. I would hardly call it a documentary, there is little intellectual rigour involved in this hour long conservative bromance. Instead we are treated to a conga line of banal has-beens reflecting wistfully on a time when they were not quite so irrelevant.
Led appropriately by Howard, we have the pleasure of hearing some Australia’s stuffiest, most pompous personalities recalling a different time, a time where men were men and picket fences were painted white and the family had church and a roast with three veg on Sundays and domestic violence, homophobia, racism and the like were politely ignored.
And of course in Howard’s idyllic reconstruction of this bland dystopia for which he yearns so passionately these inconvenient truths are casually skipped over. The role of Menzies government in upholding and even defending the White Australia Policy might have warranted some investigation if this was a real documentary headed up by a real journalist or historian but Howard sees no need to delve into such awkward matters. Not when a good five minutes must be dedicated to gushing about the oratorical tone and inflection of Menzies.
Unsurprisingly the former Prime Minister who now wears as a badge of honour his callous lack of sympathy towards the Stolen Generation also declined to examine Menzies culpability as overseer of this chapter in Australian history.
Howard and his fellow fogeys spoke of Menzies as some great champion of women, as evidenced by the fact that statistically more women had supported Menzies than his Labor rivals in Chifley, Evatt and Calwell, but then again this was by and large true of the men too. Like so many other documentaries about former political leaders: Whitlam, Chifley, Curtin – to name but a few – the program pays no heed to the government’s response, or lack of response to the domestic violence epidemic which though poorly documented was certainly ongoing. Indeed, the scourge of marital rape – that is, the legal view that a husband was entitled to force sexual intercourse upon his spouse – went largely unchallenged until the 1970s. Yet according to Howard there was never a better time to be a woman in Australia. The Menzies era: where women could be prosperous, politically active and completely at the mercy of her husband.
Other omissions include Menzies early sympathies for Adolf Hitler and his desire to sell iron to Imperial Japan. It is possible of course that some of these issues will be covered in the second instalment of this two part series, in which case your humble servant will happily issue an apology but my expectations are not high. Yet as egregious as they are, none of these omissions or fudges are really the problem with the program. The problem isn’t the lack of discerning criticism of Menzies, it’s the lack of any substantial content whatsoever.
A good documentary deals in facts, it deals in details. To be sure it clothes them in a good narrative but it should informative. Howard on Menzies does not deal with facts and details; it deals with the vibe. It is vague and general, like the essay of a student who only recalls three lines of actual research with which he is attempting to pad out eight pages.
The program had two highlights. One involved a terse exchange between Howard and Henry Reynolds over Menzies’ economics. Reynolds correctly pointed out that economically Menzies was a protectionist and a Keynsian who had little in common with Howard’s neoliberal approach. An agitated Howard waved away this observation with the explanation that it was a different era – I thought that was the point of the program.
The other was Malcolm Turnbull’s appeals to his own party room. Turnbull attempting to position himself as a politician in the mould of Howard and Menzies spoke to the Prime Minister’s dwindling support within Coalition ranks. Both Menzies and Howard had poor first stints as leaders before returning changed men and enjoying long and successful premierships. Turnbull cut a pathetic figure as he argued feebly that he had undergone the same process and was now ready to be the third great Liberal Prime Minister (if you ignore the way Fraser dominated the latter half of the seventies). This told us nothing about Menzies but was interesting for observers of current Australian politics.
All in all Howard on Menzies is a fine example of why former politicians should not be given resources to make documentaries. A documentary on Menzies spearheaded by Sarah Ferguson or Jonathan Holmes would probably be quite interesting but all we got from Howard was a hitherto unpublished work by Enid Blyton. Some have accused Howard of hagiography but this is unfair, I doubt if I tried that I could have made Menzies appear more dreary, unimaginative and beige.