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The Commonwealth, The Menzies Era

Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, White Australia Policy, ANZUS, Lucky Country, Yugoslavs

In 1949 Menzies became prime minister a second time, ushering in a long era of conservative rule. During the war, the old United Australian Party had disintegrated and Menzies was ousted as prime minister. In opposition he led the formation in 1944 of the new Liberal Party, which upheld principles of free enterprise against Labor’s inclination toward socialism. Menzies, who remained prime minister until 1966, dominated federal politics against an internally divided Labor Party. He stressed the sentimental link with the British crown but developed a strong relationship with the United States, formalized in the 1951 treaty that created the tripartite mutual-defense alliance known as ANZUS (acronym for Australia, New Zealand, and the United States); it led to greater policy coordination between the three countries. Beginning in the 1940s Australia took a more active interest in Pacific and Asian affairs. Under the Colombo Plan, Asians began studying at Australian institutions in the 1950s. Menzies maintained the White Australia Policy, but under his successors it was gradually discarded, and since the early 1970s the entry of immigrants has been based on criteria other than race.

The Liberals’ long rule (1949-1972) coincided with the most sustained period of economic prosperity since the 19th century. Despite the party’s devotion to free enterprise, however, government intervention in the form of assisted immigration, tariff protection, wage arbitration, state enterprises, and government assistance for health care and education, including university scholarships, remained important strands of policy. Foreign investment, especially from the United States, transformed the Australian manufacturing industry; “Australia’s Own Car,” the Holden, was designed and manufactured by a subsidiary of General Motors Corporation. The coastal cities and their sprawling suburbs were the main beneficiaries of this growth. Between 1901 and 1971 urbanization rapidly increased; the state capitals grew from 35 percent to 61 percent of the national population. By 1971 almost three-quarters of Australian house dwellers owned or were buying their own homes. “The Lucky Country”—a title applied ironically by social critic Donald Horne—was how Australians increasingly thought of themselves.

Menzies had clung to the British connection, but his government followed policies that were steadily weakening it. Between 1947 and 1970 more than 2 million immigrants arrived in Australia, more than 60 percent from countries outside the British Isles. In the inner suburbs of the cities Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, and Lebanese were creating their own distinctive ethnic enclaves. From the beginning, Australia stressed the goal of assimilation: New Australians were encouraged to quickly learn the English language and assume the Australian way of life. By the late 1960s, however, representatives of ethnic associations were winning increased support for more pluralistic policies based on multiculturalism.

After World War II Australia remained active in Western military alliances, contributing troops to the Korean War (1950-1953) and the Vietnam War (1959-1975) as a staunch ally of the United States. Though not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Western military alliance formed in 1949, Australia participated in its Asian counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), from 1954 until its dissolution in 1977. Meanwhile, Australia adjusted its domestic and foreign policies, which included recognizing its growing ties with Japan.

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