John Howard has long regarded Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, as his political hero.
So when producers decided to make a two-part documentary on Australian politics and society during the Menzies era, Howard readily agreed to collaborate and serve as the presenter.
The ABC has commissioned Howard on Menzies, one of six projects which received more than $2.7 million in funding from the first round of Screen Australia’s Broadcast program.
“With my fellow exec producer Stuart Menzies (no relation) we approached Mr Howard and put a case that we believed that a film from him based largely on his recent book, The Menzies Era, would be a unique insight into history, leadership and political power,” writer-director Simon Nasht tells IF.
“We needed to convince him that we were a team that could be trusted with presenting his viewpoint, not inserting our own. Then the ABC needed to be convinced that a polemical film, an essay film if you like, would be acceptable within their editorial guidelines. Ultimately both parties were satisfied that this was a remarkable opportunity to explore an important chapter in Australian history.
“Howard is very hands on, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the era and the personalities and has an absolute passion for the art of politics. It is a true collaboration but ultimately the opinions being expressed are Mr Howard's.”
Menzies served as PM from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 until he retired in 1966, the last federal leader to leave office on his own terms.
Stuart Menzies had been having discussions with the Menzies Research Centre about the project since departing the ABC, where he was the ABC2 controller, last August. He brought the idea to Nasht and they jointly approached Howard.
Nasht plans to interview a vast array of politicians (serving and retired), including Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser, plus historians and cultural identities such as Barry Humphries and Clive James.
“The 50s and 60s in Australia have been largely dismissed as a backwater in our history, or at the very least a dull time when nothing much happened,” Nasht says.
“This is a vast injustice to history. In fact, as we contend in the film, this was the period that created modern Australia, including the expansion of a vast middle class that absorbed millions of immigrants, vastly expanded our education opportunities and built the wealth from which all Australians benefit today. And as Prime Minister for 16 years, Menzies must be considered the author of much of this dramatic change in Australian society.”
Howard said, "The Menzies years established much of the prosperity that Australia enjoys today, laying the foundations of one of the world’s most successful societies. I am pleased to be able to bring what insight I can to the life and career of our most successful political leader, a man whose legacy has been greatly underestimated.”