Shortly after polling booths closed just 50 years ago today - Saturday, November 30, 1963 - Sir Robert Menzies knew his Coalition government would retain office with a House majority exceeding 20. Described as a ''snap'' election, it was the Coalition's seventh consecutive victory. In due course, Menzies would retire, leaving his side of politics well-placed for future contests.
It might have been otherwise. The Coalition had survived the election of December 1961. Menzies was decidedly apprehensive.
Before the result was finalised, he wrote to his daughter, Heather Henderson, ''If we are even in the House, an early dissolution must occur. Personally, I would like to have one. When I consider the grave international problems (including Indonesia and the Common Market) which confront us, it seems to me essential that there should be an Australian government with a clear majority to speak for the country.''
In the event, the Coalition had a majority of just one.
Especially concerned about the likely behaviour of some backbenchers, the shadow of his 1940-41 minority government hung heavily upon him. He was ''presenting an agreeable face to the world but down inside I am desperately concerned to know whether we can avoid trouble and for how long''. It was not the first time Menzies had had to retrieve a dire political situation.
In eight years he had famously worked his way back from the forlorn ending of his first prime ministership in 1941, creating the Liberal Party in the process. He survived a dangerous downturn of fortune in 1954 when inflation unsettled the economy; 18 months later he triumphed in another contest, winning a then-record majority in the House, which he increased three years later.
Acting quickly to address the serious economic situation lying behind the election outcome, on February 5, 1962 he announced a series of measures aimed at revitalising the economy and reducing unemployment, which stood at what was deemed an unacceptable level of nearly 3 per cent.
Anecdotage has it that, in cabinet discussions, the minister for labour, William McMahon, complained that the government was just implementing Labor policy. Menzies, so it is said, responded that if these measures were good enough for so many in the electorate, they should be good enough for McMahon!
The recovery that followed was very much Menzies' achievement. In the House, as in the country, he was in the lead. No major legislation passed without the benefit of his advocacy.
His eye for advantage was unerring. In 1961, Labor had had the support of the Fairfax press. Now Menzies turned this back on Labor leader Arthur Calwell, chiding him about his ''rich and powerful friends'' and mocking Labor about the ''Fairfax-[Rags]Henderson-Calwell axis''. Labor was easy prey. It hardly knew how to take advantage of the near evenly divided House.
Another person who tried to do just that was the deputy prime minister, John McEwen, Country Party leader and minister for trade. Preoccupied with the fate of the Country Party, highlighted by a forthcoming electoral redistribution and the consequences of possible British entry to the Common Market, McEwen seemed to entertain ambitions of succeeding Menzies. Menzies, considering McEwen ''somewhat deficient in humour'', thought he might ''overplay his hand and get an unfavourable reaction''.
McEwen did, indeed, overplay his hand. When the NSW Liberal, Leslie Bury, minister for air, expressed doubts that Britain's entry to the EEC would damage Australian interests as much as many - among them McEwen - feared, Menzies, ever conscious that coalitions are very fragile, obtained his resignation.
A more serious though less immediate threat came in the intensifying struggle over the tariff. McEwen, projecting himself as the ''manufacturer's friend'', sought to strengthen the tariff wall; some Liberals, of whom Bert Kelly (South Australia) was increasingly the most prominent, resisted. A very potent signal of dissent from within the top ranks of officialdom came when Sir Leslie Melville resigned the chairmanship of the Tariff Board.
Menzies adroitly contained a potentially damaging dispute by appointing the diffident comptroller-general of customs, Alf Rattigan, as Melville's successor; Rattigan, as the decade progressed, proved a formidable obstacle to McEwen's machinations.
Retrieval after the 1961 setback was an exemplary display of Menzies' resilience, his versatility and above all, his extraordinary political virtuosity.
Labor's electoral prospects steadily diminished in a contentious policy environment. Domestically the party was much at odds with itself over government assistance to non- government schools. Controversy flourished as Labor clung doggedly to its view that people were entitled to use non-government schools so long as they did so ''at their own cost''.
Foreign policy also included many points of contention. Indonesia's bid to take over West New Guinea from the Dutch was handled well enough, but its confrontation with the newly formed federal state of Malaysia presented Labor with fresh dilemmas about Australian military activity abroad in concert with Britain, the former colonial power.
Labor was likewise tested over defence and security. The US proposed a communications station at North West Cape in Western Australia. Labor's Left was decidedly disconcerted. Calwell inadvisedly referred the question to the party's federal executive which, in turn, convened a special federal conference.
Calwell and deputy Gough Whitlam addressed the conference but did not participate in debate. Towards midnight the journalist Alan Reid spotted them waiting outside the Hotel Kingston for news of the decision; they were photographed.
Menzies was very soon upbraiding Labor for handing over authority to the unelected 36 faceless men.
Late in 1963 there were some major decisions about the air force. The British pressed the purchase of its new fighter-bomber, the TSR 2. But the government settled on 24 TFX planes (later known as the F-111) from the US, notwithstanding that it was at a much earlier stage of development.
With surprising alacrity Labor joined a very public campaign by British ministers to persuade Australia to reconsider and buy British.
Menzies, having reminded his opponents that he was ''British to the boot heels'', then underlined to them that ''my prime duty [was] to my own country and to the safety of my own country. On that principle we have acted.'' In September and October, unemployment falling, the electoral omens were propitious but not so obviously so that Labor did not welcome a return to the polls. The House of Representatives, for the first and only time in Australian history, was dissolved prematurely although the government had not been defeated on a major question nor was a periodical election of senators pending.
An innovative as well as seasoned performer at the hustings, Menzies opened the campaign with a 40-minute television speech instead of a two-hour long public meeting. With foreign affairs and defence at the forefront of his appeal, domestic policy figured tellingly in new programs for science facilities in schools, government and non-government, and financial assistance for first-home buyers. Labor, generous in its welfare proposals, inevitably struggled on defence questions. It had no answer to the 36 faceless men charge.
A week before the poll Australians awoke to news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Labor leaders feared this would make the voters cautious.
At the election, favourable swings from 3 per cent to 7 per cent brought the Coalition three seats in Queensland and seven in NSW. Menzies had a majority of 21. He had been wise to go to the people when he thought prospects were good. Within a month of election day, Athol Townley, the former defence minister appointed to Washington as ambassador, died. Had there not already been a general election the Menzies government would have found itself, early in 1964, fighting for survival in a byelection in a very marginal seat - a powerful illustration that, in politics, it is wise to grasp the nettle when you can.
John Nethercote is adjunct professor, Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University