The Assassination of Robert Menzies, 1965
By Chris Oakley
In retrospect, it seems in a macabre way fitting that the first Australian political leader to die at an assassin’s hands should do so in a decade when assassinations of public figures were rife. When Robert Menzies was gunned down on August 14th, 1965 at a Liberal Party gathering in Townsville, the murders of Patrice Lumbaba, John F. Kennedy, and Ngo Dinh Diem were only a few years removed and the shooting death of Malcolm X was still fresh in the world’s collective memory; within three years after Menzies’ demise Robert Kennedy would be slain in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen.
Ironically, Menzies’ assassin-- who blew his own brains out shortly after firing the four gunshots that killed the prime minister-- turned out to be a man who up until that day had never committed a crime in his entire life. He was also the father of one of the three men who’d died in the Fremantle Prison hunger strike twelve years before; his grief and fury over his son’s death had eaten away at him every day since then until, at some point which even he himself didn’t entirely recognize, he made up his mind Menzies had to die.
The seed for Menzies’ murder, and the Fremantle hunger strike which preceded it, was planted by the 1948 September Revolt, the Communist Party of Australia’s abortive attempt to overthrow the government of Menzies’ predecessor Ben Chifley. The uprising led to a host of tough new internal security legislation, including a constitutional amendment banning membership in Marxist political parties; in theory these new laws were supposed to protect the Australian people against further tries at insurrection, but in practice they created a flood tide of corruption and persecution and led all too often to innocent people being jailed for voicing opinions that sounded vaguely Marxist.
Opposition to the Menzies administration’s post-September Revolt security policies reached critical mass with the Fremantle hunger strike; this silent protest, combined with the British Privy Council Judiciary Committee’s subsequent ruling that the anti-Marxist amendment violated the right to free speech implicit in the Australian constitution, forced Menzies to dismantle much of the security apparatus he’d constructed and place restrictions on what remained.
Three of the eight men who conducted the hunger strike died before Prime Minister Menzies finally consented to review the convictions which had sent the strikers to prison in the first place. The families of all three men would be grief-stricken, but the father of one man, strike leader Stephen Burke, would take his son’s death particularly hard; he’d been a passionate foe of Menzies long before the anti-Marxist amendment was passed, and he held the prime minister personally responsible for the tragic circumstances of Stephen’s passing. The elder Burke’s sorrow and rage lit the fuse for the psychological time bomb which would go off in Townsville twelve years later.
The most surprising thing about the political firestorm that Stephen Burke was swept into when he joined the Fremantle Prison hunger strike is that Burke had been a rather apolitical person for most of his life. Born in Sydney in 1930 to a schoolteacher and a former RAA sergeant-turned-mechanic, Stephen’s main passion in life until about the age of 19 was Rugby League football; he was a diehard fan of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs rugby club1, living and dying with each game they won or lost. The elder Burke, who’d lived in the Sydney area since his discharge from the Australian army in 1919, often took Stephen to Eastern Suburbs home games; on days when they couldn’t see the team in person, they’d listen to the game on their kitchen radio. By the time Stephen left home in August of 1949 to join a friend who’d inherited a fishing boat in Western Australia, he’d amassed a rather impressive collection of Eastern Suburbs memorabilia and game ticket stubs.
Like most other Australians he was upset about the September Revolt, but that had less to do with ideological concerns than with the fact that news coverage of the CPA’s bungled attack on Parliament House had interrupted a footy game he was listening to at the time. When the federal referendum was held in June of 1950 to vote on whether to pass or reject the anti-Marxist amendment, Stephen only went to the polls because doing so was a requirement under Australian federal law.
He started to lose some of his political apathy, however, after seeing the abuses of power the amendment was leading to. In late August of 1950, he and his friend came back from a fishing expedition to learn that their closest neighbor had been arrested by the police after it came to light that the neighbor belonged to an organization that opposed the amendment. When Burke and his friend went to visit their neighbor in prison they were shocked to learn that the organization, known as the Fremantle Society for Liberty of Speech and Thought, had been accused of organizing a September Revolt-style Communist armed rebellion even though many of its members were in fact conservatives who saw the anti-Marxist amendment as a dangerous intrusion on personal freedom. To add insult to injury(literally), Burke and his friend also discovered that their neighbor had been seriously beaten by the police, who claimed(falsely, it turned out) he’d resisted arrest.
Three days after his neighbor’s incarceration Burke sent a letter to the newspaper The Age protesting the amendment in general and his neighbor’s arrest in particular. "They’ll have a file on me at the ASIO2 in the morning." he quipped to another neighbor when he went to mail his letter, and sure enough as soon as the letter was printed an ASIO clerk duly opened a new file under the heading ‘Burke, Stephen Edward’. That file, and Burke’s disgust with the Menzies government, would both steadily grow over the next two years; at one point the ASIO actually hired its own boat to keep Burke and his friend under surveillance during their fishing excursions.
Stephen’s father warned his son to be more judicious in expressing his thoughts, but the genie had been let out of the bottle for good. Stephen’s former indifference to politics was ancient history; shortly after the High Court of Australia’s October 1951 ruling upholding the legality of the anti-Marxist amendment, Burke and seven fellow opponents of the amendment met on board Burke’s fishing boat to organize the first in a series of rallies calling for the amendment’s repeal.
These rallies turned into a monthly event-- and a thorn in the ASIO’s side. In early September of 1952, just after the fourth anniversary of the 1948 Communist uprising, the ASIO high command made up its mind to remove that thorn once and for all; the director of the agency’s Fremantle branch went to the Western Australia state government seeking its consent to have Burke and his seven fellow demonstrators arrested. This consent was quickly given, and on September 15th the eight protestors were put under arrest just as they were about to start their next anti-amendment rally.
By all rights, even in the security-obsessed political climate of 1952 Australia it should have been clear that the evidence against Stephen Burke and his co-defendants was, at best, sparse. But the prosecuting attorney in Burke’s case was determined to make an example of him and his fellow protestors; with that in mind, he played on the jury’s memories of the 1948 September Revolt and their fears of Communist subversion until he had them convinced to a man that Burke had been involved in every act of Communist insurrection since the Potemkin mutiny. As a result, Burke and his co-defendants were convicted on all four of the criminal counts against them and sentenced to long terms at Fremantle Prison.
Few people realized the speciousness of the prosecution’s case against Burke and fellow demonstrators better than Burke himself. Half the men who marched with him at his anti-amendment rallies did so precisely because they feared that the amendment could be used by the USSR and its allies as material for anti-Western propaganda, yet the prosecution had gone out of its way to paint all eight demonstrators as Communist puppets.
Burke also understood that it would require something drastic to induce the federal government in Canberra to take action to review the verdicts that had been handed down against him and his fellow demonstrators. So in late January of 1953 he made a decision that would drastically change the course of Australian history: he enlisted his seven fellow demonstrators in planning a hunger strike to call attention to their plight. Their strike got underway on February 5th, and from that day on they were on a collision course with the Menzies administration.
A less confrontational PM than Menzies might have avoided this showdown, or least resolved it in a more amicable fashion. But Menzies wasn’t about to let anyone see him retreating one inch from his hardnosed stance on internal security issues-- most certainly not the Fremantle Eight3. His most vocal critic within Parliament, MP Harold Holt of Higgins, bitterly denounced him for his rigid position on the Fremantle hunger strike; the animosity between Holt and Menzies over this issue would eventually result in Holt’s expulsion from the Liberal Party.
When the first hunger striker died, pressure began to build on Menzies to reach some kind of accommodation with Burke and the other six surviving strikers. But the prime minister was adamant that he would not kowtow to Marxists; he was convinced that the whole thing was secretly being orchestrated by the Kremlin. When a second striker succumbed to starvation, many of Menzies’ fellow Liberal Party members warned him that he was courting disaster if he didn’t make at least a few concessions to the Fremantle Prison protestors. Still Menzies refused to budge.
On March 20th, 1953 Stephen Burke’s father got the call he’d been expecting-- and dreading --since the Fremantle hunger strike began: his son had died of starvation at the age of twenty-three. The news was broken to him by a Fremantle Prison assistant warden who secretly sympathized with the strikers’ cause. Upon learning of his son’s death, the elder Burke’s sanity shattered along with the last fragment of his belief in the existing Australian system of government. He had to be committed to a psychiatric hospital in Perth, where he would spend most of the next eight years-- and begin formulating plans to avenge Stephen’s demise.
Between the time that Edward Burke was first hospitalized in March of 1953 and the time he was released from psychiatric care in January of 1961, he largely kept to himself. Partly this was a byproduct of the psychological trauma of his son’s passing, but it was also motivated by the desire to keep doctors or his fellow patients from getting wind of his intent to kill Robert Menzies. Even in his grief-crazed state he understood that if the vaguest hint of his plans were sniffed out by the authorities, he could meet the same fate as Stephen had-- ending his days in the stark confines of a federal prison. In a secret diary he hid underneath the mattress of his bed, Burke sketched out at least a dozen or so possible scenarios for liquidating the prime minister; after his discharge from psychiatric care he smuggled the diary out of the hospital and worked on refining these scenarios.
In April of 1961 Burke sold his now-empty Sydney home4 and took up residence in the South Australian village of Ilbunga. On the pretext of wanting to defend his new home from intruders, he bought a .303 rifle; he then set up a secret shooting range in the desert west of Ilbunga to brush up on the marksmanship skills he’d first learned in the Australian army as a young man. Having decided that a gun was the best way to kill Menzies, Burke now only wanted one more thing-- the opportunity to get the PM in his crosshairs.
He would have to wait over four years for that opportunity. In the fall of 1963, shortly before John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas, Edward Burke suffered a psychological relapse and had to be placed back in psychiatric care; he would spend six months in a mental hospital before he could resume preparations to kill the man he’d come to regard as his mortal enemy. Stephen Burke’s widow Miranda sensed something was still amiss with her former father-in-law, but was unaware that he was plotting Prime Minister Menzies’ demise.
He was hospitalized for a third and final time in October of 1964, this time for physical reasons; stomach troubles required him to undergo minor surgery. It was only pure luck that kept his secret diary or his improvised shooting range from being found by the police while he was recuperating. But even in his weakened state following the operation, he never lost his determination to murder Menzies.
In late July of 1965, a group of Liberal Party stalwarts in Townsville extended the prime minister an invitation to speak at a meeting they had planned for August 14th on the topic of how to defend Australian interests in the Far East. The war in South Vietnam had just started to heat up, and already Australians of all political stripes were starting to argue over the question of whether Canberra should send combat troops to assist the United States in its fight to crush the Viet Cong guerrilla army then seeking to topple the US-backed Saigon government.
Menzies’ security team was understandably wary of letting the prime minister attend the Townsville gathering. While they had no knowledge of Edward Burke’s assassination plot, they were aware of the resentment many people still harbored toward Menzies for his policies during the post-September Revolt years; they worried he might be confronted by hecklers or even physically assaulted.5 But Menzies had never been one to hide from slings and arrows before, and he certainly wasn’t going to start now. He told the Townsville group that he would accept their invitation, and his security staff began canvassing the auditorium where the meeting was scheduled to be held.
When Edward Burke learned of Menzies’ impending visit, he knew the perfect opportunity had arrived for him to put his plan into action. He sold his Ilbunga house for a fraction of what he had originally paid for it and used most of the profits from the sale for a one-way ticket to Townsville. He also made out his last will and testament around this time; once he had succeeded in assassinating Menzies, he planned to turn his gun on himself and commit suicide.
On August 13th, the eve of Robert Menzies’ assassination, Burke took his .303 rifle and diligently checked it to guarantee he had properly cleaned it-- no sense in having it jam on him at the last second, he thought. He then mailed off seven letters, one to Miranda Burke and the rest to various Australian news outlets, explaining his motives for what he was about to do; once the letters were posted, Burke checked into a hotel right across the street from the auditorium, making sure to book a room that would be within firing range of the main entrance. Finally, he wrote up his last will and testament, in which he deeded all but a handful of his worldly possessions to his former daughter-in-law Miranda Burke Crimmins, who’d remarried in 1962.
The next morning, Burke loaded his rifle and waited for Menzies’ motorcade to arrive at the auditorium. The PM’s speech was scheduled for 12 noon; the prime minister himself would arrive at the auditorium no later than 11:00 AM. By 12:30 PM, if everything went the way Edward Burke had planned it, both he and Prime Minister Menzies would be dead.
Menzies’ limousine arrived at the auditorium around 10:45 AM, flanked by motorcycle police and the prime minister’s personal security detail. Burke waited for his target to emerge from the limousine and step into his sights, then pulled the trigger on his .303. The crowd’s gasp of shock when Burke’s first two shots hit the prime minister’s chest turned to screams of panic as the third bullet scraped Menzies’ neck and the fourth ruptured the prime minister’s temple. As police tried to keep the frightened crowd under control, Menzies’ aides phoned for an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital immediately.
But the call for help would prove too late; Robert Menzies was pronounced dead at 11:13 AM. At 11:20 police heard one final shot fired-- the shot Edward Burke used to take his own life.
Menzies’ former political adversary, Harold Holt, was working at his law office when he first learned of the prime minister’s assassination. In spite of his past friction with Menzies and the unceremonious fashion in which Menzies had booted him from the Liberal Party, Holt was aghast at the news; nobody, he thought, deserved to die in such a hideously violent fashion. The idea of any Australian political leader, let alone the prime minister, succumbing to an assassin’s bullets was unthinkable-- or at least it had been until now.
Miranda Burke Crimmins had little initial reaction to the news of Menzies’ death, but when it was confirmed that her former father-in-law had been the assassin and had taken his own life after killing the prime minister, she broke down in tears and fell into a severe depression which would soon require her to be placed in psychiatric care.
All throughout Australia, in fact, people of all ideological types were having strong reactions to the news of Menzies’ death. For some, the prime minister’s assassination was a tragedy; for others, it evoked chilling memories of the attack on Parliament House nearly seventeen years earlier and fears that another left-wing coup attempt was being instigated;6 for still others, it was a form of poetic justice for the harsh internal security measures he’d enacted during his tenure; for a few, mainly staunch leftist radicals who’d kept the faith even at the height of the Menzies crackdowns, it was cause for celebration. One ex-CPA recruiter in South Australia, who’d hated Menzies with a passion for years, actually threw a dinner party to mark the occasion of the prime minister’s demise.
By contrast, flags in the conservative stronghold of Queensland were being lowered to half-mast within minutes after Menzies’ death had been confirmed. Menzies had always enjoyed his strongest political support in Australia among Queenslanders, and for most of them his assassination felt like a sign of the Apocalypse. Townsville’s chief police superintendent, blaming himself for the murder, resigned his post on August 16th and had left the city for good by early October.
Robert Menzies was buried on August 18th, 1965 in one of the largest funerals in Australian history. The new prime minister and Liberal Party leader, William G. McMahon, had the daunting job of trying to restore calm in a country that had been on edge since the assassination; there was a level of tension and anxiety among Australians recalling the grim days of the spring of 1942, when Australia had been threatened with the prospect of Japanese invasion following the British surrender at Singapore. Some of the more pessimistic political commentators in the Australian press were suggesting it was only a matter of time before the level of animosity between Menzies supporters and Menzies foes escalated into outright violence.
Fortunately Prime Minister McMahon proved he was up to the task; in a series of nationwide broadcasts for the Lodge, he appealed to the best instincts of his fellow countrymen and urged them to avoid political violence lest Australia be afflicted with the kind of civil war it had so narrowly averted in 1948. He also pledged that his government would take the necessary steps to ensure greater protection for future Australian prime ministers. Gradually, the situation eased and although Menzies supporters and Menzies opponents remained at odds with one another, there were no major outbreaks of unrest(although police did have to intervene to stop a couple of minor scuffles).
The Menzies assassination prompted Australian federal police and domestic intelligence authorities to undertake a series of sweeping reforms of their procedures for protecting high-profile public figures. At least eight inquiries, including two internal federal police investigations, were made into the security lapses that had allowed Edward Burke to get close to Menzies and kill him. By an eerie coincidence the last of these inquiries, a probe by the Australian federal attorney general’s office, submitted its final report on March 20th, 1968-- fifteen full years to the day after Stephen Burke died.
William G. McMahon remained as prime minister until 1972, when he was voted out of office in favor of Labor Party leader Gough Whitlam. After leaving politics, he devoted most of the rest of his life to writing a history of the September Revolt era. Miranda Burke Crimmins went into politics in the mid-1970s, winning election to the Australian Parliament in 1983; she died in 2001. Harold Holt, following his expulsion from the Liberal Party, embarked on a second career as an attorney who specialized in winning financial compensation for the victims of the ASIO’s abuses of power during the Menzies administration; he passed away in 1967 while preparing his closing argument in one such case.
More than half a century has passed Stephen Burke’s death, but the consequences of that death are still being felt today. Few, if any, discussions about the September Revolt era and its aftermath take place without looking at-- and in some cases, reopening --the wounds those consequences have inflicted on the Australian national psyche.
1A.k.a. the "Tricolors" because of their red, white, & blue-colored uniforms; today they’re known as the Sydney Roosters.
2Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Australia’s primary internal security bureau at the time.
3The popular press nickname for Burke and his fellow strikers; it was first coined by the Sydney Morning Herald.
4Edward Burke’s wife had committed suicide shortly after Stephen’s death.
5That resentment wasn’t necessarily confined to Australia’s borders; in April of 1964 British socialists held a demonstration in London to protest Menzies’ visit to see Queen Elizabeth II, and in November of that same year the American left-wing political magazine The Nation published an unflattering cover story that dubbed him "Australia’s Joe McCarthy."
6How such an uprising could have been conceived, let alone attempted, after the CPA had been so thoroughly smashed by the Menzies government is hard to imagine; nonetheless, the fact that this rumor could have circulated as long as it did is a good measure of the level of panic that swept Australia in the first few hours after the prime minister’s murder.