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OBITUARY: Dame Pattie Menzies

The death of Pattie Menzies, widow of the late Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's longest-serving prime minister, at the age of 96, symbolised the passing of the old Australia, with its conservative, Presbyterian values and its loyalty to Britain and the monarch.

Pattie Menzies, who outlived her husband by 17 years, confided recently that she had lived too long, and no longer had any friends left; but perhaps she might have added that she felt like a stranger in today's multicultural Australia, which is heading towards becoming a republic in 2001.

Menzies was revered as a national institution, and seen as the matriarch of Australia's Liberal Party, the conservative party founded by her husband in 1944. She was cast in the role of guardian of her husband's memory, and therefore the party's soul, which is inextricably linked to the golden years from 1949 to 1966, when Sir Robert presided over an affluent, booming Australia.

Since 1983 Labor has taken Australia further and further away from Robert Menzies's vision. His wife Pattie, a small, dignified woman, belonged to the era when the function of politicians' wives was to support their husbands, and keep quiet. But she felt bound to speak out two years ago when the Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, questioned her husband's reputation as Australia's greatest political leader and accused Sir Robert of various failings, including "supercilious Anglophilia".

The 94 year-old Dame Pattie responded by describing Keating as "a disgrace" and "a monster". "He has spoiled my faith in everything we had in the past and I'm sick and tired of it," she said. The response did not surprise those who knew her: though slightly built, she had a handshake which left people wringing their fingers.

She was born in the last year of the last century when many Australians saw themselves as both Australian and British. Till her death she saw no reason to break the links with the British monarchy.

She was also shaped by traditional views of the role of women. She saw her job as supporting her husband, unobtrusively, and bringing up her three children.

She and the young Robert Menzies had first exchanged glances in church in Melbourne, when she was still at school, and he was beginning his legal career. They met later at a party, and married in 1920, when she was 21 and he was 25,

She had grown up in the Victorian country town of Alexandra. She always retained the country values of down-to-earth honesty, naturalness, hard work, and concern for neighbours.

Sir Robert benefited from her shrewd judgement of human nature, and some judicious advice. The late Sir John Bunting, who was Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department during the Menzies era, described Dame Pattie as "an occasional and, if moved, sharp debunker, and helpful therefore to her husband politically". When she wasn't supporting her husband she was doing good works in the community, and in 1954 she was created a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire.

Pattie Menzies became a national institution and Paul Keating, burying past antipathy, described her as "a very great Australian" who had served as "a model and an inspiration to her countrymen and women". The federal president of the Liberal Party, Toxy Staley, said she "embodied the virtues and values of the best of the Australian way of life".

In praising her, both recognised that her death marked the end of an era in Australia.

Pattie Maie Leckie: born 2 May 1899; GBE 1954; married 1920 Robert Menzies (Kt 1963, died 1978; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Canberra 30 August 1995.