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Howard praises Menzies in new book

Australia's second-longest serving prime minister says his new book, about the only man to hold the office longer than he did, isn't a biography but an argument about an "overlooked" period of political history.

The Menzies Era, John Howard's 660-page book, is about Robert Gordon Menzies, who was Liberal prime minister from 1949 to 1966.

"If you look at the character of modern Australia, there is so much of it that can be traced back to what was achieved during that period," Mr Howard said in Sydney on Wednesday night.

"Many of the changes were due to the sense of stability and prosperity that the government created and also to the capacity of the government to respond to unexpected economic developments."

Mr Howard praised the Colombo Plan, under which students from Asian countries were given the chance to study in Australia, and a trade agreement Mr Menzies's government signed with Japan, just 12 years after World War II.

These two policies, he said, began Australia's crucial relationships in Asia, with Japan in the `70s replacing the UK as Australia's main export market.

The book's longest chapter focuses on the Vietnam War and Mr Howard said he would also have sent troops to fight in 1965.

Mr Howard also writes about Mr Menzies' changes to the Liberal Party, his successors and the infamous Labor party split, among other issues.

The book is full of praise but Mr Howard conceded Mr Menzies wasn't always correct.

"Did he make mistakes? Plenty. All prime ministers do," Mr Howard told the elderly crowd at the conservative Sydney Institute.

"The important skill in public office is to get the big things right and he was very successful in getting the big things right."