Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Curtin, John (1885–1945)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

John Curtin (1885-1945), by unknown photographer, 1941-45

John Curtin (1885-1945), by unknown photographer, 1941-45

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12267621

John Curtin (1885-1945), prime minister and journalist, was born on 8 January 1885 at Creswick, Victoria, eldest of four children of Irish-born parents John Curtin (1854?-1919) and his wife Catherine (Kate) Agnes, née Bourke (1859?-1938). John senior worked as a warder at Pentridge Gaol, served as a soldier, was a policeman at Creswick (1881-90), then was employed in hotels, sometimes as manager, in Melbourne and at Dromana, Charlton, Macedon and elsewhere. The family eventually settled, in poverty, at Brunswick.

Jack had erratic education at several Catholic and state schools. He became a copy-boy on the Age, page-boy at a city club, office-boy on the Rambler and a labourer at a pottery, before finding steady work from September 1903 with the Titan Manufacturing Co., on £2 a week as an estimates clerk. Night after night at the Public Library he read 'serious books': political works, poetry, novels and essays. He played much cricket and football, eventually for Brunswick. A sturdy backman, about 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall and almost twelve stone (76 kg), he was subsequently active in football administration.

Curtin joined the Political Labor Council, gained a reputation as a 'Labor boy-orator' on the Yarra Bank and at the Eastern Market, and lost his Catholic faith; he allegedly played cornet in a Salvation Army band.

He probably first met his local State member Frank Anstey in 1902 and, with his great mate Frank Hyett, soon joined Anstey's Sunday-morning study circle. Throughout an enduring friendship Curtin was to acknowledge Anstey's dominant influence. He also attended Tom Mann's Economic Study Circle with Hyett, Don Cameron, John Cain and Jack Holloway.

Curtin's first publications were in 1906 in the Socialist, edited by Mann for the Victorian Socialist Party; he was by then tutor at its speakers' classes. In 1907-08 he was president, then secretary, of the Brunswick branch of the P.L.C. His activities, however, came to centre on the V.S.P. in its halcyon days of utopian revolutionary socialism. He wrote extensively for the Socialist on industrial organization and in 1909 asserted that 'Australian defence policy was part and parcel of the international war policy played by the international gang of capitalists'. Visitors from overseas such as Ben Tillett and Keir Hardie led him later to recall that he was 'brought up among the great international socialists'.

Socially, the V.S.P. was a delight, with its Sunday-night lectures, picnics, choir, orchestra, dances, 'Sunday School', and the growth of lasting friendships with the Bruce family, Jack Gunn and Bob Ross. For about three years Curtin wrote to Gunn's young sister Jessie in the country, confiding in her and struggling to improve his self-expression. In 1909-10 he was honorary secretary of the V.S.P. which was already breaking down in factional disputes.

In February 1911 Curtin became organizing secretary of the sawmillers' (timberworkers') union, Victorian branch, and threw himself into consolidating scattered local groups and improving working and accommodation conditions. His Timber Worker appeared from February 1913 as a vehicle of industrial agitation and socialist propaganda. In 1914 he became first federal president of the union. He also led the campaign for the Workers' Compensation Act (1914) and sat on the Trades Hall Council's disputes committee. As John Joseph Ambrose Curtin, in September he stood for the House of Representatives seat of Balaclava; though defeated, he polled surprisingly well.

In April 1912 Curtin had helped to re-establish his union's Tasmanian branch. He struck up a warm friendship there with Abraham Needham and was attracted to his daughter Elsie (1890-1975). When she was leaving for a long, family visit to South Africa in 1914, Jack proposed to her on St Kilda beach, Melbourne, and was accepted.

Curtin's friends admired him for his idealization of the working class, his intellectual grasp, deep knowledge of the international socialist movement and his broad reading, but were concerned by his drinking. By 1914 his problem was conspicuous. In November 1915 he resigned his union post, mentioning his health and the 'stress and storm of trade union responsibility'. He became an Australian Workers' Union organizer, but by June 1916 was drying out in hospital.

Such was their trust, in August the Australian Trades Union Anti-Conscription Congress appointed Curtin organizer (later secretary) of its national executive to oppose conscription for overseas service. His attitude blended pacifism, traditional socialist anti-militarism and the Marxist analysis that war was essential to the capitalist system. 'Socialism is the only way—it will end war, even as it will conquer poverty'. He had led local support for the Hardie-Vaillant resolution at the Socialist International in 1910 which called for a general strike in the event of war. Yet there is inconclusive evidence that he volunteered for the Australian Imperial Force only to be rejected because of inadequate eyesight. Nonetheless, he had no doubts about conscription and worked closely with Holloway, Hyett and Ross in preparation for the plebiscite on 28 October 1916. Their anti-conscription manifesto was seized by the police.

Under Billy Hughes's ill-judged ordering of single men to camp, Curtin was charged with failure to enlist, convicted in his absence (interstate) to three months imprisonment, and gaoled for three days, but released when such prosecutions were tardily withdrawn. Meanwhile Hughes and his followers were being expelled from the Australian Labor Party.

Seeking a fresh start and a salary which would enable him to marry, Curtin was appointed editor of the A.W.U.'s Westralian Worker. In February 1917 his friends emotionally farewelled him with the traditional purse of sovereigns. Elsie joined him in Perth and they were married on 21 April in the district registrar's office, Leederville. For ten years Jack abstained from alcohol.

The 'red-ragger from the East' turned out to be a 'mild bespectacled man', quiet, affable and earnest. In 1917 the local Labor Party was in a state of collapse; working closely with Alex McCallum, his chief sponsor, Curtin fought hard through a disastrous year. Labor lost every Western Australian seat in Federal parliament and won only 15 out of 50 State seats, but in the second conscription plebiscite considerably reduced the 'Yes' majority. Curtin was convicted and fined for some remarks about revolution. At the June 1918 federal party conference he supported the successful, moderate resolution 'encouraging the Imperial Government to openly declare its war aims and its readiness to negotiate'. He was elected to the State executive, unwillingly stood for Perth at the 1919 Federal election, and was badly beaten. Suffering from neurasthenia and veering between optimism and melancholy, he had to have six months complete rest; both his father and Hyett had died that year. Curtin supported adoption of the socialist objective in 1921.

Writing hundreds of articles and editorials over a decade, he made the weekly Westralian Worker probably the best Australian Labor paper. He was State district president (1920-25) of the Australian Journalists' Association and strongly supported the Workers' Educational Association. Professors (Sir) Walter Murdoch and Edward Shann became his good friends.

Marriage gave Curtin stability and a degree of serenity. A daughter and son were born, and in 1923 the family moved into a red-brick bungalow at Cottesloe. He enjoyed bringing up the children, surfed with them, often walked on the beach, cheerfully did household chores, pottered in the garden and kept a dog. Perth came to be very congenial to him, not least because of the fervent idealism and friendship of so many in the labour movement. According to Victor Courtney, everyone liked him for his tolerance and kindliness; he was no wowser, but did not tell risqué stories and 'bloody' was almost his only swearword.

Curtin soon struck up a close friendship with Phil Collier who owed much to him as adviser and confidant. While still an international socialist, Curtin was modifying his views. 'Soap-boxing' on street corners remained essential; oratory was 'the great instrument of conversion', backed by education in the Worker. But he was realistically concluding that parliamentary action by the Labor Party, from which communists had to be excluded, was the only practical means of social change. 'Incessant strikes' were of dubious advantage.

In mid-1924 Curtin was an Australian delegate to the annual conference of the International Labour Organization at Geneva, Switzerland. He met many interesting people and returned with moderate enthusiasm for the League of Nations as a force for peace. In 1927-28 he served on the Commonwealth royal commission into the possibility of introducing child endowment, spending long periods away from Perth, living in hotels and drinking again. He was angered by his inability to impress his views on the conservative members of the commission and, with Mildred Muscio, produced a forceful minority report.

Having stood unsuccessfully for the marginal Federal seat of Fremantle in 1925, Curtin won it with substantial majorities in 1928 and 1929. Few members have entered parliament with more extensive grassroots experience or better intellectual preparation. He had been reading the works of J. M. (Baron) Keynes, A. C. Pigou and others, and talking to academic economists. He developed his own views—'I have attended the funeral of so many economic theories'. Anstey welcomed him warmly as an ally and in February 1929 Curtin was elected to caucus executive: 'the Labor party had added to its ranks an orator whose worth as a fighting force seemed incalculable'. But he was humiliated when he was not elected to Scullin's ministry and blamed Edward Theodore.

Thus Curtin was frustrated, under-employed, morose, lonely and drinking. When the ministry was reconstructed in March 1931, he withdrew his candidature after Anstey was 'dumped'. Meanwhile his speeches outshone those of the ministers floundering in the depths of the Depression. On 10 June 1930 he spoke strongly for Theodore's unsuccessful central reserve bank bill. He was prominent in the 'caucus revolt' in protest at the Melbourne Agreement following Sir Otto Niemeyer's recommendations. Jack Lang's adoption of 'repudiation' and the imposition of his policy on New South Wales Labor members led to the expulsion, moved by Curtin, of the State branch in March 1931. Curtin was now convinced that the impotent Scullin government should resign and fight an election. It could not govern in the face of hostility by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the Senate's rejection of all important legislation, the resignation of Joe Lyons and James Fenton, and Lang's sabotage. Curtin's motion at federal executive to reject the Premiers' Plan was only just lost. At the December election he was badly beaten.

Curtin settled down to enjoy home life, freelancing for daily, interstate and country newspapers. He corresponded irregularly with Theodore who wrote: 'I have long believed that you are destined for great things, if you keep hold of yourself, and if that old hag, Fate, is not too relentless'. And about this time Curtin permanently gave up the drink. He appealed to Theodore to rally the movement—but Theodore was fed up. At successive federal conferences Curtin took the lead in holding firm against Lang.

In mid-1932 the Perth Trades Hall Council appointed Curtin publicity officer and he returned to the Worker as a sporting writer who gave racing tips; he was a student of racing form but hardly ever betted, apart from an annual £1 on the Melbourne Cup. Collier soon appointed Curtin full-time chairman, on £12 a week, of the advisory council to prepare the Western Australian case before the new Commonwealth Grants Commission. Curtin had been totally opposed to secession, but considered that the A.L.P. should abandon its policy of unification because of opinion in the 'smaller' States. In fruitful collaboration with (Sir) Alexander Reid, he worked hard for a year on preparing the case and presenting it.

Curtin was determined to recapture Fremantle, as he did comfortably in September 1934. He again immediately impressed people by the quality of his speeches, especially in recommending expansion of credit to reduce unemployment. Scullin's health was precarious and he resigned as leader on 1 October 1935. Curtin had not considered that he stood any chance, but when Holloway approached him—and gained his pledge that he would totally abstain from alcohol—agreed to stand. He was elected by one vote over Frank Forde who was staggered, as was Scullin, but proved a good, loyal loser. The pressmen were astounded. Curtin was elected as an opponent of the Premiers' Plan, with a union background; it was unique for any party to have a Western Australian leader.

Allan Fraser recalled: 'Curtin found he was a much better leader than he ever dreamt he could be'. Now 'John' Curtin, he dressed the part—good, plain suit, a black bowler for a time, occasional bow-tie, laces well tucked into boots—and insisted that Labor candidates be well turned out. He won general respect. In October 1938 a journalist remarked that 'Few men are so deeply liked all round the House'.

To build unity, Curtin immediately toured State executives and local centres. His sense of urgency, 'quiet steadiness' and 'incisive clarity' were effective. Sydney was the key. In October 1935 the federal executive, on Curtin's motion, had agreed to call a unity conference with New South Wales Labor. As a result, in February 1936 Jack Beasley, Eddie Ward and other 'Langites' joined caucus. Lang's power was declining after crushing electoral defeat. Curtin still had to endure insults and intimidation at New South Wales conferences until the machine-men and racketeers were overcome by federal authority. Then, in 1940, New South Wales briefly split into three groups and Beasley and others again left caucus, for ten months.

Foreign policy and defence issues dominated the later 1930s. Curtin struggled to find compromise policies among the isolationists, pacifists, international socialists, communists, Catholics and opportunists who made up the movement. As leader, he had to defend the policies arrived at, whatever his own beliefs. Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Spain were irreconcilable issues on which he deliberately decided not to lead. To have endorsed the actions of the British and Australian governments in applying sanctions against Italy would have further divided the party. Recognizing the depth of conflict in the community over the Spanish Civil War, both Curtin and Lyons evaded positive policies. Curtin knew that 'although he sympathized with the Spanish government, he only had to say one word to split Labor from top to bottom'.

Labor was stirred at last to pay some attention to defence. On 5 November 1936 Curtin argued in parliament that 'The dependence of Australia upon the competence, let alone the readiness, of British statesmen to send forces to our aid is too dangerous a hazard upon which to found Australia's defence policy'. Japan was in his mind. More funds should be allocated to the air force and less to naval rearmament; self-reliance was essential, as were closer links with the United States of America. The basis of defence was industrial strength, increased migration and a contented people. Curtin was in touch with the heretical views of Colonel Henry Wynter. But Curtin's interest in development of air power dated back as far as 1909 to speculation with Anstey.

At the October 1937 elections Curtin could not evade the charge of isolationism. He fought powerfully, but was hampered by A.L.P. disunity which had caused him to declare the referendum on marketing and aviation (March) a non-party issue. Labor gained only two seats in the House, though it had a striking victory in the Senate. Appeasement of the dictators continued: Labor backed the government in its support for British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in September 1938; caucus, in ignorance of what Nazism meant, unanimously declared that 'no man must be sent out of Australia to participate in another war overseas'. Curtin and the A.L.P. disagreed with the waterside workers' provocation of Japan in refusing to load pig-iron. All parties, however, now recognized the need for increased armament. In May 1939 the government introduced a manpower survey. Fearing industrial conscription, Labor had opposed the legislation, but Curtin dissuaded the Australasian Council of Trade Unions from a boycott: 'I would not allow the bankers or the Chamber of Manufactures to disobey the law were a Labor Government in power'.

Deep schisms remained, yet on the declaration of war in September 1939 Curtin was confidently able to approve Labor participation. The party opposed reintroduction of compulsory military training, but only mildly attacked the dispatch to the Middle East of the 6th Division, A.I.F., and of airmen under the Empire Air Training Scheme. During the 'phony war' Curtin, like many others, recommended a last attempt at peace negotiations. The German offensive in mid-1940 brought firmness of determination to the A.L.P., as to Australia in general, marked by willingness to reinforce troops in the Middle East. Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies suggested to Curtin in June that Labor should join in a national government. Consistent with his long-standing policy, he dismissed the proposition.

At the September 1940 elections Labor almost wiped out the government's majority, while suffering a major defeat in the Senate. Gains were made in New South Wales where Curtin campaigned vigorously. He neglected Fremantle and seemed to have lost it, but he was declared safe even before the arrival of most servicemen's votes. The narrow squeak brought home to the party his vital importance. Curtin and caucus again brusquely refused Menzies' offer of a national government; the only thing worse than a two-party government would be a three-party one—if carried, it would create a large left-wing opposition. Menzies accepted Curtin's compromise suggestion of an Advisory War Council of senior party representatives, with an understanding that the government would look favourably on such Labor social policies as child endowment, together with an assurance that Labor would co-operate in a bipartisan war policy.

The talented Bert Evatt was pressing hard to bring down the government, asserting that Curtin was a weak leader, while exploring the personal possibility of joining a national government. Caucus resolved to attack the budget; Curtin took the matter to the A.W.C., won concessions, and caucus finally complied. Experience on the council was to increase considerably Curtin's grasp of war issues.

Both Menzies and Curtin were beset by treacherous back-benchers, but the relationship between the two leaders was impeccable. Menzies had been passing on all important information about the war and they also met regularly and chatted on 'Bob and John' terms. Nevertheless, Curtin remarked once, 'Ah, poor Bob, it's very sad; he would rather make a point than make a friend'.

In February 1941, with Menzies overseas, Curtin made a detailed assessment at the A.W.C. of Australia's circumstances. Japan had recently concluded its Axis Pact with Germany and Italy, and seemed to be increasingly menacing. (Sir) Arthur Fadden and (Sir) Percy Spender agreed with him that the public needed to be shocked into recognizing the 'utmost gravity' of the situation. Curtin concurred in the dispatch of the 8th Division to Malaya and made strong efforts to persuade union officials of the needs of the war crisis.

Menzies returned in May, determined to intensify the war effort. He repeatedly implored Labor to join a national government, eventually offering to serve under Curtin with half Labor representation. Wise Labor moderates held out against Evatt and would not be tempted by the prospect of uncertain majorities in both Houses. Curtin's problem had been to judge whether and when Labor was sufficiently united organizationally and on war policy to be fit for office. The view of some contemporaries and historians that lack of confidence and timidity governed him is probably astray; he knew his fate and judged the moment very well. Menzies was conspicuously failing to hold party loyalty and resigned on 28 August. Fadden could be no more than a stopgap: the government parties had disintegrated, and Fadden was defeated when the Independents (Sir) Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson crossed the floor.

Curtin was sworn in on 7 October 1941 as prime minister and minister for defence co-ordination (defence from 14 April 1942). Ben Chifley as treasurer ranked third in cabinet behind Forde, and was followed by Evatt and Beasley. The ministerial tail was long. The inner War Cabinet numbered eight. (Sir) Frederick Shedden was Curtin's chief adviser. Curtin immediately displayed decisiveness, imperturbability and confidence in his capacity to lead, a change in outward personality which surprised many. On 6 November he replied brilliantly to Menzies in the budget debate. That day the formation of a production executive of cabinet, chaired by John Dedman, was announced. Essington Lewis was soon to be appointed as director-general of aircraft production, as well as of munitions.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941) was in some ways a relief, for the U.S.A. was now totally involved. Curtin made a broadcast next day: 'We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them . . . We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race and as a place where civilisation will persist'. Unlike in 1939, the government made a separate declaration of war. All leave was cancelled and the call-up for military training was urgently accelerated. The Prince of Wales and Repulse were lost on 10 December. Accidentally, a routine article for the Melbourne Herald, probably drafted by Don Rodgers but worked over by Curtin, enraged Prime Minister (Sir) Winston Churchill. It included the famous words: 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'. Curtin was merely stating the obvious, though it might have been worded more tactfully. Agreement was reached on bringing back the A.I.F.'s 6th and 7th divisions to the Far East theatre.

Meanwhile the Philippines had been invaded; Ambon and Rabaul were taken; Singapore fell on 15 February 1942; four days later Darwin was bombed and Timor invaded. On the 16th Lieutenant General (Sir) Vernon Sturdee, on behalf of the chiefs of staff, had recommended that the two divisions be diverted to Australia. Curtin had received strong formal advice from Sturdee and Shedden; War Cabinet and caucus were firmly behind him. He now had to withstand the full pressure of the British and American governments to redirect the 7th Division to the defence of Burma—Churchill actually turned the convoy north before submitting. Thus the 7th Division was saved from almost certain destruction. Curtin suspected that Churchill regarded Australia as expendable. He was briefly ill from the strain.

Menzies and the Opposition parties had supported Churchill. Never had the division between those backing supposed Imperial and Australian interests been so exposed; Curtin's decision was a landmark in Australian history.

As invasion appeared imminent, both government and people began to develop the jitters. Yet basic military and economic measures were carried out efficiently; army generals, despite slender resources, maintained a proper offensive attitude. The government had already pressed for the appointment of an American commander-in-chief for the region and General Douglas MacArthur's arrival in mid-March boosted morale immensely. It is futile to deplore the loss of Australian sovereignty and the subservience involved. Australia was to be the base from which an American-led counter-attack would be launched; the Americans were saving Australia only incidentally. Curtin had pressed in vain for Australian participation in the supreme authority conducting the Pacific war. As a very minor power, dependent, anxious and insecure, Australia could not influence high policy. The government fully learned only in May 1942 of the 'beat Hitler first' policy which had been confirmed by Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December-January. MacArthur might ensure adequate reinforcements and supplies, and be a channel for high policy.

Curtin saw all this clearly, as did MacArthur. For at least eighteen months they worked closely together, with warm mutual respect and regard. The prime minister was wise enough not to be an amateur strategist, and knew that MacArthur had to have his way on almost everything. Curtin agreed to leave the 9th Division temporarily in the Middle East, but had to fight hard for its eventual extraction; when it came home in early 1943 under weak naval escort, he endured sleepless nights pacing around Canberra, dwelling on the ships' safe arrival, as he had done when the 6th and 7th divisions returned.

General Sir Thomas Blamey had been appointed commander-in-chief of the Australian Military Forces and commander of the Allied Land Forces. Unlikely though it seemed, Curtin and Blamey soon developed a warm relationship. In September 1942 MacArthur persuaded Curtin to send Blamey to Papua to take direct command. Blamey subsequently relieved Major General (Sir) Sydney Rowell of his duties, and a damaging feud ensued; Curtin later had to order Blamey to give Rowell a senior posting. For all that, Curtin strongly supported Blamey, at least until late 1944, despite the many bitter attacks on him. He took the advice of MacArthur and Blamey on military matters and 'quasi-political problems', and confined his own military decisions to permission to use Australian troops for particular purposes. Furthermore, he helped to smooth the MacArthur-Blamey relationship.

The Coral Sea battle in May 1942, the success of Midway in June and Australian victory in Papua at Milne Bay in September had relieved fears of invasion. MacArthur knew that Japan currently did not intend to invade, but the possibilities remained of strong raids on the mainland and of the course of the war turning against the Allies. Curtin's pleas for more aircraft from Britain and America were usually ignored; he was frequently in conflict with Roosevelt as well as with Churchill. By mid-1942 Australia's defences had been transformed and by the end of the year it was clear that immediate danger was past. Curtin had played on the nation's fears—elementary politics in order to maintain the war effort.

Conversion of the economy to the needs of total war was a massive achievement. Manufacture of aircraft, weapons and ammunition replaced production of many consumer goods. More senior businessmen took administrative posts; the public service was swollen with temporary recruits; women joined the workforce in huge numbers. Clothing and food rationing, and high income taxation, were imposed, vast war loans were over-subscribed. Direction of labour—industrial conscription—was introduced, not without agony in cabinet. The Allied Works Council, under Theodore, and its Civil Constructional Corps were operating by April 1942. The government lifted the ban on the Communist Party of Australia which used its substantial influence in some unions to further the war effort. Coalminers were continually in conflict with management; by a mixture of threats, conciliation and compromise they were jollied along without a major strike. In isolated cases, watersiders and seamen yielded to the threat of sending in troops.

Curtin was distressed that a minority of unionists did not give a damn that the country was fighting for its life. Similarly, when he introduced his sustained austerity campaign, he was saddened by the difficulty of influencing those whose lives were centred on beer and betting, as well as the black marketeers and their customers. The puritan in him came out in his scolding. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Australians responded to his broadcasts, supporting his preaching of equality of sacrifice. 'By his earnestness and his honesty of purpose and his innate integrity, John Curtin has dominated Parliament and the country', Nelson Johnson, the American ambassador, reported.

Caucus allowed Curtin to make war decisions at his discretion. The leadership was never in doubt. The brotherly Chifley was sheet-anchor, chief confidant, protector. The ambitious Evatt was 'neither intimate nor easy' but knuckled down. Beasley, potentially dangerous, warmed to Curtin. Irreconcilably hostile, Ward sometimes contradicted Curtin's calls for a greater war effort and challenged cabinet decisions in caucus: he once emerged exclaiming, 'He's done it again—the humbug'. Arthur Calwell, not elected to the ministry until 1943, frustratedly sniped at the government.

At a federal conference in November 1942 Curtin loosed a bombshell by requesting a change of policy to enable the Militia to serve in a limited area of the South-West Pacific. Calwell, Cameron and others bitterly attacked him on traditional anti-conscriptionist grounds, the matter was referred to State executives, and in January 1943 was narrowly carried. Curtin acted primarily for strategic and diplomatic reasons: the Japanese were still on the advance, a two-army situation was indefensible in the presence of American conscripts, and MacArthur had requested removal of all constraints. The change in policy was diplomatically effective but came at great personal cost: Curtin survived party turmoil, vicious attacks by Ward and Calwell, and the outrage of old friends. At Christmas he had suffered from skin trouble. In March Calwell accused him of preparing to lead a national government, Curtin offered his resignation, Calwell apologized and caucus unanimously confirmed the leadership.

Immensely experienced, Curtin could pitch his speeches to diverse audiences, with intellectual command and compelling expository force. His voice, after decades of open-air speaking, was raspy. He used few gestures, but was sometimes theatrical and could bring a tear to the eye, even of hard-boiled politicians and pressmen. Frank Green ranked him as the best orator parliament had known. Menzies also considered him a good orator, if given to too many abstract nouns and Latinisms. Curtin's most famous speech lasted only two or three minutes when he told the House that the Coral Sea battle was in progress. He asked the people of Australia 'to make a sober and realistic estimate of their duty to the nation . . . Men are fighting for Australia today; those who are not fighting have no excuse for not working'. His intensity and passion made a profound impact. He was at his forceful best on his home ground—party conferences. Curtin began his wartime broadcasts, 'Men and Women of Australia' and concluded 'God bless you'. His eloquent broadcast to the people of the United States in March 1942 was effective; his 1943 Australia Day talk was heard by millions in Britain and America. He was a master of the graceful impromptu on less formal occasions.

The 'press circus' had been greatly impressed when on request, early in his prime ministership, Curtin spontaneously surveyed the world strategic situation for one and a half hours. His daily press conferences 'usually consisted of him relaxing in a swivel chair, lighting a cigarette . . . and ''thinking out loud"' (his A.J.A. badge on his watch-chain). He trusted the press by giving them off-the-record information—and few ever betrayed his confidence. In contrast, he was on terms of enmity with the newspaper-proprietors Sir Keith Murdoch and (Sir) Frank Packer, especially after their vilification during the 1943 elections. Later in the war he became disillusioned with many journalists, yet remained staunch in his belief in press freedom, and made no attempt to constrain criticism of his government (except in personal protest at misrepresentation). Throughout, he supported the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Ward had been pursuing his unverifiable claim that the Menzies and Fadden governments had adopted a plan, known as the Brisbane Line, for concentration of forces in east-central Australia. As the 1943 election drew nearer, the inflamed Opposition moved to the attack and used its weight in the Senate. Curtin was conciliatory, but would not deny Ward's charges outright. Harmony was lost in the A.W.C. Parliament became chaotic. Curtin called elections for 21 August, suspended Ward from the ministry and conceded a royal commission.

Curtin proudly defended his government's war planning and outlined its idealistic schemes for postwar reconstruction. His campaign was triumphant. Fadden recognized the 'biggest thrashing' his side had ever had: 49 seats to 24 as well as all 19 contested Senate seats, an A.L.P. vote of 50 per cent, and over 60 per cent of the armed-services vote, to 33 per cent for the Opposition parties.

From mid-1943 war policy became increasingly uncertain. Official historians were to criticize the government's inability to clarify plans for future effort. The chief problem was allocation of manpower between the services and industry, including production of food and supplies for Britain and the American troops. As the war moved on, Curtin's dependence on MacArthur markedly declined; the latter could not, or would not, decide on future use of Australian forces and eventually excluded them from expected operations in the Philippines. The government believed that Australia's participation at the peace table would partly depend on the extent of its military involvement. Moreover, throughout 1944 discussions about a possible large-scale British operation based on Australia complicated the situation. For the government, the late years of the war were 'a time of frustration rather than of mastery'.

Still a socialist, Curtin was 'always looking forward to the reconstructive aspects of his work'. Fairer distribution of wealth began with drastic taxation reform. In December 1942 Chifley took charge of a new ministry of postwar reconstruction, with H. C. Coombs as director and a talented staff of planners of a 'new social order'. In 1942-44 widows' pensions, maternity allowances, funeral benefits, and unemployment and sickness benefits were introduced. The Keynesian planning for a full-employment economy came to fruition in the 1945 white paper which Curtin, having seen the British model, had demanded. He totally supported Chifley's intention to reform the Commonwealth Bank and to take control of the monetary system, and he favoured development of immigration, establishment of the Australian National University and more university scholarships. The attempt to gain increased powers for the Commonwealth for five years was badly handled. Curtin was seemingly outvoted by Evatt who foolishly insisted on presenting the transfer of the fourteen powers on 19 August 1944 in a single question. Curtin took little part in the referendum campaign.

Curtin was a natural Australian, impervious to Imperial ideology. Nor did he care anything for his Irish heritage, regarding its claims as bogus. Labor and Australia were his twin causes. Manning Clark was to use him to represent 'the young tree green'.

On lonely weekends Curtin used to visit the governor-general Lord Gowrie and his wife; despite Curtin's 'smoking his interminable cigarettes', a warm friendship developed. Gowrie gave him staunch support during dark days of war. In 1943 Curtin sounded out Scullin as Gowrie's possible successor, then in November announced the appointment of the Duke of Gloucester. Curtin convinced his colleagues that a gesture of Empire solidarity was timely: it might encourage greater British participation in the late stages of the Pacific war, and the appointment would be short-term.

During the 1943 election campaign Curtin suggested development of machinery for Imperial co-ordination of policy: the Empire/Commonwealth was more of a potential force for good than he had believed. The proposals were pushed aside at the 1944 prime ministers' conference and it was some twenty years before a Commonwealth secretariat was formed. Curtin was not closely involved in the formulation of the agreement for mutual collaboration between Australia and New Zealand in January 1944 and allowed Evatt his head.

Curtin had to go overseas in April-June. In Washington he had several days in bed with high blood pressure and neuritis. His meetings with Roosevelt and Cordell Hull were embarrassing: Evatt's activities and the 'Anzac' agreement were not appreciated. Roosevelt concluded that it was best to 'forget the whole incident', and they otherwise got on well. Curtin persuaded his wife to stay in Washington and endured a dangerous flight from Bermuda to Ireland—he feared flying.

England was a disappointment; he was unwell. At the prime ministers' conference, without any adviser from External Affairs, he was out of touch with the department's current inclinations. But he endeavoured to soften the hostility to Australia of the high-handed Churchill and other politicians, while affirming his country's intention to rely primarily on the Commonwealth in defence and foreign-policy matters—on the basis of equality and full consultation. When the City of London granted him its freedom, (Sir) Anthony Eden (1st Earl of Avon) was impressed by his daring to improvise a fine speech without notes. Cambridge conferred on him a doctorate of laws. He had been appointed to the Privy Council in 1942. On his return trip, he addressed the Canadian parliament and had further discussions in Washington. He was still able to comport himself as a man of stature.

His associates, however, believed that Curtin was never the same man again. He became more irritable, markedly more inclined to resent criticism, ever more lonely. Dame Enid Lyons implored him to retire. Curtin was well aware of the sin of self-pity and struggled to retain his ability to laugh at himself. In early November he suffered a coronary occlusion and was confined to hospital in Melbourne for two months. Returning to duty in late January 1945, he made only one major parliamentary speech and, to the distress of his colleagues, was unable to cope with work. He recognized his situation, yet seemed stubbornly determined to be a martyr. Curtin was searching his conscience. Had he shown adequate dedication? Where had he failed the Australian people?

He was also groping towards religious consolation. Although he had long been a tolerant rationalist, in his last years he tended to invoke God in his speeches, and paid some attention to the Moral Rearmament movement. To his friends he confided that he had striven to 'live a decent straight clean life as near to Christ's as humanly possible' and that he believed there was an afterlife in which he would have to answer for his misdeeds.

Late in April 1945 Curtin's lungs became congested. After several weeks in hospital he insisted on returning to The Lodge. 'I'm not worth two bob', he told his driver, Ray Tracey, but kept up a cheerful front with Elsie, and summoned old friends for a chat. He died peacefully on 5 July, a war casualty if ever there was one. His state funeral was attended by large crowds in Canberra and Perth; Royal Australian Air Force planes escorted the body; he was buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery; Elsie and the children were among those present. Curtin had asked his good Presbyterian friend and neighbour Rev. Hector Harrison to conduct his funeral. He spoke nobly, recalling Curtin's 'transparent simplicity', 'downright honesty' and 'singular humanity'. A memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey. Numerous memorials remain, notably at Cottesloe and in Canberra. A posthumous portrait by Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo is in the Parliament House art collection.

Jack and Elsie Curtin had enjoyed a happy, stable marriage; her support is incalculable. 'Dad' and 'Nippy' they called each other. In early 1942 he wrote: 'The war goes very badly & I have a cable fight with Churchill almost daily . . . But enough, I love you, & that is all there is to say'. When the children had grown up, she undertook the long journey to Canberra about twice yearly, staying for a month or two, dutifully entertaining at The Lodge, launching corvettes and working for the Australian Red Cross Society. She was with him for his last six months. There were many good reasons why, by mutual agreement, she did not move to Canberra, despite her husband's loneliness. Elsie was a well-read Labor woman, musical, outspoken and unguarded in public, who had a nice turn of phrase in bringing her husband or anyone else down to earth. She worked as a magistrate and prison visitor and was appointed C.B.E. in 1970.

Curtin was often described as shy, moody, sad-looking, awkward, aloof, not a good mixer in company or an enjoyer of the limelight, complex, mercurial. Even his admirer Reg Pollard remarked that 'You couldn't get close to him'. It was partly a consequence of his misleading stare, the cast in his left eye. He was gregarious around the fire at the Hotel Kurrajong in Canberra, or at the football. He was always good for a yarn, talking books and history, not politics. He conversed easily with waiters, waitresses, maids, liftmen, tram conductors; the staff at the Victoria Palace, Melbourne, were devoted to him. Curtin loved vaudeville and musical comedy, was a film-addict, particularly fond of Claudette Colbert and Greer Garson, and read westerns for relaxation; his favourite songs were 'Sweet Genevieve' and 'Little Grey Home in the West'. He enjoyed bridge on those interminable train journeys. He was a crossword enthusiast and billiards player. Plebeian tastes, intellect and good manners were an attractive combination.

After Curtin's death Gowrie wrote of 'one of the most selfless men I have ever met'. Viscount Bruce, who from London had been a major private adviser, recalled him as 'extraordinarily receptive and perceptive . . . I'd never desire to work under a better man'. Menzies singled out his 'broad and pragmatic mind' and his 'great human relations'; he had 'received many wounds from John Curtin but none of them . . . in the back'. Fadden's was the most remarkable eulogy: 'The best and fairest I ever opposed in politics . . . one of the greatest Australians ever . . . he gave me . . . his mateship'. Bishop Ernest Burgmann called him the 'authentic voice of Australia'. (Sir) Douglas Copland remembered what a 'constant inspiration' he was, Holloway mourned 'such a mate in the fight for the underdog' and Tracey 'that good man . . . who considered everybody'.

The great justification of Curtin as prime minister is that there was no viable alternative government in 1941-45; his contemporaries acknowledged that no other politician was fit for the task. For a time his government was impressively decisive, and he successfully projected himself as national leader, inspiring respect from cynical Australians as few prime ministers have. His unassuming dignity, simplicity, straightforwardness, absence of vanity and refusal of any personal privilege got through to many of his compatriots. Curtin took full responsibility for grave decisions and made no major blunders. He grew in wisdom and character. His coercion of his party to his will was an astounding achievement. He sought national consensus, not by abandoning Labor policies, but by pushing them to the limits of acceptability, and was masterly in gauging those limits. The succession of international and domestic party crises in 1942-43 and the consequent strain were more than such a vulnerable man could bear. Thereafter he began to lose his grip.

When Curtin died the general, Australia-wide remark, confirmed by posterity, was 'He did a good job'. The inscription on his gravestone reads:

His country was his pride

His brother man his cause.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Denning, Caucus Crisis (Syd, 1937
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • V. Courtney, All I May Tell (Syd, 1956)
  • J. Thompson (compiler), On Lips of Living Men (Melb, 1962)
  • R. G. Menzies, Afternoon Light (Melb, 1967)
  • A. Fadden, They Called Me Artie (Brisb, 1969)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • P. Hasluck, An Open Go (Melb, 1971)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (Melb, 1972)
  • L. Ross, John Curtin (Melb, 1977)
  • P. Hasluck, Diplomatic Witness (Melb, 1980)
  • W. Denning, Caucus Crisis (Syd, 1982)
  • H. C. Coombs, John Curtinr—A Consensus Prime Minister? (Canb, 1984)
  • C. M. H. Clark, A History of Australia, vol 6 (Melb, 1987)
  • G. Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melb, 1988)
  • D. Langmore, Prime Ministers' Wives (Melb, 1992)
  • Woman, 12 Mar-9 Apr 1951
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6-9 July 1945
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6-9 July 1945
  • E. J. Holloway memoirs (National Library of Australia)
  • H. Harrison papers (National Library of Australia)
  • L. Ross papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Curtin, John (1885–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/curtin-john-9885/text17495, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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