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Was John Curtin Australia’s greatest Prime Minister?

David Lee Connor Court in The Australian Business Executive

Many historians regard John Curtin as one of Australia’s best prime ministers. Historian and Curtin biographer John Edwards is in no doubt that he was the greatest ‘in steadying the nation at a time of peril, but also in determining the shape of Australia’s politics and economy for the following half century’. Yet Curtin did not even have four years as prime minister, while his predecessor, Robert Menzies, accrued a total of eighteen years in that office and other prime ministers, John Howard and Bob Hawke, were in office twice as long as Curtin was.

Who was John Curtin and why does he still regularly appear at the top of rankings of Australian prime ministers?

Curtin was born at Creswick in the colony of Victoria on 8 January 1885, the son of poor Irish-born immigrants. His father worked in various jobs: as a warder in Pentridge Prison, as a policeman and in hotels across Melbourne. The young John Curtin’s education was patchy, and he left school at the age of fourteen. Befriended by the local Labor MP, Frank Anstey, Curtin immersed himself in the Victorian labour movement, won acclaim as an orator, and left his Catholic faith. Elected General Secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union, he was prominent in the campaign to oppose conscription for overseas service in the First World War. Involvement in this campaign saw Curtin imprisoned briefly in 1916.

In his youth and into middle age Curtin battled with alcohol. Marriage to the Tasmanian Elsie Needham and his move to Western Australia in 1917 was the making of Curtin. He lived a more settled family life, and for ten years he successfully edited the labour paper, the Westralian Worker.

In 1928 Curtin won the marginal federal seat of Fremantle, a year before the election of the first Australian Labor government in thirteen years. Despite Curtin’s recognised skill as a debater, the new Prime Minister, James Scullin, kept him out of the ministry fearing rightly that he had not overcome the temptation of alcohol. Curtin’s time as a backbencher during the short-lived Scullin Labor Government from 1929 to 1931 was an unhappy one. Scullin’s government was hamstrung by the policies of the independent board of the Commonwealth Bank and the Opposition-controlled Senate. Curtin, moreover, clashed with Scullin and Treasurer, Ted Theodore, over the direction of economic policy. A split in the Labor Party led to the fall of the government in 1931. Labor suffered catastrophic election losses in 1931 and again in 1934 and political power rested firmly in the hands of the United Australia Party (UAP) and the Country Party throughout the 1930s. Out of office, Curtin was left with the conviction that future Australian national governments must be able to control the banking and financial sector and hence the economy. Curtin himself lost his seat in 1931, but he won it back in 1934 and in the following year was elected by a majority of one and against Scullin’s wishes as Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. From then onward he stopped drinking.

Any assessment of Curtin’s political achievements must range beyond the prime ministership to include the significance of his leadership of the Opposition from 1935 to 1941. Curtin was perhaps the only Labor figure who could have settled the bitter civil war in the Labor Party in the 1930s and early 1940s. Curtin reconciled with the adherents of Jack Lang in 1936, putting Labor in a more competitive position for the 1937 election. The New South Wales Labor Party split again in 1940. But even with this handicap, Curtin almost wrested power from the coalition parties in the general election of 1940, even though Curtin himself only won Fremantle by a hair’s breadth. Positioning Labor to recover from serious defeats and years in Opposition was an accomplishment he shared with later Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

A comparable achievement was his deft leadership of the Opposition in the hung Parliament after September 1940. After that election, two independents held the ring between Labor members on one side and the combined forces of the UAP and the Country Party on the other. Curtin offered constructive support to Robert Menzies’s wartime Government and restrained impetuous colleagues pressing impatiently for power. He waited until the collapse of the UAP-Country coalition government and, when he took power in October 1941, it was with legitimacy and support. This was a surprising achievement given the intractable internal divisions that he had to navigate and the headstrong colleagues such as Herbert Evatt, Jack Beasley, Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell, with whom he had to deal.

Curtin’s idea of an Advisory War Council, an all-party group advising the government on the conduct of the war, proved to be a successful instrument for managing of the House of Representatives in circumstances of minority government from 1940 to 1943; it also prepared senior Labor figures for ministerial office. His decision to reject Menzies’s offer to join a national government was well-judged; it would certainly have unsettled Labor and possibly provoked a split and destroyed his leadership. Curtin proved to be a deceptively cunning player in the chess game of politics.

Not long after Curtin’s Labor government came to office, the Japanese bombed the US naval base at Pearl Habor and the Pacific War began. The Japanese conquest of the British naval base in Singapore in February 1942 left many Australians for the first time with a fear that they might themselves be invaded.

The views of historians are divided over whether Curtin ‘saved’ Australia in 1942. He proved to be prescient in calling for stronger air defences and criticising the degree of Australia’s commitment in the United Kingdom and the Middle East from 1939 to 1941. Some historians, however, have argued that Japan did not have the intention or capacity to invade Australia in 1942 as Curtin and many others feared. What, they ask, was Curtin saving Australia from? Early in 1942, however, Curtin could not have known that Japan had decided not to invade Australia, and an invasion was not the only way that Australia could have been wrecked as either an economic or military power. Nor could he have been assured that the great naval encounters in the Coral Sea and Midway would necessarily be in America’s favour. Had they been in Japan’s favour, Australia could well have been subject to naval blockade and raids on its northern coastline. In these circumstances, his insistence on the return of the Australian Imperial Force Divisions from the Middle East, in the face of objections of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, represents an extraordinary act of courage and fortitude. After the fall of Singapore, Curtin saw no alternative but to forge a close and necessarily dependent relationship with General and Commander-in-Chief of the South-West Pacific Area Douglas MacArthur. The Curtin-MacArthur relationship from 1942 and 1945 entailed a loss of sovereignty that occasionally proved detrimental to Australia’s national interests, but the US-Australian partnership offered wider benefits, including much needed lend-lease American aid that helped Australia end the war as a much more prosperous country than it had been in the Depression years.

On the home front, Curtin’s claims to greatness include his leadership for nearly two years of a minority Labor ministry that was able to govern in extraordinary circumstances with a combination of competent administration, occasional compromises with the Opposition and superb management of the media. Curtin’s increasingly national war leadership and successful mobilisation of Australia in ‘total war’ then helped Labor to achieve what was its most emphatic national political victory in 1943.

The scale of Curtin’s triumph in the general election of 1943, an election in which he was recognised now as an inspirational national leader, meant that Labor was strongly placed as the nation moved from war to post-war reconstruction. It would oversee return to peacetime conditions in which many of the foundations of modern Australia were laid. The Labor governments led by Curtin and then Ben Chifley were able to rebuild Australia according to the political goals for which Curtin had striven all his life.

These included national control of the economy and of banking if not necessarily nationalisation. Major policy objectives were full employment and adequate provision of social services. The success of Robert Menzies’s second period as Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966 was partly based on pragmatic and skilled management of the political settlement inherited from Curtin and Chifley. Australia emerged under Curtin’s leadership a more independent and fully sovereign state. Another contribution was in not pressing in 1942 for a constitutional referendum for sweeping new national powers. This meant that the Australian Federal system of government remained intact but of a different character. For the Commonwealth, now with uniform income taxation, would be financially dominant.

Was Curtin Australia’s greatest Prime Minister? Rankings of prime ministers, it must be admitted, are a questionable guide to the worthiness of major political figures and especially those at the top. Prime ministers must be appraised in the circumstances in which they find themselves, the demands made upon them, the skills they bring to bear and the personal and character tests they face. For few of Australia’s prime ministers has the road been so long and hard, the support so unsteady and uncertain, especially among their own ranks, as it was for John Curtin. It is easy in hindsight to quibble about Curtin’s performance from winning the Labor leadership in 1935 to his death in 1945. The great mark of his achievement is that Labor was ready for national office when its opponents were revealed as catastrophically wanting; he steered the country through an existential crisis with purpose and assurance; and, when he died and a new era was in sight, Labor was in good order to shoulder the new burdens.

David Lee is an Associate Professor in history at the University of New South Wales, and author of John Curtin, published by Connor Court:


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