Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Leader of the Opposition

JCPML.  Records of Arthur Calwell.  Election speech by Curtin in support of Mr Dedman, 12 February 1940.  JCPML00694/1/99


"I do not think that Corio will be affected by whatever thinking goes on in Germany, but I do believe most strongly that the people of Australia will be most profoundly affected by the thinking that goes on in this electorate in this campaign. The issues that confront you are, in fact, issues that confront the nation.

"The Government of its own volition created this vacancy. By executive choice the Government determined that the representative of Corio should go to the United States of America. The Prime Minister knew that that invited a political contest in this electorate.

"War does not alter the problems of the workers and the producers or of a country. What war does is to intensify all those problems. It makes them of even greater importance than they were. If there is one outstanding lesson that this country has learned – and every other country has learned – as the result of war, it is that the interests of democracy and of the people can be easily sacrificed and, indeed, in instances vainly sacrificed. However important it is in time of peace to ensure that there should be fair dealing in a country it becomes of infinitely greater importance in time of war. A bad government in peace time will be a worse government in wartime.

"In its prosecution of all the activities of government, the Menzies Government has not served the people faithfully or adequately. It has been concerned with the encouragement of those particular interests which, in time of peace, would have first claim upon a government of the character of that led by Mr Menzies. In peace the interests of monopoly and big business are paramount with a government of the Menzies type.

"The government has taken unto itself all the powers conferred by the National Security Act. By executive decree it can do whatever it thinks proper. If it consults Parliament at all it is because it has been obliged to do so as the result of what the Opposition has demanded and because the Government has discovered that in this country the Labor Party – which claims, at worst, nearly 50% of the people as its supporters – can, in time of war, claim the same percentage of supporters as the Government.


"Bear in mind that many things are being done without reference to Parliament and many things are being held over until Parliament is in recess. Parliament, when it resumes, has to face the consequences. Even the Country Party has reason to believe that the delay in effecting a coalition has its root in the desire of the Government to complete a certain business undertaking before the coalition. Once the business was completed the Country Party has to swallow it.

"In this election, not only is there at stake all that Mr Dedman has said but there is at stake the preservation of those fundamental principles for which the world is at war – not freedom only for Mr Menzies but freedom for every man to say whether he shall serve in the armed force. Individual liberty is a special thing. We will not permit a foreign power to thrust upon us a system of Government that would destroy personal and civic liberty. That is why, fundamentally, the Australian Labor party is against aggressive Powers in the war. We are not going to hand over to the representatives of big business in this country what we would refuse to the enemy. We stand for loyalty to the cause of freedom; loyalty to Australia as our paramount obligation; but that does not mean loyalty to profiteers and it does not mean a weakness in refusing to stand up for an adequate rate of pay to volunteers.

"It also does not mean a dumb acceptance of anything or everything that Mr Menzies or his Ministers like to say or do. We stand for Australia and the best interests of Australia. We will not handicap the government in carrying out things that are of service to Australia. But we say that while that government is in power we want a policy that will stand up for fair dealing. We ask for practical demonstrations that this war is not being fought by the Australian Government in the interests of big business, but in a defence of the sacred principles of liberty.

"When the war broke out last September the Parliament met immediately. The Prime Minister made a statement. There was an adjournment to next day and I was directed, as Leader, by the party to make a statement so that Parliament and the country would know of the general principles that would be followed in working out the best course for this country.

"We said that aggression would have to be resisted. We supported the cause of the Allies. I said that there had grown up during the last 25 years a new orientation throughout the world. The situation in 1939 was not what it had been in 1914.


"I said, therefore, that we were opposed to an expeditionary force being sent abroad and that we are opposed to any compulsion upon the lives of Australians. I said further that we required that there would be a minimum of interference with the civil liberties of the people.

"I was followed immediately by the Attorney-General (Mr Hughes) who said:-

"I wish, first, to express my very great pleasure, which, I am sure is shared by every honourable member on this side of the chamber, and in fact, in the Parliament, at the announcement by the Leader of the Opposition of the policy of his party. His words will give great satisfaction to the people of Australia. He left nothing unsaid that we wanted to hear. He left us in no doubt as to the attitude of Labor in this great emergency. . . I cannot conceive any way in which his statement could be amended in the interest of Australia." (Hansard 6th September).

"That was said by Mr Hughes after my declaration against conscription; profiteering and interference with the peoples' civil liberties.

"Shortly afterwards (Sept. 28th) Mr Menzies made a national broadcast in which he said:-

'It may also be asked why we have not promised to send an expeditionary force overseas. This war is not like the last one, when there was no real problem of Australian security from attack. Today we have a real problem of Australian defence. We do not yet know the exact nature of that problem because we do not know what the final line-up of the nations will be. Until we know that, it would be unwise to send large numbers of trained men 10,000 miles from Australia. In Europe, too, the situation is different from the last war. The Allies' defensive lines are much more stronger and more numbers are less important. Our naval superiority is also greater than in 1914. Some people ask why the Government does not make the widest possible appeal for volunteers. My answer is that it is the duty of the Government to have the widest possible regard for the facts of the situation.

"The war-time Prime Minister (Mr Hughes) accepted the declaration that opposition to an expeditionary force was not detrimental to the true interests of Australia. The Prime Minister said there was no final line-up of the nations. And there has certainly been no evidence of that happening between last September and now.


"If you read the American papers you will find that the great body of opinion in the U.S.A. is that while fully cognisant of all that may be impending in a resort to an intensified war in Europe instead of an immobilized war, it is realised there was a war in China before there was a war in Europe at all. British and French interests are just as much at stake in China. There is a 'poker game' going on in the Pacific.

"Having regard to the tremendous scope of a situation which, at no time can be regarded as static, and which is not within the limits of prediction, the Labor Party says that its opening declaration, made not without care and not without a great deal of reflection nor without a realisation of what the changes may be, is a declaration which, in this campaign, is as re-affirmed as the determined stand of Labor in the Parliament of the Commonwealth.

"We are against this despatch of what can be described as the first instalment of an expeditionary force. What does the Government contemplate? The first division is 20,000 men and re-inforcements of 2,500 a month means 50,000 a year. Then an air force of 60,000 will be required and 60,000 strength in one year will require, man for man, 60,000 reinforcements. That means that, already, there has been committed on the part of this country – from the standpoint of the Government's policy – an obligation to find 120,000 men for the Air Force. With 50,000 men for the expeditionary force that makes a total of 170,000 men to go overseas. May I say that the resources of the nation includes not only man-power but its economic capacity and I say that to equip and send 20,000 men from Australia to a theatre of war 12,000 miles away involved a far greater sacrifice in man-power and a far greater contribution in resources than the despatch of a smaller number of men from any other part of the Allied territory.

"This country is far from being assured of its safety. If men go abroad and there is a change in the line-up of the neutrals and some of the countries now neutral come in on our side and some of them go to the other side then it becomes a question of what countries go to the other side, where they are located and what are their ambitions.


The first obligation of a statesman is the safety of his own people and territory and such contribution as he can make to a common cause must be made on the predicate that that, at least, has been assured.

"On every occasion that evidence was made available to us during the last year in the many discussions on foreign affairs in the Parliament and the many occasions on which White Papers were tabled and references were made to the war, implicit in every declaration made back to the first of September was the assertion that Australia would not be expected to send a force overseas. It was considered highly improbable that ever again would an expeditionary force leave Australia. That was the opinion of many authorities, including Senator Brand and the late C.A.S. Hawker, M.P.

"The Labor Party is against it. It does not ensure the safety of this nation. It is not the most practicable and useful contribution that could be made to the Allied cause. I have had no evidence given to me as to any alteration of a fundamental nature that would warrant the Prime Minister – who said what he did in his broadcast of 28th September – accusing Mr Dedman and I as being against the Allied cause.

"We say now what we said at the outbreak of war. The policy of Labor is determined after a most careful consideration of principles. I said in the 1937 general election campaign what will be said in this campaign. You will recall the derision with which Ministers referred to the Labor Party's proposals for Australia's Air Force. But now it is endorsed that a nation that cannot defend itself effectively in the air cannot defend itself at all. This war was commenced as a long-range 'siege war' with strange and unexpected features – war described as the strangest on record.


"The test of this country at this juncture is not what Labor will do. Labor is not in power and, until a general election, will not be in power. The test is not what you think of us but what you think of the government that is in power. That is the practical question to be answered. When the general elections come the war will have advanced to newer phases. We will be in a better position to decide realistically what ought to be the best contribution of Australia to the common cause.

"This government is already committed to a supply of men for overseas to almost 200,000 men and yet it says it wants to build up Australian industry –that it wants a shipbuilding industry and vast organisation for the manufacture of aeroplanes and cars. I point out that once a government starts talking like that and then proposes large numbers of men for overseas service and large numbers of reinforcements and an air force and further large numbers for reinforcements, then I can quite understand the Government bringing out migrants from Europe, particularly for the clothing industry.


"Undoubtedly the Government finds itself confused and in a contradictory position. While Parliament is in recess the Government's Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr Lawson) concluded with a company an agreement giving it a monopoly to build cars. The Australian Labor party has fought for the establishment of Australian industries but not one of its industries was founded on a basis of monopoly from the start. Where we saw no alternative to monopoly, then we said the only right course was a nationally-owned instrumentality – for example the Commonwealth Bank against the private trading banks.

"We supported the establishment of the car industry but the Government gave a monopoly to one company. In making the declaration that the matter would be referred to the Parliament, the Government had the Corio by-election in mind. I quite understand the Minister for Trade and Customs concluding an agreement with the general manager of Australian Consolidated Industries (Mr W.J. Smith) but I cannot understand why, at the same time, Mr John Lawson, in his private capacity, had private business relationships with Mr W.J. Smith in his private capacity.

"Shortly after the car agreement was determined Mr Lawson under a nom-de-turf, leased a racehorse from Mr Smith and, within a few days, the horse won a race at Randwick worth £300. A few days later the lease was cancelled. I regard it as grossly improper for a Minister of State in dealing with an industry of this sort, to make an agreement that does not meet with the universal approval of the Australian people and, at the same time, to have private business relations with a gentleman in his private capacity. When a Minister of State has interests, the official and private interests should be entirely separated.

"I invite the Prime Minister in his speech in Geelong tomorrow night and the Minister for Trade and Customs to tell us what has happened in regard to that private business transaction and if the cancellation of the lease of the racehorse is related to the determination of the Government to submit the car agreement to Parliament.

"I find the government of the day has appointed a great number of boards and commissions, the members of which also constitute the directorships of many of the large institutions of Australia. The relations of the business matters of the Government inevitably bring these men into contact with the trade and business of the concerns in which they are interested.

"In time of war a Minister engaged in business on behalf of the Government should forego his private business just as a private has to do when he joins the forces at 5/- a day. That would, at least, give complete confidence in the public administration.


"While the Government is paying 5/- a day for soldiers it has sought to serve large business interests. In respect of supplies of materials and equipment, the arrangement is that the contractors get costs, plus 5%. One contractor at the Pearce aerodrome, W.A. where I personally examined the matter, was paid £48,000 for erecting accommodation for 12 officers of the R.A.A.F. Nobody would have any objection to reasonable and proper accommodation but I point out that a house costing £1500 would be expected to be comfortable for four or five people.

"With regard to the appointment of Mr H.W. Clapp at £4,000 a year, I say that he may be a great man but to pay him £4,000 a year in a period of war time sacrifice, and, at the same time, to compel young men to go into camp at 5/- a day is wrong. Men in big positions are extravagantly remunerated while the poorer class is neglected.

"In regard to the Second A.I.F. they are paid 5/- a day and allowances for married men. The man who offers himself for war makes as great a sacrifice to his country as the contractor for the manufacture of aeroplanes or munitions. For the manufacturer the slogan of Mr Menzies is 'business as usual'. Mr Menzies says that the Labor Government paid lower rates to soldiers in the last war. That is quite true. But there is an enormous difference in the price levels now. Rents are higher, almost double; cost of living is on a different basis altogether; the relationships of pay in 1914 was more equitable than today.

"We fought hard in the Parliament to get more for the men in the forces and the Country Party said it would help us. But the compromises between the Country Party and the Government did not give the men or the wives and children any more. There is to be added nothing more than 1/- a day to the deferred pay. That means that the contribution to repatriation and rehabilitation of the soldiers after the war will not have to be met to the same extent as after the last war. The problems of the post-war period are problems for this nation; not problems which the soldiers, as private persons, should have to save for now. The men should be paid properly and the wives and families properly provided for while the men are away.

"I ask Mr Menzies to increase the allowances to the wives and children and not rely on comforts funds. The wives and children are a sacred charge upon this nation and I defy the Menzies government to say it has treated the soldiers and their dependants in the same way as it has tenderly treated contractors and others by price-fixing.


"..want to treat the men and their families fairly because I believe that the right of an individual to elect to serve in the armed forces is a right resident in his civil liberties. There must be no economic or moral conscription – let alone a legal conscription over his service. They should, at least, in volunteering feel that they make an adequate sacrifice. Therefore, if the voluntary system has to be given a chance at all there has to be fair dealing. We say that compulsion and conscription is alien to everything that constitutes that splendid heritage which we understand by Australian freedom.

"We do not see very much to be gained in opposing dictatorial or totalitarian governments if, while opposing them and regarding them as a negation of liberty, our own government practices their methods. If we lose our liberty before the war is over there will be nothing else for us to have when the war has ceased. The workers can very easily lose this war without one foreign foot trespassing upon our soil. In 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conference, Labor asked for a peace based on justice. We were opposed to economic penalties, but when the absolutist Government in Germany was overthrown millions of pounds in indemnities were imposed incontestably, the masses of the people of Britain, France and Germany lost the war. It was a peace for plutocrats.

"Freedom is the right to refuse a job when the conditions are so intolerable that the worker cannot keep body and soul together while he is working.


"The Labor candidate in Corio is not only the standard-bearer of the rights of the citizens in this electorate, but is the apostle for the whole of the people of Australia. Mr Dedman's election will be a warning to the Prime Minister to take notice of the people of this nation and their right to change the government if they think proper. Mr Menzies says that if the Government loses this by-election, Mr Hitler will say that Australia is not behind the Government.

"I suggest that the people of Corio say to Mr Menzies 'We know the history of the world. We know that too much power given to one man has invariably been bad for the people. We think you have sufficient power already, so we are sending to the Parliament another watchdog to see that you do not abuse it."