Diary of a Labour Man: 1917 - 1945

Full text Prime Minister


In Parliament.- On 5th July, 1945, Mr. Forde said -

“It is my melancholy duty formally to inform honorable members of the tragic death of the Prime Minister (Mr. John Curtin).

“To-day, the Australian nation mourns and offers to this common man, this son of the people, a tribute of affection, gratitude and honour, which has been offered rarely, even to kings. For this man was truly one with the masses who populate our country. He had striven and struggled among them, and when he came to the highest place in the land he was still one of them.

“John Curtin is as one today with those fighting men of our race who have given their lives that we might live. For them, interposing, as he himself put it, their bodies between us and the enemy, he worked day and night for many weary months and years that they might have the strength to hold out. For the British race and for the cause of the United Nations, he did everything that was in his power to shape policies that would produce the maximum effort on the part of this country.

"The captain has been stricken in sight of the shore. His memorial stands around us - a free land, a free people. And I feel that he has chosen his own epitaph -in the words of Swinburne, which he quoted to the Australian people on that momentous day, 8th December, 1941, when Japan struck. They were -

Come forth, be born and live, Thou that hast help to give, And light to make man's day of manhood fair, With flight outlying the sphered sun, Hasten thine hour And halt not till thy work be done.

"John Curtin's work was done, well and faithfully done. Nothing remained for fulfilment, but the laurel wreath of victory and the benefaction of peace. And so he was called home to rest. It may be said that the call came before its time. But I think I interpret the feeling of all men when I say that I am thankful that he was spared for so long during this dreadful struggle to guide our nation's destiny.

It true that he had dreams for the future. He had an abiding faith in the future national greatness of Australia, and I recall the vivid picture he painted of what he could see for the future in a speech he made in Sydney in June, 1943, when addressing the New South Wales conference of his political party. But it was not to be for him. For those of us who remain, he has set a course to follow, and the best tribute we can pay to his memory will be to do as he would have wished us to do. In this regard, his faith in Australia was expressed by himself on that day in April, 1939, when, in this place he offered the sympathy of his party to the family of the late Mr. J. A. Lyons. Mr. Curtin said then: 'We believe that the country that yielded such a man can continue to produce such men'. When the hour arrived, Australia produced John Curtin, and now that he has gone this country is without its leader. In this moment of grief, I am sure he would, if he could, say to us to have faith in ourselves and to carry on the task of building our nation to greatness.

“We, in this Parliament, here and in another place, have lost a colleague. We have lost, too, a guide and a friend. And Parliament, as a democratic institution, has lost one of its staunchest adherents, who revered it, and did much to uphold its dignity and influence. We of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party cannot assess our loss in a measure of words. His period of leadership, extending over the record term of nine years, nine months, and five days, commenced at a time of trouble in the party's fortunes. His untiring work, shining example, and high ideals raised it to its zenith, and to-day it has a strength unapproached at any time in its history. All of us will treasure those rare moments when, with the informality of which he was suddenly and spontaneously capable, he would chat with us individually or in groups. To those of us who had the honor and privilege to sit under his chairmanship in the Cabinet room, he gave a wealth of knowledge which will stand us in good stead. I had refrained from referring to the feelings of persons, governments and countries other than our own, but, as a tribute to Australia, I feel that it should go on record here that during this morning and this afternoon expressions of sympathy and deep regret have been received from all parts of the world; and, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, I acknowledge them with pride and gratitude. The tributes paid by the world to our great Australian, reflect John Curtin as a world figure. That is very fitting for John Curtin worked for all humanity. In the course of my recent visit to England and America I found that on his tour abroad last year he had made a profound impression upon the statesmen and peoples of both of those countries. And so we now bid farewell to a man for whom, I am confident, history will mark a place as one of Australia's greatest sons. It is a consolation to every one to know that this gallant, happy warrior passed on without pain. He faced the last great crisis, fortified by the philosophy which had seen him through so many personal and political crises, both before and after he became Prime Minister.

His last words were spoken to his dearly beloved wife, his constant and never failing helpmate and counsellor. I place on record the formal account of the late Prime Minister's public service -

In 1924, he was a delegate to the International Labour Office Conference at Geneva and visited Britain. During 1927-28, he was a member of the Royal Commission on Child Endowment - and he lived to see his minority report translated into law by act of this Parliament. In 1928, he was elected to the House of Representatives for Fremantle, and was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Public Works from 1929 to 1931. The Western Australian Government appointed him as its advocate before the Commonwealth Grants Commission from 1933 to 1935. He had been defeated for Fremantle in 1931, but in 1934 he was returned for Fremantle, and he represented that division since. He became leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party on 1st October, 1935, and was Leader of the Opposition in this House until 7th October, 1941, on which day he became Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. He had previously joined the War Council, in October, 1940, and had given of the very best that was in him in assisting the Government of the day in its endeavours to speed up Australia's war effort.

The King created Mr. Curtin a Privy Councillor in May, 1944. He attended the conference of Prime Ministers in May, 1944, and during his stay in London was received by His Majesty and was formally sworn as a Privy Councillor. He was made a Freeman of the City of London and an honorary Doctor of Law of Cambridge University. As part of his visit overseas, he met the late President Roosevelt in the United States and was also received by the Prime Minister of Canada (Mr. MacKenzie King) at Ottawa.

It should be noted that Mr. Curtin was Prime Minister continuously for a longer period than any previous holder of that office from his party - three years, nine months and a day. The late Mr. Andrew Fisher held the office for a greater period, but during three distinct terms.

"That is the biographical record of a career about which many volumes could be written. Death has written 'finis', but death can never take from our hearts and minds the memory of John Curtin.

"It is now my sad task to submit the following motion:-

That this House expresses its deep regret at the death of the Right Honorable John Curtin, member of the House of Representatives for the Division of Fremantle, and for more than three years Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia; places on record its appreciation of his distinguished public service; and tenders to his wife, his eon and daughter, and all relatives, its profound sympathy in their sad bereavement.

The Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Menzies) said -

"I second the motion. We all grieve for Mrs. Curtin and her family and pray that they may have consolation in the memory of a just, upright and honoured life, devoted to the service of the Australian people. I also extend my deep sympathy to the Government and to the party of which John Curtin was the trusted leader.

“My mind has gone back very vividly in the last few hours to another occasion, five years ago, when death suddenly claimed three of my own much-loved colleagues. No government can fail to suffer deeply from such losses, for good Ministers not only wind themselves into the hearts of their associates, but they become, as it were, a vital part of whole structure of governments.

"Of John Curtin I can say, as I believe we all can say, with a full heart, 'He was my friend, faithful and just to me'. As a Prime Minister, I owed very much to his friendship and understanding, always freely and informally extended. As an Opposition Leader, I have long admired his political skill, his capacity for securing unity of purpose and direction, his unflagging industry, his willingness to put upon a far from robust constitution burdens which most men would have been glad to avoid, his selfless devotion to the Australian people.

"To-day we lay aside controversy to pay our brief tributes to one who sought nothing in politics except the good of all others, as he understood it; who followed his lights with unswerving fidelity; who really believed in justice; who saw politics clearly as a conflict of ideas and not as a sordid battle of personal hostilities and ignoble ambitions.

"It was possible, and from my point of view necessary, to attack on political grounds John Curtin's politics or his public administration; it was impossible and unthinkable to attack his probity, his honesty of purpose, the man himself. He has left behind him a good name and an honoured memory."

The Leader of the Country party (Mr. Fadden) said -

"This is indeed a sad occasion, because not only does this House mourn the loss of the Prime Minister and Leader of the House, not only does the Labour party mourn and grieve at the passing of its great leader, but Australia has lost in the death of its war-time Prime Minister the personification of all that Australia is and means. I join with Mr. Forde and Mr. Menzies in conveying to Mrs. Curtin and her family our heartfelt sympathy.

“John Curtin was a very humble man. He was very generous and kind. His ideas and convictions were deep-rooted, and he fought strenuously for them. His disagreement with human politics was always conducted with extreme dignity, and his co-operation at all times was generous and valuable. I did not have the privilege or pleasure to know John Curtin for very long, but I knew him long enough to appreciate his qualities, and to count him among my most intimate friends, and my most generous and valuable advisors. When I first entered this Parliament, I made an immediate assessment of John Curtin's ability as a debater, and his strenuous efforts on behalf of his party and to implement its platform. But it was not until 1940, when the War Council was created, that I got close to John Curtin, and we founded a friendship that has endured ever since. He brought a most valuable mind and gave a most generous consideration to all matters. He forgot politics, and recognized and appreciated that the war position and Australia's national well-being transcended all political considerations. That was the way in which he approached all matters that came before the War Council.

“I recall, with the greatest possible gratification, that when I had the responsibility of acting as Prime Minister and the war clouds were gathering in the Pacific, and some of us considered that war with Japan was inevitable, John Curtin unhesitatingly, as did the Vice-President of the Executive Council (Mr. Beasley) joined with me in February, 1941, in making an appeal to Australian national sentiment and responsibility for an all-in war effort. We were seriously criticized in many quarters for having issued that warning; but, nevertheless, John Curtin co-operated with me, and was determined to place the interests of Australia before all other interests.

"Time passed; and in October, 1941, it was his responsibility to form a government. On 7th December, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and Australia had to face a new aggressor. Then it became John Curtin's responsibility to marshal the whole of Australia's resources to meet this new threat, and he became Australia's war-time leader. Although he was not in the fighting services or in the front line, it can be said, with the deepest sympathy, that he died fighting for Australia. He wore himself out. He was conscientious to the last degree, and determined to fulfil his responsibilities. The strain under which he laboured increased, and finally led to his death. Honorable members may take a lesson from this very sad event. Whilst we may disagree in our democracy on political matters and policy, let us do it with dignity and decency, as did John Curtin during the whole time that I knew him.

"This is the second occasion on which honorable members have mourned the loss of an Australian Prime Minister since I became a member of this Parliament, and it is extremely sad when we recollect that both the late Joseph Lyons, and now John Curtin, died in the service of Australia, and, indeed, of civilization. Neither of them had the opportunity to take a moment's leisure in retirement. The people should appreciate what public men give in their service to Australia, what the responsibility means, and what their untiring efforts lead to. John Curtin was not a robust man. He did not have those physical qualities and advantages that would have enabled him to bear his load of responsibility more easily; but, nevertheless, he used his strength to the greatest possible degree in the service of Australia and our Allies, and in the maintenance of constitutional authority, liberty and freedom that we knew in peace-time. It is sad that John Curtin, who marshalled Australia's resources for an all-in war effort, did not live to see the final triumph of the Allies over Japan, and the restoration of peace in the world. I know from my conversations with him that his hopes lay in the future. He had great plans for the future. He wanted to see this war successfully terminated. But our Lord thought otherwise and so, with all things earthly, even Man himself must submit to time's invincible sway. On behalf of the Australian Country party, I extend sympathy to all those, including the Australian nation, who mourn the loss of that great Australian, John Curtin."

The motion was carried. As a mark of respect the House adjourned until 18th July, 1945.