Document Study 10
• Radio documentary - Education program version of ABC Radio National Hindsight program Prime Minister John Curtin, produced by Bill Bunbury, 2000
• Speeches in Parliament in tribute to PM Curtin after his death in July 1945

Document Study 10 involves:

  1. listening to the radio documentary and recording information of a more personal nature about John Curtin and his character;
  2. reading the speeches in Parliament after Curtin's death and recording the qualities that these tributes assign to him; and
  3. comparing the two sets of information and drawing conclusions about Curtin as a person.

To help you do this, a summary of the content of the documentary is provided below along with suggestions of when you should pause the audio to record information about Curtin's personality, physical appearance, hobbies, likes and dislikes, etc.

Graphic of John Curtin, based on JCPML00180/16
NO. 1 Listen to the radio documentary Prime Minister John Curtin

Summary

John Curtin, Australia’s wartime leader, is now seen as one of our most remarkable prime ministers. He was an idealist who had to compromise with the realities of political life: he led his country in a time of war but his deepest instinct made him campaign against conscription in World War One. Curtin was born in Creswick, Victoria in 1885. He died while in office in July 1945.

Stop 1 Pause the documentary and begin your list of personal information about John Curtin.

Summary

Curtin left school at 14 years of age, like many of his generation. His father was a publican and the family were not well off. His early experiences of life were pretty grim. He rejected the Catholic faith of his upbringing and turned to socialism. In 1902, when he was just 17, Curtin was drawn into the labour movement. He joined the Labor Party and then in 1906, Tom Mann, a British socialist and labour movement leader, set up the Socialist Party which Curtin also joined. Mann was an internationalist and anti-imperialist. He believed that imperialism and nationalism led to war between countries.

JCPML. Records of Lloyd Ross. Melbourne Gaol series, Tom Mann studying Russian liberty, 1906. JCPML00633/5. Original held by National Library of Australia MS 3939, Series 15, Box 67

Postcard of Tom Mann, c 1916. JCPML00633/5

When World War 1 broke out it wasn’t long before the people calling for peace were swamped by the great propaganda of the pro-war lobby. Speaking out against the war became a dangerous thing to do. When the conscription referendum was thrust upon the people, Curtin was appointed secretary of the anti-conscription committee and spent a good deal of time stumping around the countryside spreading the anti-conscription case. After the bloodbath in Gallipoli and Flanders the Labor Party, particularly in Melbourne, became strongly resistant to the idea of forcing young men to go to war.

When John Curtin came to WA in 1917 he was a man with a mission – a socialist mission. Curtin believed that the churches had taken over Christianity and subverted it. He saw socialism as the true religion - the ideas of Christ put into action. The Victorian Socialist Party, for instance, shared many characteristics of a church. They held street meetings like the Salvation Army. On Sundays, after sufficient time had been allowed for people to attend mass or some other church service in the morning, the party would run a Sunday school for children. They ran afternoon teas and great lectures in the evenings where thousands of people would attend. They even organised orchestras, bands and picnics in the countryside like a church.

In 1911 Curtin secured the position of secretary of the Timber Workers Union. At this time, Curtin had a drinking problem which was exacerbated by the rough life he led as a union secretary. His friends, however, never wrote him off. They saw greatness in him and never allowed him to ‘slip out’ of the movement. It was a godsend when Curtin’s friends found him a job in Western Australia as editor of the Westralian Worker newspaper. Gossip had it that Curtin was a ‘real red’, a Yarra Bank orator. People expected him to be a fiery chap with red ties, untidy suits and a loud and flamboyant nature. What they got was an earnest looking, quiet, mild mannered, neatly dressed man who soon made friends in the newspaper business.

Westralian Worker builiding, c.1920. JCPML00379/1.

JCPML. Records of the Australian Labor Party WA Branch. Westralian Worker building, c1920. JCPML00379/1

The political life of Perth was very different to Melbourne. In WA the trade unions and the Labor Party were one movement. When Curtin became involved in the union movement in WA he was drawn more and more deeply into ALP organisation. In Melbourne Curtin had moved mainly with working class people who had few links with people in other classes or with other political ideas. In Perth, however, he was thrown by the nature of his life and work as an editor together with people across political and class boundaries.

Stop 2 This section of the documentary provides quite a lot of personal information about John Curtin. Pause and add this information to your list.

Summary

Until the time he came to Perth, Curtin was convinced that he would see the collapse of capitalism, although not necessarily by revolution as in Russia. He thought this extreme was unnecessary in Australia. He believed people would come to understand that capitalism exploited people and so they would naturally favour socialism. The war forced him to reassess his ideas – capitalism had not collapsed as a result of the war and socialism didn’t appear to be working very well in Europe. By 1922 he had come to the conclusion that he would not see socialism in his own lifetime. When he returned from an International Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva in 1924, he was even more convinced that reform rather than revolution was the way. Back in Australia, he committed himself to becoming a member of Parliament for the ALP, standing for election in 1925.

Stop 3 Pause and add any new personal information about Curtin from this section to your list.

Summary

Curtin won election to parliament in 1928. He came to Canberra with a great sense of optimism that Labor could change things. When the Scullin Government took office they had a good majority and a mandate for social progress and reform. They did not, however, control the Senate and with the onset of the Depression found it hard to pass legislation. Increasing financial constraints meant that the government had to reduce wages and pensions rather than put its own social program into operation.

The Scullin Government, 1929-1932. JCPML00376/150

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. Scullin Government 1929-1932. JCPML00376/150

Curtin stood virtually alone against the economic dogma of the time which called for cuts in government spending of all types. He wanted to nationalise the banks and bring the financial system under the control of the Federal Government to free up credit and increase employment opportunities. The ALP was in complete confusion and Curtin became morose, lonely and almost cynical. The ALP lost office in 1931, in an election that saw Curtin lose his seat of Fremantle.

Stop 4 Pause and add any new personal information about Curtin from this section to your list.

Summary

Curtin was re-elected to parliament in 1934. He was now quite suddenly seen as a potential leader, although he had been passed over for membership of the Scullin Ministry. Being able to stand apart from that ministry is probably what made him a likely candidate. In 1935 Scullin resigned as leader of the ALP and Curtin contested the leadership, winning the position by one vote ahead of Frank Forde. He worked to re-unite the Labor Party and to present the party as one which had the right and capacity to govern the country.

Summary

Stop 5 Pause and add any new personal information about Curtin from this section to your list.

By 1940 the Labor Party was a strong, compact and vigorous opposition under Curtin’s command. With the country now at war, some critics believed that Curtin was not being energetic enough in his attacks on the government. Some referred to him as ‘Jaded Jack’. What drove him though was the need to keep the Labor Party united once war began and to keep Australia together and sacrosanct from invasion.

One view is that Curtin believed Menzies was better suited to leadership in wartime and wanted him to keep on doing the job. To this end, he gave Menzies his utmost support. (Other historians believe Curtin was focussed on gaining the prime ministership and seeing the ALP form government in its own right - see for example the 2001 public lecture by Dr John Edwards In search of John Curtin.)

The United Australia Party led by Menzies was dependent on the votes of two Independents to retain government. Menzies wanted Curtin to form a national government to cope with the war crisis but Curtin refused, offering instead the idea of an all party Advisory War Council to which Menzies agreed. The two leaders worked well together until the collapse of the Menzies Government in August 1941. On 7 October 1941 John Curtin became Prime Minister of Australia.

Curtin very quickly adapted to the position of prime minister, showing a great talent for organisation and leadership and the capacity to inspire a nation. He was a self possessed person who was an inspiring speaker and who showed genuine interest in what other people had to say. He could deal calmly with the big issues of the war but still felt a deep responsibility about his decisions as prime minister, especially where these concerned life or death issues such as the return of Australian troops without naval escorts in 1942.

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. John Curtin at garden party for Canberra Hospital Auxilliary, 29 November 1941. JCPML00376/133

John Curtin at garden party for Canberra Hospital Auxilliary, 29 November 1941. JCPML00376/133

1942 was a turning point in the war for Australia. With regard to the United States, Curtin was fully aware of our status as junior partner in the arrangement and left the waging of the war to the generals. He appeared to play only a facilitating role but it was a difficult one where he had to manage the Labor Party and the Australian economy in a way that met the needs of the war and of US General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the South West Pacific Area. Curtin and MacArthur shared a keen sense of the politics of the enterprise they were jointly engaged in. They both saw the need to bring the Pacific war to the attention of the American President and to find ways in which this could be done.

Stop 6 Pause and add any new personal information about Curtin from this section to your list.

Summary

John Curtin had his first serious heart attack in 1944. Although urged to retire, he chose, with the support of party and parliament to stay on. He can be viewed as a casualty of the war – his mind and spirit were exhausted by the war.

He was, however, an extraordinarily successful Labor leader. He was the first Labor prime minister to win an election while in office and his popular acclaim and success helped sustain Labor through the long years of opposition.

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family. John Curtin's coffin under guard, King's Hall 1945. JCPML00376/181

John Curtin's coffin under guard, King's Hall 1945. JCPML00376/181

End of the radio documentary


NO. 2 Read the speeches made in Parliament in tribute to Prime Minister Curtin after his death and record the qualities that their tributes assign to him.

Documents: Excerpts from speeches by parliamentarians

Source: Votes and Proceedings, no. 59, Thursday, 5 July 1945. (JCPML00129/21)

Mr. MENZIES (Kooyong, Leader of the Opposition):

... 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.

Mr. FADDEN (Darling Downs, Leader of the Australian Country Party):

... He brought to all matters a brilliant mind and conscientious consideration. He forgot politics, recoginising that the war emergency and Australia's national well-being transcended all party considerations.

Mr. Hughes (North Sydney):

... He died, as he would have wished, at the post of duty. Of no man can it be more truly said, that he literally gave his life for his country. He has gone, but he leaves behind him a name that will live ever fresh and fragrant in the hearts of the people of Australia.

Sir Earle Page (Cowper):

... He became a spokesman for Australia, of whom we all were proud. He was one of our most gifted orators and masters of expression. He was a great parliamentary leader, and a distinguished servant of the people whom he loved.

Mr. Coles (Henty):

... As a war-time leader, John Curtin proved himself to be capable of really great deeds ... His constant skill in guiding the affairs of the nation throughout the most critical and perilous days of its history will long be remembered. His name will be revered by a thankful people for the fearless courage which he displayed... His ability to rise to the needs of the moment in the face of danger, and his capacity, regardless of criticism, patiently to organise the Australian war programme... placed him in the ranks of the great figures of our time.

Senator Tangney (Western Australia):

... I knew the late John Curtin since my early childhood days. He always stood as an example of integrity, public spiritedness, and humility - virtues which any public leader would do well to emulate. John Curtin was a man of peace. It is remarkable that such a man should have become a great war-time leader when the national necessity demanded it.

Compare your list of qualities with the Answer Key

NO. 3 Compare the personal information that you recorded about Curtin's character from listening to the documentary with the qualities that the parliamentarians spoke about in their speeches. Do the two lists agree? Make your own assessment of Curtin's character, supporting your decision with evidence from the two sources.
(No answer is provided for this question.)
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