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John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library
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1999 National prize winner in the JCPML special category - essay Working together through the life and times of John Curtin

By Marcus Fitz-Gerald, Year 10, Anglican Church Grammar School, Brisbane, Queensland

Only under the leadership of someone like John Curtin could the independent Australians have worked together against the Japanese.

John Curtin 'was the right man in the right place at the right time". [1] This was a man who was admired by his supporters and respected by his antagonists. Testament to the fact John Curtin truly was a great man was his ability to achieve so much as Prime Minister in such a short time. This was further underlined in his major achievement of temporary restrictions for the country's good. He wrote many newspaper articles informing the people about the war and what should be done.

One of Australia's greatest men, and if not our greatest Prime Minister, was John Curtin. Australia's World War 11 Prime Minister originated from typical 'battler' beginnings to overcome personal and public hardship. It all started in 1917 when at the age of 32, John Curtin accepted the editorship of the 'Westralian Worker'. He at last found an effective medium for expression of his ideas. He entered Federal Parliament in 1928 and 7 years later he replaced Scullin who was in ill health. He gradually healed the New South Wales schism which established his prestige within the party. When A.W. Fadden became Prime Minister in 1941 and presented his budget Curtin moved a hostile amendment and the Fadden Government was defeated and Curtin became Prime Minister.

One of the greatest attributes of John Curtin's leadership as Prime Minister was his emotive vocabulary and ability to confidently handle the media with success as he clearly showed the Japanese were moving through south-east Asia to Australia. On 15 February 1942 Singapore Island surrendered to the Japanese then on 17 February 1942 'The Age' of Melbourne published 'Mr Curtin's Call to Service'. 'The fall of Singapore can only be described as Australia's Dunkirk' said the Prime Minister (Mr Curtin) today. 'It will be recalled that the fall of Dunkirk initiated the battle for Britain. The fall of Singapore opens the battle for Australia',[2] These opening sentences would have spurred Australians to read on and thus realise the seriousness of the situation.

The introduction of restrictions on events and actions and the implementation of rationing to further aid the soldiers at war was an example of good planning and determination by John Curtin for Australia to be victorious. Restrictions began in early 1942 and lasted until after the war finished. Petrol rationing started in October 1940 but with the advent of war with Japan private cars were allowed only enough petrol to drive approximately 161/4 miles or 26 kilometres. Motorists demonstrated that they were working together for the good of Australia by using awkward big charcoal burners (gas producers) attached to their cars. Rationing became an institutional factor of wartime living. The available products for the general public were fairly distributed in a manner that stifled cheating. The Government issued ration books for clothing and food in June 1942. The Prime Minister clearly demonstrated that the war effort was to be the first priority when he told a large labour rally in the Town Hall which had gathered to celebrate the Government's first year in office 'the Government could not and would not provide enough beer and tobacco for all demands'.[3] For rationing to be a success, examples needed to be shown of prominent people leading the way. Who better to set the standard than John Curtin and his wife, Elsie who demonstrated cooking and dress making tips that eased the pressure on the need for much sought after resources. Very few people complained about the rationing, the exception being the black marketeers who seemed able to obtain anything that was scarce and sell it at a very inflated price. The ingenuity of the Australian women became apparent when women sent recipes to the newspapers to help families eat well even with rationing. Names such as Austerity Loaf and Austerity Beef appeared. In the 'Argus' dated Friday 18 September 1942 there appeared a column headed 'Austerity Hints by Mrs Curtin'.[4] This undoubtedly must have greatly encouraged the Australian population to wholeheartedly endorse and adhere to all the restrictions necessary to help Australia to victory over Japan. It clearly showed that the Prime Minister and his family were abiding by all restrictions and Mrs Curtin was finding ways to make austerity in homes more acceptable by passing on these helpful hints to the population. This showed how the 'First Family' of our nation was working together with the whole of the population in the resolve to keep Australia free from Japanese invasion.

Although rationing was immensely successful, more produce and supplies were required for Australian forces abroad and the influx of the U.S. defence forces in Australia. With many workers in the farming, manufacturing and retail industry being men of fighting age, women were encouraged to fill the vacancies left by these men now at war. In July 1942 the Australian Women's Land Army was formed with the Director-General of Manpower in charge. It consisted of full-time members who worked for at least one year and those who joined for the duration of the war and part-time members. The Director-General worked with the District War Agricultural committees which gave advice on rural manpower problems. This advice helped in placing members with individual farmers. The work carried out by the Women's Land Army consisted Of the growing of fruit and vegetables and cotton and dairying and poultry-farming. These women played a very important part in maintaining and increasing supplies of these primary products because in December 1941 after Japan entered the war Australia became a base for operations against Japan and had to provide these primary products for the greatly enlarged militia forces, the AIF (after their return to Australia) and the increasing number of American Servicemen.

Once again, John Curtin showed his leadership and organisational prowess similar to that of the instigation of the Women's Land Army with the idea of aligning the whole of the remaining population with the thought of helping the Australian war effort by acquiring a job that would assist the country's chances of victory. John Curtin had many posters printed which were displayed in prominent places all over Australia to encourage the civilian population to get a job which would help the war effort. One such poster stated 'Get a Victory Job'.[5] This poster was apparently very successful in enticing women to enter the workforce as over half a million entered the workforce. The manufacturing industry absorbed a large number of women workers in the areas of arms and munitions, vehicle and aircraft engines as well as optical glass. The Australian glass industry successfully produced five standard types of optical glass without which many weapons would have been useless. The war was responsible for a rapid advance 'in petrochemicals and synthetic rubber and also in drugs and vitamins.[6]

John Curtin's unwavering tenacity to be victorious really brought his best qualities to the forefront of public scrutiny. One such quality was his vivid descriptions and oral talent which made the public take notice. Besides introducing rationing and speaking eloquently on wireless urging women to get a victory Job in War Production Factories, Essential Foods Production and The Women's Land Army

John Curtin's speech titled 'Thriftiness Urged By Mr Curtin'7 appeared in 'The Argus' dated 16 April 1942. In this nation-wide broadcast he launched the National Savings Campaign. He said, 'Government placed the national savings campaign next in importance to the part played by the munitions and transport workers'. This part he went on to say 'was next in importance to that of the fighting man himself'.[7] There is no doubt that the inspiring oratory of Prime Minister John Curtin at various times during the Second World War supported and inspired Australian morale and kept the population working together with the thought of victory uppermost in their minds.

Posters were used to make people realise the importance of the Loans. One such poster, 'A Pictorial Guide to the Austerity Loan'.[8] gave a clear understanding to all facets of the Loan. Statistics showed that Australians were working together during World War 11 as expenditure on the Australian war effort from Loans exceeded the expenditure from the national income (revenue). There were 14 loan raising, drives under the titles 'War', 'Liberty', 'Austerity' and 'Victory'. This clearly demonstrated 'the Australian people turned to him with an enthusiasm and trust which no Australian leader of the previous decade had been able to inspire'.[9]

Towards the end and most crucial period of the war for Australia the Government needed more troops to protect Australia's shores and surrounding islands. John Curtin and his Labor Government were faced with the spectre of active conscription service to ensure the safety of Australia and surrounding Territories. Anti-conscription was the Labor Party's policy direction for years and John Curtin was a 'fist himself. However the wartime Prime Minister realised the state of the 'two armies' situation whereby the voluntary forces could serve overseas but the conscripted forces were restricted to serving and defending within Australia. Curtin had the foresight and strength to admit this was not workable as Australia had to be protected by defending the coastline and keeping, the Japanese from our shores. This became even more apparent when Darwin was bombed. Curtin moved that the Party Constitution add to the Defence Act 'and such other Territories in the South West Pacific Area as the Governor-General proclaims as being Territories associated with the defence of Australia.'[10] This amendment was passed with a two-thirds majority. Senator Cameron was one of the Labor ministers who attacked Curtin on this amendment. In his usual calm manner Curtin reminded Cameron that Cameron had thought it good Labor policy to send conscripts to Rabaul which was further from Australia than Timor where Cameron thought it was against Labor policy to send conscripts. The Prime Minister went on to say 'as both places are vital to one strategy, of the one cause, they can be met by only one policy.']

With the thought of saving Australia from invasion uppermost in John Curtin's mind, he went against his own beliefs and made the courageous and necessary decision to introduce wider ranging conscription. To bring in this form of conscription was probably one of Curtin's most difficult decisions as he was a pacifist by nature. However the Japanese were still advancing so the decision was strategic and diplomatic as the 'two-army' situation was unacceptable with American conscripts in Australia to defend our country. Curtin paid a high price for this courageous and right decision of a policy change. He suffered vicious verbal attacks and outrage of colleagues opposed to the policy amendment and his health started to deteriorate. Nevertheless John Curtin worked tirelessly to keep the country united and striving towards the common aoal of keeping Australia free from invasion. 'It was his calmness and his deep sense of humanity' that enabled him 'to guide Australia through its greatest crisis.' [12] Australians this time accepted conscription as they turned to him with enthusiasm and trust prepared to work together to keep Australia free from invasion.

John Curtin was a great man and an inspirational Prime Minister who guided Australians through the dark days of War. The strong bond of friendship and understanding that existed between General MacArthur and John Curtin was clearly shown when on hearing of the death of John Curtin he sent a telegram to Mrs Curtin saying 'Your husband was one of the great of the Earth.'[13] The public statement he issued read 'Mr Curtin was one of the greatest of war-time statesmen, and the preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument.'[14] How Curtin united and inspired Australians into accepting the necessary measures to obtain national security is easy to explain because the people gained confidence from his speeches as his eloquence rose to a high peak. With John Curtin as Prime Minister his deep sense of humanity cave the people confidence and the people worked together confident that he would guide Australia through its greatest crisis. John Curtin was endowed with such great qualities of 'unassuming dignity, simplicity, straightforwardness and patriotism'[15] which enabled him to bring together the independent Australians to work together to save the nation. He should be remembered for all times by all future generations of our nation for without John Curtin's leadership Australians would not be enjoying freedom and democracy today


  1. Butler, M. Australia's Best Politicians, Cardigan Street Publishers, Carlton, Vic, 1995, p. 20. Back.

  2. National Archives of Australia A5954/1, 1931/1 'The Age' 17/2/42' The Battle for Australia, Mr Curtin's Call to Service'. Back.

  3. National Archives of Australia A59-54/1, 220-511 'Sydney Morning Herald' 13/10/42 'War Effort Must Come First, Mr Curtin's Warning to Labour Rally'. Back.

  4. National Archives of Australia 'Argus' Friday 18/9/42 'Austerity Hints by Mrs Curtin'. Back.

  5. National Archives of Australia C934/Pl, Folder9 'Get a Victory Job'. Back.

  6. Molony, J. History of Australia, Penguin Books Aust. Ltd., Ringwood Vic, 1987, p. 292. Back.

  7. National Archives of Australia A5954/1, 1931/1 'The Argus' 16/4/42, 'Thriftiness Urged By Mr Curtin'. Back.

  8. National Archives of Australia C934/P1, Box 10, CLN50 Folder 'A Pictorial Guide to the Austerity Loan'. Back.

  9. Gordon, H. An Eyewitness History Of Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood Vic, 1988, p.324. Back.

  10. Lee, N.E. John Curtin Saviour of Australia, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1983, p. 117. Back.

  11. Lee, N.E. John Curtin Saviour of Australia, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1983, p. 118. Back.

  12. Butler, M. Australia's Best Politicians, Cardigan Street Publishers, Carlton Vic, 1995, p. 18. Back.

  13. Lee, N.E. John Curtin Saviour of Australia, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1983, p. 167. Back.

  14. Lee, N.E. John Curtin Saviour of Australia, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1983, p. 167. Back.

  15. Serle, G. Inaugural John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Public Lecture -Glimpses of John Curtin, 1997, Back.

Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources - Published

  • National Archives of Australia A595411, 1931/1 'The Age' 17/2/42 'The Battle for Australia, Mr Curtin's Call to Service'
    Useful information showing how Mr Curtin urged the population of Australia to fight and work to keep the enemy from our shores.

  • National Archives of Australia A59-5411, 1931/1 'The Argus' 16/4/42 'Thriftiness Urged By Mr Curtin'
    Very useful as the article showed the importance of the 'Savings Campaign' and provided background knowledge on 'Savings Campaign'.

  • National Archives of Australia 'TheArgus' 18/9/42 'Austerity Hints by MrsCurtin'
    Very useful information as Mrs Curtin supplied many examples of how to cope with war-time restrictions

  • National Archives of Australia A5954/1, 2205/1 'Sydney Morning Herald' 13/10/42 'War Effort Must Come First, Mr Curtin's Warning to Labour Rally'
    Useful for highlighting Curtin's non-favouritism.

  • National Archives of Australia C934/P I, Folder 9 'Get a Victory Job'
    Interesting, insight into how posters were used to capture women's attention,

  • National Archives of Australia C934/P1, Box 10, CLN,-50 Folder 'A Pictorial Guide to the Austerity Loan'
    An informative poster about the 'Austerity Loan'.

  • National Archives of Australia A59-5411, 1931/2 'Daily Telegraph' 8/10/41 'Curtin Pledges Full War Effort'
    Background information on war effort before Singapore fell.

  • National Archives of Australia A5954/1, 1931/1 'The Argus' 10/10/41 'To Uttermost Limits', 'MrCurtin's War Pledge'
    Informative but not relevant to topic as it predates topic.

  • National Archives of Australia A5954/1, 220-5/3 'The Herald' 27/12/41 'Nation Must Win Battle of Production, Mr Curtin's Call to Workers, Employers'
    Shows how Mr Curtin urgred the home front to play their part to overcome any invasion.

    National Archives of Australia A5954/1,2207/2 'Sunday Telegraph' 8/7/45 'Those who knew him tell of - The real John Curtin'
    Very interesting to read excerpts from people who knew John Curtin very well. Clearly showed what high regard and respect people had for him.

    National Archives of Australia C934/1;10 'What are you doing for Australia in her darkest hour?'
    A well presented pictorial poster showing for and against the war effort to make people aware that hindering was not to be tolerated.

Primary Sources - Unpublished

  • National Archives of Australia M 1416/1 3 'Letter from F.J. Newley to The Hon. J. Curtin, Prime Minister dated 7/3142 advocating the abolition of alcohol and gambling'
    Helpful as background as the letter conveyed the sincerity of the writer for efficiency made possible without alcohol.

  • National Archives of Australia A 1608/1, V45/1/12 'Letter from D. Lewis to The Prime Minister dated 30/12/41 encouraging John Curtin to introduce conscription and look to America for help.'
    Useful for background as letter shows a personal approach from the writer with encouragement to proceed with conscription.

Secondary Sources - Published: Books

  • Beaumont, J. Australia's War 1939-45, Allen & Unwin, NSW, 1996
    Detailed information on the war but not relevant to my assignment.

  • Brodie, S. Statesmen Leaders and Losers, Dreamweaver Books, Sydney, 1984
    Provided a detailed account of John Curtin that was useful for background overview.

  • Butler, M. Australia's Best Politicians, Cardigan Street Publishers, Carlton Vic., 1995
    Useful and concise information pertaining to the topic.

  • Carroll, B. From Barton to Fraser, Cassell Australia Ltd., NSW, 1978
    Background reading for assignment but not detailed enough to use.

    Gordon, H. An Eyewitness Histoy of Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood Vic, 1988
    Author conveys an insight to John Curtin's talent of successfully communicating with others. A very interesting focus on Australia's alignment with the United States.

    Hallett, K. Now & Then: Australian history & identity in the twentieth century, Thomas Nelson Australia, Vic, 1993
    A cross section of information pertaining to World War 11. Useful for helping to build a full picture, but detail is missing as it is more of a brief overview.

    Johnston, S. & Nation, L. Australia 1939, New South Wales University Press, 1989
    Chapter 8 is useful for background information as it deals with the start of World War 11.

    Lee, N.E. John Curtin, Saviour of Australia, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1983
    An excellent book and compelling reading. Very useful for a wide variety of reference help.

    Lloyd, C. & Hall, R. Backroom briefings: John Curtin's War, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1997
    Amazing information from a journalist who was part of a group of Canberra Press Gallery journalists that were privy to John Curtin's briefings. Helps bring details into perspective and written under exact dates.

    Luck, P. A Time to Remember, Mandarin, Port Melbourne, 1991
    Coverage of conscription was useful as a stepping stone to more in-depth reading and knowledge.

    McKernan, K. All In! Australia during the Second World War, Thomas Nelson Australia, Vic, 1983
    Several good chapters with information on rationing, 'Austerity' Loan, 'Austerity' campaign, women at work and conscription. Excellent photographs.

    Molony, J. History of Australia, Penguin Books Aust. Ltd,, Ringwood Vic, 1987
    Useful information on rationing and Australian Women's Land Army and the manufacturing industry.

    Ross, L. John Curtin, Melbourne University Press, Vic, 1996
    Very helpful as chapters are written in time frames pertaining to particular events in history. Easy access due to this fact. Good detailed information. It helped as a spring board to reading, other publications.

    Serle, G. For Australia and Labor, The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, 1998
    Clearly presented for easy reading. Very useful for gaining a great insight into why John Curtin is so highly regarded and an excellent reference help.

Secondary Sources - Published: World Wide Web Sites