1943 Election: the context of the election

JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family.  Mr Curtin comes home. Mr Curtin greeting his wife on arrival by the Lancaster bomber. On the left is the Premier (Mr Willcock), 15 August 1943. JCPML00376/128.
JCPML. Records of the Curtin Family.  Mr Curtin comes home. Mr Curtin greeting his wife on arrival by the Lancaster bomber. On the left is the Premier (Mr Willcock), 15 August 1943. JCPML00376/128.


JCPML. Records of Eddie Ward.  Speech re Defence Policy and the Brisbane Line by John Curtin, July 1943.  JCPML00483/41.
JCPML. Records of Eddie Ward. Speech re Defence Policy and the Brisbane Line by John Curtin, July 1943. JCPML00483/41. (Original held by National Library of Australia MS 2396/13/17-24.)

Click to view full text of speech.

From the day of his accession as prime minister in October 1941until August 1943 Curtin led a government which lacked a majority in either House of Parliament. In his own words '

Not a piece of legislation could be framed by the Cabinet with the certainty that it would be passed in the form in which the Government framed it. 47

Throughout the period from October 1941 to August 1943 his party only retained power with the support in the House of Representatives of the two independents, Wilson and Coles. In the Senate from July 1941 the ALP had only 17 Senators (6 from New South Wales,2 from Victoria, 3 from Queensland, 3 from Western Australia and 3 from Tasmania) two less than the combined UAP–Country Party with 19. Admittedly, the situation in the House of Representatives was eased by the fact that the UAP Speaker Walter Nairn remained in that post until his resignation under pressure from his party in June 1943 on the eve of the Curtin’s decision to call the election. Nevertheless, the party’s majority on the floor of the House, even while Nairn was speaker, was only preserved with the support of both Maurice Blackburn, who had been expelled from the party in October 1941 because of his support for the Australia–Soviet Friendship League, and of Labor dissident and former Langite Rowley James.

As had been the case in 1940, and by contrast with the situation in the UK where the parliament elected in 1945 remained intact until July 1945, there was no move in Australia to postpone the election due by September 1943 or soon afterwards, a situation due in part at least to the fact that some form of suspension of the Commonwealth would have been necessary. In addition by 1943 the threat of invasion had clearly dissipated—a situation announced publicly by Curtin in June 1943 48 and Australia, he believed, could now be held ‘as a base from which to launch both limited and major offensives against Japan’. 49 In a speech to Parliament on 24 June 1943 Curtin informed the House

in my view this Parliament has about exhausted its resources for constructive legislation. I believe that it must be palpable to everyone that when we have passed the necessary measures in relation to carrying on of his Majesty’s services . . . the question of the capacity of this Parliament to continue to serve the country might be submitted to a higher tribunal. 50

The House of Representatives was dissolved on 7 July and the election for the whole of the House of Representatives and half the Senate was scheduled for 21 August.

Curtin’s decision to call the election came at a time when the substantial domestic political controversy had resurfaced for the first time since the attack on Pearl Harbour. Within the ALP Curtin had emerged successful but not unscathed by the dispute over this introduction of a limited form of military conscription while industrial disputes had increased again after falling away during 1942 and at one stage the Sydney Sun had called on the Curtin Government to ‘rule the country or give way to men who will’. 51 However, the most contentious issue centred on the so-called ‘Brisbane Line’ allegations, first raised as early as October 1942 when Curtin’s Labour and National Service minister Eddie Ward (a former Lang Labor member from New South Wales) contended that the Menzies Government had backed the concept, in the event of a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland, of abandoning all of Australia north of a line near the Tropic of Capricorn. 52 Such a concept had in fact been presented to the Advisory War Council (set up after the 1940 election as an alternative to a national government) in February 1942 but Curtin and Army Minister Forde asserted that such a strategy had never been endorsed. When Ward returned to the attack in the first half of 1943 Curtin repeatedly affirmed that such a strategy had ever been endorsed but his manner of so doing was described as belated and arguably ambiguous, in particular his comments late in May referring to the Menzies Government’s appointment of the alleged originator of the concept, General Iven MacKay, as General Officer Commanding in Charge, Home Forces. Paul Hasluck, for one in his official war history, suggested that Curtin’s ‘failure on this occasion to repudiate firmly suggestions which he must have know to be untrue fell below his customarily high standards of honesty and courage’. 53

From David Day’s point of view the Brisbane Line controversy had had the effect of providing an opportunity for the Curtin Government to build on ‘a public perception’ that previous governments had failed to ‘ensure the local defence of the continent before contributing to the defence of distant British interests 54 and to the extent that such a strategy existed during Curtin’s prime ministership it would have been for this reason. In this regard Curtin told a Labor conference in New South Wales in June 1943 that ‘under the conservatives the home defence plan had been defeatist in outlook and preparation’. 55

Curtin’s refusal to disown Ward—which may in part may have been part of a strategy to placate some of those who had been critical of his introduction of conscription earlier in the year—became increasingly a matter of press attention. Menzies resigned from the Advisory War Council over the issue and on 22 June Opposition leader Arthur Fadden, himself a Queensland MHR,  moved a motion of no confidence in the government claiming that Ward’s allegations were branding him (Fadden) as a ‘traitor to the State where all my affiliations are’. 56 In the lengthy debate which followed, during which Curtin vigorously defended his government on the issue of industrial unrest, Ward alleged that a document ‘that had gone missing from the Government’s files’ would have ‘proved his allegations concerning the Brisbane Line. Labor survived the no confidence motion by one vote 57 and Curtin, after denying that any document had ‘gone missing’, and faced with an Opposition threat to supply, announced on the same day first the appointment of a Royal Commission into Ward’s allegations and then his intention to call the election once supply had been granted. 58