Curtin as an Election Leader: Background

"Lang is right" lapel badge, 193?  JCPML00842/1.
JCPML. "Lang is right" lapel badge, 193? Records of the Australian Labor Party, New South Wales Branch.  JCPML00842/1. (Courtesy: Australian Labor Party, New South Wales Branch.)

Prelude to 1937

When Curtin first entered the House of Representatives in 1928 as member for Fremantle the non-Labor parties led first by ex-Laborite William Morris Hughes and then Stanley Melbourne Bruce had been in power for eleven years. Including Curtin’s victory in Fremantle the federal Labor party won eight additional House seats in 1928 leaving the party in a minority of 31 to 43 seats with one Independent. A year later the non-Labor Bruce–Page Government was forced back to the polls following a defeat in the House of Representatives and Labor led by Scullin won the election with a majority of 46 to 28 with Prime Minister Bruce himself one of the electoral casualties in his own Victorian seat of Flinders. However, just over two years later in November 1931 members of the breakaway Lang Labor party backed a United Australia Party no confidence motion and forced the Scullin Government to the polls where it suffered a disastrous defeat winning only 14 Lower House seats in the new Parliament and in New South Wales only 3 of the 28 seats compared with 4 for the breakaway Lang Labor forces. Among the prominent casualties of the election were the Treasurer and former Queensland Premier Edward Theodore, defeated by a Lang Labor candidate in his New South Wales seat; Ben Chifley; and Curtin himself who was defeated in Fremantle by the former member William Watson. In the Senate contest Labor won only three of the eighteen vacancies, all in Queensland.

Federal Labor Party, 1936. JCPML00376/152
JCPML. Federal Labor Party, 1936. Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00376/152
Curtin returned to the House of Representatives following the September 1934 election defeating Florence Cardell-Oliver who fourteen years later became, at State level, the first woman in Australia to attain ministerial rank. Despite Curtin’s success the results for Labor remained deeply disappointing with the party winning only four extra seats for a total of 18 of 74 seats compared with 9 for Lang Labor (a gain of 5 compared with 1931). Indeed in New South Wales Federal Labor polled less than 10 per cent of the primary vote in that State compared with 36 per cent for the Lang Party and after losing two seats to the latter was left with only 1 New South Wales seat. In the Senate Labor did not win any of the contested vacancies leaving it with a total of 3 out of 36 in that chamber. Almost the only significant sign of progress for the ALP was that the United Australia Party, first formed in 1931 by a combination of Liberal and former Labor members, was now forced to rely on Country Party support to form a government. Just over a year later Curtin succeeded to the party leadership defeating his main rival Francis Forde by eleven votes to ten.