CURTIN AS LEADER OF THE ALP
JOHN CURTIN MEMORIAL LECTURE-1997
One of the enduring truisms of studying history is the older you get, the deeper your understanding and appreciation of historical figures.
Partially this is a function of age, but thankfully I am not yet that old. Fundamentally, it is about the gradual accumulation of personal experiences which somehow intersect with those of the historical subject.
I want to talk today about John Curtin as Leader of the Australian Labor Party, and Prime Minister of Australia, for what his experiences reveal about the Labor Party, and its role in Australian society. At least in one of those roles, I have been able to put an enduring obsession with Curtin's life and times to some good use in thinking about Labor's future directions. This is what I want to share today.
Of all Australia's national leaders, Curtin was the one with the best appreciation of Australia's place in the world, and how to ensure national survival.
I understand that this assertion hangs in the air uncomfortably without a proper historical investigation, so I want to provide some brief comments on Curtin's legacy today. But I also feel it is important, particularly in the context of the work now being done by the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, to go into some detail as to how Curtin helped to shape the modern Labor Party I have the privilege to lead today.
John Howard has been quoted as saying that the Labor Party's greatest strength is its sense of history. Different people will understand different things by that comment. The Prime Minister and I are very different people, but that said, I agree entirely with his observation.
The Australian Labor Party has a long, rich and colourful history to draw on. We are the oldest political party in Australia and the oldest social democratic party in the world.
As a sometime historian, I understand that for the great potential strength it is. I don't want to set myself up as a believer in abstract eternal verities, but Labor's longevity springs from the fact that it represents an important strand of Australian life.
I think this is best summed up in the draft 1998 Platform, to be taken to next month's ALP National Conference:
More than a century ago, Australian working people recognised the need for a political voice to protect their interests, and to advance the living standards and improve the quality of life for themselves, their families and those in need. Labor today remains faithful to that tradition.
Elsewhere, the draft Platform speaks of the "aspirations of the Australian people for a secure, decent, dignified and meaningful way of life".
This is the root of Labor's great ambitions for the Australian people, and no-one articulated them better than John Curtin. I first want to spend some time evaluating Curtin's life and his political record, and then move on to some words about the party he shaped, and how his influence remains today.
I spoke before of my interests as a sometime historian. I am a sometime historian, but I am a full-time politician. As I have had occasion to remark before, politicians are malicious, violent and deeply disrespectful when it comes to history. There is little more frightening than a politician with an interest in history. That interest will rarely, better said never, be in history's interest, but in the politician's own interest.
That preamble absolves me of whatever else I will have to say today.
I have said before, to the collective winces and exclamations of historians and serious analysts, that John Curtin saved Australia.
It is probably even being too kind to call this historical shorthand. But there can be no doubt that he calculated, mobilised and symbolised all the forces which did save Australia and he died in his efforts.
The first thing to note I think in understanding John Curtin's role in that period of our history, is to understand the circumstances of his elevation and marvel at it.
In the most challenging period of his prime ministership, 1941-1943, he had no Parliamentary majority in either the Upper House or in the House of Representatives. He was put into power by two of the most conservative Independents ever to grace the benches of Parliament. Independents who until that point in time had provided support for a conservative government, and who operated in an environment where while there may have been a generalised view around that the Labor Party ought to be brought into office, there was nevertheless very little broad support for the notion that they should come into office exclusively.
Despite all this, those men were prepared to bet on John Curtin, and stick with him, through what was for Australia a series of disasters (as for the Allied cause generally) in the early stages of the war. Curtin repaid that confidence, battling his way to a position where ultimately he had a sweeping electoral victory in the middle of the war in 1943.
My father tells me of his father's concern in 1940 that John Curtin would be a member of Parliament during the war at all. He only won his seat in 1940 by some eight hundred votes (more intersecting historical experiences there!) and it was only the boxes coming in from the soldiers that pushed him ahead in the race.
Curtin arrived in Perth in 1917, with a reputation as a 'red-ragger from the East' proceeding him. He was brought in as editor of the AWU's Westralian Worker basically to discipline the West Australian branch of the Labor Party which had become essentially wayward and close to collapse.
After almost a decade of passionate advocacy, editorialising and campaigning (unsuccessfully in Fremantle in 1925) Curtin eventually won the seat of Fremantle in 1928. He did so at a point of time when West Australian politics were extraordinary and became even more extraordinary. The forces trying to tear West Australia out of the Federation were very strong. The party appreciated a particularly hard-headed sitting member, and one devoted to the principles that were regarded as important to sustain him in that seat. In retrospect, it is just as well for all of us they did not sustain him past three years. Because after losing Fremantle in 1931, three years of peace in a life of turmoil to that point and a life of true horror after that probably at least gave us our prime minister to almost the end of the war.
Recapturing Fremantle in 1934, he found himself by 1935 elected leader of the Australian Labor Party -- the first West Australian ever to secure that office. He was judged by his colleagues to be the only one capable of taking a party and converting what was a sort of walking fowl yard into a party capable of government. It was a truly devious and appalling mess at the time that John Curtin took it over. Indeed it was so horrifying to people like Jim Scullin who had been in power from 1929-31 Scullin refused ever to take front bench responsibility again.
My father succeeded John Curtin in the seat of Fremantle; he sat alongside Jim Scullin, who was a helpful man during the war to John Curtin but not a man prepared to take upfront responsibility. Jack Beasley who had been Lang Labor was up at the box orating and my father turned to Jim Scullin and said how marvellous it was to sit behind such a distinguished man as Jack Beasley and Scullin said "You will learn through your life Kim that the rewards for disloyalty are always greater than the rewards for loyalty".
My father learned that that situation only obtained for that period of time and the rewards for loyalty have been much greater ever since. But at that point of time it reflected an extraordinary period of time through which John Curtin marched the Australian Labor Party.
Now I don't want to go through a lengthy exegesis on Curtin's wartime stewardship of Australia. In reality, I do, but I don't think I'll put you through that. But I do want to go into the essential underpinnings of that prime ministership, and particularly how it relates to the modern Labor Party I inherited.
The first thing that must be remembered is that John Curtin was a totally rounded left wing politician. He was not a defence fanatic, nor was he a temporiser with Labor Party streams of opinion. He was a person who possessed the full array of left political commitments of the time.
One of those was an essential overlay he brought to government during wartime. Curtin as a Socialist believed in the total mobilisation of the population. I think it is fair to say that aside from the Soviet Union, perhaps with the exception of Britain, certainly not with the exception of Germany and Japan, the most mobilised nation in terms of wartime effort was Australia.
But it was not the kind of mobilisation which served only Imperial ends, only wartime ends or only immediate political ends. It was a mobilisation which served the ends of the Australian nation as a whole. I would cite the example of Curtin's attitude to the orientation of the Australian defence effort.
Curtin sincerely believed that Australia potentially faced long-term strategic challenges which made it essential that the flower of Australian youth was not destroyed. In particular, he mistrusted Empire defence strategists on the issue of Japan.
He knew that in a two front war -- which was the only likely war -- the chances of the United Kingdom on its own being able to protect Australia from a Japanese onslaught were next to nil. What was required of Australia was a total re-orientation of Australian defence. Away from a focus on Singapore, and a Naval defence. Towards a defence based on substantial mobility of ground forces in Australia and air bases around the north.
Those were the dimensions of Curtin's wartime mobilisation, but they went further than that. There is a bit of a tendency in historical thinking to draw a dichotomy between the Chifley and Curtin Governments -- to see a sort of break in which you had the Government dominated by the wartime preoccupation, then the Government dominated by constructing after the war a totally new Australia. Chifley doing the one and Curtin doing the other. It was not like that at all.
Curtin was deeply imbued with all the elements and the planning of post-war reconstruction that started during the period of his office that were taken up subsequently in Chifley's time. Indeed there is only one of Curtin's activities of the time that did not stand the test of time, and that was probably because the Allies won the war a bit faster than they thought they might have otherwise. That was his concept of regional development. When Curtin looked at the defence of Australia when Australia was likely to be invaded, he saw a necessity for regional strengths -- military industrial colonies right around Australia and emphasising that regionalism against the State interest.
Indeed, he fought those through with the States at the time. It was never really able to come to any degree of fruition because it was never really necessary. But when you actually look at some regional concepts now that are influential in government, the actual genesis of it was in Curtin's time but disappeared after World War II. But that is about the only one of his initiatives that did disappear after World War II.
To that concept of mobilisation, any historical analysis must add Curtin's moral courage. His moral courage was enormous. It is one thing to have the attitudes that he had. There are a few who shared those attitudes. I might say a number of Australian Generals during the 1930s had very similar views to him. It cost them all hero status. It cost them all the trust of the government of the day. It set them all back in their careers. So Curtin was not unique. But he was unique in the Australian political process in a position of leadership.
He had the moral courage to bring the troops home. To stand up and say they had to come back, when a very likely result at that stage of the war of bringing those troops home is that large numbers of them would be lost. We did not have absolute command of the oceans which they were going to cross and indeed some of them were lost on the way. So not only was it a difficult decision to advocate in terms of alliance politics, it was a difficult decision in terms of the accepted wisdom of military strategy at that time.
That moral courage lasted Curtin through the war. He was a man with a correct military strategy, but a man who hated the consequence of military action. His life was torn between taking military decisions and living with the death of people as a result of it, and he did not survive that tension.
Curtin did not survive it, but he bequeathed his Party enormous reservoirs of spirit and moral courage with which to carry forward its duty to the Australian people.
I was asked a rather gauche question by a journalist the other day as I released the 1998 draft Platform. It referred to an implied criticism of the current prime minister's pledge to create a relaxed and comfortable Australia, and whether we were not simply aiming at the same emotional terrain, just with the Internationale playing in the background.
I suppose I decoded that (for my own purposes) as a question about New versus Old Labor -- as if there was any such thing. Now, most commentators seem to want to speak of Old Labor as everything preceding March 1996. having mortally sinned against history at the beginning of my address, I am not above being so ungrateful as to call it now to my defence.
To call Hawke or Keating or even Whitlam Labor 'Old Labor' is a monumental historical inaccuracy. To the extent that it is a comparison with British Labour, it is a startling misadventure of comparative politics.
I want to talk about what I mean, and hopefully what historians mean, by Old Labor.
Old Labor was about controlling the commanding heights of the economy. It was about industry policy by nationalisation. It was about development of the nation by grand public projects. It was about all the things I have just been talking about with reference to John Curtin.
Old Labor saved this nation in the 1940s -- it meant we survived. That's what Old Labor meant, and it was appropriate for that time.
It was also a view that was intensely suspicious of the free market and the capacity of the free market to deliver anything. Anyone who had lived through the experiences of the 1930s was thoroughly entitled to that suspicion. And that's why they came to the conclusion that they did.
There are congruences between Old Labor and Labor today. Those congruences are chiefly in ends, not in means, and they are what I spoke of at the beginning of my speech today -- Labor's goal of protecting the interests, living standards and quality of life of working Australians.
The congruences in means are barely discernible. Let me begin by saying what they are not, but return to what does remain the same today as it was in John Curtin's day.
Labor today is no longer about controlling the commanding heights of the economy. Economic life in today's world is infinitely more complex than it was in the 1940s. The market today is a surging river of economic transactions, many millions of times greater than the trickling creek bed of 50 years ago. If we tried to dam that river today with the same techniques governments used back then, the river would surge around whatever obstacles we put in its way and quickly overwhelm us.
So government today can no longer be about dictating where the river will flow and where it will not. But what it can do is attempt to bring water to the places where the river does not flow, to make sure that all can benefit from the abundance of the free market, not to watch in mute admiration at the powerful swathe it cuts through people's lives.
So today, Labor must be about dealing with market failure where it exists, but building a mutual partnership with people who are out there in the market doing things and getting somewhere. Not protecting them from failure, but advancing their success.
Now this is where the means today do intersect with the means of yesterday. John Curtin was trusted by the people who put him in power and sustained him there, because he had a clear ideology of mobilising the community. I do not shrink from the word ideology in describing Curtin, as he would not have in his day. Today, we do not speak of ideology, but many of the individual ideas are the same.
I want to conclude by talking about the Labor leader who did change the Labor Party, and in his way just as much as John Curtin did. That leader was Gough Whitlam.
We celebrate this year the 25th Anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Government. This was a government which broke the shackles and mobilised a new nation in the same way as Curtin did 30 years previously.
What the Whitlam Government did was to cut through three main areas which conspired to anchor Australia firmly in the past.
The first was the definitive puncturing of the sterile and vicious debate over communism with the recognition of China and the withdrawal of the last troops from Vietnam. Whitlam came into power after decades in which the political debate almost inevitably drew itself down to the stultifying lowest common denominator of communism and anti-communism. His achievement was to overtake that debate and leave it gasping in his dust. He introduced to us new challenges and new questions and a relieved nation took to them gladly.
The second area was an overcoming of sectarianism in the Australian political debate. It was a sectarianism which had conspired to destroy the Labor Party for most of the 50s and 60s, and Whitlam saw to it that it was similarly consigned to an irrelevancy, particularly in the hotly contested area of education.
The third area was an achievement we have only come to value more in recent times, and this was the overcoming of wizened attitudes on race. It is often claimed by the other side of politics that the White Australia policy was officially dismantled by Holt in 1966. That much is true, insofar as White Australia could be dismantled. But White Australia was not so much an institution for dismantling as a living, breathing creature, against which far stronger methods had to be used.
Gough Whitlam understood that this was a policy to be flayed alive and in public. Flay it alive he did, in the process ushering in a new Australian nation, outward- looking, cosmopolitan and increasingly self-confident.
The same people who did not understand the difference then exist today. They still do not understand that the cause of racial harmony demands advocacy, commitment, passionate conviction. All the official niceties in the world go precisely nowhere in the realm of public debate, which is where Gough Whitlam understood the debate needed to be won.
All of these things Gough achieved, but it is the way he achieved them that describes how Labor tradition adjusts to changing times.
Labor is a mass-based political party. We draw our support and inspiration from the Australian people. Gough Whitlam discovered a new way of making government more relevant by reconnecting the idea of community which government represented with the needs of individual Australians. Labor was no longer about controlling the commanding heights, it was about understanding where government stood in providing equality of opportunity for all -- equality of access to education, health care, and employment opportunities.
This is the ground Labor occupies today. Our aspirations have remained the same since our Party was founded. It fell to John Curtin during our period of greatest national emergency to define those aspirations in terms of mobilising an entire nation.
It fell to Gough Whitlam to re-invent Labor's approach to government and make it relevant to a modern, outward-looking Australian society.
And it falls to Labor today to respond, as we did during the 1980s and 1990s, but with renewed vigour and application, to the challenges of governing for Australia in a globalised world.
In so doing, we remain a Labor Party. We differ from previous Labor governments in detail, perhaps in emphasis, but never in aspirations.
We seek to mobilise the Australian community, we seek to provide equal opportunities for all Australians, and we seek for the Australian people what Labor has always sought -- "a secure, decent, dignified and meaningful way of life".