Biography of John Curtin
by Professor David Black, JCPML Historical Consultant
John Curtin, the only Australian Prime Minister to represent a Western Australian seat in the House of Representatives, led his country during the most critical phase of World War II. However, like his United States (US) counterpart, Franklin Roosevelt, Curtin did not live to see the final victory. At 4 am on 5 July 1945, in The Lodge, the prime minister's residence in Canberra, he became only the second Australian Prime Minister to die in office, barely six weeks before the Japanese capitulation was announced on 15 August.
"Curtin did not fight hard to become Prime Minister and showed some reticence about assuming office. Having come to the heavy responsibilities and finding them greatly increased by a new turn in the war that was already being waged, he grew in wisdom, character and strength with the added burdens that were laid on him. His own dedication was complete. He held back nothing from his service to the nation [and]...he had lived out his own text: 'I ask every Australian, man and woman, to go about their allotted task with full vigour and courage...We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British speaking race and as a place where civilisation will persist'. 3
Early life, 1885-1914
John Joseph Ambrose Curtin was born in Creswick, Victoria on 8 January 1885, the eldest son of John Curtin (born 1853) and Catherine Bourke (born 1856), Irish immigrants who had married at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne in June 1883. When Curtin was only five years old his father was forced through ill health to resign from the police force and seek employment as a publican. For the next eight years the family lived in increasingly impoverished circumstances, first in Melbourne and then in a succession of country towns before returning to Melbourne where Curtin's mother assumed the main burden of supporting her husband and four children. Curtin himself left school at thirteen and worked in a series of jobs before securing longer-term employment with the Titan Manufacturing Company in 1903.
World War I and conscription, 1914-17
The outbreak of the war in 1914 found Curtin seeking to have the Labour Movement commit itself to measures designed to prevent war. However, political necessity in a federal election year in which Curtin contested a Victorian seat for the ALP swept aside the peace resolutions he had achieved with the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
Editor of the Westralian Worker, 1917-28
Ups and downs, 1928-35
Curtin spent nearly a year on the Opposition backbenches before the Bruce-Page Government was forced to the polls. Labor regained power in the election for the House of Representatives held in October 1929, though it was still in a hopeless minority in the Senate. Somewhat surprisingly, Curtin was overlooked for the one Western Australian position in the Scullin Ministry. The impact of the Great Depression ultimately destroyed the Scullin Government following a landslide United Australia Party (UAP) win in the federal election in December 1931, and sent Curtin back into the political wilderness along with another future Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. This experience was especially disillusioning for Curtin, and he was critical of his own government for compromising with its opponents and accepting the cost-cutting implicit in the 'Premiers' Plan' instead of calling a fresh election to secure a mandate for its own radical credit creation policies. His later commitment to full employment policies and banking reform were a direct consequence of the bitter experiences of the Scullin Government years.
Leader of the Opposition, 1935-41
Curtin's most immediate task as leader was to restore Labor unity and in the process sideline the Lang Labor forces in New South Wales, a group to which he had been implacably opposed from the outset. In February 1936, following a unity conference in New South Wales, he succeeded in securing the return of the Lang Labor members to the Federal Caucus of the ALP, though problems with the Lang Labor group recurred on and off again until as late as 1941.
On 28 August Menzies resigned and Arthur Coles, who had temporarily rejoined the UAP, resigned in protest to revert to his independent status. The subsequent stopgap government led by Fadden lost power when Coles and the other independent, Alexander Wilson, crossed the floor of the House to secure the passage of a no-confidence vote on the Fadden Government's Budget by 36 votes to 33.
Prime Minister, 1941-45
WARTIME LEADER IN THE CRITICAL YEARS 1941 TO 1943
Informed by his involvement in the Advisory War Council, in the weeks following his assumption of the office of Prime Minister, Curtin generally continued the policies of the previous government. However, he did insist that the Australian 9th Division be relieved from the siege of Tobruk. In mid-November 1941, the Royal Australian Navy cruiser HMAS Sydney was lost with all hands in an engagement with the Kormoran, a German raider disguised as a merchant cruiser. On 1 December 1941 the War Cabinet held an emergency meeting in Melbourne amid rapidly growing concern over Japanese belligerence.
Without any inhibitions of any kind I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free from any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.
Four days later - and after the first bombing of Darwin, the first 'physical contact of war within Australia' - Curtin, from hospital where he had been admitted with gastritis, was asking Australians each to 'vow that this blow at Darwin and the loss it has involved and the suffering it has occasioned shall gird our loins and nerve our steel'. 22
The Coral Sea victory also provided Curtin with the setting for his 'most stirring war time speech', in which he called on each Australian:
ON THE HOME FRONT
The conversion of the Australian economy to the needs of total war has been described as a 'massive achievement'. 40 A critical element in this regard was the Curtin Government's achievement of effectively excluding the states from collecting income tax. In July 1942 the High Court ruled as constitutional a series of Acts passed by the Australian Parliament that provided, among other things, for Commonwealth financial assistance to the states provided they did not attempt to collect their own income taxes. The Commonwealth's action followed the refusal of the states to cede this power voluntarily for the duration of the war, but the effect of the High Court's ruling on the uniform tax case was to bring about an extraordinarily significant permanent change in federal-state relations. The Government also introduced legislation to enable it, rather than the states, to collect an entertainments tax.
THE 1943 ELECTION
Towards the middle of 1943, with the deadline for the federal election only weeks away, the Opposition stepped up its attack on the Minister for Labour and National Service, the Right Honourable Edward ('Eddie') J Ward, and his accusations (first voiced in October 1942) that the Menzies and Fadden governments had agreed to a plan, known as the 'Brisbane Line', for concentrating Australian defence forces in east-central Australia.
1943 TO 1945
For Curtin and his government the later years of the war have been described as 'a time of frustration rather than mastery'. 49 While Curtin and his ministers grappled with the competing demands of industry and the armed services, General MacArthur's war strategy was increasingly based on limiting direct participation by Australian troops, including their almost total
exclusion from the invasion of the Philippines 49b. In this sense 'Australian strategy was increasingly dictated by the constraints of allied diplomacy' 50 and as a consequence the links between Curtin and MacArthur became less and less significant, which in turn seemed to imply a lessening of Australian participation at the peace table.
Nevertheless, he had established his credentials in terms of maintaining the British connection - while in the UK he was awarded the freedom of the City of London - and six months earlier he had secured the nomination of the King's brother, His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester, to succeed Lord Gowrie as Governor-General. From a personal point of view, however, Curtin would have regretted Lord Gowrie's departure in the second half of 1944 after eight years in the post, as he had developed a warm friendship with the Governor-General and his wife during many a lonely weekend in Canberra.
Curtin's deputy, Frank Forde, who had returned from the San Francisco Conference only a few days before Curtin's death, served as Prime Minister for only one week, still the shortest term ever for any Australian prime minister. On 12 July the Labor Caucus elected Ben Chifley to the leadership by a substantial majority and his government was sworn in on the following day, with the only change from Curtin's last Ministry the inclusion of a Western Australian, Herbert V Johnson, to replace Curtin himself. Chifley had always been a valuable personal and political ally and confidante to Curtin, and his weeks as Acting Prime Minister after Curtin's hospitalisation in April undoubtedly contributed to the ease of his victory.
For Geoffrey Serle, the 'great justification of Curtin as Prime Minister is not merely that there was no viable alternative government in 1941-45, but that his contemporaries acknowledged that no other politician was fit for the task'. 58 At Australia's most critical hour Curtin 'successfully projected himself as national leader, inspiring respect from cynical Australians as few Prime Ministers have done. His achievements all derive essentially from character...' 59
In terms of ideals, the inscription on his gravestone perhaps best sums up Curtin's outlook and contribution to Australia:
His country was his pride
His brother man his cause.
1. David Day, 'John Joseph Curtin' in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Publishers, Sydney, 2000,
2. Geoffrey Serle, For Australia and Labor. Prime Minister John Curtin, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Bentley, 1998, p. 31.
3. Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1970, p. 634.
4. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 219.
5. David Day, John Curtin: A Life, HarperCollins, Sydney, 1999, p. 146.
6. ibid., pp. 205-211.
7. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 224.
8. Day, John Curtin: A Life, p. 251.
9. Dianne Sholl, 'John Curtin at the "Westralian Worker" 1917-1928: an examination of the development of Curtin's political philosophy as reflected in his editorials', BA (Hons) thesis, University of Western Australia, 1975, p. 38.
10. Westralian Worker, 2 June and 4 August 1922.
11. Fred Alexander, 'John Curtin the Prime Minister', in Lyall Hunt (ed.), Westralian Portraits, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1979, p. 228.
12. Day, John Curtin: A Life, pp. 275-276 and Alexander, 'John Curtin the Prime Minister', p. 228.
13. Alexander, 'John Curtin the Prime Minister', p. 228.
14. See Day, John Curtin: A Life, p. 291-296.
15. Westralian Worker, 7 December 1928.
16. David Black, In His Own Words: John Curtin's Speeches and Writings, Paradigm Books, Curtin University, Bentley, 1995, p. 122.
17. See, for example, Serle, For Australia and Labor, p. 18 - 'Abyssinia and Spain were irreconcilable issues on which Curtin deliberately decided not to lead'.
18. Serle, For Australia and Labor, p. 19.
19. From a radio broadcast by John Curtin, 10 September 1939, the text of which was printed as a pamphlet by the Western Australian State Executive of the ALP headed 'Australia and the War, Labor's Standpoint', cited in Black, In His Own Words, p. 160.
20. Cited in Black, In His Own Words, pp. 194-195.
21. Commonwealth Government, Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches by the Prime Minister (the Hon. John Curtin), No. 19, 16 February 1942, p. 7.
22. ibid., No. 19, 19 February 1942, p. 9.
23. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', pp. 233-234.
24. Curtin to Churchill, 23 February 1942, cited in Black, In His Own Words, p. 200.
25. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 234.
26. Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1977, p. 275.
27. Digest of Decisions and Announcements and Important Speeches, No. 22, 14 March 1942, pp. 10-12.
28. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 234.
29. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 170, 8 May 1942, pp. 1060-1061.
30. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 235.
31. Day, John Curtin: A Life, p. 480.
32. Geoffrey Serle, 'John Curtin', in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 13, 1940-80, University Press, Carlton, Melbourne 1993 (4), p. 556.
33. Day, 'John Joseph Curtin', p. 235.
34. See, for example, Black, In His Own Words, pp. 205-206 and 233-237.
35. See Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 338 and generally pp. 326-352.
36. See ibid., p. 341 for a map of the relevant territory.
37. ibid., p. 337.
38. Gavin Long, The Six Years War. Australia in the 1939-45 War, Australian War Memorial and the Australian Government Publishing Service, Sydney, 1973, p. 296.
39. Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament. A Narrative History of the Senate and House of Representatives, Commonwealth of Australia, Melbourne University Press, Burwood, 1988, p. 356.
40. Serle, 'John Curtin', p. 555.
41. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 385.
42. Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 298.
43. David Lowe, 'Australia in the World', in Joan Beaumont, (ed.), Australia's War 1939-45, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1996, p. 166.
44. See NAA: A432, 1948/25, 'Legislative and Administrative Record of Curtin and Chifley Governments'.
45. Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1929-1949, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1963 (74), p. 133.
46. Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 356.
47. 'The Royal Commission into Alleged Missing Documents relating to Defence Plans', also known as the 'Brisbane Line' Royal Commission.
48. Souter, Acts of Parliament, p. 358.
49. Serle, 'John Curtin', p. 556.
49b. The presence of the RAN in MacArthur's force is well known, but for fifty years it was kept secret that RAAF personnel were involved in the actual landings on the Philippines. Indeed MacArthur made a special request for RAAF radio interception units to help provide intelligence on Japanese intentions.
50. Joan Beaumont, 'World War II', in Graeme Davison et al. (eds), Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998 (99), p. 695.
51. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 176, 14 October 1943, p. 570.
52. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 480.
53. ibid., p. 481.
54. See Day, John Curtin: A Life, p. 528 and Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945, p. 483.
55. See Tim Rowse, 'Curtin and Labor's Full Employment Promise', paper presented at From Curtin to Coombs: War and Peace in Australia, Seminar at Curtin University of Technology, 25 March 2003.
56. Digest of Decisions, Announcements and Important Speeches, No. 46, 24 November 1942, cited in Black, In His Own Words, pp. 218-219.
57. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 181, 28 February 1945, p. 173 cited in Black, In His Own Words, p. 250.
58. Serle, For Australia and Labor, p. 47.