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Curtin University
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library
Curtin University Library

John Curtin: Vision, leadership and community service

Prime Minister John Curtin led Australia through the crisis of World War Two.

As a wartime leader he was able to transcend party differences for the sake of national unity. He was a tireless worker on Australia's behalf.

John Curtin

Australian Government Photographic Service. Rt Hon John Curtin (1885-1945) Prime Minister 1941-1945. JCPML00036/13.

Curtin was born in Victoria in 1885 and left school at 14 to help support his family. He worked in a variety of occupations before moving to Western Australia in 1917 as editor of the Westralian Worker. He first entered politics in 1928 as the federal Member for Fremantle but his term was cut short when Labor was defeated in 1931 and he lost his seat. However, one year after re-entering Parliament in 1934 he was elected parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party. When the Fadden government collapsed, Curtin became prime minister on 7 October 1941. He surprised many by the capacity and assuredness he immediately displayed upon assuming this role.

Curtin was an ordinary man doing an extraordinary job in the face of adversity. As a leader he never lost touch with the people, agonising over the crucial life and death decisions he had to make on their behalf. His greatness lay in his ability to unite all Australians into a total war effort and galvanise them to meet the threat of invasion. Curtin inspired respect from Australians as few prime ministers have done to the extent where he increased his majority from 600 to 20,000 votes at his 1943 re-election.

Curtin was a man of courage, able to triumph over personal adversity to undertake the duties no one else could perform and who ultimately sacrificed himself in the service of his country. By standing up to Churchill he ensured that Australia's interests were not overridden by Britain's.

Curtin was a man of vision. He recognised the potency of air power in the defence of Australia prior to World War One; he realised in 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles would make another war an inevitable consequence; he accepted that, despite Australia's commitment to Great Britain, he had to turn to the United States for help and he played a pivotal role in changing Australia from a nation with an inward perspective to a nation with a more international outlook capable and prepared to make its own decisions. He worked hard to implement a vision for a better postwar Australia, creating the foundation of Australia's welfare state

In the words of Gough Whitlam, Foundation Patron of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library:

"If ever a man was born to lead this nation into time of peace and in the paths of peace it was John Curtin. If ever a man was born to apply his vision of what Australia at peace could be, his vision of what Australia at peace should become in his time, he was John Curtin."

Curtin was a humble man and a passionate Australian. In the words of his epitaph:

"His country was his pride, his brother man his cause."