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In November 1928, Curtin was elected to the Federal seat of Fremantle. In his final editorial before leaving the Worker, he indicated his awareness of the responsibilities resting on himself and his fellow Parliamentarians in representing 'the workers' party'. The rank and file of the Party 'worked not to give a handful of men cosy seats in Parliament ... [but] to help bring a new orientation into the social and industrial life of Australia' (WW, 7 December 1928).

How to vote pamphlet, ALP, 1940 Federal Election
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Australian Labor Party
(WA Branch). Federal Elections 1940: How to vote pamphlet. JCPML00187/5.

Curtin entered Parliament as a member of the Opposition. The Eleventh Parliament was the first to meet in the new provisional Parliament House at Canberra, which had been opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in May 1927. Curtin's major speeches during this first term in Parliament were on subjects close to his heart - improving conditions for workers and national responsibility. His maiden speech was on the subject of the Transport Workers Bill.

During its previous term in office, the Bruce government had amended the Federal Arbitration Act, enabling politically conservative Federal Arbitration Court Judges to bring down a series of Awards which overrode State Awards and imposed stricter conditions on strikes and working hours. The first of these was Justice Beeby's Federal Engineers' Award (July 1927), which permitted individual bargaining between employer and employee. Under Beeby's 1928 Waterside Workers Award, the unionists lost many hard-won privileges. Wharfies who recalled the 70 to 80-hour shifts of the past were particularly anxious to maintain the existing maximum twelve and a half-hour shift. Just before the 1928 election, the Bruce Government rushed through Parliament the Transport Workers Act, which enabled the government to make regulations regarding the employment conditions of waterside workers. (Macintyre, 1986, p. 245).

Once the new Parliamentary term commenced in 1929, the ALP tried to prevent an amended form of the Transport Workers Act being introduced (Black, p. 78). The amendment would enable the government to enforce a licensing system for workers who serviced interstate and overseas ships. The wharfies had their own name for it - the 'Dog Collar Act' - but despite their scorn, the legislation proved effective in quelling resistance and forcing the union to accept what work was available. Curtin pointed out that Commonwealth laws should apply without discrimination, whereas the proposed Act was primarily about discriminating against a small section of the work force - that is, it required the licensing of waterside workers in certain ports. Reminiscent of his revolutionary days, Curtin observed:

Many offences are described as crimes though they are really acts done in the struggle for liberty. The alleged crime is often no more serious than the banding together of citizens for the advancement of their common interests ... [To] describe as a criminal a man who, driven by his sense of manhood, and of what is due to him refuses to work even under the award of the [Arbitration] Court, is a gross misuse of language
(Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates [CPD], vol. 120, 1929, pp. 277-278).

Later in the debate, Curtin warned that the proposed bill would enable Parliament to exercise 'an authority in the sphere of industry which was not contemplated in the Constitution' nor in any of the amendments since. He foresaw that employers might find that 'this instrument', which they had seized upon as 'a means of oppressing the waterside workers' had become 'a two-edged sword' (Ibid, p. 725).

The increasing industrial turbulence, which resulted in 4 461 000 working days being lost in strikes in 1929, created a crisis in government. A lengthy strike on the NSW coalfields and the Bruce Government's preferential treatment of one of the wealthiest mine owners, John Brown, led to its downfall. With both workers and employers antagonised by its tactics in the Arbitration Court, the government survived a no-confidence motion in August 1929 but Bruce called an early election when his Bill to dismantle the Arbitration Court was defeated. Not only were the Nationalists defeated but Bruce lost his own seat when Melbourne Trades Hall Secretary, E.J. Holloway, defeated him. (Macintyre, pp. 245, 247-250).

The new prime minister, James Scullin, continued the practice of appointing only one Western Australian to the Cabinet, and gave the Defence portfolio to veteran Kalgoorlie Member, 'Texas' Green. A bitterly disappointed John Curtin retired to the backbench after graciously thanking his Western Australian colleagues for their support in the recent election campaign. During his time in the Federal Opposition, Curtin's considerable intellect and brilliant oratory had already made an impression, and he was a member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (FPLP) executive. His omission from the Ministry, therefore, is surprising, and has been attributed to a number of factors, including a perception by some of his parliamentary colleagues that he still had an alcohol problem and was therefore 'unreliable' (Day, pp. 308-309).

During his time as a backbencher in the Scullin Government, Curtin contributed to debates on the establishment of a Reserve Bank to carry out functions originally intended for the Commonwealth Bank. The previous government's 1924 Commonwealth Bank Act had effectively denied the government control over the banking system by establishing a Commonwealth Bank Board (Black, p. 87). In rejecting the Opposition's arguments against the Central Reserve Bank Bill, Curtin returned to a well-worn theme of inequality, pointing out that the control of all the nation's major activities lay in the hands of 'a comparatively few men, who constitute the directorates of the various banking institutions.' These men, in turn, were involved in industrial enterprises, which would influence their decisions about the granting or refusal of credit - particularly to competing industries. Curtin saw an irony in the Opposition objecting to the government of the day having an undue influence over the bank when, in reality, it was in the power of men who were involved in commercial profit. 'I submit that the credit power of the community belongs to the people as a whole, and should not be restricted by any private individuals or groups whatever' (CPD, vol. 124, 1930, p. 2593).

Curtin addressed international issues such as disarmament, the League of Nations and the British Empire. In the 1920s, he had criticised the lack of international will to disarm; in the early 1930s, he saw apparent moves to limit armaments more as a sign of the state of the world economy than any desire by nations for a lasting peace. He accepted the reality that 'the will to peace seems to slacken in the presence of circumstances which appear to make necessary the employment of people on the development of warlike equipment'. He also regretted the United States' refusal to join the League of Nations. He saw a League of Nations which included in its membership 'all the representative countries of the world' as being more conducive to world peace than 'a succession of group pacts' (CPD, vol. 126, 1930, pp. 5621-23).

In 1930, at the invitation of the Scullin Government, Sir Otto Niemeyer, an official of the Bank of England, visited Australia and attended a special conference of State and Federal Ministers in Melbourne in August, which resolved to balance budgets and reduce borrowing. Curtin, and a number of his Labor colleagues did not agree with Niemeyer's solution of lowering costs and tariffs and reducing the standard of living (Weller, 1975, p. 390). In Parliament, on 12 November, he asked, 'Are all the problems of nations to be solved by the operation of depressing the wages of those who are the poorest of this and every other community? (CPD, vol. 127, 1930, p. 208). In May 1931, the State premiers held a conference and resolved to reduce government spending by 20 per cent. The Plan included cutting pensions and public service salaries, and increasing taxation - a strategy which Curtin deplored. In Parliament in June, he stated:

I am opposed to the plan in its entirety, because the variations of interest rates are contingent upon my acquiescence in the reduction of payments to old age, invalid and war pensioners, and because implicit in the plan is an abandonment of the whole conception of the Labour movement in regard to the reconstruction of society. Although the plan professes to be a complete plan, it leaves untouched the top-heavy political system of this country … [and] in effect it says to me, 'Go out and justify the taking of 2s. 6d. a week from the income of an old age pensioner', while at the same time it is proposed that we shall continue to maintain the panoply of six sovereign States, with six agents-general, six governors, and all the pomp and ceremony of 13 chambers connected with the political mechanism of this country …
(CPD, vol. 130, p. 2954)

Curtin believed that the Labor government could not administer the affairs of the country, 'either with advantage to its supporters or honour to itself' and should have sought a mandate to govern using its own policies. Frank Anstey agreed with him and suggested the government seek a double dissolution. During the 1930-31 Parliamentary recess, a small faction headed by J.A. Lyons and J.E. Fenton defected to the National Party, forming a new United Australia Party, with Lyons as leader. The ALP also split in NSW, with Premier Jack Lang forming the Lang Labor Group. Federal Parliamentarian, J.A. Beasley, also joined this group (Black, p. 93). In November 1931, the government was defeated on the floor of the House by a no-confidence motion moved by Beasley (Ross p. 125; Black, p. 98). In the landslide victory for the new United Australia Party, Curtin lost his seat, along with many of his Labor colleagues.

This period of political and economic crisis also saw several attempts to redraw State boundaries and a movement in Western Australia to secede from the Commonwealth. Conservatives in country NSW, objecting to Lang's plan to dishonour debts during the depression, attempted to form separate states in the Riverina and New England. But the only significant move to leave the Commonwealth came from the conservative secessionist movement in Western Australia. Curtin, and the Labor movement in general, were strongly opposed to such a move, although (as shown earlier) Curtin recognised that 'smaller' states had very real grievances under the Federal system.

Curtin returned to Federal politics when he won Fremantle back at the 1934 State election. In 1935, Scullin resigned as Leader of the ALP, and Curtin was elected, securing a majority of one vote over the other contender, Frank Forde. From then until the end of his life, he took a much greater role in the Federal Parliament, tackling a wide range of issues including family allowances, unemployment, maternal mortality, international relations and defence (CPD vols. 145-155, passim). Speaking on the subject of Commonwealth-States relations in October 1935, Curtin stated that 'the Australian people have lost faith in the federation as a workable system of government'. He pointed to the 'overwhelming' vote (two-thirds) in favour of Western Australia's secession from the Commonwealth - a move which he strongly opposed but which he saw as symptomatic of very real grievances. Curtin continued:

I hope that this Parliament will take the initiative in attempting to remove the causes of discontent so that the federation will, in fact, be a union of the Australian people with the central government a coordinating body and the States regarding themselves as partners with the Commonwealth in ensuring the welfare and happiness of the citizens of Australia. As a believer in the Australian nation and in good government, I am strongly of the opinion that this Parliament must take steps to give effect to the hopes and aspirations of the Australian people when federation was consummated. The Australian federation was a statesmanlike attempt to obtain uniformity, where uniformity is necessary or desirable, and at the same time to preserve the autonomy of the States in regard to certain domestic activities ...
(CPD, vol. 147, p. 740).
In December 1937, he congratulated the Lyons Government for making 'a handsome contribution' to celebrate the 150th anniversary of European settlement in Australia. He said that it was important to 'develop pride in our history' and that the 'notable events in the life of this country should be brought home … to the present generation' (CPD vol. 155, p. 185).

In the 18 months prior to the beginning of World War II, many of Curtin's speeches centred on international relations and defence. He developed the theme that had occupied so many of his editorials during the 1920s, the need for the Australian Government to act independently of other powers, including Britain, because Australia was an autonomous nation. The reality was, however, that Australia had no independent foreign policy until after Japan entered World War II (Day, 1996). In April 1938, Curtin took issue with Lyons' statement that the Commonwealth Government was 'in accord' with Britain's decision to revise its defence policy and accelerate its rearmament. Returning to a familiar theme of national sovereignty, Curtin said:

It may be that Parliament, after discussion, may come to the view that the international situation, from the aspect of Australia, has not deteriorated since it made adequate financial provision, four months ago, on the advice of this Government, to ensure Australia's safety … [There] should be a full consideration of Australia's foreign relations as a preliminary to a discussion of how much it is necessary for us to add to our provision … for defence. I ask the Prime Minister of Australia to be answerable to the people of Australia, not for British foreign policy but for the foreign policy of the Commonwealth Government.
(CPD vol. 155, pp. 540-541)
Later in this debate, Curtin summarised the British and the Australian defence priorities and showed how incompatible they were. Whereas the Lyons Government relied upon the support of its fellow members in the League of Nations and the British Commonwealth, and placed low priority on building up Australia's defence forces, the British Government stated that its defence priorities were, firstly, the protection of Britain; secondly, preservation of the trade routes upon which Britain depended; thirdly, protection of British territories overseas - that is, Crown colonies, not self-governing dominions - and lastly, cooperation in the defence of allied nations. The ALP's foreign policy was very similar to the British one, Curtin said, for its first priority was the protection of the people of Australia. Lyons, on the other hand, had spent much of the recent election campaign stating that Australia was incapable of defending itself (CPD, vol. 155, p. 543).
John Curtin and Advisory War Council, 1940
John Curtin (fourth from left) served on the multi-party Advisory War Council while still in Opposition.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Curtin family. Advisory War Council 1940. JCPML00376/71.

During the Czechoslovakian crisis of September 1938, Curtin pleaded with the government not to involve Australia in another European war. He repeated his sentiments from the 1914 and 1915 issues of the Timber Worker - 'the masses are the chief victims of war'. Australia should not be involved in European disputes as 'we have not the power to solve or appease them'. The wars of Europe were a 'quagmire', Curtin warned. Already, Australians had experienced 'a colossal waste of the flower of our manhood' and Australian society still contained 'much evidence of the terrible legacy of war'. He concluded that 'whatever else we may do as a dominion of the British Commonwealth of Nations, no men must be sent out of Australia to participate in another war' (CPD, vol. 157, pp. 236-238).

Just months before the war began, the Minister for Defence, Sir Henry Gullett made a provocative speech in which he referred to Hitler's 'shining record of service to his people'. Gullett said that Hitler had 'found the mighty German race broken, helpless, leaderless and in despair. Within seven years he has restored to them their pride and their power' (CPD, vol. 159, p. 199). In replying, Curtin pointed out that much of Gullett's speech was irrelevant. 'It is not necessary for this Parliament to be told that the world is in a perilous era'. When Curtin said that Australia's obligations as a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations did not automatically commit the nation to participate in war, Gullett responded, 'Hear! Hear! I made that perfectly clear'. Curtin then said that the nations should be made aware that both the Government and the Opposition agreed on this point. Menzies did not agree, apparently, for he immediately committed Australia to support Britain when war was declared on 3 September.

Curtin's speech on 10 September 1939, outlining Labor's standpoint just after the Second World War had begun, reflected many of the beliefs he had emphasised over the years since World War I. Curtin said that the ALP deplored war, and stood for the maintenance of Australia as an integral part of the British Commonwealth of Nations and for the safeguarding of Australia. The ALP supported government control of factories making munitions, and would safeguard the people's democratic rights. However, Australia 'has no quarrel with the people of Germany, only the government'. Curtin reiterated the position that Labor believed the safety of Australia must be the paramount consideration. He went on to outline the differences between the ALP and the United Australia Party Government. Labor opposed the conscription of men to fight overseas; questioned sending of Australian troops overseas; believed the maximum of Australia's manpower constituted the minimum required for national safety, and that, 'in retaining Australia unviolated, we render the best possible service to the British Commonwealth of nations'. Labor opposed the formation of a national government because: 'We will better be able to do our duty for the country, usefully and fearlessly, as unfettered watchdogs of the public interest. There must be no suffering ... because of the greed and selfishness [of profiteers].' He argued that 'in this fight against dictatorship, civil liberties must not be impaired'. There must continue to be freedom of speech and writing, although the ALP would not condone 'treason, sabotage, insurrection or other activities that will avail the enemy' (Curtin, radio broadcast, 10 September 1939). In Parliament a few days earlier, Curtin had summarised Labor's position as putting Australia's interests first in keeping troops to protect Australia. He argued that the structure of government and opposition should be maintained as in peacetime. The government should ensure protection of the people against profiteering and abuses of civil liberties (CPD vol. 161, pp. 36-37).

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