FROM REVOLUTIONARY TO REALIST
In her Honours thesis, Sholl concluded that Curtin's time as editor was marked by his internal struggle between Socialist and Labor views, as well as the external struggles between militants and moderates in the labour movement.
John Curtin (fourth from right) outside the Westralian Worker.
John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of the Australian Labor Party (WA Branch). Westralian Worker Building, c1920.
JCPML 00379/1 (Original held by ALP WA Branch)
On 2 June 1922 Curtin wrote an editorial, declaring that 'the tide of reaction, of counter-liberty, rises all over the world' and that Labor had missed the opportunity to establish the new world of tomorrow. From then, Sholl claimed (p. 38), Curtin began to project a new image of the ALP 'as a moderate, non-revolutionary party'. Certainly, Curtin gave vent to his frustration that Labor had been 'docile' and had passively awaited 'the new world of the morrow of the war that had been promised' when it should have been 'most militant, most assertive and most aggressive' (WW, 2 June 1922).
Curtin's lengthy explanation of the fact that 'revolution' could be peaceful rather than violent (WW, 4 August 1922), and his insistence that the ALP's 1922 platform was much less radical than the 1890 platform of the ALF, might indicate a mellowing of his stance. Yet he had emphasised as early as January 1919 that Labor's strength was through massed demonstrations and not through violence (WW, 3 January 1919).
Curtin had criticised the Labor movement for achieving nothing in a year of 'lost opportunities' in 1919. 'We allowed the days to go by in futile controversies with each other', he wrote (WW, 26 December 1919). 'Labor achieved nothing in 1919 because there was next to nothing upon which we agreed.' These statements highlight on-going frustration and tensions for Curtin. He could not understand why the party wasted its energies squabbling when it had the opportunity to make a difference to working and living conditions. The frustration was intensified by Curtin's experience of standing for the Federal seat of Perth in the 1919 election campaign, in which he and the State Executive were at odds - the one feeling unsupported, the other, uninformed. As a result of this fiasco and a vitriolic campaign in which Curtin was the target of personal abuse, he attracted only about one third of the vote.
The constraints placed on Curtin by the conservative AWU, which took over the Worker in the same year, undoubtedly added to his frustration, although he never voiced it publicly. Curtin had previously supported the idea of a radical One Big Union as did his VSP colleagues such as Hyett and Ross. By May 1919, he was fully in support of the AWU 'as the only possible OBU for Australian conditions' (Day, pp. 262-266). Added to these burdens was Curtin's acute grief at the death of Frank Hyett from influenza in April, and a complex mixture of feelings associated with the passing of his father (Day, pp. 260-261; Ross, pp. 72-73). All of these pressures contributed to Curtin's nervous breakdown, and he recovered only after several months' rest.
In contrast to Curtin's gloomy pronouncements on the Labor Party, the editorial titled 'Labor's last epistle', written at Easter barely three months later (WW, 2 April 1920) by Curtin's father-in-law, Abraham Needham, had a totally different tone.  Needham wrote that Christ was a symbol of the 'vast, toiling masses'. 'Labor's crucifixion is over and the resurrection is at hand,' he wrote optimistically.
Curtin's editorials of 26 December 1919 and 2 June 1922, therefore, are far more similar in sentiment than either is with Needham's optimistic sentiments of Easter 1920.
From 1922, Curtin's editorial content changed in that it centred more often on such issues as foreign policy, relations with the British Empire, and the respective responsibility of the Commonwealth and State governments. In the editorial of 2 March, 1923, he asked 'Has Australia got a foreign policy?' Curtin looked forward to the day when Australia's foreign policy would be decided by its own Federal Parliament, whereas at the present time, 'Australia still suffers from British control'. But he saw the 1920s as a period of transition, believing that Australia would go the way of Canada and South Africa, and he compared this favourably with the 'servile' attitude of New Zealand (WW, 2 March 1923).
On the subject of Australia's post-war relations with the British Empire, Curtin wrote that, in the eyes of Prime Minister S.M. Bruce  and his class, workers were merely material to be used for 'productive, exporting and exploiting purposes in peace and wholesale gun fodder in war'. Curtin reiterated that 'Australian sentiment must begin, end and stay at home'. He urged Australia to become 'self contained'. 'America has done it - why not Australia?' America had kept itself free from aggression by 'minding its own business'. Curtin saw continued defence alliance with Britain as dangerous rather than advantageous.
the same topic, he again praised Canada's attitude to Britain. Prime Minister
McKenzie King, Curtin observed, was the third Canadian leader to refuse
to allow Canada to be bound by any treaty that had not been ratified by
the Parliament and who insisted that ratification would depend upon Canada's
interests. In contrast, Australia was governed by the 'so-called Nationalists
who have no national policy' (WW, 4 July 1924). When it appeared
that Australia might offer troops to fight against Mustapha Kemal's forces
in Turkey in 1923, Curtin defended Germany and Turkey, reiterating that
they should have been granted more generous peace terms. Germany, he believed,
should have been admitted immediately to the League of Nations, and he condemned
France as the 'villain in Europe' especially for its occupation of the Ruhr
and its oppression of the peoples of Syria and Algeria (WW, 9 February
Curtin wrote much on the futility of war both before and after the Armistice in November 1918. His later editorials continued to reflect outrage at the 'war mongering' of world powers supposedly dedicated to pursuing peace. Reflecting on speeches made at Anzac Day ceremonies in 1923, Curtin stated that 'the war did not add one single good thing to civilisation, but drained it of the stuff of progress and security'. He pointed out that 'more men are under arms now that the world has allegedly been made safe than in 1914, when it lived on the verge of a volcano'. Furthermore, war and preparation for war created an economic climate in which some suffered because nations gripped by 'industrial paralysis' failed to provide adequate employment for their citizens, and yet others were able to make 'vast gains'. The economic provisions of the Peace Treaty had created an unforeseen situation in which 'German workers have jobs that yield them a miserable standard of subsistence while the British workers have not got jobs, and are told to migrate to Australia' (WW, 27 April 1923). In 1925, he asked rhetorically, 'Are we to repeat eternally the follies that went into the incubation of the so-called great war?' (WW, 20 March, 1925).
1924, Curtin was able to travel overseas and to represent Australia at
an international forum - a rare opportunity for a Labor Party member in
those days. He was selected from an Australia-wide field of candidates
to represent Australian workers at the Sixth International Labor Conference
of the League of Nations at Geneva from 16 June to 5 July 1924. One hundred
and twenty seven credentialled delegates, attended by an even larger body
of advisers, stenographers and typists represented 40 countries. In his
report to the Prime Minister, Curtin pointed out that the Australian delegation
laboured under a number of difficulties for, having no support staff,
they were unable to attend many of the committees where matters relevant
to Australia were discussed. In contrast to Australia's ill-prepared delegation,
the four British delegates had the benefit of 27 support staff.
|Curtin served on committees dealing with anthrax and night work in bakeries. Anthrax had potentially disastrous consequences for the Australian wool industry, but so did measures to curb the disease. Curtin successfully opposed the proposal for an International Convention to enforce the disinfection of wool, on the ground that it would result in Liverpool (where the disinfection would be carried out) being the only European port of entry and distribution for Australian wool. He believed that it was 'quite within the competency of Great Britain to safeguard the health of its wool-workers without imposing economic disabilities on the Australian wool trade'. .. Despite stiff opposition from the employers' representatives, the Committee on Night Work in Bakeries succeeded in drawing up a Draft Convention prohibiting the making of bread, pastry or other flour confectionery during the night by either employees or employers. Curtin was obviously impressed by his experiences in Geneva. In concluding his report to the prime minister, he wrote:|
One imagines that Curtin had cause to reflect on those words many times in the five years from when they were written until he himself became a member of government. Stanley Bruce's administration was not committed to 'the more humane regulation of industry'.
In contrast to the democracy of the International Labor Organisation, Curtin saw strong links between the continuing militancy of nations and imperialism. He made a scathing attack on a comment by Lord Birkenhead in 1927 that 'looking backwards, it is difficult to realise how the Empire came into existence'. Curtin argued that 'the Birkenhead-type of Imperialist' suffered from a paradoxical position of, on the one hand, saying the British Empire was 'a sort of reward bestowed by a benignant providence on his chosen people in recognition of their transcendent moral qualities', and on the other are not above reciting a 'catalogue of "empire builders" ranging from Wolfe and Clive and Warren Hastings to Cecil Rhodes ...' The latter perspective was the more truthful. Curtin suggested that if Birkenhead had any doubts, he should turn to Whitaker's almanac where he will find a list of the various parts of the Empire and how acquired, either by 'conquest', 'annexation', 'cession' or 'settlement'.
of course, is an oblique reference to Australia's settlement, and the situation
of the Aboriginal people after the Europeans arrived.
According to Sholl (p. 55), Curtin was 'pessimistic about developments in international affairs, and saw total disarmament as the only answer' and that 'given the realities of ineradicable national rivalries it was naive of him to imagine that this course would be taken'. Curtin's editorial actually stated that very point: that any plan requiring France to retire from the contested territories in the Ruhr and the Rhineland was doomed to failure (WW, 25 April 1924). In numerous editorials (for example, 25 April 1924; 4 December 1925; 30 September 1927), Curtin reiterated his belief that a peace based on the conditions of the Versailles Treaty would not be an enduring one - and history proved him to be correct. He criticised the western powers for refusing to consider total disarmament, and regretted the failure of the several Disarmament Conferences held by the League of Nations. (WW, 1 July, 30 September and 2 December 1927). But there seems to be little evidence for Sholl's statement that he was 'naive'.
Likewise, Curtin maintained his faith in the Federal system of government while being fully aware of its pitfalls, and the disadvantages sometimes suffered by 'marginal' states such as Western Australia. Editorials on 12 December 1924 and 3 April 1925 developed and discussed a number of arguments concerning Western Australia's economic disadvantage. The State imported far more than it exported; Western Australian industries were limited in scope and type, and this contributed to the low population growth in comparison to other states. Curtin advocated supplementary grants from the Commonwealth government to build up WA industries and to help the State Government provide adequate services to a small and scattered population across the vast State. Despite the difficulties experienced by his adopted State, Curtin supported a strengthening - rather than a lessening - of Federal powers.
he realised that the referendum proposed by the Bruce-Page conservative
coalition in mid 1926 was quite different from the previous Federal powers
referenda proposed by Labor governments and mentioned earlier in this
paper. Curtin argued (WW, 25 June 1926) that, contrary to the arguments
of the 'Yes' campaign (including some Labor supporters), the Federal Government
was not submitting the same referenda proposals as the Federal ALP did
in 1911, 1913 and 1915 to strengthen its powers. Instead, Bruce proposed
an 'authority' or a 'commission' - not Federal Government - to
take over powers held by States. Labor, therefore, should oppose the referendum.
Curtin concluded that the people should never vote for proposals which
divested them of the powers conferred upon them by the Constitution. When
put to the vote, the referendum failed as its predecessors had.