Diary of a Labour Man


1940 Leader of the Opposition

Sunday 8 January Perth


John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.  Records of Walter James.  Letter to Sir Walter James from John Curtin thanking him for birthday wishes. 8 January 1939.  JCPML00027/2bs
JCPML  Records of Walter James.  Letter to Sir Walter James from John Curtin thanking him for birthday wishes. 8 January 1939.  JCPML00027/2.
Courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: ML MSS 412/8.

John Curtin's birthday. Receives birthday wishes from Sir Walter James, and sends him a reply.


c Thursday 12 January Perth
Criticises appointment of Mchaffey to Civil Aviation. 1
Thursday 26 January Perth

Issues statement on defence and sends telegram to Prime Minister Lyons requesting that Parliament be immediately summoned.

‘Amplifying the reasons for his telegram Mr Curtin said: “I take it that Mr Lyons means exactly what he said. He has told us the peace that Australia has enjoyed for 150 years is threatened. These words mean a very different kind of war to the world war, in which Australia participated in 1914-18. The only construction common sense can place upon them is that for the first time in our history we have to confront the hazard of actual aggression against our soil and the lives of our people.”

“Clearly the Commonwealth Parliament,” Mr Curtin said, “should meet immediately.”’ 2
Thursday 2 February Perth

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.  Records of Arthur Calwell.  "Federal Labour Policy", West Australian, 4 February 1939.  JCPML00694/1/19
JCPML.  Records of Arthur Calwell.  "Federal Labour Policy", West Australian, 4 February 1939.  JCPML00694/1/19.
Courtesy National Library of Australia: MS 4738, Series 21, Box 74.

Replies to criticism by Prime Minister Lyons that he should give ‘more practical evidence of a national outlook and redeem by actions, words and promises he had made’. 3
Friday 10 February Unity Theatre, Perth

Attends farewell to Mr M F Troy and Mrs Troy.…on the eve of their departure for London, where Mr Troy will take up the position of Agent General for Western Australia.

A vocal and instrumental presentation preceded the speechmaking and among those who contributed to the entertainment of guests were members of the Labor Women’s Choral Union.

…The Federal Leader, Mr Curtin, said there should be no sadness at the departure of Mr Troy. Since the arrival of Mr Troy in Western Australia over 40 years ago he had served the workers of the State, and he was now going to London to promote the same thing he had promoted here – the welfare of his fellow-men and women. The office which Mr Troy would now hold was a derivative of the offices he had he had already held…’ 4
c Saturday 25 February Perth

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.  Records of the Curtin Family.  Elsie M Curtin and Kip the dog, February 1939.  JCPML00382/62
JCPML  Records of the Curtin Family.  Elsie M Curtin and Kip the dog, February 1939.  JCPML00382/62

Makes statement on defence works and finance. 5


At home with family in Cottesloe.

Monday 27 February Unity Theatre, Perth

Makes a ‘fighting speech’ at the opening by Premier J C Willcock of the metropolitan campaign for the Labor Party.

‘Tracing the history of the State back 15 years, he exposed the platform tactics of opponents, and then passed on to a consideration of the serious problems of the day. His final point was that the two States which were consistently Labor were the most prosperous of the Commonwealth today.’ 6
c Tuesday 28 February Perth
  Issues statement on National Insurance, ‘repeal better than postponement’.7
Saturday 11 March Perth
  Addresses representatives of the wheat industry from all parts of the State. 8
Wednesday 15 March Perth

8.15 pm
Broadcasts on 6AM and 6PM, in support of Labor candidates in the forthcoming State elections. 9

Saturday 18 March Perth
  ‘For the third successive time , and the fifth time in fifteen years Western Australia elected a Labor Government.’ 10
Monday 20 March Perth

Pays ‘a feeling’ tribute to May Holman MLA ‘Australian Labor’s pioneer woman parliamentarian’ who died as a result of injuries sustained in a car accident on Friday 17 March.

‘Her memory will have a precious place in the annals of our cause.’ 11
c Wednesday 22 March Perth

JCPML.  Records of the Australian Labor Party WA Branch.  May Holman, n.d.  JCPML01137/4

Attends funeral of May Holman which was:

‘… in many ways the most outstanding State funeral that has ever been conducted in WA. The best proof that it was a people’s tribute to a great woman is seen by the fact that the people attended in their thousands. Everywhere, as one passed among them to the graveside, one could hear hushed whispers about her goodness to this one and that, her affectionate nature and smile for everyone, her willingness to use her wonderful musical gifts, for any worthy cause, and to spend her own money in doing it; to her great love for her mother, brothers and sisters; her work for better conditions in respect of wages and hours and housing facilities for the basic wage workers. The usual funeral is a silent affair, but in this case the people seemed to be so overwhelmed that they had to talk about the great loss that all had sustained. In this phase the hearts of the people seemed to be laid bare. To look around that vast assemblage was to discover that people from all over the State were there….’

Broadcasts a ‘magnificent tribute to a great Labor Woman’, May Holman.

‘Fortunately we have in our Movement those to whom the gift of expression has been given in full measure and in the …. broadcast over Station 6WN by our Federal Leader, Mr John Curtin MP, we who are inarticulate in the presence of great loss find the tribute that we would desire to pay to our late comrade.’ 12
c Wednesday 20 March Perth
  Refuses to join formation of National Government. 13
Early April
  Returns to the eastern states.
Wednesday 19 April Canberra

Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

‘Mr Curtin expressed profound regret at the death of Mr Frank Baker [killed in a motor accident on 28 March] and emphasised the splendid service he had rendered during his association with the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Deep sorrow was felt for the widow and children of the deceased and this Party tenders sincere condolence to the bereaved. Members stood in silence.’ 14
Thursday 20 April House of Representatives
  Speaks on the disunity in the new government following the death of Lyons. Rejects the idea of the Labor Party taking part in an all-party government. 15
Friday 28 April Canberra
  Issues special May Day message, pointing out the ‘lessons of Germany’ where ‘lack of Labor unity and class solidarity wrecked the great German Labor Movement and forces German workers today to spend May Day under Nazi tyranny…’ 16
Sunday 30 April Canberra
  Issues statement on ‘The extent to which reliance could be placed on the Menzies’ Ministry’. 17
Monday 1 May Canberra
  Attends (as a West Australian delegate) the Federal Congress of the ALP, and discusses unity in the New South Wales Branch, and defence policy. 18
Wednesday 3 May Canberra

10.30 am? – 1.20 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

‘Mr Forde reported that the Executive had met that morning and recommended: The Leader of the Party gave notice at the sitting of the House of Representatives today his intention of moving a no confidence motion against the government.

Debate ensued. The motion for the adoption of the Executive’s recommendation was defeated.’ 19
Thursday 4 May Canberra

Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.


Mr Curtin expressed his views thereupon and indicated his belief that the amount should be £500 per annum. Mr Holloway considered £500 too much… Mr Ward raised a point of order as to whether members would be bound by a majority decision of the party. Mr Curtin ruled that unless the government made it a vital issue members would be entitled to urge their own view point. … It was ultimately resolved to leave the matter an open question.’ 20
Tuesday 9 May House of Representatives
  Speaks on the international situation, stresses the importance of Australia making its own decision on involvement in a war and not being dictated to by Great Britain. States that Australia’s major responsibility is the protection and security of its own people. 21
Wednesday 10 May Canberra

Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

‘Mr Curtin explained the Bill for an Annuity for Dame Enid Lyons and suggested an amendment. … Mr Curtin made a statement regarding the amounts to widows of other deceased members.’ It was agreed [15 for and 9 against] that ‘a committee representing all parties be appointed to investigate the financial position of Mrs Lyons and report again.’
  House of Representatives
  Comments on a proposal to provide some financial assistance to the widow and family of the late Prime Minister, Mr Lyons, moves an amendment that the second reading not be passed but sent to a special committee of the House for detailed examination of the situation. 22
Thursday 11 May House of Representatives
  Speaks in favour of on annuity being provided to Mrs Lyons. 23
Monday 15 May Canberra
  Makes statement on Labor and defence. 24
Tuesday 16 May Mowbray Park, Queensland
  Speaks in support of the Labor candidate in the by-election for Griffith, Mr P Conelan. Discusses Labor and defence - ‘not isolationist’. 25
Thursday 18 May Canberra
  Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. 26
c Wednesday 24 May Tasmania
  Visits in support of Labor candidate L T Spurr in the by-election for the seat of Wilmot. 27
Tuesday 30 May House of Representatives
  Speaks in support of an amendment to the Supply and Development Bill 1939 aimed at eliminating profiteering in war equipment, and in the provision for defence. 28
Wednesday 31 May Canberra
  Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. 29
Tuesday 7 June House of Representatives
  Speaks against a proposal for a compulsory National Register of manpower, arguing that it could be used a precursor to compulsory conscription of labour. 30
Thursday 8 June Canberra

10.30 am? – 12 noon
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. 31

Friday 9 June Canberra
  Attends meeting of Labor Advisory Committee. 32
c Wednesday 14 June Parliament House, Canberra

Is entertained at dinner by the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

‘Tributes were paid to Mr Curtin’s qualities as a leader and to the marked advance the party has made during his term.’ 33
Thursday 15 June Canberra
  Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and reports on the meeting of the Labor Advisory Committee held Friday 9 June. 34
Monday 19 June Perth
  Arrives in Perth on the Westland Express and speaks to a representative of the Westralian Worker. Expresses his appreciation ‘for work performed and the enthusiasm displayed by members of the party of which he is leader’. 35
Tuesday 4 July Fremantle Town Hall
  Attends Fremantle Lumpers’ Union jubilee celebrations and gave a brief speech dealing with unionism from a federal point of view. ‘He stressed the necessity of unionism, and even an opponent listening to that speech could not fail to be impressed with his sincerity.' 36
Sunday 9 July Perth

Writes article on the significance of the date:

‘Today, July 9, 1939, is a significant day in the history of this Commonwealth. To my mind, the development of Australia being what it is, there can be can be no date charged with greater significance in the whole calendar.

For it was on July 9, 1900, that Her Majesty, Queen Victoria gave the Royal Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill as finally passed by the House of Lords and Commons.

The living institution of government, and not the skeleton of a decades-old Constitution is the requisite of our time.

The National Parliament of Australia must be more than a name. It must be the repository of the government of the Australian people, as it is the custodian of their liberties as well as being the machinery by which their true welfare can be promoted.' 37
c Monday 10 July Perth
  States Australian constitution should be revised. 38
c Friday 14 July Fremantle

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.  Records of the Government Photographic Service.  Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, KT,PC,CH (1894-1978) Prime Minister 1939-1941, 1949-1966.  JCPML00036/11
JCPML.  Records of the Government Photographic Service.  Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, KT,PC,CH (1894-1978) Prime Minister 1939-1941, 1949-1966.  JCPML00036/11.
Courtesy Government Photographic Service.

Pays tribute to Menzies. 39
Tuesday 25 July ??
  Attends meeting of the full executive of the ACTU, which accepts assurances by the Prime Minister concerning a national register. Issues statement afterwards. 40
Sunday 3 September Federal Offices, Melbourne

Prime Minister Menzies commits Australia to war.

Has interview with Prime Minister Menzies.

‘Mr Curtin in a statement afterwards, said that Mr Menzies had informed him as fully as he could of the position regarding the Empire and the international situation.

“I recognise the gravity of the occasion,” added Mr Curtin, “and informed Mr Menzies that in the event of war the Labor Party could be relied upon to do the right thing for the defence of Australia and the integrity of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The rest of the conversation was of a confidential nature and is not completed.”’ 41
Monday 4 September Canberra
  States Labors policy on the war.

‘We stand for the defence of Australia to the greatest degree of which we are capable, and for the maintenance of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ 42

Top of page

Tuesday 5 September Canberra

Chairs meeting of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party at which he makes ‘a statement on the international situation and his interview with Mr Menzies. .. Reads a declaration on the war situation which had been endorsed by the executive:’

The draft of the recommendation with certain amendment as here follows was carried unanimously.

The Australian Labor Party affirms its traditional horror of war and of its belief that international disputes should be settled by arbitration.

It deplores the fact that force instead of negotiation and discussion has plunged the peoples into war. It believes that resistance to force and armed aggression is inevitable if attacks on free and independent peoples are to be averted. In this crisis, facing the reality of war, the Labor Party stands for its platform. That platform is clear. We stand for the maintenance of Australia as an integral part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Therefore, the party will do all that is possible to safeguard Australia, and at the same time having regard to its platform, will do its utmost to maintain the integrity of the British Commonwealth.

As to the conduct of Australian affairs during this unhappy period, the Australian Labor Party will preserve its entity. It will give support to measures having for their object the welfare and safety of the Australian people and of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

We take the view that these measures should include the immediate control by the Commonwealth Government of all essential raw materials and the resumption by the Government of the factories associated with the production of munitions and war equipment.

There must be a rigid control of commodity prices and house rents so that war-profiteering will become impossible. Interest rates must be kept within bounds and the monetary system readjusted so that the National Debt be kept as low as possible.

The democratic rights of the people must be safeguarded to the maximum. The very minimum of interference with the civic liberties of the people should be the objective of the Government in carrying through its measures for national security. To ensure that this be done, it is essential that the Parliament of the Commonwealth should remain in session.’

[Curtin’s speech to the House on 6 September included a statement that was identical to this one.] 43
Wednesday 6 September Canberra

10.30 am - ?
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

  House of Representatives
  Outlines Labor Party policies on the war in Europe. Stresses the differences between the Government and the Opposition – the Opposition being opposed to conscription and the sending of expeditionary forces overseas. Rejects suggestion of an all-party government. Emphasises points raised previously – the importance of maintaining democratic rights and the necessity of avoiding profiteering. 44
Thursday 7 September House of Representatives

Comments on the Trading with the Enemy Bill 1939, agreeing with the principle but objecting to a provision which allows certain trading to continue with the enemy subject to ministerial approval.

Speaks on the National Security Bill 1939, and while accepting the need for such legislation calls for a limit on the effect of the legislation to a specific period to allow parliamentary review. 45
Thursday 7 and Friday 8 September House of Representatives

Raises objections concerning national security – the lack of appeal for persons detained under the legislation and to the provision that allows the Government to legislate on any matter outlined in the Bill and on matters not specified in the Bill.

Expresses concern about the wide-ranging power of the legislation and asks for a regular review by Parliament.

Outlines the Opposition’s objections to provisions in the National Security Bill which gives Government the right to amend or annul parliamentary legislation. 46
Sunday 10 September Canberra
  Broadcasts on radio detailing the background of the European conflict and acknowledging the ‘injustices of the Versailles Treaty’. Claimed that Hitler was not trying to correct injustices, but was intent on the ‘complete domination of so much of Europe as armed force could win’. 47
Monday 11 September Canberra
  Meets with Labor leaders to discuss the war. For the first time in the Party’s history the Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party and the Leader of each of the six state branches confer in Canberra. 48
Tuesday 12 September House of Representatives


Criticises the Government on the Budget 1939-1940, for the basis on which it obtains its revenue. Makes points about the level of indirect taxation, the reduction of land tax and the loans policy of the Government. Calls for more employment initiatives by the Commonwealth and suggests that Australia works to provide excess food supplies to Great Britain. 49

Wednesday 13 September Canberra

10.30 am? – 1 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. 50

Tuesday 19 September House of Representatives

Points out anomalies in the application of the legislation in Gold Tax Collection Bill.

Suggests that the Gold Tax is unfair as it is applied only to the gold industry and not to other industries making greater profits due to the war. Proposes tax on profits rather than on a margin over an arbitrary price. 51
Wednesday 20 September Canberra

Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Explains that:

‘The Executive had further deliberated on the question of a Committee to watch regulations issued under the National Security Act and now recommended that every member of the Party should carefully scrutinise each regulation as issued and if an official protest was to be made in respect of any regulation deemed to infringe civil liberty or suppressive in its form acting injuriously to the working classes interests or rights, then such protest to the government should be made after consultation with the Leader or/and the Deputy Leader of the Party, but this should not be construed to mean that members were unable to make public pronouncements to Party branches or at public meetings. Members were free to make such protests as their individual opinion but it was urged for the sake of Party unity the utmost collaboration should be sought with the Leader and Deputy Leader when official Party protests were to be registered thereupon.’ 52
Thursday 21 and Friday 22 September House of Representatives

Speaks on the Defence Bill (No. 2) 1939, and stressing opposition to conscription and provision for conscientious objection.

Accepts the necessity of the Loan Bill 1939 but suggests that part of the sum should be available through Australian banking and finance institutions. 53
Friday 22 September Canberra
  Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Explains ‘the position that had arisen in connection with the Gold Tax Bill, also explained the course that had been taken when the Bill passed the House of Representatives. As the Executive had no[t] considered the question he therefore had no recommendations to make’. 54
Saturday 30 September Perth

Returns to Perth.
Addresses annual meeting of the WAN Chamber of Manufacturers on the need for national unity.

Announces his intention of travelling to the Eastern States ‘…because Mr Menzies has asked me to meet him. I shall with the utmost expedition place myself at his disposal’. 55

c Thursday 19 October Perth
  Makes statement on Labor’s duty in war time is to ‘prevent injustice’. 56
c Saturday 21 October Perth Town Hall
  Speaks on Labor’s war policy. 57
c Tuesday 24 October Perth
  Attends meeting of the Metropolitan District Council, and responds to a welcome by stressing ‘the point that every endeavour should be made by the party to ensure that the war is not made a reason or an excuse to filch the civil liberty of the people.' 58
End of October  
  Returns to Eastern States.
Friday 3 November Adelaide
  Attacks ‘the administration of anti-profiteering legislation … The Commonwealth Government, he claimed was encouraging merchants to gamble on a surplus of profits over penalties’. 59
Tuesday 14 November Canberra

? – 5.35 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Makes ‘statement to the Party regarding the procedure likely to be taken by the Government, a series of statements by Ministers would probably be made on various aspects of the war effort and defence projects’. 60

Wednesday 15 November Canberra

10.30 am? – 12.55 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

7.30 pm – 9.20 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

Outlines ‘what he suggested should be the terms of his speech on the debate initiated by the statement of the Prime Minister. The Party had made its declaration at the outset of the war and this had been endorsed by the chief executive authority of the Party. He saw no reason for any further resolution and suggested that he and all members of the Party should interpret in their speeches the basic principles of the declaration already adopted.’ 61
Thursday 16 November House of Representatives
  Comments on the war situation and the need to work for peace, but accepts that war is probably inevitable. Stresses the importance of working on the basis of any peace settlement to avoid the situation which followed the First World War. Reiterates Opposition policy on conscription and towards sending Australia forces overseas. Criticises pay rates of soldiers. Reminds the Government of their criticism of the Opposition’s call for more investment in the Air Force - a service on which they now relied. 62
Monday 20 November Sydney Town Hall
  Attends meeting arranged by the Sydney Branch of the ALP and makes stirring appeal for Labor unity. 63
Wednesday 22 November Canberra

Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

  House of Representatives

Provides the Federal Country Party with an opportunity to make a stand for ‘those who they claim to represent in the national Parliament – and to a man they ran away.’

‘Curtin says CP “squibbed it.”

‘Proceedings in the House of Representatives … confirm the opinion… that the threat by farmers and their political mouthpieces to force the Menzies Government to the country on the wheat price issue is mere shadow fighting.’ 64
Wednesday 29 November Canberra

10.30 am? – 1.25 pm
Chairs meeting of Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.

  House of Representatives
  Comments on a ministerial statement by Menzies, and restates Labour Party opposition to sending Australian expeditionary forces overseas. Stresses that Australia should put its own security and defence first. 65
Thursday 30 November Sydney University

Speaks on the need for unity in the Labor Movement:

‘The paramount thing in this war is that, however the war ends, its termination must see in Australia a united, well-organized, clear-thinking, labor movement, so that the trophies of victory won’t just be for non workers … War might smash this party again – conscription would tear us apart as before – we may get our political opportunity and wedges will be driven in our ranks by every militant, every militarist, every politician, every opportunist. We – Australia – you – the Party – me – the Movement – we’re all threatened. There’s a shadow over the world – civilization is tearing itself to pieces and nothing we can do will aid survival – our Movement will crumble – just as we are building the Party again. And so we must give all we can do to the immediate fight for Government; in political victory may come a last desperate chance.’ 66
Tuesday 5 December House of Representatives
  Proposes that the forces should have better rates of pay than those proposed by the Prime Minister. Points out the Government’s inconsistency in allowing those taking up defence contracts to make profits, while volunteers in the forces are on meagre pay. 67
Friday 15 December Adelaide

Comments on Labor’s attitude to war.

‘Labor, he said, construed the problem of the British Empire as one in which each dominion had a major responsibility. That was to ensure complete capacity for resistance of an attack against the territory for which it was responsible.’ 68
Saturday 16 December Adelaide to Perth
  Leaves for Perth to spend Christmas vacation with his family. 69
Monday 18 December Perth

Arrives in Perth from Eastern States.

  Is interviewed by the Canberra Times over the telephone and criticises ‘the practice adopted by the Department of Supply and the Works Branch of the Department of the Interior since the outbreak of war in letting defence contracts on a cost plus five per cent basis’. 70
c Wednesday 20 December Perth

Attends last meeting of the year of the State Executive, together with Senators J Cunningham and J M Fraser. 71

Friday 22 December Perth Trades Hall
  Attends Christmas social gathering of Perth Trades Hall secretaries. Strikes ‘a note’ that ‘mateship and friendliness are the core of the Labor Movement’. 72
Saturday 23 December Fremantle Trades Hall
  Attends first Christmas gathering of the delegates of the District Council, and speaks of the need for ‘continued and stronger effort in Labor’s cause’. 73
Monday 25 December Perth

‘Special Christmas and New Year Message from the Leader of the Labor Party: Mr John Curtin

In my message a year ago, I expressed the fervent hope that Australia in 1939 would progress towards a better and freer life for its people and that a greater measure of happiness would be the lot of the masses. Unhappily that has not been the case.

We are now on the threshold of 1940. What it will produce is not known. All the portents are black with doubt and uncertainty. The terrors of war indicate that misery, suffering and death await many  of our people and of the peoples of the world.

Time, the reaper, has gathered another year. Death, the Grim Reaper, stalks hand in hand with the prosecution of war – a war not of our making and beyond our power to avert.

The heavy burden of debt from the last war; the legacy of malnutrition and broken morale from the depression and the halting of social reform under non-Labor Governments have had their weakening incidence. To meet either the physical strain of war or the mental hardships imposed by its implications, definite social and economic policy must be invoked as fundamental to the development of the full power of the Commonwealth.

I look to 1940 with one dominating hope. That hope is that peace will come again during the ensuing 12 months; that reason and human brotherhood will replace force and aggression. A just peace for an unhappy world is a New Year’s Gift the peoples of the world desire and need.

The Australian Labor Party has exerted its every energy in 1939 towards the realisation of its ideals. During 1940 it will have the verdict of the people pronounced upon its record. I await that verdict with every confidence and I say to the Labor Movement throughout the Commonwealth:-

“Hold fast to the traditions of Labor. Gird up your strength. Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground; be not swayed by hysteria either from the Left or the right. Do everything to further the future the future of this Commonwealth as a nation dedicated to liberty in thought, word and deed.”’ 74
Sunday 31 December Perth
  Broadcasts speech on Australian Labor and the War, on the overseas shortwave service of the Department of Information. The speech was given afterwards in French, Dutch, German and other languages. 75