Leader of the Opposition

In September 1934 Curtin regained the seat of Fremantle, which he was to hold until his death. Curtin's election as Leader of the Opposition in October of the following year was to change his life as he began to rebuild the Labor Party. Curtin went on the propagandist trail, rallying the State Executives and local branches of the Labor Party.

Curtin and his press secretary, Don Rodgers, stayed in second-rate pubs, a different room every second night, travelling by train at night for thousands of miles. Instead of a car, Curtin had a gold pass for free travel on the railways. When he finally returned to Perth on 13 December 1935 - for the first time as Leader of the Australian Parliamentary Labor Party - he was greeted with a civic reception.

Press Report - Mr Curtin Returns

Perth Railway Station, 1936

Perth Railway Station as it was in November 1936

Photograph: P Rogers Collection

Two years later, during the next election campaign, he spoke at meetings all over the country, writing articles on trains or in railway refreshment rooms. It was reported that he travelled 9000 miles by train, 500 miles by ship and spent ten hours a day on trains. Sometimes on the very long train journeys Curtin and companions would play bridge to pass the time.

Another Federal election followed in 1940, and there was also the campaigning and travel associated with by-elections to keep Curtin busy. Curtin's biographer Lloyd Ross wrote of this period that: [5]

'The grind of by-elections told severely on Curtin but single victories were the stepping stones to the majority of 1943.'

Curtin's press secretary, Don Rodgers recalled: [6]

'We did a lot of travelling in Opposition and they were pretty hard days then, because we didn't have the comforts and emoluments, which I gather the Leader of the Opposition has today. It wasn't until half way through his term that he was even given a sleeping compartment to himself. He had to share one with me up to then, or with whatever member of staff was there. When I say staff, it was very small, a private secretary, a press secretary and a typist. He liked train travelling, however and was very proud of the Commonwealth railways transcontinental express, that was part, I suppose, of his affection for Western Australia.'

His wife and family were not far from his thoughts when travelling. For example, on Mrs Curtin's birthday in 1940 he sent a telegram to her from the little Trans Australian Railway settlement of Zanthus.

Trans Australia Railway settlement of Zanthus, c 1940

The Trans Australian Railway was the main route for the movement of Australian troops during World War II. Here RAAF personnel enjoy a stopover, probably to allow the steam locomotive to take on water, at Zanthus circa 1940.

Photograph: P Rogers Collection. Courtesy V Marsh


Curtin's arrival at Perth Railway Station following the 1940 Federal election was a particularly memorable one. The result in his electorate of Fremantle was very close and it was not clear that he would retain his seat.

Press Reports - Cheers for Curtin

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