Menzies and Curtin contemporary perspectives: Greg Craven

It has been the shared doom of Menzies and Curtin to have their wartime leaderships immortalised in equally flat, unsophisticated captions. At least for Curtin, the caption is favourable.

Pulp history has been much less kind to Menzies. Too often he has been captured as 'Pig Iron Bob', the imperial blimp without imagination or foresight, whose only plan was the perpetuation of Empire.

Curtin, by way of contrast, has achieved a sort of secular sainthood as the man who stood up to Churchill, brought the troops home, and fought the war against the real enemy in the Pacific.

The truth is much more complex, revealing similarities between the two men, as well as more complex differences. The determined Menzies who was to rule for decades was already emerging in 1939, and he was far from an imperial patsy, as Churchill would attest. In a post-war, anti-communist Australia, Menzies was as much Curtin’s successor as his surviving rival

Just as Menzies was no British stooge, Curtin was not the doctrinaire anti-imperialist sometimes imagined. In many ways, he - like Menzies - was the supreme wartime pragmatist, pursing answers rather than ideologies.

Ironically, it was the 'weak' Menzies who survived the war, with the 'strong' Curtin succumbing in its final months. Yet Australians love martyrs, and while the portly shade Menzies ambles largely unnoticed through history, it is the lean ghost of Curtin that commands continued attention.

Professor Greg Craven
Executive Director and Professor of Government and Institutional Law
John Curtin Institute of Public Policy
Curtin University of Technology


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