Menzies and Curtin contemporary perspectives: Michael McKernan

By mid-1941 it had become apparent that Robert Menzies would lose the leadership of his party and thus would cease to be prime minister. It was also apparent that Menzies had lost the will to fight for what he was soon to lose. No great division on policy issues had caused the collapse of Menzies’s leadership. Nor was his direction of the war the cause of his failure. Indeed, his successor, Arthur Fadden, retained every one of Menzies’s ministers in their existing jobs, except for Menzies himself, of course, who became Minister for Defence Co-ordination – that is, Menzies retained responsibility for the overall direction of the war.

The problem for Robert Menzies as he lost the leadership was that he had lost the respect and friendship of his political colleagues and of the people of Australia. Put starkly, no-one liked him enough to stand up for him. Menzies belittled his ministerial team, assumed an effortless superiority, boasted of the respect he had gained among the real war leaders in London, and gave his team the view that Australia was a real backwater. Stories abound to support the view that Menzies was sufficiently out of touch and dismissive of his colleagues for this in itself to have lost him the prime ministership.

People genuinely liked John Curtin and felt a personal bond with him. His prime ministerial correspondence contains the evidence of that regard. People opened their hearts to Curtin in a way that is not seen in the correspondence of any other Australian prime minister. They assumed he would be interested in their troubles and anxious to help as best he could. Those, somewhat more sophisticated, who realised that there was a limit to prime ministerial power, nevertheless wrote about their problems, simply because they seemed to wish to unburden themselves to John Curtin.

With Curtin it was as if there was no barrier between the prime minister and his people; between the governor and the governed. Some colleagues muttered from time to time about his hesitancies and uncertainties but most genuinely worried that Jack was taking too much on himself and not giving himself sufficient rest from the rigours of the job. The governor-general, initially dismissive of Curtin and wary of him, became a close confidante and friend within a few days of Curtin arriving in the Lodge. Douglas MacArthur, who looked only in the mirror when he wished to study greatness, admired and respected Curtin beyond all others.

To be liked is not an essential quality for leadership; indeed seeking the esteem of the people or colleagues may, at times, interfere with true leadership. But in the Australian context, then, to be a ‘good bloke’ was an important element in leading the nation in war. ‘A good bloke’, people would have said that, in spades, of John Curtin; by mid-1941 no-one in Australia, intimates excepted, would have said that of Robert Menzies.

Dr Michael McKernan
Historian, author and broadcaster
Appointed JCPML Visiting Scholar in 2005
Adjunct Professor, John Curtin Institute of Public Policy
Curtin University of Technology


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