Menzies and Curtin contemporary perspectives: Gavin Souter

While Menzies like Alfred Deakin a generation earlier, thought of himself as an 'independent Australian Briton', Curtin was unambiguously a pragmatic Australian. For the best part of two years after informing the nation that because Great Britain had declared war on Germany Australia was also at war, Menzies yearned to be at the heart of the Empire. In the year before Pearl Harbour he spent three months in London, sitting in on Churchill's War Cabinet, receiving an ovation in the House of Commons, and relishing reports that a seat could be found for him there if, as seemed likely, he lost office in Canberra. Returning to Australia was for him 'a diabolical thing... to come back and play politics... at a time like this'.

Fortunately for Australia, Curtin in his four years as prime minister was more adept at handling an evenly divided Parliament. A patient and resourceful parliamentary tactician, he also had the advantage of what he rightly termed ' Australia's gravest hour'. Menzies would probably have risen to that occasion too, had he not already resigned as leader in disappointment at not being able to return to London as Australian Prime Minister in the British War Cabinet.

Curtin was manifestly the man of the hour. He addressed 'men and women of Australia' in the right idiom; looked to America 'free of any pangs as to our... kinship with the United Kingdom'; argued the toss successfully with Churchill and Roosevelt about deployment of Australian troops; took care of 'the rear' while General MacArthur handled 'the front'; persuaded the ALP to adopt partial conscription without schism; and prepared for postwar reconstruction'.

Menzies' most successful years were still ahead of him, in peacetime, but Curtin did not survive the war. Six weeks before the Japanese surrender, ravaged by coronary occlusion and worry, he died at The Lodge, as much as casualty of war as anyone in uniform.

Gavin Souter
Historian, journalist and author


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