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For years before he could vote, John Curtin was active in Labor politics in Melbourne. From his early 20s he combined this with journalism, and the two activities remained his lifelong passions.
In 1914 he was a strong opponent of World War I and of conscription. In 1917, Curtin moved to Perth in Western Australia and made it his home. For ten years he was editor of the Westralian Worker then, from 1928 to 1931, he was the Member for Fremantle in the House of Representatives. He won the seat again in 1934 and the following year was elected leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party.
As Leader of the Opposition from 1935, Curtin argued for better defence preparations. When war was declared in 1939, his cooperation with the governments of Robert Menzies and then Arthur Fadden, led many to think he was not interested in becoming Prime Minister.
Victorian socialist 1900–17
John Curtin was born in the Victorian mining town of Creswick on 8 January 1885. His parents were immigrants from County Cork in Ireland. His father became a police constable, but retired due to illness when Curtin was five years old. The family moved to Melbourne, where they were hotelkeepers until the 1890s depression. In 1898, they were one of many destitute families living in the strongly Irish suburb of Brunswick.
Curtin had a good, if brief, education at a mix of state and Catholic schools. At the age of 14 he became responsible for earning the family’s income, but it took him four years to find a permanent position as a tally clerk in a South Melbourne factory. In 1901 he joined the Political Labor Council, the forerunner of the Labor Party in Victoria. Though not yet of voting age, Curtin was among the activists in the political labour movement in Victoria, like Lillian Locke and Muriel Heagney who set up the Labor women’s committee in 1903.
A voracious reader and debater, Curtin was also a player and an official with the Brunswick football and cricket teams. At the age of 18 he was involved in work for Frank Anstey’s campaign for a seat in the State parliament and met, among others, campaign manager Phillip Collier. Curtin and Collier were among those who regularly gathered in Anstey’s study for Sunday discussions and debate.
In this nursery of political activism, Curtin also met Tom Mann, who had arrived in Australia in 1902 and set up a social questions committee in 1905. The committee attracted hundreds of supporters and within months became the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP). John Curtin was one of its most prominent and long-serving members. The VSP was organised like a church. It offered Sunday school for members’ children, street corner meetings to propagate the faith from a soapbox, and grand Sunday night rallies in Melbourne theatres. It was a great training ground, giving Curtin the opportunity to become a confident and skilled public speaker. The party’s journal provided him with the opportunity to discover his skill as a writer. His first article on ‘revolutionary international socialism’ embraced the internationalism advocated by Mann.
Influenced by Mann’s ideas and disillusioned with the prospects for achieving socialism by parliamentary means, Curtin left his job in March 1911 to become secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union. He spent much of his time touring the timber yards of the city or tramping in the bush to sign up timber cutters for the union. He also established Timber Worker, a union newspaper. Curtin had doubled his activities by increasing his union involvement as well as continuing his work in the Labor Party.
As the threat of war in Europe grew, Curtin’s focus shifted from promoting socialism to preventing war. He took a leading role in signing trade unions up to an international declaration committing their members to stop work if war were declared. He contested a safe conservative seat in the 1914 federal election, less to win than to use it as a platform for his political ideas. With the war underway, both anti-conscriptionists and pacifists were attacked as disloyal and the labour movement retreated from its anti-war ideals. John Curtin and Frank Anstey, however, were among those who continued to oppose what they regarded as an imperialist war.
Late in 1914, Curtin proposed to Elsie Needham. A socialist like her father, Curtin had met her in Hobart, Tasmania, where he was working on a State election campaign. Unable to afford marriage, and with Elsie Needham on an extended visit to South Africa, the couple developed and maintained a long-term relationship by correspondence.
In November 1915, Curtin resigned his job as Timber Union secretary and took work with the Australian Workers Union to advise on managing its growing organisation in the bush. But Curtin was soon consumed with more important issues when the Labor government of WM Hughes began campaigning for conscription in 1916.
Curtin also had pressing personal issues to confront during this period. Struggling for years with alcohol addiction, in early July 1916 he went into hospital to ‘dry out’. He emerged to take a leading part in the anti-conscription campaign, touring country towns and State capitals with unflagging resolve. He was among the most fervent of the Victorian anti-conscriptionists, who included Frank Anstey, Cecelia John, Vida Goldstein and Adela Pankhurst.
The nation-wide campaign paid off, and the conscription referendum was narrowly defeated in October 1916. Shortly after, Curtin defied a government order for all eligible men to go into military camp. He was arrested and gaoled, despite the referendum vote against such compulsion. Following appeals from his friends and Labor supporters, after three days he was released.
Newspaper editor 1917–28
The strenuous campaign and the arrest put Curtin back where he had been in the winter – struggling with both depression and alcoholism. Once again, friends and supporters rallied, and helped him get a job as editor of the Perth-based Westralian Worker. This weekly newspaper was controlled by a labour federation of Labor Party branches and trade unions. Western Australia already had a group of labour activists from Victoria, including Phillip Collier. It was the answer to Curtin’s problems. When he sailed for Fremantle on the Katoomba in February 1917, one of his fellow passengers was Adela Pankhurst, an organiser for the Victorian Socialist Party.
In Perth, Curtin was removed from the scenes of his struggle against alcoholism. He and Elsie Needham were able to marry after five years of a relationship that had been steady despite their long periods apart. Their wedding was at the West Leederville registry office on 21 April 1917. They rented their first house in the working-class suburb of Subiaco.
The Curtins had a daughter, Elsie, in December 1917, and a son, John, in January 1921. The family rented a house at 3 Napier Street in Cottesloe and in 1923 built their own house nearby at 24 Jarrad Street. Curtin found time for cricket and for swimming in the ocean. He still wrestled with alcoholism and at times depression, and would attempt to walk off these bouts among the sand dunes of Cottesloe.
Curtin had joined the Australian Journalists Association in 1917, and was elected state president in 1920. Under his editorship the Westralian Worker changed into a staunch opponent of conscription and supporter of socialism. He extended the labour paper’s features for women, and also its coverage of sport, to increase its readership. The paper’s finances improved as Curtin negotiated bulk sales with various unions. The Australian Workers Union then bought a controlling interest in the paper.
Curtin’s radical journalism gradually mellowed. He made his first overseas trip in 1924, when he was appointed by the Bruce government as Australian delegate to an International Labor Organisation meeting in Geneva. His farewell gifts included a leather suitcase from the Australian Journalists Association and a cigarette case presented by Phillip Collier, who was then Premier of Western Australia. Curtin’s experiences in Europe and Britain reinforced his growing view that for Australia, the path to social change would best be built by parliamentary rather than revolutionary means.
Though Curtin stood for the conservative seat of Perth in 1919, his first serious bid for parliament was in 1925, when he stood for the seat of Fremantle. He was defeated by the law and order platform of the Bruce government, as well as the strong local campaign of a popular Independent, William Watson.
From 28 September to 15 December 1928, Curtin served on the Bruce government’s Royal Commission on Child Endowment. With Mildred Muscio, he produced a minority report disagreeing with the commission’s recommendations.
Member for Fremantle 1928–31
In November 1928, Curtin’s fourth bid for a federal seat was successful. Early in 1929 he went to Canberra, the seat of federal government from 1927, as Member of the House of Representatives for Fremantle. The federal election in October that same year brought the Labor government of James Scullin into office.
Curtin’s bids for a ministerial position were not supported by the Labor Caucus. He had again been suffering bouts of alcoholism and might have been ruled out by the teetotal Scullin, though Curtin’s drinking mate, Frank Anstey, was made Minister for Health. A backbencher, Curtin served on the parliament’s Joint Committee for Public Works. With Labor in government for the first time since WM Hughes had left the party in 1916, an ambitious program of reform seemed possible. These ambitions were quickly dashed by the onset of economic depression, signalled by the Wall Street crash in October 1929.
Curtin supported the response advocated by Treasurer EG Theodore. Drawing on the work of Cambridge economist JM Keynes, Theodore argued for the government to take more radical expansionary measures to restart economic activity. Though this approach influenced the ‘New Deal’ policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt, in Australia it did not prevail.
Hemmed in by private banks and British bond-holders, to whom Australia had become deeply indebted, the Scullin government fell back on orthodox belt-tightening to cope with economic crisis. Theodore’s expansionary economic plan was thrown out in favour of a deflationary plan accepted by Scullin and the State Premiers in June 1931. The ‘premiers’ plan’ involved reductions in public service salaries, pensions and interest rates and increases in taxes. John Curtin and Frank Anstey both spoke out strongly against it, and called in vain for Labor to go to the polls to get endorsement for Theodore’s plan.
With Joseph Lyons acting in Theodore’s place as Treasurer, a cautious path was followed. At the behest of the Bank of England, government expenditure was reined in, with the inevitable effect of worsening the widespread hardship.
In 1931 the Scullin government was split by defections from the left and right. Supporters of the New South Wales Labor Premier, Jack Lang, crossed the chamber. If Curtin sympathised with some of Lang’s expansionist policies, he disagreed with his defiance of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. At a special party conference in March 1931, Scullin moved to have the New South Wales executive of the party expelled and replaced by a federally approved executive.
Retaliation came in November 1931. Lang supporters were among the federal Labor parliamentarians who voted against the government and forced an election. Labor’s vote dropped to just 29 per cent and only 14 Labor members were elected, compared with 46 in 1929. Curtin was not among them, as William Watson had won back the Fremantle seat.
Curtin returned to Perth and worked to recover his energy and his spirits. He was given work by Phillip Collier, once again State Premier, and wrote lively sports reports for the Westralian. From 1933 to 1935, he acted for the State government on the Commonwealth Grants Commission. Curtin also wrote to HE Boote in Sydney, editor of the Worker, asking for work there. He told Boote he was keen to challenge Lang in his home territory.
Curtin’s disappointment at the election outcome was widely shared. He wrote to James Scullin offering his help in any capacity. He also wrote in sympathy to EG Theodore, whose great vision had collapsed under the ‘premiers’ plan’. Theodore was also out of parliament, his seat of Dalley taken by a Lang Labor candidate. Frank Anstey saw the defeat as the end of his career and decided to retire. He appealed in vain for Curtin to take over his safe Melbourne seat for the 1934 election. Instead, Curtin stood for Fremantle for the third time and won the seat back from William Watson.
Leader of the Opposition 1935–41
Curtin returned to his Canberra colleagues as a man who had stood out against the premiers’ plan. He was also the man who had stood out against the attacks on Labor ministers who had supported it. His grace in disappointment, his convictions, and his oratory and integrity, stood in his favour. When illness forced James Scullin to resign as leader of the parliamentary party, Curtin won the leadership ballot and became Leader of the Opposition. The outcome shocked many, as Scullin’s closest lieutenant, Frank Forde, had been expected to take over. Theodore had told Curtin he was ‘destined for great things, if you keep hold of yourself’.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy, and the expansionism of Japan in Asia, new issues were pressing. Defence dominated the headlines in the second half of the 1930s. Joseph Lyons’ United Australia Party government held to the policy of imperial defence, with the British naval presence in Australasia as its centrepiece. Curtin argued instead for a policy of local defence, with greater concentration on the army and air force. His work as Leader of the Opposition included membership of the Empire Coronation Commission, preparing for the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 1 May 1937.
Curtin went to the polls in 1937 with defence as the major issue, but made little headway against Lyons. Labor had just 29 members in the 74-seat House of Representatives.
Curtin concentrated on trying to hold his warring factions together and attempting to focus public attention on the international dangers and the glaring deficiencies in Australia’s defences. When war was declared in September 1939, Labor grudgingly accepted Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ announcement that Britain’s declaration of war against Germany automatically put Australia at war. To the frustration of his colleagues, Curtin often seemed too willing to be helpful to the conservative government. Curtin was content to leave Menzies in charge of the war and not undermine him politically. But Curtin made it clear that his helpfulness would not extend to supporting conscription for overseas service.
Curtin’s attitude probably helped increase the drift of public support away from Menzies’ government, although Labor dissension prevented him from maximising the benefit. After the New South Wales Labor conference in April 1940 called on the Allies not to attack Russia, seven Lang supporters walked out of the Caucus. They set up as an Anti-Communist Australian Labor Party. Curtin declared ‘Again Labor has been stabbed in the back’. In August he expelled the left-leaning Labor Party executive in New South Wales.
These renewed splits stopped Labor from winning the federal election of September 1940. The Menzies government, however, was dependent on the support of two Independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles. Preoccupied in Canberra, Curtin had not actively campaigned in his Fremantle electorate. As the results came in, it seemed that despite the swing to Labor, the party’s leader might lose his own seat. Curtin had a narrow win of only 600 votes.
Rather than seeking to undermine the weakened Menzies government, Curtin continued to pursue his policy of cooperation. He took a seat on the newly created Advisory War Council from 29 October 1940. He also agreed to Menzies’s plan to embark on a prolonged visit to Washington and London over several months in 1941. In his absence, Curtin assisted the acting Prime Minister, Country Party leader Arthur Fadden, to prepare for the feared extension of the war into the Pacific.
After Menzies returned to Australia in May 1941 he proposed that he return to London to sit on Churchill’s War Council as Australia’s Prime Minister. Amid reports that Menzies’ other intention was to pursue a political career there, Curtin was directed by Caucus to withhold Labor’s cooperation. Then on 28 August, Menzies’ own colleagues removed him, and Arthur Fadden became Prime Minister. Six weeks later, after some courting of Wilson by HV Evatt, Independents Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles supported a motion against the government. Fadden was forced to resign and Curtin was able to advise the Governor-General he had a majority in the House of Representatives.
On 7 October 1941, John Curtin became Prime Minister of Australia.
Day, David, John Curtin: A Life, Harper Collins, Sydney, 1999.
McMullin, Ross, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party, 1891–1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991.
From the National Archives of Australia collection
Speech by the Leader of the Opposition on the defence estimates 1937–38, NAA: A5954, 2390/33