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Frank Forde was a Queensland parliamentarian for five years before he won the federal seat of Capricornia in 1922. He was a minister in 1931 in the government of James Scullin, deputy Leader of the Opposition (1932–41), and deputy Prime Minister to John Curtin (1941–45). Forde was in the federal parliament for 23 years before his brief term as Prime Minister.
Frank Forde was born in the Queensland outback town of Mitchell on 18 July 1890, the second of six children of Irish immigrants John and Ellen (Quirk) Forde.
Forde went to primary school in Mitchell, then boarded at the Christian Brothers College in Toowoomba. He worked there as a pupil teacher until 1910. He then joined the Postmaster-General’s Department and worked as a telegraphist at the General Post Office in Brisbane. In 1914 Forde was transferred to the post office in Rockhampton, as assistant to the district engineer.
The following year, Forde joined the Labor Party in Rockhampton and campaigned against conscription. In 1917 he won a seat in the Queensland parliament. He joined the Queensland Electrical Trades Union in 1919. Forde held his seat in the Labor governments of TJ Ryan and EG Theodore until 1922, when he resigned to stand for federal parliament.
Forde gained pre-selection for the Capricornia seat after the sitting member, WG Higgs, left the Labor Party to join the Nationalist Party formed by WM Hughes. Forde was elected in 1922 and, before the next federal election in November 1925, he and Vera O’Reilly had married in her home town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Until 1927 Forde travelled from his Rockhampton home to Melbourne for parliamentary sittings. From May 1927, when the new Parliament House was opened in Canberra, his train journeys for parliamentary sittings were somewhat shorter.
In 1927 the Bruce government appointed Forde to the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry. In 1928 he again campaigned successfully for his Capricornia seat at the federal election.
Scullin government 1929–31
When the 1929 election returned the Labor government of James Scullin, Forde was made Minister assisting the Minister for Trade and Customs, JE Fenton. With Fenton overseas early in 1930, Forde was acting minister at a critical time. In attempting to minimise the effects of the economic depression, the Scullin government used tariffs as a means of stemming a balance of payments outflow and shoring up Australian industries. Fenton was a strong protectionist, but with Forde ‘the pace became terrific’. Canberra became a ‘a happy hunting ground for tariff touts’, according to press gallery journalist Warren Denning.
The whole term of the twelth parliament from November 1929 to November 1930 became a single parliamentary session so Labor’s tariff schedule could operate without challenge. By this means, the Opposition-dominated Senate only received the schedule in October 1931. Forde set in motion a ‘tariff extravaganza’ that had the Canberra Times observe in April 1930, ‘If Mr Forde coughs members sit up and take notice, thinking he is clearing his throat for some further momentous announcement’.
The responsibilities of Forde’s Trade and Customs portfolio included censoring imported publications. At Labor’s federal conference in May 1930, Forde was called on to explain his support for the Trade and Customs Department’s ban on Norman Lindsay’s book Redheap on the grounds of indecency. When JE Fenton resigned from Cabinet with JA Lyons in January 1931, Forde became Minister for Trade and Customs. He served just less than a year, as the Scullin government was defeated by the United Australia Party formed by Lyons and Fenton at the election in December 1931.
Deputy Leader of the Opposition 1932–41
In ten years in federal parliament, Forde had earned the esteem of leader James Scullin and established a place among the most industrious and conscientious party men. In 1932 the badly depleted Caucus elected Forde deputy Leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. He was therefore also deputy Leader of the Opposition for nine years until John Curtin became Prime Minister in 1941. The Labor Party remained divided with ‘Lang Labor’ still holding seats in parliament. Forde worked with Scullin to reduce the damage by presenting a single Labor voice, and travelled with him to party meetings in Queensland in 1933 and South Australia in February 1934.
When James Scullin resigned the party leadership in October 1935, Forde was widely expected to be his successor. In what the Age newspaper called ‘one of the greatest surprises in federal political circles during recent years’, Forde lost the leadership ballot to John Curtin, by a single vote. The paper in which Ben Chifley had an interest, Bathurst’s National Advocate, also reported surprise at Curtin’s victory. Forde’s local paper, Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin, reported that he was ‘staggered’ at the outcome.
Curtin nonetheless had in Forde the most loyal of deputy leaders, a crucial advantage for the party and for Curtin. Before he could aim at achieving government, Curtin’s urgent task was to achieve Labor unity. The defections of JA Lyons and JE Fenton and their followers to form the United Australia Party in 1931, were compounded by the even more damaging split of the followers of New South Wales Labor Party leader Jack Lang. Forde was instrumental in Curtin’s achievement in rebuilding the fractured party over the next two years.
So vital was the issue of unity, that Curtin avoided any issue capable of creating new fractures, international crises included. The Labor Party thus had no policy on the outbreak of civil war in Spain in 1936, though many members passionately supported the republican government against the army of General Francisco Franco, who was allied with Fascist leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Forde applied his considerable political mastery to securing unity on this issue, as he had two years before as Scullin’s deputy. When Mussolini’s forces invaded Abyssinia, Australia as a member of the League of Nations was called on to support the League’s military and economic sanctions against Italy. With Scullin ill, Forde as acting leader announced a policy of ‘non-participation’, arguing ‘the control of Abyssinia is not worth the loss of a single Australian life’.
When HV Evatt left the High Court to enter federal parliament in 1940, his plan to challenge Forde for the deputy leadership was immediately squashed by veteran Labor figures like Henry Boote. Evatt disapproved of Labor’s cooperation with the vulnerable government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and that Forde and Curtin allowed Menzies to address them as ‘Frank’ and ‘Jack’. When Labor succeeded in having Menzies establish a bipartisan Advisory War Council on 29 October 1940, Forde and Norman Makin were appointed Labor’s members with John Curtin.
Curtin government 1941–45
When Curtin reluctantly became Prime Minister on 7 October 1941, there were only four members with ministerial experience, Forde, Ben Chifley, Jack Holloway and Jack Beasley. Curtin himself had never held a ministry. Forde became deputy Prime Minister, Minister for the Army, and a member of the War Cabinet. He held all these posts through the four years of the Curtin government.
By 1941, the Fordes had four children of school age. The family moved from Rockhampton to Sydney so the children could live at home rather than go to boarding schools. This also reduced Forde’s travelling time and increased the opportunities for him to spend time with his family, but was an unpopular move in his electorate. Forde was frequently in Melbourne as well as Canberra for meetings of the Advisory War Council or the War Cabinet, or meetings with departmental officials, as well as parliamentary and party meetings.
In February 1942, Forde chaired meetings of the War Cabinet while Curtin was ill. These meetings became a focus of unwanted attention after Labor parliamentarian Eddie Ward tried to attack the Opposition by alleging that if Japan invaded northern Australia, the Menzies and Fadden governments had devised a secret plan to defend Australia only south of a ‘Brisbane Line’. Ward refused to abandon his allegations even when it was found that the only such proposal was to Curtin’s War Cabinet in February 1942. Brought forward in the crisis of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, it had been rejected. No one was more appalled than Forde at the thought of abandoning much of Queensland, including his own electorate.
In March 1942, Forde welcomed US General Douglas Macarthur to Melbourne and was as willing as Curtin to see Macarthur as just what the crisis needed. In the first week of June the crisis deepened. Three merchant ships were sunk by enemy fire off Australia’s east coast, then Japanese midget submarines shelled Sydney and Newcastle. After a long meeting with his Army Chief of Staff General Thomas Blamey, Forde announced at a press conference that Australia was entering the worst period of the war.
The following month the Japanese offensive in New Guinea began. In September Blamey advised Forde that the Japanese were advancing along the Kokoda trail, with Australian troops withdrawing over the Owen Stanley Ranges towards Port Moresby. Moreover, he told Forde there would not be a sufficient force to defend Australia if Japan occupied New Guinea. Forde authorised General Blamey to go secretly to take charge in New Guinea, but the tide had already started to turn with the Australian victory at Milne Bay. On 1 October 1942, Forde flew to New Guinea and with Blamey and MacArthur spoke to the troops about to advance back along the Kokoda Trail.
With New Guinea won, the War Cabinet looked at the requirements of the Manpower Directorate for release of servicemen into reconstruction projects for the postwar period. Forde and Blamey fought against this proposal as premature, and argued it would dangerously reduce the field army. Forde pointed out that Australia needed to remain a strong component of the Allied forces in the Pacific, or the Australians would become only ‘wood and water joeys’ to the Americans.
While Curtin was overseas from April to July 1944, Forde was acting Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. In 1944 Forde was appointed to the Privileges Committee, and led an Australian ministerial delegation to New Zealand. From November 1944 to January 1945, he was once more acting Prime Minister, after Curtin suffered a serious heart attack.
In April 1945 Forde led the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference in San Francisco. The Fordes went first to London, but with stopovers in Honolulu, San Francisco and New York.
With all twenty Australian delegates assembled in San Francisco for the opening of the conference, a contest between Forde and the other senior ministerial delegate, HV Evatt, developed. There was only one woman delegate, Jessie Street. But Curtin had pressed Mary Alice Evatt to accompany Evatt, and with Vera Forde undertake interviews, address audiences, and attend official and social engagements as required.
Frank Forde and Jessie Street worked on the conference’s social and economic committee, achieving the inclusion of the full employment principle in the United Nations Charter.
When the Fordes arrived back in Sydney by aeroplane on 2 July 1945, John Curtin was gravely ill and Forde became acting Prime Minister once more. When Curtin died three days later, Forde was sworn in as Prime Minister pending a Caucus leadership ballot.
Brown, Elaine, ‘Francis Michael Forde’, in Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, New Holland Press, Sydney, 2000.
Denning, Warren, James Scullin (with introduction by Frank Moorhouse), Black Inc., Melbourne, 2000. Previously published as Caucus Crisis: The Rise and fall of the Scullin Government, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982 and Cumberland Argus, Parramatta, 1937.
Horner, David, Inside the War Cabinet: Directing Australia's War Effort 1939–1945, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996.
Hughes, Colin, Mr Prime Minister: Australian Prime Ministers, 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1976.
McMullin, Ross, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party, 1891–1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991.
Robertson, John, JH Scullin: A Political Biography, University of Western Australia Press, Perth, 1974.
From the National Archives of Australia collection
NAA: A425, 1943/5319
Speech by the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia (Mr Forde), Plenary Session, United Nations Conference on International Organisation, San Francisco 27 April 1945, NAA: A1066, P145/207
The War and the Australian War Effort, Review to Parliament by the Acting Prime Minister 15 November 1944, NAA: A5954, 312/9
‘Brisbane Line’, personal notes [Mr Frederick Shedden] and notes of Minister for the Army 1943–44, NAA: A5954, 1300/2