One of Australia's most respected Prime
Ministers. Leader in the darkest hours of World War II, he promoted
Australia's right to control its own war effort and forged major new
alliances. "Australia owes him a debt and its gratitude for having
been the right man, in the right place, at the right time." (Kim
His decision to oppose Menzies' war-time
national government proved right. Curtin became prime minister in 1941
and was able to concentrate the efforts of his party on winning the war.
As a fervent anti-conscriptionist in 1916, perhaps his hardest task was
to pass legislation for conscripts to serve in the Pacific war zone.
Described by many as a solitary man, the strain of the war years took
its toll on his health. Curtin died in office in July 1945, one month
before the peace for which he had worked so relentlessly.
John Curtin was born on 8 July, 1885 in
the Victorian town of Crewick, near Ballarat. His father was a policeman
and the family lived an itinerant life. He was a great reader but not a
brilliant scholar. As a young man, he worked in the printing trade in
various capacities and became a journalist. He joined the Socialist
party in 1911, the year he meet Elsie Needham, his future wife. They
were married in 1917 and had two children. He was secretary of the
Victorian anti-conscription campaign before moving to Western Australia
in 1917, to become editor of The Westralian Worker. This was an ideal
forum to espouse his views on social reform for a better Australia. A
strong unionist, he was Australian delegate to the International Labor
Office in Geneva in 1924.
At his third attempt, in 1928, he won a
parliamentary seat but lost it in the 1931 elections. He regained the
Fremantle seat in 1934 and on Scullin's retirement as Labor Party leader
in 1935, Curtin was asked to stand as leader. At the beginning of the
1939-45 war, Prime Minister Menzies suggested the formation of a
national government of all three parties. Curtin objected, wanting no
part of the in-fighting within the United Australia Party/Country Party
Coalition and foreseeing its collapse. When Menzies resigned and
Fadden's budget was defeated in October 1941, Curtin was commissioned to
form a Government.Curtin was faced with uniting his party around a
single goal-to protect Australia and win the war. His dedication won him
the support of the people despite wartime restrictions and rationing.
Two months later, the Japanese attacked
Pearl Harbour, bringing the United States into the war. The early months
of 1942 saw Japan conquer most of Southeast Asia, with many Australians
killed or taken prisoner-of-war. For the first time in its history
Australia was faced with the genuine threat of invasion. Curtin turned
to America for help.
The United States recognised Australia as
an ideal base from which to launch its assault against the Japanese.
Curtin approved the appointment of General Douglas MacArthur, who had
escaped the Philippines ahead of the Japanese advance, to assume
ultimate responsibility for the Allied effort in the Pacific. Large
numbers of troops and American equipment landed in Australia.
At the beginning of the war Australia had
sent troops to support the Allied war effort in Europe and Africa.
Churchill wanted Australian battalions stationed in the Middle East to
be deployed in a last ditch stance against the Japanese in Burma, but
Curtin insisted that they return to defend their country. Curtin won,
gaining Australia the right to control its defence forces, no longer
subordinate to Britain's dictates.
Curtin, who had vehemently opposed
conscription in World War I, was faced with introducing legislation
which allowed conscripts to serve in the Southwest Pacific region.
Previously only the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Forces) volunteers could
serve outside Australia and Papua New Guinea (an Australian
protectorate), but A.I.F. numbers were insufficient for the task of
driving the Japanese out of the islands. There were also many conscripts
amongst the American troops sent to defend Australia-a discrepancy
impossible to justify. It is said that when Curtin got the support of
Cabinet to send conscripted men overseas he wept.
Curtin's first term required the support
of two independents, but the 1943 election was a triumph for Labor. The
victory was seen as a vote of confidence in Curtin's handling of wartime
problems and a mandate to plan for peace.
As a wartime measure the Federal
Government assumed responsibility for collecting all taxes. Curtin
realised that plans for post-war reconstruction would require even
greater federal control, at the expense of state rights. A 1944
referendum seeking voters' consent for a the extension of federal powers
Towards the end of the war Curtin began a
program of reform to promote a fairer distribution of wealth and
opportunities. Social security was extended to provide unemployment,
sickness and funeral benefits; the Commonwealth Bank Act was amended
giving it power to control interest rates (a measure seen as insurance
against inflation or depression); a postwar reconstruction training
scheme was proposed which would give grants to veterans for education at
all levels from technical school to university.
The heavy burden of the war effort and
long hours away from home seriously affected Curtin's health. He
collapsed in April 1945 and died in July, just six weeks before peace.