Regarded by many as one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers, John Curtin assumed office just six weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and led Australia through the darkest hours of World War II. No prime minister has had a more profound effect on Australia and no man has given more in the service of his office. Curtin was born in the Victorian mining town of Creswick on January 8, 1885. His parents were Irish immigrants. His father worked first as a policeman, then as a publican, and the family moved frequently from town to town.
His much interrupted education ended when he left school at 14 and began to supplement the family income-as a printer’s apprentice, a labourer, a clerk, and a newspaper copyboy which as you can see lead him to champion rights of lower society. Curtin’s interest in social issues and the plight of the working class led him to become actively involved in the labour movement and he joined the Victorian Socialist Party in 1906. He soon became known as an eloquent and inspiring speaker and this ability enabled him to unite the people of Australia in a way unprecedented then and unsurpassed since.
John Curtin was just beginning his working life as Australia became a Federated nation. Despite moving away from his Irish Catholic background, he was evidently influenced by it and by the poverty of his upbringing to realise that Australia was not an equal society, and that the major task of a national government was to govern for the good of all the people. In 1917 he moved to Perth as editor of the “Westralian Worker”. While living in Western Australia, he developed a realisation that Federation disadvantaged some states.
He believed that some of these weaknesses occurred because the Constitution had not been followed closely enough. He never lost his faith in the spirit and intention of Federation . He first entered politics in 1928 as the Member for Fremantle in the House of Representatives, but his term was cut short when Labor was defeated in 1931 and he lost his seat. However, one year after re-entering parliament in 1934, he was elected parliamentary leader and when the Fadden government collapsed, Curtin became Prime Minister in October, 1941
He had a remarkable grasp of economics, and in four years his government overhauled the national economy, creating full employment in the process. He and his cabinet made a number of other revolutionary changes in the fabric of Australian life, particularly in the liberalisation of social welfare and immigration policies . When in office, he passed legislation to correct many of the existing anomalies in social welfare provision. He attempted to gain greater Federal powers to enable more efficient post-war development. Curtin was a true patriot.
He loved Australia, but was acutely aware of the existing social and economic inequality. He was outraged by injustice, particularly by the suffering of children whose parents could not adequately provide for them and was scathing in his denunciation of the myth that Australia was a ‘workers’ paradise’. Curtin believed passionately that Australians should stand up for themselves and be a nation in their own right. He admired Canada for its independent stance within the Empire and obviously believed that Australia should do likewise.
He loathed Imperialism and all its trappings, although later in life he stated that Empires created political stability in the international scene which was representative of his later years where he lost a fair bit of support due to his hipocracies such as introducing the idea of conscription for Australia soldiers to fights north of the equator. Although he had abandoned ritualised religion at an early age, Curtin remained a spiritual person with an understanding of and a respect for Christian teaching.
He believed that true Christianity showed itself in works that benefited fellow human beings and brought equality and expressed ‘brotherhood’. For much of his life, Curtin worked to uplift and empower the poorest sections of society low wage earners and pensioners. He believed that a person could fully contribute as a citizen only when he or she was adequately remunerated, educated and housed. Furthermore, all should have the same opportunities. But he also saw citizenship as containing responsibilities, particularly so in wartime when the nation was under threat.
It was in foreign policy, however, that he changed Australia forever, moving it from a nation with an inward perspective, regarding itself as a colonial state of Great Britain which sided automatically with the Mother country, to a nation with a broad, international outlook capable and prepared to make its own decisions. Curtin’s appeal to America for support and protection has been seen as the beginning of Australia’s alliance with the United States. By standing up to Churchill, he ensured that Australia’s interests were not overridden by Britain’s.
Curtin’s actions have been hailed as a milestone on Australia’s road to independence. As a wartime leader, he was able to transcend party differences by appealing for national unity and his government worked hard to formulate a plan for a better post-war Australia. Those closest to Curtin spoke of his constant agonising over the crucial decisions he had to make and these undoubtedly contributed to his final illness. Clearly, Curtin believed strongly in the concept of ‘duty’ as revealed in his determination to ‘see it through’ even when he was too ill to carry out his duties as prime minister.
In the end, the anguish and the long, hard hours taxed his uncertain health due to a chronic tobacco and alcohol abuse, which subsequently lead to his death on July 5 1945 at the age of 60, less that six weeks before the end of the war. General Douglas MacArthur hailed him as “One of the greatest of the wartime statesmen. The preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument. ” More than 20,000 people attended his funeral service at Karrakatta Cemetery.
Described by Fadden as “the best and fairest” of all his political opponents, Curtin had been “the right man in the right place at the right time” and deserves the accolade as one of his country’s greatest prime ministers. Curtin has been an inspiration to his successors in the Labor movement as he was perhaps the most popular prime minister due to the fact that he embodied what was thought as the “true Australian identity”. He has been credited, above all, with making Australia into a unified, independent nation at its time of greatest peril.