John Joseph Curtin

John Joseph Curtin (1885-1945) was an Australian political leader who rose from trade union official and journalist to prime minister. His forthright approach to Australia's wartime difficulties and his rousing leadership gained him his countrymen's respect.

John Curtin was born in Creswick, Victoria, on Jan. 8, 1885. He attended public schools and at the age of 13 took a job in a Melbourne printery while continuing his studies. The oratory of Tom Mann, Britain's "new unionism" figure, deeply influenced Curtin during Mann's Australian sojourn from 1902 to 1908.

Attending the Labour party's "college" for speakers and running unsuccessfully for a parliamentary seat, Curtin gained skill in public speaking and insight into campaign methods. From 1911 he was a union secretary, and in 1916 he also became secretary of the Anti-Conscription League, which opposed the plans of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes to make overseas service compulsory. Charged with failure to enlist for military service, Curtin was set free when the proclamation under which he had been detained was withdrawn. Separate proceedings against him on a sedition charge were dropped later.

In 1916 Curtin moved to Perth to become editor of the Westralian Worker. Between 1918 and 1934 he was elected several, but not consecutive, times to the House of Representatives, and he was Australian delegate to the International Labor Conference in Geneva in 1924.

By 1934 Curtin was stressing the dangers of impending war, and he urged greater defense preparedness while others in his party were speaking of disarmament. He also demonstrated a grasp of financial and economic issues. Elected as Labour's parliamentary leader in 1935, Curtin showed skill in healing a serious schism which had been weakening the party in New South Wales.


Wartime Leader

In 1939 Curtin refused the invitation of the Liberal prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies to include Labour in an all-party wartime administration. Instead, in 1940, Curtin joined the interparty Advisory War Council and awaited a situation favorable for a Labour government. It came in September 1941, when two uncommitted members pledged their support, giving him a slim majority in the House.

After Pearl Harbor, with Australia directly threatened, Curtin called for an all-out war effort built around United States help. He quickly instituted a succession of measures designed to eliminate all activities absorbing manpower and resources that might be diverted to the war effort. Early in 1942 he successfully urged the U.S. government to send Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Australia as commander of a combined force capable of defending the country and ultimately converting it into a base for a northward drive against the Japanese. At the same time Curtin refused the British Cabinet's request to divert Australian ground forces—then returning from the Middle East—for the reinforcement of the Burma front, deciding that they should return to Australia to stave off any invasion. By his vigorous leadership Curtin gained national acceptance for his austerity measures designed to intensify all phases of the war effort.

Labour won the 1943 elections with majorities in both House and Senate. As the danger of invasion receded, Curtin decided to remove the long-standing ban on use of military conscripts beyond Australian territory. Labour had traditionally held firmly to the rule against overseas service for conscripts, but Curtin persuaded the party to update the law so that Australian land forces could accompany U.S. forces and Australian air and naval units in the northward drive.


Preparations for the Postwar Era

Curtin constantly expressed his belief that the sacrifices being asked of fighting men should be honored by the creation of a postwar world with greater social Justice and enhanced opportunity for the individual, and a world in which causes of war were eliminated. As well as introducing progressive legislation to pave the way for general reconstruction and national advancement after the war, he began immediately to plan for the reintegration of armed services personnel into civilian life when peace was restored, and he mapped arrangements for a long-range immigration program. The government adopted full employment as a basic objective and, in international discussions on postwar economic planning, stressed this concept as the centerpiece of national policies.

In 1944 Curtin called for greater awareness of the regional significance of Australia and New Zealand—by now linked in the "Anzac" pact, which he and his external affairs minister, Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt, had been instrumental in developing. Curtin also gave the fullest support to the creation of the United Nations, sending a large and influential Australian delegation to the formulative meeting in San Francisco in June 1945, and encouraged the U.S. government to maintain an active role in the security of the Pacific. He died in Canberra on July 1, 1945.


Further Reading on John Joseph Curtin

A useful biography of Curtin is Alan Chester, John Curtin (1943).Curtin's role in Labour party affairs is discussed in Louise Overacker, The Australian Party System (1952), and Leslie Finlay Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party: 1901-1951 (1955). Comprehensive coverage of Australia's war role is contained in Australia in the War of 1939-1945, Series I to V (22 vols., 1952—). An economic analysis of Curtin's administration is E. Ronald Walker, The Australian Economy in War and Reconstruction (1947). The planning for a postwar immigration flow is outlined in Arthur A. Calwell, How Many Australians Tomorrow? (1945). The Curtin government's approach to international affairs is indicated in H. V. Evatt, Foreign Policy of Australia: Speeches (1945).