John Curtin played a formative part in Australia's developing nationhood and relationship to Britain, says Brad Webb.
THE ELDEST son of Irish born parents, John Joseph Ambrose Curtin, born in 1885, endured a diminished formal education, due largely in part to his parents frequent moves in search of employment. Yet despite these apparent limitations, Curtin went on to become one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers. Although he died only six weeks before the end of the Second World War, during his political career he presided over a notable shift in the Australian perception of the monarchy and as such, the British Empire.
From the beginning of white settlement in Australia, the monarchy served two distinct purposes among the largely British population. It symbolised power: of the Empire, arms, commerce, language and culture. And it was also thought of as the guarantor of common freedom. Australia was both an extension of British society and a departure from it. Colonists were able to produce a distinctive culture, more open and tolerant than the one at “Home”. These new circumstances allowed Australia to implement a number of British ideals long before Britain did – the vote for the common man, parliamentarian remuneration, and women suffrage.
Along with his father, Curtin attended meetings during the Commonwealth federation campaigns, and it was here where his political interests were first sparked. When John was 15 he witnessed the birth of Federation. That same year Australia sent another contingent of troops to South Africa to bolster the men already engaged in fighting the Boer War. While the conflict had nothing to do with Australia directly, it did present the new nation with an opportunity to show Britain her willingness to defend the Empire.
“Australia’s great luck was that the British people colonised its lands. This meant that at Federation Australia belonged to the worlds greatest Empire and its strongest navy. Australia did not speak to the world in its own right; it spoke as part of a mighty Empire – a considerable advantage. In 1901 Britain was not just a friend; it was family”
(100 Years: The Australian Story p.207)
Britain was Australia’s protector. Australians viewed the British as vital to their long-term survival. Defence was a major reason behind the formation of the nation. This new nation was bonded to Britain both strategically and emotionally. After Federation Britain continued to be responsible for Australia’s naval defence, foreign policy and international trade. Australia saw the world through British eyes and the world saw Australia through Britain.
The ideals of a united Empire helped shape Australia. With Britain by her side, Australia did not have to constantly look over her shoulder. British protection allowed Australia to feel safe, to explore, and to expand it’s own potential and capabilities. Australia was a new world society that drew strength from its old world heritage.
“Britain retained their loyalty and affection by progressively conceding their demands for greater freedom and autonomy over a period of more than a century. This was a discreet statesmanship that fitted with free-trade imperialism and some indifference to the formal Empire.”
(The Oxford Companion to Australian History p.90)
During the early years of the 20th century, Curtin developed a friendship with Frank Anstey, a notable socialist and proponent for the working class. Anstey was Curtin’s mentor and played a significant role in his life. Curtin was to say, “of all the men who have influenced me, he influenced me the most. He introduced me to the Labor movement.”
As an avid reader Curtin was an assiduous member of the Victorian Public Library. In 1906 his interest turned to writing as well. His first article was published in the “Socialist”, the new journal of the Victorian Socialist Party. It was the start of a long career in journalism. In 1911 he became Secretary of the Timber Workers Union. Within two years Curtin had coordinated a loose alliance of local groups into a tight and effective union. He was relentless in his campaign for adequate compensation, and improved working and living conditions. Curtain was instrumental in the introduction of a Workers’ Compensation Act in Victoria.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914, brought to the fore the controversy of militarism and conscription for the Labor Party. Curtin was a staunch anti-conscriptionist; because of his beliefs he would spend a period of time behind bars. In 1916 he was appointed secretary of the National Executive of the Anti-Conscription Campaign. However, it was a difficult time for Curtin, and despair and alcoholism overcame him. His friend and mentor, Frank Anstey, intervened to support Curtin’s nomination for the position of editor of the “Westralian Worker”, a Labor journal, so in 1917 Curtin moved to Perth.
Curtin’s interest in the Labor movement and politics continued. The 1928 elections saw Curtin stand as the candidate for Fremantle. When he won, Labor regained a seat it had not held for fifteen years. Curtin went to Canberra as a member of the Labor government, however, his term was cut short when he lost his seat and his party was defeated in 1931. The following three years saw Curtin fill in his time with freelance writing for various newspapers, as well being a Perth publicity officer, and chairman of the advisory council preparing Western Australia’s case before the Commonwealth Grants Commission, until he regained the seat of Fremantle.
When Scullin resigned as leader of the Labor Party in October 1935, Curtin was elected to the position, narrowly winning over firm favourite, Frank Forde, by one vote. As Labor Leader Curtin faced several difficulties. His immediate task was to build unity. Curtin had to struggle to find compromise policies among the isolationists, communists, socialists, opportunists, and Catholics who made up the Labor movement.
On defence Curtin allied himself with the few Army pacifists who knew that the Fortress of Singapore was a myth. He carried his party on a policy of self-sufficiency, based especially on development of air power, which had been an idea of his prior to the First World War. Curtin also realised that Australia’s main threat came from Japan.
In 1939, as war with Germany broke out Curtin, as leader of the Federal Opposition, read a statement of Labor policy drawn up at a party meeting:
“…In this crisis, facing the reality of war, the Labor Party stands for its platform. That platform is clear. We stand for the maintenance of Australia as an integral part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. The party will do all that is possible to safeguard Australia and at the same time, having regard to its platform, will do its utmost to maintain the integrity of the British Commonwealth.”
(Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia p.70)
Curtin restored the ALP to prominence and nearly won the 1940 election. When the Menzies war government collapsed, Curtin became Prime Minister in October 1941, just two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Holding out against pressure to form a cooperative government with Menzies, Curtin instead waited for the right moment when two Independent members gave Labor a majority.
The great topic in the crisis of early 1942, when Japanese invasion seemed almost certain, was the recalling from the Middle East of the AIF. While his political opponents wanted to follow Imperial orders, Curtin insisted on the immediate return of the 6th and 7th Divisions. Curtin made his well-known statement on 27 December 1941, calling on America for support:
“The Australian Government therefore regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces, we know the constant threat of invasion, we know the dangers of dispersal of strength, but we know, too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on.”
(Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia p.71)
This statement was taken from an otherwise routine article in which Curtin appealed to all Australians to support the war effort, however his comments were seen by Churchill as one that would “cause resentment throughout the empire”. Roosevelt remarked that it “tasted of panic and disloyalty”, yet newspapers across Australia supported Curtin’s declaration.
Curtin’s statement is regarded by many as a turning point in Australia’s emergence as an independent nation. Yet while his party would finally ratify the Westminster act in 1942, eleven years after it was passed in Britain, Curtin remained a man of the Empire. Whereas Curtin’s predecessor James Scullin established the right of the Australian Prime Minister to advise the monarchy on the appointment of the Governor-General, Curtin opted for a Briton as the Kings’ representative. Indeed, for a period of time during the war the King’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester, served as Governor-General. Curtin’s actions could hardly be seen as those of a radical republican yet, as expected, the leaders of the United Australia and Country parties publicly expressed their outrage at his disloyalty to Britain.
By agreement, the 6th and 7th Divisions AIF were sent to the Far East sector and were making for Java and Sumatra. But Rabaul had fallen to the Japanese, Singapore fell on February 15 and the 8th Division was imprisoned. Darwin was bombed on February 19. General Sturdee, chief of the General Staff, forcefully advised Curtin to bring the divisions home and threatened his resignation to the War Cabinet if his advice was not followed. Curtin’s chief public service adviser Frederick Shedden firmly agreed. However, considerable pressure was brought to bear on Curtin by that great British apologist Robert Menzies, as well Stanley Bruce, Earle Page, and other non-Labor members of the Advisory War Council. The Council advised him to follow Churchill in their long-conditioned belief that the Imperial interest of Great Britain should be supported against Australia’s own interests.
Curtin refused the advice put forward by the War Cabinet. A bitter cable exchange ensued between Curtin and British Prime Minister Churchill. The United States President Roosevelt also brought pressure to bear on the Australian Prime Minister. The last straw was Churchill ordering the 7th Division to turn north for Burma, but he finally gave way after no fewer than four firm Australian protests. Curtin played a pivotal role in changing Australia from a nation with an inward bias which regarded itself as a colonial satellite of Great Britain that sided automatically with the Mother country, to a nation with a more international outlook capable and prepared to make its own judgments. By standing up to Churchill, Curtin guaranteed that Britain did not override Australia’s interests.
History judges Curtin’s decision as correct. Had the 7th Division, with no air support and no weapons (the arms were in ships trailing behind), reached Rangoon they would have been comprehensively routed. Australia would have lost half the AIF in a fortnight. However the strain of the decision took its toll on Curtin who became recumbent for several days following. In March, 1942 Curtin was instrumental in having General MacArthur appointed supreme commander of the SouthWest Pacific, thus ensuring American support. The two formed a solid partnership during the war.
In 1944 Curtin made an overseas trip to attend the Prime Ministers Conference in Great Britain and visit US President Roosevelt. Shortly after his return Curtin suffered a heart attack. He was able to go back to work briefly at the beginning of 1945, but was forced back to bed through illness. In the end, the anguish and the long, hard hours took a toll on his uncertain health. On July 5 1945, John Curtin aged 60, died. The war had claimed another victim.
Curtin’s role in the shift towards a more independently thinking Australia was promoted not by a desire to sever English ties but to reinforce the idea that Australia should be allowed to govern in her own right. Decisions made by Curtin were of national importance and showed Australia no longer had to rely on Britain to tell her what to do. Australia would make her own way and decide who would be allies and who would be enemies.
“The notion of the monarch as a guardian of traditional rights flourished among large numbers of Australians even into the last decades of the twentieth century. In a peculiar way the monarchy was thus a means of reconciling notions of British power and of British freedom, two things which might otherwise have seemed contradictory. The splendour of the Crown seemed to prove monarchs had all the power they needed in doing their duty by the people.”
(The Oxford Companion to Australian History p.434)
Curtin’s task in reshaping Australia’s reliance on Britain was made easier by the way many Australians regarded the British. Although willing to once again defend the Mother Country, Australians over the years had developed a cynicism towards Britain. From the botched landing at Gallipoli and the poor leadership on the Western Front, to the demands from British rentiers during the Great Depression, to the Bodyline Ashes series, to the grand illusion of the Fortress of Singapore, all highlighted the difference between imperial and Australian interests.
“I think the stand taken over the withdrawal of Australian troops was a critical moment in the ongoing development of a keen sense of Australian nationalism. It was a forcing of a strategic realty upon us – it wasn’t a statement that great and powerful friends weren’t important and that relationships with what was regarded as the Mother Country weren’t important. You can’t see in this an act of genesis of Australian nationalism, because Australian nationalism really began in the nineteenth century. What you can see is a catalyst for something within us emerging as an active public policy” (Kim Beazley).
(100 Years: The Australian Story p.260)
When the British Empire quickly broke up after the war, Australia was already preparing to face the world as an independent nation. She still required “great and powerful friends” and her defence ties with the United States of America, which began with Curtin and MacArthur, was strengthen with the formation of the ANZUS treaty during the Menzies reign.
The absence of the monarch has been the monarchy’s main characteristic as an Australian institution. For the colonies, and later the states, the monarchy’s role was easily filled by Governors and Governor-Generals. However, the political community created by Federation seemed to create an empire within an Empire. Australia with its immense landscape and diverse communities demanded a more personal monarchy. For a majority of the twentieth century Englishmen filled the role of King or Queens’ representative. Prime Minister James Scullin, buoyed by the Balfour declaration, broke the tradition with his appointment of Isaac Isaacs as Governor-General in 1931. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Governor-General was consistently sourced from Australian stock.
Queen Elizabeth attempted to undertake the duties of a personal monarch, however the majority of her visits to Australia were always very brief. This absence manifested itself into a main platform for the push for an Australian republic. The movement gained considerably support during the 1990’s via the simple but undeniable argument that “she is not Australian”. The referendum for an Australian republic in 1999 was defeated not because Australia desire to keep the Queen as our head of state, but because the issue of how a President would be elected dogged the campaign and ultimately negated the outcome.
“When the Queen came to Australia in the first month or two of my prime ministership I thought how inadequate it was for her to attempt to represent all that we were. She was here and then we had all the carry-on with the British press and what have you. And I was always rankled by the flag, always rankled by the fact that we had the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in our flag, in the corner. I thought, you know, the time’s come to actually put this on the political agenda. You see, the republic was an after-dinner mints and coffee conversation for 40 years.” Paul Keating
(100 Years: The Australian Story p.82)
What is certain is that when the question is next put to the people, the argument for the yes campaign will be far more cohesive and united; and the political conditions will be far more favourable towards a positive outcome, because by then the last vestiges of the Menzies era should be long passed into history.
- Arnold, Spearritt & Walker Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia Mandarin, Melbourne 1993
- Davison, Hirst & Macintyre The Oxford Companion to Australian History Oxford Press, Melbourne 1999
- Paul Kelly 100 Years: The Australian Story Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2001