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John Curtin

John Curtin

John Curtin (January 8 1885 - July 5 1945), Australian politician and 14th Prime Minister of Australia, led Australia through the darkest period of its history: when the Australian mainland came under direct military threat during the Japanese advance in World War II. Many Australians regard him as the country's greatest political leader.

Militant youth

John Joseph Ambrose Curtin (he dropped the two middle names when he left the Catholic church as a young man), was born in Creswick in central Victoria, the son of a police officer of Irish descent. He had some primary education, but by the age of twelve he was working in a factory in Melbourne. He soon became active in both the Labor Party and the Victorian Socialist Party, a Marxist group. He wrote for radical and socialist newspapers as "Jack Curtin."

In 1911 Curtin was employed as secretary of the Timberworkers' Union, and during World War I he was a militant anti-conscriptionist. He was briefly imprisoned for refusing to attend a compulsory medical examination, even though he knew he would fail the exam due to his very poor eyesight. The strain of this period led him to drink heavily, a vice which blighted his career for many years. In 1917 he married Elsie Needham, sister of a Labor Senator.

Labor politician

Curtin moved to Western Australia in 1918 to become editor of the Westralian Worker, the official trade union newspaper. He enjoyed the less pressured life of the west and his political views gradually moderated. He stood for Parliament several times before winning the federal seat of Fremantle in 1928. He expected to be elected to the ministry in the Scullin Labor government in 1929, but disapproval of his drinking kept him on the backbench. He lost his seat in 1931, but won it back in 1934.

When Scullin resigned as Labor leader in 1935, Curtin was unexpectedly elected to succeed him. The left wing and trude union group in the Caucus backed him because his rival, Frank Forde, had supported the economic policies of the Scullin government. They also made him promise to give up drinking, which he did. He made little progress against the Lyons government, but after Lyons's death in 1939 Labor's position improved. Curtin fell only a few seats short of winning the 1940 election.

Wartime leader

Curtin with Douglas MacArthur

Curtin refused Robert Menzies's offer to form a wartime "national government," partly because he feared it would split the Labor Party. In October 1941 the two independent MPs who had been keeping the conservatives in power since 1940 switched their support to Labor, and Curtin became Prime Minister. In December the Pacific War broke out, and in February 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese, who were soon bombing northern Australian towns. Invasion seemed a real threat.

Curtin took three crucial decisions. The first was to bring all Australia's forces back from the Middle East to defend the Australian mainland, despite the furious objections of Churchill. The second was to appeal to the United States for assistance. Curtin formed a close frienship with General Douglas MacArthur, and MacArthur took command of the US and Australian forces. By 1943 the threat of invasion had been averted, and in August Curtin led Labor to its greatest ever election victory.

The third step Curtin took was the introduction of conscription, which he judged vital for Australia's survival. This met furious opposition from most of Curtin's old friends on the left, and from many of his colleagues, led by Arthur Calwell. The stress of this bitter battle inside his own party took a toll on Curtin's health.

Curtin's health had never been robust, and he suffered all his life from stress related illnesses. He also smoked heavily. In 1944, when he travelled to London for meetings with Allied leaders, he already had heart disease, and in 1945 his health deteriorated. He died in Canberra in July 1945, the second Australian Prime Minister to die in office in six years. MacArthur said that Curtin was "one of the greatest of the wartime statesmen" and that "the preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument".

The Curtin Legend

His early death and the sentiments it aroused have given Curtin a unique place in Australian political history. Successive Labor leaders, particularly his fellow Western Australians Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, have sought to build on the Curtin tradition of "patriotic Laborism." Even political conservatives pay at least formal homage to the Curtin legend, in a way that Labor supporters certainly not do to the corresponding Liberal hero, Menzies.

Curtin is comemmorated by Curtin University of Technology in Perth, the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra and the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.

Further Reading

Preceded by:
Arthur Fadden
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Frank Forde

Preceded by:
James Scullin
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Ben Chifley