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John Curtin, Labor’s Durable Hero

March 2, 2011

He stares at us from the cover of The Australian Literary Review, the wartime leader who is widely seen as the ALP’s greatest. Dubious adjective, this “greatest”. All PMs get called to different challenges and governing in war weighs the odds you will be invested with “greatness”. And it was a war that brought the enemy to our doorstep and hence had Curtin make a hugely important decision to take on Churchill in 1942 and divert an Australian army from another of Churchill’s follies (after Gallipoli and Greece) and bring them home to these shores.

His reputation was inferior to Ben Chifley’s until Gough Whitlam and his speechwriter Graham Freudenberg started to build it, invoking Curtin’s December 1941 speech declaring Australia now looked to the US “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” It was useful for Whitlam to present Curtin as the inventor of the US-Australian alliance.

In 1999 David Day’s biography balanced this by underlining the string of pro-Empire, pro-British speeches that followed that call to America. “Australia is a British people, Australia is a British land, and seven million Australians are seven million Britishers,” he said in 1944. And he seemed to believe it. He believed in the Empire and wanted to strengthen it. There was no republicanism there, not the remotest hint.

John Edward in Curtin’s Gift (2005) elevated his role in planning for the post war economy, thus expanding the Curtin legacy at the expense of Chifley’s. Not that a choice is required here, since their mateship was so very real and Chifley so inherently modest. One point to be made, however, is that if Curtin had not died in 1945 and had led Labor beyond 1946 (that is, if he had not been a smoker) he would never have asked his cabinet to nationalise the private banks. That error was Chif’s alone and the party paid heavily.

Curtin’s tortured temperament was unsuitable for a wartime leader and Day’s biography reminds you how long were the periods he spent hospitalised or in bed at home. Yet his instinct for the country’s interests and very survival were finely-honed, confirmed by his rapport with MacArthur and that confrontation with Churchill over the fate of the 7th Division. And as Labor leader? The working class, having suffered so grievously in the 1930s, were entitled to a PM who came from their ranks, reflected their needs and was to declare that after the war there would be regulation of banking, a social security system and an economy based on full employment.

There is a line in Bob Ellis’s movie, Newsfront: “John Curtin and Ben Chifley were the best Prime Ministers this country ever had.” This is the spirit or the mythology – passed from parent to child – that kept the ALP alive under the batty and bitter leadership of Evatt and Calwell . It inspired youngsters to join branches, looking to EG Whitlam to revive the Curtin-Chifley tradition.

But we would be guilty of rewriting history if we overlooked how much a child of the British Empire was John Curtin. And, indeed, how pro-British Australians have consistently been. We never left that Empire, the Empire left us.

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