JOHN CURTIN 

By David Lee

Connor Court Publishing (Australian Biographical Monographs 16), 2022

ISBN – 9781922815095

RRP: $19.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Keith Harvey

 

 

What a great idea Connor Court’s Australian Biographical Monographs are. They are short, readable biographies of notable Australian politicians designed to present an introductory overview of each chosen subject. In fact, they usually provide much more than this modest objective suggests. The series editor is Scott Prasser and in his overview in the 16th book in the series (John Curtin) he says that the “monographs are scholarly rather than academic in focus placing emphasis on a clear narrative, but with careful attention to referencing…”.

The distinction between a scholarly work and an academic tract is immediately clear and welcome. These books tell their subjects’ stories plainly without getting bogged down in academic theorising and arcane debate. They are written for ordinary Australians rather than a narrow academic audience. They tell the story, rather than trying to fit the subject into the latest academic construct.

But they remain solid works of authentic scholarship. David Lee’s biography of John Curtin is an excellent case in point. There have been several biographies of Curtin, including those by David Day, Lloyd Ross and Irene Dowsing as well as other deeper dives into particular periods in Curtin’s life – for example, Dr Liam Byrne’s recent Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin, which looks at the early lives of these two ALP leaders.

Lee’s book is short at just over 100 pages in small paperback format and about 24,000 words. But the detail and referencing are superb: in all there are 375 references at a rate of nearly four per page. The references are not all to existing secondary sources either, but to a whole range of primary sources. Any reader who, like your reviewer, likes to consult the references will quickly appreciate that the author understands very well both Curtin and the times he lived in. It is certainly a scholarly work, but one that can be read by anyone interested in the life and times of John Curtin.

Curtin has – and deserves – his reputation as one of Australia’s greatest prime ministers despite serving just under four years in that office.

But, of course, they were four critical years in Australia’s history dating from just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and their rapid southern thrust towards Australia. The allegedly impregnable British base of Singapore fell in early 1942, and thousands of Australian soldiers were captured while other Australian forces were fighting the Axis powers in North Africa and in the Mediterranean theatre.

Curtin’s ALP government came to power not as a result of an election but as a result of then Prime Minister Menzies losing the support of his party and resigning as PM and the subsequent Arthur Fadden administration losing support in the Parliament when two independents switched sides.

Curtin had become ALP Federal leader at a particularly difficult time for the Labor Party, as a result of not only the failure of the Scullin Government but also party splits, including one involving the whole of the NSW Branch of the ALP then dominated by Jack Lang. (Those in the ALP who still fret over the 1950s split provoked by Evatt should reflect more on the damage done to the Federal ALP twice by Lang in the 1930s and early 1940s.)

If disunity is death in politics, then the Federal ALP had bleak prospects when Curtin won the Federal leadership by just one vote in 1935. However, he went on to unite the party, lead the country during a wartime threat to its very existence and to win office in his own right by a big margin in 1943.

Curtin had substantial decisions to make during the war, including to bring Australia’s forces home from North Africa against the opposition of people like Winston Churchill (and US President F.D. Roosevelt) who wanted them used elsewhere. Curtin had no qualms putting Australia’s interests first and in realigning Australia’s strategic defence relationship away from Britain and towards the United States – a position that remains a bi-partisan policy today.

Curtin had had his personal demons, including a problem with alcohol (which he promised to give up in order to win the leadership), and his concern for the safety of the Australian troops on their way back to Australia (the strong possibility that they would be attacked by Japanese naval forces) is well known. During the First World War, Curtin was on the left of the ALP (coming as he did initially from the left-wing dominated Victorian Branch and the Victorian Socialist Party, before moving to Western Australia) and he was jailed for a short time for his opposition to conscription. Curtin had ignored a call up notice, was sentenced to three months jail but served only three days before the Hughes Federal government withdrew the prosecutions. He remains the only Australian prime minister to have spent time in jail.

David Lee’s book finds much to like about Curtin and his political leadership but is not hagiography either. There is a discussion about his relationship with US General Douglas Macarthur who was given supreme command of all Allied forces in the southwest Pacific, including Australian servicemen and women. This includes consideration of the influence of Macarthur on the decision of the Curtin Government (ratified by a special ALP Conference) to allow/require Australian volunteer military forces to serve overseas, at least in the Southwest Pacific area under Macarthur’s command. Lee writes that Curtin, who was opposed to conscription for overseas service during WW1, changed his position in view of the fact that American conscripts were fighting and dying in the defence of Australia.

Nor did Curtin succeed in all he wanted to do during his prime ministership. He sought additional Federal wartime powers initially through referral of State powers but then by a referendum seeking 14 additional wartime and post-war powers which failed in all States except in his home State of Western Australia. While this failed, the Curtin government is credited with successfully managing the wartime economy and the war effort itself and setting Australian policies for post-war reconstruction. For example, Curtin initiated the process for writing the Government White Paper on full employment which was to guide Australian government policies for many decades.

Curtin did not live to see either the end of the war in the Pacific or the results of the work directed towards creating a new post-war Australia. He had a heart attack in November 1944 and was off work until January 1945. He was ill again later in April and died in office in July 1945.

Lee’s small book completely fulfils the objective of this series of monographs. Curtin’s was a political life well lived and David Lee has told his story well. Highly recommended.