An alcoholic, manic-depressive, plagued with self doubt, he spent all but three years of his working life working for the unions before being elected to parliament. Alternatively, the man regarded by many as Australia’s greatest leader – wartime Prime Minister John Curtin.
After watching the miniseries Curtin six months ago, I realised how little I knew of Australian history from a genuinely Australian perspective. So, among other books, I bought the definitive biography of John Curtin, John Curtin: A Life – A Major Biography of One of Australia’s Greatest Leaders, by David Day. He was Prime Minister of Australia during most of World War II – 1941 to when he died six weeks before the end of the war in 1945.
Curtin’s Australia seems very foreign to me today. It was a seriously, openly, racist country. Everyone in Australia and Britain thought of it as a British outpost – there were 30 parliamentary sitting days in 1938 because most of the senior ministers spent their year in Britain. And Menzies seriously thought of the Australian Prime Ministership as a stepping stone to a British political career, just as a state premiership now could be a stepping stone to Federal politics. It’s also easy to forget that the result of World War II wasn’t a foregone conclusion in the dark days of early 1942. December 7, 1941 wasn’t just the date of Pearl Harbour. It was the date that the Japanese simultaneously attacked Hawaii, invaded Malaya and Thailand, and bombed Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Shanghai. From a British point of view, this brought the US into the war to help them fight Germany at the quite acceptable cost of some or all of its Asia-Pacific colonies (in the end only Australia and New Zealand made it through the war without surrender).
I’ve gone from vaguely knowing that Curtin was Australia’s hero, to having an abiding respect for a flawed and complex leader. Curtin was an internationalist – very well read, who thought deeply about the world. He left Australia exactly twice – once in the 20s, for a labor conference, and once in 1944 as the Allies were starting to plan life after the War. Even in those days that was somewhat parochial, with ministers popping back to Britain (but only Britain!) all the time when they were in government. But he was also an alcoholic, who found hard decisions desperately stressful, and went into deep depressions several times during his wartime prime ministership.
Curtin was also self sacrificing to an extent that seems unimaginable today – knowing he was probably dying, but that he could have gone home to Perth and extended his life, he still stayed in power, to try and set Australia up as well as possible for the post war years.
His humility was something that resonates with Australians. There are stories of him catching trams by himself back from political speeches even when he was prime minister. That’s how we like to think of ourselves, but it was rare even then. Back then, politicians of both sides certainly viewed parliament as a good excuse to take advantage of the trappings of hierarchy, just as they do today.
Curtin emerges as an inspiring and great leader of a country that was sorely in need of leadership. His skills were those of consensus and compromise; managing to bring the labor party together after a multitude of splits in the 20s and 30s was an achievement on its own. It wasn’t inevitable that the labor party would survive that period, let alone flourish; the right wing parties formed and reformed a number of times.
He also had vision, clearer than most (on either side of politics) of Australia as its own nation. That vision would seem conservative and old-fashioned today (it was more than 60 years ago after all) – it was a vision of a white Australia with women looking after the home – but the key word was Australian. To Curtin, Australia wasn’t an outpost of anyone else – we were our own country, which looked to other countries for help, but thought about our own interests first, before deciding to assist others. And that is the legacy that he left us with.