John Curtin’s experiences during the early years of Federation reflected those of many working Australians and drove him to fight throughout his life to attain basic securities for all workers.
As a wartime leader he bore the strain of a man leading his country towards an independent identity and in providing it with a vision for the future. He never lost sight of his dream for a fair and just society in which all people had access to a job, to education, to a home and the basic necessities of life. While today he could be criticized for his conservatism in relation to both indigenous issues and the position of women, he is to be admired for the steadfastness with which he held to his dream.
Tea without milk, bread without butter
Throughout the nineteenth century, Australia developed a reputation as a working man’s paradise. It was seen by many settlers as a place that was free of the social hierarchies of Britain, a place that offered employment and the means to a comfortable life for all.
This dream came to an abrupt end in the 1890s, when a deep and widespread economic depression affected the eastern colonies. For the first time, thousands were without work. For the few who were lucky enough to have a job, conditions were hard – long hours, little pay and dangerous circumstances.
People began to ask why there was so much human suffering and, for increasing numbers, the answer was greed on the part of the owners of industry. This led to the beginnings of the labour movement in Australia in an effort to enforce better working conditions as well as employment opportunities for the workers.
John Curtin’s own experiences at this time reflected those of the majority of working Australians. In his case though, those experiences drove him to fight throughout his life for basic securities for all workers. This was a fight that strongly influenced the way he thought about Australia and the role of Federal Government.
John Curtin was born on 8 January 1885 into an Irish Catholic working class family. His father was a police constable in Creswick, a small Victorian country town. Both ill health and the economic depression of the 1890s hit the family hard. John Curtin’s father was forced to retire from his job after developing rheumatism. Poverty forced the family to move in and around Melbourne so the young John Curtin had limited opportunities. His education was patchy as he was constantly changing schools and he left school in 1898 in order to find work and support his family. Their situation had become so dire that John Curtin described his family’s experience as one in which they had “tea without milk and bread without butter”. In many ways, the development of his political thinking and his actions both as a member of Federal parliament and later as prime minister can be understood as an attempt to overcome the deprivations of his childhood.
He was a serious youth who liked reading and was always looking for opportunities for self-improvement. He made a habit, for example, of using any spare time to read in Melbourne’s public library. John Curtin became a member of both the Victorian Socialist Party and the Labor Party. At the time, both of these parties were fighting for the rights of the workers and they had their roots in the political radicalism of the 1890s.
The brotherhood of the Socialist Movement
The Socialist Movement, particularly the Victorian Socialist Party, gave John Curtin a network of friends, organised his social life and gave him something to work for. It was through this network that John Curtin met Frank Anstey and Tom Mann, two very influential socialist thinkers, who became lifelong friends and mentors. This was a period in which he formed his political opinions, learnt to write for newspapers, became a well known public orator and developed the courage to speak out for the principles he believed in.
John Curtin worked alongside Anstey and Mann, participating not only in the social life of the socialist movement but also contributing to their intellectual life. He wrote for socialist magazines and was a speaker at the popular Yarra Bank meetings, which were famous for discussing the political issues of the day.
In 1911 he sought and got the job of secretary to the Timber Workers’ Union. Two years later, he established the Timber Worker, a monthly journal. As the editor of the Timber Worker, he had the perfect opportunity to develop his ideas on social welfare and tell others about them in his editorials. He criticised anything that he thought affected the workers, including poor working conditions, war, the lack of social welfare, universal minimum wages, the fight for an eight hour day and industrial arbitration.
In 1917 John Curtin’s friends helped him to secure a job as the editor of the Westralian Worker in Perth. From 1917 to 1928, John Curtin wrote weekly editorials. It was during this period that he came to believe that a strong central government provided the best way of ensuring the welfare of citizens, education for all, the defence of the nation and full employment.
John Curtin’s new life in Perth provides an insight into what he spent his life fighting for – security and opportunity for all Australians. The cornerstone of his fight was the welfare of the family. At heart he was a simple man who believed that no one should have to suffer the effects of inequality. He became a more active member of the Australian Labor Party, turning his attention to parliamentary politics and becoming the Federal Member for Fremantle in 1928. While some of his early revolutionary zeal disappeared, John Curtin never lost his faith in the possibility of a just and fairer society.
After he became Leader of the Opposition in 1935, John Curtin became much more vocal in Parliament, speaking on the need for Australia to have its own defence force, as well as about social welfare issues and unemployment.
The national leader
The collapse of the United Australia Party government in 1941 gave John Curtin the opportunity to put his dreams into practice. The fact that he took office during wartime gave him unprecedented powers while his decision not to form a government with the Opposition meant that he could maintain the Labor platform.
While John Curtin is best remembered as a war-time Prime Minister, his work in setting up a framework which would carry Australia towards the kind of society he had always fought for in peace time is less well known. As early as 1942, John Curtin set up a Department of Post-War Reconstruction which developed policies to establish a Commonwealth Housing Commission, the post-war rural Reconstruction Commission, the Secondary Industries Commission and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He also found the time and the political support to make changes in the taxation system so that the Federal Government had more financial resources available to it. He set up the foundations for a greater social welfare role for the Federal Government, such as the Widow’s Pension Act and the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act. In 1944 he set up the Department of Immigration which was to be responsible for organising post-war immigration to Australia. These changes were the basis for the enormous growth of the Australian economy in the post-war years.
John Curtin was a man who provided the right leadership in a time of need and always put himself at the service of his community. He died in office on 5 July 1945, just 6 weeks before the end of the war. Not long after his death, Muriel Heagney, a colleague in the Victorian Labor Party, described how John Curtin had explained to her that “whilst he had not sought the honour, he welcomed the post” of Leader of the Labor Party in 1935 “because of the opportunity it offered to bring nearer the dreams of his youth, to lay the foundation of a social order to which men and women – not brick, mortar and wealth – would have the highest value”.
(Based on the pamphlet John Curtin: A Fair Go for All produced by the JCPML for participants in the conference Human Rights: A Fair Go For All hosted by the John Curtin International Institute at Curtin University of Technology in conjunction with the National Committee on Human rights Education, 6-8 December 2000.)
To explore these themes further visit the online exhibition Shaping the nation: John Curtin and Australia or the online essay by Dr Bobbie Oliver which formed the background to the exhibition.