When wartime prime minister John Curtin’s heart gave out in an upstairs bedroom at the Lodge three-quarters of a century ago, he left for us an abiding memory of national political leadership. In its reticent modesty, its few claims for grandeur, its diligence and effectiveness, its success, it is preciously true to the best of the nation he led.
In a time such as this, baffling and difficult, when the nation is again shocked and isolated by a sudden threat arising from without, one engaging all our attention and resources, a time that calls for the utmost in political leadership, perhaps there is something in Curtin’s example of moral force and political art useful to us now.
Prime minister for three years and nine months, Curtin in office surprised both his supporters and opponents. “It has come,” he simply remarked to his press secretary when, after he had been prime minister for a few crowded months, Japanese planes sank the American Pacific battle fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Inexperienced in war, Curtin took command without fuss. Expected to dither, he proved resolute. The bigger the decision, the more promptly he made it. Expected to follow others, he proved cunning and forthright in asserting his authority. Expected to defer to the great allied leaders, he proved relentless in pressing Australian interests. Thought to be the simple idealist he sometimes presented himself to be, he carefully cultivated the people he needed to sustain his grip. He sometimes told fibs, sometimes played tricks, often concealed his hand and his true purpose. Even so he came as close as any national leader perhaps can to the minimum of deceit consistent with great office.
Curtin did not present himself as a hero. He was not physically courageous. He was afraid of heights, air travel. On a voyage across the Pacific, his chief defence official sourly noted, Curtin always carried his lifebelt with him, and was first in the boats during lifeboat drill. Yet he hadn’t the slightest quaver in taking on the toughest people in his own party, Eddie Ward and Arthur Calwell, or in crushing during debate the most polished orator of his day, Robert Menzies. An atheist with no hope of heaven, he gently told his wife and his nurse in his last days: “I am not afraid to die.”
In the darkest days of war Curtin was sometimes seen travelling alone by tram from his room at the Victoria Coffee Palace Hotel in Little Collins Street to the war cabinet offices in Victoria Barracks on St Kilda Road. Appointed to the job without a Labor majority in the house or the Senate, Curtin was not expected to last long as prime minister. He was Australia’s third prime minister in less than two months. Defying his critics, he skilfully managed through nearly two years of minority government before a general election gave him a decisive majority.
The Pacific War helped, compelling the suspension of much of the usual Australian political conflict. So did the disunity of his political opponents, still torn by the destruction of Menzies’ prime ministership by Menzies’ own party. But had he not been an artful politician as well as one of unusual integrity and moral force, his government might well have collapsed as suddenly as the two governments that preceded him.
We remember Curtin for his declaration at the end of 1941, as Japanese troops swiftly fought their way towards Singapore, that Australia looked to the US rather than Britain for military support. We remember him for refusing the strongly expressed wish of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and the leaders of the United Australia and Country parties that the returning troops of the Australian 7th Division should be diverted to Burma. We remember him for his political courage in overturning his party’s opposition to the deployment of conscripts outside of Australia’s borders and territories, and for his great victory over the opposition parties at the general election of 1943.
We can also remember him for his stoicism, his authority, his calm in March 1942. It was a time resembling these recent months of ours, of watching and waiting, of demanding people follow unaccustomed government instruction, of suspending ordinary business and preparing for the worst.
By early March 1942, 100 days after the Pacific War began, less than six months after Curtin had become prime minister, Australia’s circumstances were immeasurably worse than in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. It had lost the entire 8th Division in Singapore. It lost 3000 men, part of the returning seventh division, in Java. It lost troops in Rabaul, New Ireland, Ambon and Timor. It lost the naval ships Perth and Yarra and their crews in battles with the Japanese navy. In only a few months Australia had lost more than 20,000 men in the Pacific War.
At the outbreak of the war the secretary of the department of defence co-ordination told the war cabinet the army could hardly put a single trained division into the field in Australia. By March there were several hundred thousand more troops in training, but Australia had little artillery, only a few tanks, fighters and bombers. The returning troops of the 7th Division were still at sea. By March 1942 Curtin, his ministers, his advisers, judged that Australia was under a serious threat of invasion.
Though the US president, Roosevelt, had accepted responsibility for the defence of Australia, American divisions would not be in Australia for many months.
Curtin warned of invasion, a threat not entirely far-fetched. In a leader on March 7, 1942, The Sydney Morning Herald declared that “the shadow of invasion is falling across the land”. Home security minister Bert Lazzarini issued a booklet telling civilians what to do when the invaders came. Australians were told to “stand firm”, to “carry on”, to “obey orders instantly”. They were told how to disable a motorcycle, car or lorry so the Japanese could not use them. They were urged to stay where they lived and not clog the roads as refugees. Do not tell the enemy anything, Lazzarini told Australians. Do not give him anything, do not help him in any way.
Those bleak weeks were the toughest test of Curtin, who had been prone to collapse with nervous exhaustion during political crises. In those desperate March days, Curtin had found steadfastness and the nation its leader.
No friend to Labor or to Curtin, The Sydney Morning Herald declared in late March: “We could not choose a better leader today. For us there are no more parties; Mr Curtin is Australia’s leader.” In March 1942, confronted with problems no Australian leader had ever been called on to face, Curtin, too, had carried on.
Today Curtin’s memory is as fittingly evoked by Scott Morrison in his Anzac Day speech this year as by opposition Treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers in a speech on the economy not long before. Curtin’s memory is now beyond party.
There are not many parallels between the challenge of COVID-19 and the dire circumstances in which Curtin demanded the total mobilisation of all the nation’s resources, asking Australians to serve at whatever task they were assigned. This was after all a crisis of national survival that followed the unexpected success of Japan’s Pacific offensive. For all its terrors and destructiveness, COVID-19 is by contrast a highly transmissible disease from which most victims soon recover.
Yet there is something in Curtin’s fortitude and good sense, in the response to him in the emergency Australia then faced, that reminds us of what we are capable when necessary. For its population size Australia has suffered less than one-eightieth of US COVID-19 deaths, less than one-hundredth of those in Britain. Healthcare workers, the political leadership, the economic policymakers in Treasury and the Reserve Bank responded promptly and magnificently to the expected severity of the epidemic.
If we set aside more than we will need, let us remember Curtin’s rapid creation in 1942 of what proved to be an unnecessarily large army. Faced with the threat Australians then faced, none complained. Partly because of the scale of Australia’s response to the pandemic, its economy will be one of those least damaged by it.
After seven prime ministers in 13 years, after decades of dreary and routine quarrels between the federal government and the states, after the long erosion of belief in what government can do, COVID-19 has unexpectedly restored our confidence in our collective possibilities.
Emerging now from the pandemic, how do we do justice to the solidarity it has evoked? We might, probably will, revert to the old contest of opposing interests. No harm in that, so long as little is expected of it. If we value its reminder of Australia’s possibilities, however, if our leaders recognise not only the challenge of the pandemic but also its aftermath, we have a duty to its casualties. There were more than 700,000 Australians unemployed before the pandemic. Coming out the number of unemployed is rising towards a million and may well exceed it.
These are the victims who will not quickly recover. Australia faces a grave risk that an increasing proportion of those unemployed will be unemployed for quite a while, losing jobs skills and confidence, their life opportunities narrowing, their contribution to Australia’s future diminished. It is to them that our national responsibility now attaches.
When he died in the Lodge on July 5, 1945, after the defeat of Germany but before the defeat of Japan, Curtin had already driven the creation of a post-war full employment policy and annotated the first drafts in some detail. His government was planning for the civilian education and training of the demobilised military. His government had created a powerful central bank with authority over lending and the exchange rate, and taken to itself a monopoly over income tax that would sustain federal government spending.
Throughout his career Curtin insisted that what government could do in war it should also be capable of in peace. He relentlessly attacked his opponents for drawing on whatever finances they could to sustain spending in war, while insisting on the strictest financial discipline when confronted with the problems of peace.
The federal government, the states, the central bank responded well to the pandemic. Mass long-term unemployment is at least as destructive as COVID-19. Emerging from pandemic, can we rise to its more complicated, more contested, more enduring aftermath?
John Edwards is senior fellow of the Lowy Institute and author of the two-volume biography John Curtin’s War (Penguin Viking), which won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature in the history section in 2018.