March 10, 2015

Horse 1856 - Australia's Prime Ministers - No 14 - John Curtin

XIV - John Curtin

When Scullin resigned as Opposition Leader in 1935, it was expected that Francis "Frank" Forde would take over as party leader. However the leftist sections of the Labor Party which included trade unionists, sided with John Curtin and he was elected by one vote in the caucus.

Curtin would lead the Labor Party to two defeats in the 1937 and 1940 elections and was Opposition Leader whilst Lyons, Page, Menzies, Hughes and Fadden all rotated through the office of Prime Minister. As Curtin was always worried about his own leadership position, he rejected Menzies' offer to form a unity government in 1940, although he did join a non-partisan Advisory War Council in 1940 which would eventually be disbanded at the close of the war.
Menzies' government had only secured power by negotiating with two independent members on matters of supply and internal fracturing would eventually cause them to pass a £1 variation budget; thus installing Curtin's Labor Party as the new government on 7th October 1940.

Curtin was far less submissive to the requests of Britain during the war and following Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, a year and a month after becoming Prime Minister, and the loss of two Royal Navy battleships three days later, Curtin began to express the opinion that Australia might be invaded by Japan.

On Boxing Day of 1941, Curtin had the following piece published in Melbourne's "The Herald":
The Australian Government, therefore regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the Democracies' fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. We know the problems that the United Kingdom faces. We know the dangers of dispersal of strength, but we know too, that Australia can go and Britain can still hold on. We are, therefore, determined that Australia shall not go, and we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the United States as its keystone, which will give to our country some confidence of being able to hold out until the tide of battle swings against the enemy.
- John Curtin, The Herald, 26th Dec 1941¹

Clearly a piece like this in a daily newspaper signalled an intent for Australia to change its direction of attention. Churchill was reportedly furious at the announcement and was positively livid when Curtin placed Australian forced under the command of Allied Supreme Commander in the South West Pacific Area, Douglas MacArthur.

When Singapore fell on the 15th of February of 1942 and when the entire 8th Division of the Australian Army was captured, Churchill wanted to exert his control over Australia by shifting the 6th and 7th Divisions to Burma. When Darwin was bombed on the 19th, it was really only then that Churchill came to regard Australia's worries as serious.

Quite apart from managing Australia's war commitments, Curtin's Government assumed sole control of Income Tax from 1942, passed several key pieces of legislation with regards pensions, child endowments and made Aboriginal peoples eligible for pensions for the first time.
From a legal perspective, Curtin's Government asserted Australia's independence by finally passing the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act (1942). British Law would no longer hold supremacy.
The 1943 election saw an 18 seat swing to Curtin's government and in the accompanying half-Senate election, Labour won 19 of 19 seats.

As the war dragged on though, Curtin's heart began to give out; maybe it was the stress he incurred as a result of leading the country through the war.
Curtin died in The Lodge on the 5th of July 1945 and within nine weeks, the war would be over. General Douglas MacArthur would later say that "the preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument"; though really, the transformation of Australia from a fragmentary state, to one which seriously looked at the provision of welfare for many of its citizens for the first time, is probably Curtin's greatest legacy.


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