John Curtin

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John Curtin
Date of birth 8 July 1885
Date of death 5 July 1945
Wife Elsie Curtin
Party Australian Labor Party
As Prime Minister
From 7 October 1941
To 5 July 1945
Succeeded Arthur Fadden
Preceded Francis Forde

John Curtin was the Labor Party Prime Minister of Australia (1941–45), leading his nation to victory in World War II in close collaboration with the United States and his close associate American General Douglas MacArthur.

He moved from socialism to a more moderate position when he took power. Curtin is often regarded as the Greatest Australian Prime Minister by numerous polls.[1]

Curtin led the transition from Australia as part of the British Empire to an independent nation more dependent upon the United States for its security and economy. Even before Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, Curtin declared that Australia "looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom." With the loss of Australian forces in Singapore, the threat of a Japanese invasion in 1942 convinced Australia to link up with the U.S. and to pull its troops out of the British forces in Egypt.


Curtin was born to a devout Catholic Irish class family in Creswick, Victoria. His father owned a pub and the family moved about a great deal; Curtin attended seven schools, then entered the field of labor journalism, becoming known as a leftist socialist and critic of the labor movement. From 1911 to 1915 he was secretary of the Timber Workers' Union of Victoria, based in Melbourne; he moved to Perth to edit the Westralian Worker from 1917 to 1928.

During World War I he was antimilitarist and opposed conscription vigorously. As a writer on economic problems, Curtin desired to give to Australian socialism a theoretical as well as a political basis, stressing the positive rather than the negative aspects of the movement. His public services before he became the acknowledged leader of the Labour Party included acting as Australian delegate to the International Labour Conference in 1924, as a member of the Commission on Family Allowances in 1927–1928, and as state advocate for West Australia to the Commonwealth Grants Commission from 1933 to 1935. He was a member of the Commonwealth House of Representatives from 1928 to 1931 and again from 1934 until his death. Repeatedly he faced bouts of alcohlism, deprsssion and loneliness, but he overcame the alcoholism by the late 1930s.

Curtin became the leader of the Labor Party in 1935 replacing J. A. Scullin; he was successful in settling dissension within the party.[2] and proved his skill as one of the ablest debaters in the House.

He argued that Australia could not solve European problems and ought, therefore, to concentrate on its own defense through air power. Curtin gave support to Australian participation in World War II despite reverses in the Mediterranean area in 1941.

World War II

Curtin became prime minister in October 1941. Nearly 500,000 men were under arms both at home and abroad out of a total population of 7,000,000.

Curtin appealed to the Australian Labor Party to allow the use of the Citizen Military Forces outside Australia, a dramatic reversal of historic labor policy. Hasluck (1970) argues Curtin was motivated by electoral calculations and a shrewd response to the campaign of the opposition. In addition American General Douglas MacArthur influenced Curtin, and the move should be seen in the light of Curtin's appeal for greater assistance from the United States at a time when the Southwest Pacific was low on the list of global priorities. That is, the Americans insisted that Australian soldiers fight as hard for Australia as American soldiers were doing.

During his ministry, when he also held the post of Defense Minister, Australia took rapid strides to full wartime production. In September 1942 Curtin launched the "austerity campaign," saying, "If we do not strip ourselves to save our country, the enemy will do it with ruthless efficiency and a maximum of misery." New restrictions were imposed on sporting events; taxes were raised on all classes of entertainment; liquor consumption was cut back; hotel meals were limited to three courses, and tough laws curbed black markets. Some items were petty, but program was designed to boost the national morale with a sense that everyone is sacrificing at a time when soldiers were dying for their country. It also financed the war as far as possible by taxation supplemented by public national loans, and it placed the highest priority on war production. By December 1942, 60% of Australia's men were in uniform or on full-time war work of all kinds. The factories cut their civilian production in half, as 500,000 of 700,000 factory workers made war goods.

Over 200,000 women entered war industry by the end of 1942. Thousands of others joined auxiliary women's branches of the fighting services: WAAAF (Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force), which services cars, drives ambulances, performs administrative and clerical routine, etc.; AWAS (Australian Women's Army Service) numbering 6,000, some of whose members have been posted for combat duty in coastal batteries; WRANS (Women's Royal Australian Naval Service); and WANS (Women's Australian National Service).

The voters gave the Curtin ministry a strong mandate in the election of August 1943, with 49 of the 75 seats in the House of Representatives (as well as the support of two independents), giving the Government 51 seats to the Opposition's 23. Labor swept the Senate seats and obtained a majority in the upper house for the first time in 20 years. The Opposition was a coalition of the United Australia Party and the Country Party, both conservative and anti-socialist. About 800,000 of the 4,000,000 Australian voters were in uniform and most supported Curtin.

The Curtin government and the subsequent Ben Chifley Labor government sought to manage the economy and encourage industry and full employment without resorting to nationalization, socialism or the welfare state.

His physical and mental health worsened after 1943, and he died with victory in sight.

Further reading

  • Barclay, G. St. J. "Australia Looks to America: The Wartime Relationship, 1939-1942," Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 46, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 251–271 in JSTOR
  • Bolton, Geoffrey. The Oxford History Of Australia - Volume 5 - 1942 - 1988 - The Middle Way (1993)
  • Day, David. John Curtin: A Life (1999)
  • Edwards, John. Curtin's Gift: Reinterpreting Australia's Greatest Prime Minister (2005) online edition
  • Hasluck, Paul. The Government and the People 1942-43 (1970)
  • Johnson, Carol. The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke, Sydney (1989)
  • McKernan, Michael. The Strength of a Nation: Six Years of Australians Fighting for the Nation and Defending the Homefront in WWII(2006) onine edition
  • Ross, Lloyd.John Curtin: A Biography (1983)
  • Serle, Geoffrey. "Curtin, John (1885 - 1945)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (1993), pp 550–558. online edition; good place to start


  1. Such as the one conducted by The Age in 2004. Other polls include Newspoll and reputable news program Today Tonight.
  2. Australian spelling is "labour" except for the name of the party which is the "Labor Party."

External links

Australian Prime Ministers
Edmund Barton (1901)

Alfred Deakin (1903, 1905, and 1909)
John Watson (1904)
George Reid (1904)
Andrew Fisher (1908, 1910, and 1914)
Joseph Cook (1913)
William Hughes (1915)

Stanley Bruce (1923)

James Scullin (1929)
Joseph Lyons (1932)
Earle Page (1939)
Robert Menzies (1939 and 1949)
Arthur Fadden (1941)
John Curtin (1941)

Francis Forde (1945)

Joseph Chifley (1945)
Harold Holt (1966)
John McEwen (1967)
John Gorton (1968)
William McMahon (1971)
Gough Whitlam (1972)

Malcolm Fraser (1975)

Robert Hawke (1983)
Paul Keating (1991)
John Howard (1996)
Kevin Rudd (2007)