Curtin's gift to the nation

Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne

John K. Edwards Curtin’s Gift: Reinterpreting Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2005 (208 pp). ISBN 1-86508-704-1 (hard cover) RRP $35.00.

Paul Keating once described John Curtin as ‘just a trier’, but that was an opening shot in a leadership contest and drew a predictable response from the other Western Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke. John Edwards, who served as a senior adviser to Keating and who wrote an account of his national leadership, turns here to the subject of his jibe.

Curtin’s Gift is something less than a full biography and something more than a biographical sketch. It makes little reference to the earlier works written by Lloyd Ross and David Day, who both attempted a comprehensive life and times of their subject. Edwards makes greater use of David Black’s collections of Curtin’s speeches, writing and letters, as well as the recollections of those who knew Curtin. It is selective in its coverage and sparing in its use of the historical literature. Edwards documents only those aspects that are relevant to his appraisal.

The nature of this appraisal is suggested by the subtitle, Reinterpreting Australia’s Greatest Prime Minister. In a series of tightly linked chapters, Edwards argues that Curtin’s greatness lay not in his celebrated dispute with Churchill over the disposition of Australian forces following the fall of Singapore, but rather in his seizure of the wartime opportunity to remodel economic policy. His resolute drive to expand the national government is explained by formative experiences—his youthful socialism, his tribulations in Canberra as a member of the Labor Caucus during the Depression and his creative response to the lessons of political futility.

The book opens with Curtin pacing the grounds of the prime ministerial lodge after midnight in March 1942, tormented by the responsibilities of office. ‘How can I sleep’, he asks, ‘with our men in the Indian Ocean among enemy submarines?’ With this celebrated declaration of anguish we are reminded of the familiar shortcomings of an unlikely national leader of humble origins and little education, a man who smoked too much because he did not dare touch a drink, depressive and failing in health, indecisive before the war and unprepared for its exigencies.

Rather like Edmund Wilson’s spare and memorably composed portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, Edwards reworks personal frailties into hallmarks of greatness. As in Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, a decisive moment finds an unlikely man, and from this conjunction of destiny he composes a paean of praise for a hero in the national pantheon.

Curtin’s Gift is something less than a full biography and something more than a biographical sketch.

Reinterpreting the country’s greatest prime minister means refuting the obscuring legend of Saint Jack. Curtin was not a reluctant prime minister, Edwards insists, and as Leader of the Opposition at the outbreak of the Second World War his repeated rejection of invitations to join a national government indicated not timidity but ambition—he would hold office as Labor prime minister or not at all. I don’t think this insistence demonstrates personal ambition so much as a realistic assessment of the chances of further division in the labour movement over the war in Europe if Labor were to become a junior partner in a coalition government.

Curtin was not diffident, Edwards argues, but an astute, sardonic and determined politician. So he was, but without a power base of his own he had to accommodate himself to Labor’s potentates. As editor of the Party’s newspaper in Western Australia this meant eschewing trade union militants and tempering his socialist principles to the entrenched moderates. As leader of the Federal Labor Party it meant temporising between powerful factions and avoiding any direct challenge to Jack Lang in New South Wales.

Before the war Curtin had to strike a balance between the left, with its program of an anti-fascist united front, the isolationists and the appeasers. After its outbreak and until the German attack on the Soviet Union, he was faced with the anti-war agitation of Communist-led unions. Edwards writes that Curtin preferred to be leader of a united Opposition than a divided Government, but he did not have even that measure of unity.

Edwards exaggerates the novelty of his iconoclasm. Curtin’s support for the White Australia Policy is well known, and the further observation that it was as much an economic as a racial doctrine falls short of its full import. For Curtin’s generation it was much more than a rationale for protecting living standards: it was a social ideal.

After disposing of the legend of Saint Jack, Edwards revises the hallowed story of Curtin standing up to Churchill and bringing the troops home in Australia’s hour of need. He reminds us that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had quite different consequences for Britain and Australia. For Britain it finally brought the United States into the war; for Australia it was an unprecedented threat. The divergence of interests was aggravated by Churchill’s determination and Roosevelt’s agreement on a strategy to ‘Beat Hitler First’.

Reinterpreting the country’s greatest prime minister means refuting the obscuring legend of Saint Jack.

The significance of Curtin’s celebrated call to the United States at the end of 1941 was not that it upset this arrangement but rather that laid claim to a separate and independent relationship with Washington. Similarly, the declaration in the New Year that Australia would regard the surrender of the Singapore base as an ‘inexcusable betrayal’ ignored the fact that Britain had sacrificed substantial forces in its forlorn defence. Furthermore, Churchill himself initiated the decision to bring the AIF back from the Middle East: the only argument was whether they should be used to defend Burma or Australia.

In all of this Edwards relies heavily on the work of David Horner and other Australian military historians. He follows the additional argument of Peter Stanley that Curtin deliberately exaggerated the Japanese threat in order to win acceptance of his far-reaching plans for wartime mobilisation and post-war reconstruction.

It is on this final aspect that Edwards builds the affirmative core of his reinterpretation. He sees Curtin as the man who transformed national policy, reworking the Deakinite protectionist Settlement into a distinctively modern form of economic management. Its features were Commonwealth control over monetary and fiscal policy, and Australian engagement into the system of global trade and finance, in order to maintain full employment. And he also credits Curtin with some of the key aspects of post-war reconstruction, the expansion of education, the revival and extension of immigration, the expansion of welfare and the major development projects.

The planning and implementation of these measures is a familiar story. The novelty of Edwards’ account is their attribution to the personal direction of the wartime prime minister. Hence we are reminded that Curtin brought all of the major proposals to the full Cabinet, which he chaired, and used the Advisory War Council to consider some of them; that he frequently attended meetings with the chairman and governor of the Commonwealth Bank, and drew on his two economic advisers, Douglas Copland and Richard Downing.

All of this is true but it hardly deals with the role of Ben Chifley as Treasurer, along with his senior officials and advisers. We are told that Leslie Melville thought Curtin the abler of the two men, but that hardly justifies the claim that Curtin read, spoke and wrote more deeply about economics than Chifley.

Edwards asserts that Curtin played the ‘dominant role in the creation of post-war Australia’, and the closing sections of his book search for an explanation of this proposition. Put briefly, it is that Curtin’s initial training in Marxist economics was complemented by exposure to Edward Shann’s neoclassical economics, so that he was able to learn the lessons of the Depression, follow the Keynesian revolution and take office as ‘the best prepared and trained political leader of his generation’.

Edwards asserts that Curtin played the ‘dominant role in the creation of post-war Australia’.

It is good to be reminded of the educational project of the socialist movement. At a time when the great majority of Australians left school after an elementary education, there was a hunger for knowledge that socialists fed with their publications and study circles. As the slogan of the labour colleges put it, ‘knowledge is power’. It emancipated workers from ignorance, gave purpose and direction to their efforts.

Yet Edwards’ account of the doctrines of the Victorian Socialist Party is sketchy. Its socialism, he writes, was ‘not so much a faith, value or political preference’ as a ‘social science’—in fact it was all of these things. Curtin was formed in the socialist fellowship of this group and he read poetry, fiction and history as well as political economy. Through Marx’s writings he learned classical economics, though these did not (as Edwards suggests) endorse Lassalle’s iron law of wages or underconsumptionism.

The influence of Edward Shann, who taught him in external classes at the University of Western Australia during the 1920s, is more conjectural. Geoffrey Serle has written how Curtin was reading Keynes, Pigou and other more innovative economists during the 1920s, and quotes his sardonic comment: ‘I have attended the funeral of so many economic policies.’

As a backbencher in Canberra during the Depression he was certainly critical of the timidity of the Scullin ministry but his own proposals (a floating exchange rate, an increase in the money supply and a longer term strategy for balancing the budget) had little impact.

Serle also observes that Curtin’s health and morale declined markedly after a visit to England in mid-1944. He became more irritable, more isolated, and in November of that year he suffered a coronary occlusion from which he never fully recovered. His period of effective leadership lasted just thirty months, but it was undoubtedly decisive and Edwards provides a timely reminder of the magnitude of his achievement.

Stuart Macintyre is Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. He is author of twelve books and editor of another fifteen concerned mainly with Australian and British history.

View other articles by Stuart Macintyre: