|The Right Honourable
|14th Prime Minister of Australia
Elections: 1937, 1940, 1943
7 October 1941 – 5 July 1945
|Governor General||Lord Gowrie
HRH The Duke of Gloucester
|Preceded by||Arthur Fadden|
|Succeeded by||Frank Forde|
|Constituency||Fremantle (Western Australia)|
8 January 1885|
Creswick, Victoria, Australia
|Died||5 July 1945
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
(prev. Roman Catholicism)
John Joseph Curtin (8 January 1885 – 5 July 1945), Australian politician, served as the 14th Prime Minister of Australia. Labor under Curtin formed a minority government in 1941 after the crossbench consisting of two independent MPs crossed the floor in the House of Representatives, bringing down the Coalition minority government of Robert Menzies which resulted from the 1940 election – aside from the formulative early parliaments, the only other hung parliament has resulted from the 2010 election. Curtin led federal Labor to its greatest win with two thirds of seats in the lower house and over 58 percent of the two-party preferred vote, and 55 percent of the primary vote and a majority of seats in the Senate at the 1943 election. Curtin died in 1945 and was succeeded by Ben Chifley, who retained government at the 1946 election with over 54 percent of the two-party vote and a continued Senate majority.
Curtin led Australia when the Australian mainland came under direct military threat during the Japanese advance in World War II. He is widely regarded as one of the country's greatest Prime Ministers. General Douglas MacArthur said that Curtin was "one of the greatest of the wartime statesmen". His Prime Ministerial predecessor and 1943 election Coalition leader, Arthur Fadden of the Country Party wrote: "I do not care who knows it but in my opinion there was no greater figure in Australian public life in my lifetime than Curtin."
Early life 
Curtin was born in Creswick in central Victoria. His name is sometimes shown as "John Joseph Ambrose Curtin". He chose the name "Ambrose" as a Catholic confirmation name at around age 14; this was never part of his legal name. He left the Catholic faith as a young man, and also dropped the "Ambrose" from his name.
His father was a police officer of Irish descent; Curtin attended school until the age of 14 when he started working for a newspaper in Creswick. He soon became active in both the Australian Labor Party and the Victorian Socialist Party, a Marxist group. He wrote for radical and socialist newspapers as "Jack Curtin".
It is believed that Curtin's first bid for a public office was when he stood for the position of secretary of the Brunswick Australian rules football club, and was defeated. He had earlier played for Brunswick between 1903 and 1907.
From 1911 until 1915 Curtin was employed as secretary of the Timberworkers' Union, and during World War I he was a militant anti-conscriptionist. He was the Labor candidate for Balaclava in 1914. He was briefly imprisoned for refusing to attend a compulsory medical examination, even though he knew he would fail the exam due to his very poor eyesight. The strain of this period led him to drink heavily, a vice which blighted his career for many years. In 1917 he married Elsie Needham, the sister of Labor Senator Ted Needham.
Curtin moved to Cottesloe near Perth in 1917 to become an editor for the Westralian Worker, the official trade union newspaper. He enjoyed the less pressured life of Western Australia and his political views gradually moderated. He joined the Australian Journalists' Association in 1917 and was elected Western Australian President in 1920. He wore his AJA badge (WA membership #56) every day he was Prime Minister.
In addition to his stance on labour rights, Curtin was also a strong advocate for the rights of women and children. In 1927, the Federal Government convened a Royal Commission on Child Endowment. Curtin was appointed as a member of that commission.
Early political career 
Curtin got up as the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Fremantle, near Perth, in 1925, losing badly to the incumbent, independent William Watson. Watson retired in 1928, and Curtin ran again, winning on the second count. Reelected in Labor's sweeping victory of the 1929 election, he expected to be named to James Scullin's cabinet, but disapproval of his drinking kept him on the back bench. Watson roundly defeated him in 1931 as part of Labor's collapse to 14 seats nationwide. After the loss, Curtin became the advocate for the Western Australian Government with the Commonwealth Grants Commission. He sought his old seat in the 1934 after Watson retired for the second time, and won.
When Scullin resigned as Labor leader in 1935, Curtin was unexpectedly elected; by just one vote; to succeed him. The left wing and trade union group in the Caucus backed him because his better known rival, Frank Forde, had supported the economic policies of the Scullin administration. This group also made him promise to give up drinking, which he did. He made little progress against Joseph Lyons' government (which was returned to office at the 1937 election by a comfortable margin); but after Lyons' death in 1939, Labor's position improved. Curtin led Labor to a five-seat swing in the 1940 election, coming within five seats of victory. In that election, Curtin's own seat of Fremantle was in doubt. United Australia Party challenger Frederick Lee appeared to have won the seat on the second count after most of independent Guildford Clarke's preferences flowed to him, and it was not until final counting of preferential votes that Curtin knew he had won the seat.
Prime minister 
In September 1939 the world plunged into war when Germany invaded Poland. Prime Minister Robert Menzies proclaimed war on Germany as well and supported the UK war effort. In 1941 Menzies travelled to the UK to discuss Australia's role in the war strategy, and to express concern at the reliability of Singapore's defences. While he was in the UK, Menzies lost the support of his own party and was forced to resign. The UAP, senior partner in the non-Labor Coalition, was so bereft of leadership that Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, became Prime Minister.
Curtin had refused Menzies' offer to form a wartime "national government," partly because he feared it would split the Labor Party, though he did agree to join the Advisory War Council. In October 1941, Arthur Coles and Alexander Wilson, the two independent MPs who had been keeping the Coalition (led first by Menzies, then by Fadden) in power since 1940, joined Labor in defeating Fadden's budget and brought the government down. Governor-General Lord Gowrie was reluctant to call an election for a Parliament barely a year old, especially given the international situation. He summoned Coles and Wilson and made them promise that, if he named Curtin Prime Minister, they would support him and end the instability in government. The independents agreed, and Curtin was sworn in on 7 October, aged 56.
On 7 December 1941, the Pacific War broke out when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. Curtin addressed the nation on the radio: "Men and women of Australia. We are at war with Japan. This is the gravest hour of our history. We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them. We shall hold this country and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race and as a place where civilisation will persist." On 10 December HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were both sunk by Japanese bombers off the Malayan coast. These had been the last major battleships standing between Japan and the rest of Asia, Australia and the Pacific, except for a few survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack. Curtin cabled Roosevelt and Churchill on 23 December: "The fall of Singapore would mean the isolation of the Philippines, the fall of the Netherlands East Indies and attempts to smother all other bases. It is in your power to meet the situation ... we would gladly accept United States commander in Pacific area. Please consider this as a matter of urgency."
We look for a solid and impregnable barrier of the Democracies against the three Axis powers, and we refuse to accept the dictum that the Pacific struggle must be treated as a subordinate segment of the general conflict. By that it is not meant that any one of the other theatres of war is of less importance than the Pacific, but that Australia asks for a concerted plan evoking the greatest strength at the Democracies' disposal, determined upon hurling Japan back. 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.
This historic speech is one of the most important in Australia's short history. It marks the turning point in Australia's relationship with its founding country, the United Kingdom. Many felt that Prime Minister Curtin was abandoning the ties with Great Britain without any solid partnership with the United States. This speech also received criticism at high levels of government in Australia, the UK and the US; it angered Winston Churchill, and President Roosevelt said it "smacked of panic". The article nevertheless achieved the effect of drawing attention to the possibility that Australia would be invaded by Japan. Before this speech the Australian response to the war effort was troubled by attitudes swinging from "she'll be right" to gossip driven panic.
Curtin formed a close working relationship with the Allied Supreme Commander in the South West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur. Curtin realised that Australia would be ignored unless it had a strong voice in Washington, and he wanted that voice to be MacArthur's. He gave control of Australian forces to MacArthur, directing Australian commanders to treat MacArthur's orders as coming from the Australian government.
The Australian government had agreed that the Australian Army's I Corps – centred on the 6th and 7th Infantry Divisions – would be transferred from North Africa to the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command, in the Netherlands East Indies. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. It was Australia's worst military disaster since Gallipolli. The 8th Division was taken into captivity, a total of about 15,384 men, although Major-General Bennett managed to escape. In February, following the fall of Singapore and the loss of the 8th Division, Churchill attempted to divert I Corps to reinforce British troops in Burma, without Australian approval. Curtin insisted that it return to Australia, although he agreed that the main body of the 6th Division could garrison Ceylon.
Curtin also expanded the terms of the Defence Act, so that conscripted Militia soldiers could be deployed outside Australia to "such other territories in the South-west Pacific Area as the Governor-General proclaims as being territories associated with the defence of Australia". This met opposition from most of Curtin's old friends on the left, and from many of his colleagues, led by Arthur Calwell. This was despite Curtin furiously opposing conscription during World War I, and again in 1939 when it was introduced by the Menzies government. The stress of this bitter battle inside his own party took a great toll on Curtin's health, never robust even at the best of times. He suffered all his life from stress-related illnesses, and he also smoked heavily. It became common practice during these years for Curtin and many others in government to work sixteen hours a day.
In social policy, the Curtin Government enacted a wide range of progressive social reforms during its time in office. Pensions were introduced for deserted wives and widows, while the establishment of the Women's Employment Board led to increased wages for some women during the war. Aboriginal Australians were provided with significantly increased entitlement to welfare benefits, while maternity allowances were extended. In addition, pensions for the elderly and infirm were increased, while reciprocal arrangements with New Zealand were introduced regarding old age and invalid pensions. In 1942, temporary public employees became eligible to apply to join the Commonwealth superannuation scheme if they had been employed for no less than five years and were certified as having indefinite future employment, while the Commonwealth Employees' Furlough Act of 1943 provided long service leave for all temporary Commonwealth employees.
In 1941, all "asiatics" who were British subjects became eligible for a pension, and in 1942, pension eligibility was extended to Pacific islanders known as "Kanakas," and from that July that year "Aboriginal natives" of Australia became eligible for pensions if they were not subject to a state law "relating to the control of Aboriginal natives" or if they lived in a state where they could not be exempt from such laws but were of eligible for pension on the grounds of "character, standard of intelligence and development". That same year, pension became exempt from income tax. In 1943, funeral benefits were introduced, together with a Wife's Allowance for wives of incapacitated age pensioners "where she lived with him, was his legal wife and did not receive a pension in her own right."
From June 1942, Widows' Pension class B was paid to widows without dependent children who were aged 50 and over. The term 'widow' included de facto widows who had lived with the deceased spouse for at least three years prior to his death and had been maintained by him. Eligibility was also extended to deserted de jure wives who had been deserted for at least six months, divorced women who had not remarried and women whose husbands were in hospitals for those considered to be insane. From July that year, Widows' Pension class B (WPb) was exempted from income tax.
In 1942, eligibility for maternity allowances was extended to Aboriginal women who were exempted from State laws relating to the control of Aboriginal natives and who were considered suitable to receive the benefits. From 1943, the income test for maternity allowances was abolished and the rate of the allowance was increased to 15 pounds where there were no other children under the age of 14 years, 16 pounds where there were one or two other children, and 17 pounds 10 shillings in cases of three or more children. These amounts included an additional allowance of 25 shillings per week in respect of the period four weeks before and four weeks after the birth, to be paid after the birth of the child. That same year, eligibility for Child Endowment was extended to children in Government institutions, to Aboriginal children who lived for six months per year on a mission station, and to children who were maintained from a deceased estate.
In 1943, Child's Allowance was introduced, payable at the rate of five shillings per week for a first or an unendowed child under 16 years dependent on an invalid or permanently incapacitated old-age pensioner. From July 1945 onwards, Additional Benefit for Children of five shillings per week became payable in respect of the first child to any person qualified to receive unemployment or sickness benefit having the custody, care and control of one or more children under the age of 16.
Election and referendum 
At the 1943 election, Curtin led Labor to its greatest election victory, winning two-thirds of the seats in the House of Representatives on a two-party preferred vote of 58.2 percent. Labor also won the primary vote in all states in the Senate and thus all 19 seats, to hold a majority 22 of 36 seats.
Buoyed by the success of the 1943 election, Curtin held a referendum in which would give the government control of the economy and resources for five years after the war was over. The 1944 Australian Referendum contained one referendum question: Do you approve of the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled 'Constitution Alteration (Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) 1944'?
Constitution Alteration (Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights) 1944 was known as the 14 powers, or 14 points referendum. It sought to give the government power over a period of five years, to legislate on monopolies, corporations, trusts, national health, family allowances, freedom of speech and religion, ex-servicemen rehabilitation, the ability to legislate for Indigenous Australians, and safeguards against the abuse of legislative power. The referendum was defeated, receiving a majority only in Western Australia and South Australia. Nationally overall, 54 percent voted against the question in the referendum. Referendums that do not receive bipartisan support are rarely successful.
Failing health 
In 1944, when he travelled to Washington and London for meetings with Roosevelt, Churchill and other Allied leaders, he already had heart disease, and in early 1945 his health deteriorated still more obviously.
On 5 July 1945, at the age of 60, Curtin died, the only Prime Minister to die at The Lodge. He was the second Australian Prime Minister to die in office within six years. His body was returned to Perth on a RAAF Dakota escorted by a flight of nine fighter aircraft. He was buried at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth; the service was attended by over 30,000 at the cemetery with many more lining the streets. MacArthur said of Curtin that "the preservation of Australia from invasion will be his immemorial monument".
Curtin is credited with leading the Australian Labor Party to its best federal election success in history, with a record 55.1 percent of the primary half-senate vote, winning all seats, and a two party preferred lower house estimate of 58.2 percent at the 1943 election, winning two-thirds of seats.
One important legacy of Curtin's was the significant expansion of social services under his leadership. In 1942, uniform taxation was imposed on the various states, which enabled the Curtin Government to set up a far-reaching, federally administered range of social services. These included a widows' pension (1942), maternity benefits for Aborigines (1942), funeral benefits (1943), a second form of maternity benefit (1943), a wife's allowance (1943), additional allowances for the children of pensioners (1943), unemployment, sickness and Special Benefits (1945), and pharmaceutical benefits (1945). Substantial improvements to pensions were made, with invalidity and old-age pensions increased, the qualifying period of residence for age pensions halved, and the means test liberalised. Other social security benefits were significantly increased, while child endowment was liberalised, a scheme of vocational training for invalid pensioners was set up, and pensions extended to cover Aborigines. The expansion of social security under John Curtin was of such significance that, as summed up one historian,
"Australia entered World War II with only a fragmentary welfare provision: by the end of the war it had constructed a 'welfare state'".
His early death and the sentiments it aroused have given Curtin a unique place in Australian political history. Successive Labor leaders, particularly Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, have sought to build on the Curtin tradition of "patriotic Laborism". Even some political conservatives pay at least formal homage to the Curtin legend. Immediately after his death the parliament agreed to pay John Curtin's wife Elsie A£1,000 per annum until legislation was passed and enacted to pay a pension to a past Prime Minister or their widow after their death.
Curtin is commemorated by the federal seat of Curtin, the Canberra suburb of Curtin, Curtin University in Perth, John Curtin College of the Arts in Fremantle, the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Curtin Avenue in Perth's western suburbs, the John Curtin Hotel on Lygon St, Carlton, Melbourne, and Curtin House in Swanston St, Melbourne.
Popular culture 
- In the 1984 mini series The Last Bastion, Curtin was portrayed by Michael Blakemore.
- In the 1986 film Death of a Soldier, he was portrayed by Terence Donovan.
- In the 2000 film Pozieres, he was portrayed by David Ross Paterson.
- In the 2007 telemovie Curtin, he was portrayed by William McInnes.
- The theatre production The Fremantle Candidate premiered at the Victoria Hall, Deckchair Theatre in 2012.
See also 
- First Curtin Ministry
- Second Curtin Ministry
- Military history of Australia during World War II
- Residence of John Curtin
Further reading 
- Butlin, S.J. and Schedvin, C.B (1997) War Economy 1942–1945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra. ISBN 0-642-99406-4
- Day, David (1999) Curtin: A Life, HarperCollins, Pymble, New South Wales. ISBN 0-207-19669-9
- Dowsing, Irene (1969) Curtin of Australia, Acacia Press, Melbourne. ISBN 91-30-00121-8.
- Hughes, Colin A (1976), Mr Prime Minister. Australian Prime Ministers 1901–1972, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, Ch.15. ISBN 0-19-550471-2
- Ross, Lloyd (1977), John Curtin, MacMillan Company of Australia, Melbourne, Victoria. ISBN 0-522-84734-X
- Wurth, Bob (2006) Saving Australia: Curtin's secret peace with Japan, Lothian Press, South Melbourne, Victoria. ISBN 0-7344-0904-4
Primary sources 
- Black, D. (1995) In His Own Words: John Curtin's Speeches and Writings, Paradigm Books, Curtin University, Perth.
- "John Curtin". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- General Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, Heinemann, London, 1967. Page 258.
- Foreword by R.J. Hawke to John Curtin – Saviour of Australia, Norman E Lee, Longman Cheshire, 1983. Page 83
- "Obituary". The Daily News. 5 July 1945. p. 12.
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Australian Rules Football ..., Graeme Atkinson, 1982, The Five Mile Press, Melbourne, page 186.
- John Curtin (1885–1945) – Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition
- "Curtin's Death". Labor Women (The Westralian Worker). 13 July 1945. p. 4.
- "Life in Politics". The West Australian. 6 July 19345.
- "Curtin the man". Obituary – Curtin Death (The West Australian). 6 July 1945.
- "John Curtin declares Australia is at war with Japan on australianscreen online". Retrieved 25 February 2011.
- Peter Edwards, "Another look at Curtin and MacArthur" (Australian War Memorial) Access date: 20 April 2006.
- "John Curtin, The war at home". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991
- Crase, Simon (1 May 2008). "ABC Ballarat". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 16 April 2010.
- "Huge crowd pays homage". Daily News. 9 July 1945.
- Goot, Murray (1 October 2007). "Three strikes against the polls, or the Govt is out – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 16 April 2010.
- "Curtin's Gift". The Age (Melbourne). 5 March 2005.
- Australia since federation: a narrative and critical analysis by Fred Alexander
- The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 by Gough Whitlam
- "Pension for PM". Daily News. 7 July 1945.
- Deckchair Theatre
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: John Curtin|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: John Curtin|
- David Day, Chapter 7. John Curtin: Taking his Childhood Seriously, Australian Political Lives: Chronicling political careers and administrative histories
- John Edwards, Curtin's Gift: Reinterpreting Australia's Greatest Prime Minister, Allen & Unwin, 2005
- "John Curtin". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
- John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library / Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
- WW2DB: John Curtin
- John Curtin (1885–1945) – Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition
- John Curtin's Australian Journalists Association Badge – English and Media Literacy, Australian Biography at dl.filmaust.com.au – Prime Ministers' Natural Treasures[dead link]
- Listen to John Curtin declaring that Australia is at war with Japan in 1941 on australianscreen online
- The recording 'Curtin Speech: Japan Enters Second World War, 1941' was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia Registry in 2010
|Leader of the Opposition
|Prime Minister of Australia
|Minister for Defence Coordination
Minister for Defence
|Parliament of Australia|
|Member for Fremantle
|Member for Fremantle
Kim Beazley (senior)
|Party political offices|
|Leader of the Australian Labor Party