Former Prime Minister John Curtin
“If ever a man was born to lead this nation into a time of peace and in the paths of peace it was John Curtin. If ever a man was born to apply his vision of what Australia at peace could be, his vision of what Australia at peace should become in his time, he was John Curtin.”
In the darkest days of World War II John Curtin rose to become Australia’s fourteenth prime minister. A Victorian by birth, he was the only prime minister to represent a Western Australian seat in the House of Representatives. Curtin led his country through extremely difficult times, which took a toll on his personal health. Today he is regarded as one of Australia’s most successful leaders and a great hero.
John Curtin, the son of working-class Irish immigrants, was born in 1885 in Victoria. He grew up in an era of increasing social unrest, when workers were beginning to assert their rights to decent pay and working conditions. His background, with its poverty and struggle and the influence of socialists like Tom Mann and Frank Anstey, led to Curtin’s involvement in the Labour Movement and politics.
Curtin became prime minister on 7 October 1941 at a time when Australia had deployed most of its trained troops to defend Britain. On 7 December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American base at Pearl Harbour and war began in the Asia-Pacific area. As prime minister, Curtin then faced what no other Australian prime minister before or since has faced: enemy attacks on the Australian mainland and the possibility of invasion.
Curtin’s subsequent actions changed the foreign policy of Australia and signalled a fundamental shift in the way Australians regarded themselves and their country’s place in the world. The traditional allegiance of Australians to the British Empire shifted in the face of the practicalities of alliance with, and reliance upon, the United States in their battle for survival against the Japanese.
Curtin was not only a great wartime leader – he also formulated policies for Australia’s post-war reconstruction, including planning for full employment, assisted immigration and improvements in social security. Under his leadership, the Australian Parliament passed landmark legislation, including an Act which established a uniform taxation scheme and removed the power of the states to collect income tax. His government also ratified British legislation establishing the independence of Dominion parliaments.
Curtin died in office on 5 July 1945, six weeks before the Japanese surrender and the return of peace and security to Australia.