Curtin had a good education at a mix of state and Catholic schools. At the age of 14 he became responsible for earning the family’s income, but it took him four years to find a permanent position as a tally clerk in a South Melbourne factory. In 1901 he joined the Political Labor Council, the forerunner of the Labor Party in Victoria. Though not yet of voting age, Curtin was among the activists in the political labour movement in Victoria. In this nursery of political activism, Curtin also met Tom Mann, who had set up a social questions committee in 1905. This committee became the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP). John Curtin was one of its most prominent and long-serving members.
Influenced by Mann’s ideas and disillusioned with the prospects for achieving socialism by parliamentary means, Curtin left his job in March 1911 to become secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union. He spent much of his time touring the timber yards of the city and the bush to sign up timber cutters for the union. He also established the "Timber Worker", which was a union newspaper.
Curtin had always been an avid reader and was a diligent member of the Victorian Public Library, and in 1906 his interest turned to writing as well. His first article was published in the "Socialist", the new journal of the Victorian Socialist Party. It was the start of a long career in journalism. In 1911 he became Secretary of the Timber Workers Union. Within two years Curtin had coordinated a loose association of local groups into a tight and effective union. He was relentless in his fight for improved working and living conditions for the workers and adequate workers' compensation. He was instrumental in the introduction of a Workers' Compensation Act in Victoria.
As the threat of war in Europe grew, Curtin’s focus shifted from promoting socialism to preventing war. He took a leading role in signing trade unions up to an international declaration committing their members to stop work if war were declared. He contested a safe conservative seat in the 1914 federal election, less to win than to use it as a platform for his political ideas. With the war underway, both anti-conscriptionists and pacifists were attacked as disloyal and the labour movement retreated from its anti-war ideals. John Curtin and Frank Anstey, however, were among those who continued to oppose what they regarded as an imperialist war.
In November 1915, Curtin resigned his job as Timber Union secretary and took work with the Australian Workers Union to advise on managing its growing organisation in the bush. But he was soon consumed with more important issues when the Labor government of WM Hughes began campaigning for conscription in 1916.
Curtin also had pressing personal issues to confront during this period. Struggling for years with alcohol addiction, in early July 1916 he went into hospital to ‘dry out’. He emerged to take a leading part in the anti-conscription campaign, touring country towns and State capitals with unflagging resolve.
The nation-wide campaign paid off, and the conscription referendum was narrowly defeated in October 1916. Shortly after, Curtin defied a government order for all eligible men to go into military camp. He was arrested and jailed for three days, despite the referendum vote against such compulsion.
The strenuous campaign and the arrest had put Curtin back where he had been in the winter – struggling with both depression and alcoholism. His friends and supporters helped him get a job as editor of the Perth-based Westralian Worker. This weekly newspaper was controlled by a labour federation of Labor Party branches and trade unions. He sailed for Fremantle on the Katoomba in February 1917. In Perth, Curtin was removed from the scenes of his struggle against alcoholism. He and Elsie Needham were able to marry after five years of a relationship that had been steady despite their long periods apart. Their wedding was at the West Leederville registry office on 21 April 1917.
Curtin had joined the Australian Journalists Association in 1917, and was elected state president in 1920. Under his editorship the Westralian Worker changed into a staunch opponent of conscription and supporter of socialism. The Australian Workers Union then bought a controlling interest in the paper. Curtin’s radical journalism gradually mellowed. He made his first overseas trip in 1924, when he was appointed by the Bruce government as Australian delegate to an International Labor Organisation meeting in Geneva. Curtin’s experiences in Europe and Britain reinforced his growing view that for Australia, the path to social change would best be built by parliamentary rather than revolutionary means.
Though Curtin stood for the conservative seat of Perth in 1919, his first serious bid for parliament was in 1925, when he stood for the seat of Fremantle. He was defeated by the law and order platform of the Bruce government, as well as the strong local campaign of a popular Independent, William Watson. From 28 September to 15 December 1928, Curtin served on the Bruce government’s Royal Commission on Child Endowment.
In November 1928, Curtin’s fourth bid for a federal seat was successful. Early in 1929 he went to Canberra as Member of the House of Representatives for Fremantle. The federal election in October that same year brought the Labor government of James Scullin into office.
Curtin served on the parliament’s Joint Committee for Public Works. With Labor in government for the first time since WM Hughes had left the party in 1916, an ambitious program of reform seemed possible. These ambitions were quickly dashed by the onset of economic depression, signaled by the Wall Street crash in October 1929. Curtin supported the response advocated by Treasurer EG Theodore. Drawing on the work of Cambridge economist JM Keynes, Theodore argued for the government to take more radical expansionary measures to restart economic activity. Though this approach influenced the ‘New Deal’ policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt, in Australia it did not prevail.
Hemmed in by private banks and British bond-holders, to whom Australia had become deeply indebted, the Scullin government fell back on orthodox belt-tightening to cope with economic crisis. Theodore’s expansionary economic plan was thrown out in favour of a deflationary plan accepted by Scullin and the State Premiers in June 1931. The ‘premiers’ plan’ involved reductions in public service salaries, pensions and interest rates and increases in taxes. John Curtin and Frank Anstey both spoke out strongly against it, and called in vain for Labor to go to the polls to get endorsement for Theodore’s plan.With Joseph Lyons acting in Theodore’s place as Treasurer, a cautious path was followed. At the behest of the Bank of England, government expenditure was reined in, with the inevitable effect of worsening the widespread hardship.
In 1931 the Scullin government was split by defections from the left and right. Supporters of the New South Wales Labor Premier, Jack Lang, crossed the chamber. If Curtin sympathised with some of Lang’s expansionist policies, he disagreed with his defiance of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. At a special party conference in March 1931, Scullin moved to have the New South Wales executive of the party expelled and replaced by a federally approved executive. Retaliation came in November 1931. Lang supporters were among the federal Labor parliamentarians who voted against the government and forced an election.
Curtin returned to Perth and worked to recover his energy and his spirits. He was given work by Phillip Collier, and wrote lively sports reports for the Westralian. From 1933 to 1935, he acted for the State government on the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
Curtin’s disappointment at the election outcome was widely shared. He wrote to James Scullin offering his help in any capacity. He also wrote in sympathy to EG Theodore, whose great vision had collapsed under the ‘premiers’ plan’. Theodore was also out of parliament, his seat of Dalley taken by a Lang Labor candidate. Frank Anstey saw the defeat as the end of his career and decided to retire. He appealed in vain for Curtin to take over his safe Melbourne seat for the 1934 election. Instead, Curtin stood for Fremantle for the third time and won the seat back from William Watson.
As Leader of the Opposition from 1935, Curtin argued for better defence preparations. When war was declared in 1939, his cooperation with the governments of Robert Menzies and then Arthur Fadden, led many to think he was not interested in becoming Prime Minister. Curtin had returned to his Canberra colleagues as a man who had stood out against the premiers’ plan. When illness forced James Scullin to resign as leader of the parliamentary party, Curtin won the leadership ballot and became Leader of the Opposition.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy, and the expansionism of Japan in Asia, new issues were pressing. Defence dominated the headlines in the second half of the 1930s. Joseph Lyons’ United Australia Party government held to the policy of imperial defence, with the British naval presence in Australasia as its centerpiece. Curtin argued instead for a policy of local defence, with greater concentration on the army and air force.
Curtin went to the polls in 1937 with defence as the major issue, but made little headway against Lyons. Labor had just 29 members in the 74-seat House of Representatives. Curtin concentrated on trying to hold his warring factions together and attempting to focus public attention on the international dangers and the glaring deficiencies in Australia’s defences. When war was declared in September 1939, Labor grudgingly accepted Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ announcement that Britain’s declaration of war against Germany automatically put Australia at war. To the frustration of his colleagues, Curtin often seemed too willing to be helpful to the conservative government. Curtin was content to leave Menzies in charge of the war and not undermine him politically. But Curtin made it clear that his helpfulness would not extend to supporting conscription for overseas service.
This attitude probably helped increase the drift of public support away from Menzies’ government, although Labor dissension prevented him from maximising the benefit. After the New South Wales Labor conference in April 1940 called on the Allies not to attack Russia, seven Lang supporters walked out of the Caucus and set up as an Anti-Communist Australian Labor Party. Curtin declared ‘Again Labor has been stabbed in the back’ and in August he expelled the left-leaning Labor Party executive in New South Wales.
These renewed splits stopped Labor from winning the federal election of September 1940. The Menzies government, however, was dependent on the support of two Independents, Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles. Preoccupied in Canberra, Curtin had not actively campaigned in his Fremantle electorate and when the results came in, it seemed that despite the swing to Labor, the party’s leader might lose his own seat. Curtin had a narrow win of only 600 votes.
Rather than seeking to undermine the weakened Menzies government, Curtin continued to pursue his policy of cooperation. He took a seat on the newly created Advisory War Council from 29 October 1940. He also agreed to Menzies’s plan to embark on a prolonged visit to Washington and London over several months in 1941. In his absence, Curtin assisted the acting Prime Minister, Country Party leader Arthur Fadden, to prepare for the feared extension of the war into the Pacific. After Menzies returned to Australia in May 1941 he proposed that he return to London to sit on Churchill’s War Council as Australia’s Prime Minister. Amid reports that Menzies’ other intention was to pursue a political career there, Curtin was directed by Caucus to withhold Labor’s cooperation. Then on 28 August, Menzies’ own colleagues removed him, and Arthur Fadden became Prime Minister.
Six weeks later, after some courting of Wilson by HV Evatt, Independents Alex Wilson and Arthur Coles supported a motion against the government. Fadden was forced to resign and Curtin was able to advise the Governor-General he had a majority in the House of Representatives. When World War II started, the coalition government of Robert Menzies was divided by personal rivalries. These developed to the point where the independents who held the balance of power believed Australia’s war effort was being adversely affected.
In October 1941 they agreed to transfer their support to Labor and so Curtin became prime minister and is widely regarded as one of the greatest.
John Curtin’s achievement rests on his leadership of the nation during much of World War II. His rejection of the British strategy for Australian troops enabled the successful defence of New Guinea and in a remarkable move, he put US General Douglas MacArthur in charge of Australia’s defence forces. Although he had been a strong opponent of conscription during World War I, as leader during the 1939–45 conflict, Curtin made the decision to send conscripted troops to serve outside Australia.
He proved a capable war leader, appealing to the United States for help in the face of his realisation that Australia was deemed dispensable by Britain. In the following disputes with British prime minister, Winston Churchill, Curtin was able to turn the results in his favour, as in his decision to recall Australian troops from the Middle East to defend Australia. With Japanese planes bombing northern Australian ports, he mobilised the entire nation by instituting the military conscription which he had so strongly opposed in World War I.
Curtin was also intent on ensuring that Australia emerge from the war free from the unemployment problems of the 1930s. He aimed for a policy of work for all who wanted it, arguing this could be achieved in peacetime as it had in war.
On 8 January 1945, he celebrated his 60th birthday at The Lodge. Although he returned to parliament in February, Curtin was by no means back to normal. Robert Menzies now led a regenerated Opposition, united as the Liberal Party, and ready for rigorous debate. Not only was Curtin forced to excuse himself from parliamentary question time, he was unable to concentrate on the work demanded by the avalanche of Bills being prepared for the coming peace.
Curtin’s exhortation to Frank Anstey in 1934 – that they ‘must go on to the end and not yield while life is left to us’ – he now applied to himself. On 18 April 1945, he moved the parliament’s motion of condolence on the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Soon after, severe lung congestion forced him back into hospital.
Curtin was released from hospital on 22 May. That day he was driven back to The Lodge, and he and Elsie Curtin strolled in the garden together for photographers. They then walked back into The Lodge together for the last time. Inside, Ray Tracey waited with a stretcher to carry Curtin up the staircase to the prime ministerial bedroom on the first floor. John Curtin died there, on 5 July 1945, just six weeks before the end of the war in the Pacific.