To many, John Curtin was Australia’s greatest prime minister: a hero who was cheered as he walked through the streets of Melbourne and later farewelled by thousands. In many ways, he makes an odd choice of national champion, lacking as he did the grandeur of Whitlam, the wit of Menzies, the fabled common touch of Hawke. But what Curtin lacked in personal style he made up for in achievements, the kind of inarguable, towering accomplishments upon which history books were once based.
He brought Australian troops home in defiance of Churchill and Roosevelt, re-aligned Australian allegiances from the motherland to the new frontier of the United States and saved Australia from Japanese invasion. He was the reluctant hero, the saintly, self-sacrificing figure who safely guided the nation through its darkest, most sleepless night, all the while battling his own personal demons of alcoholism and depression.
Or so the story goes. Curtin’s Gift argues that Curtin was indeed the greatest Australian leader, but that the accomplishments normally attributed to him have been confused or exaggerated and obscure his real legacy. The popular claim that he rescued the nation from Japanese invasion is seen here as an overblown and misleading one, as is the image of Curtin as some kind of Pacific warlord—he mainly deferred to the capable American general Macarthur. Nor was Curtin as opposed to Britain as legend would have it. It is often forgotten that he appointed the Duke of Gloucester to the position of Governor-General, contrary to Labor policy that an Australian should be appointed to the role.
Author John Edwards also argues that Curtin’s intervention in bringing the 6th and 7th divisions home was not as crucial as popular belief would have it. It was a commonsense move and a popular one, he asserts, rather than an inspired and idiosyncratic one. The political machinations leading up to the move are chronicled here, though this section is not as clear or as convincing as other parts of Edwards’s argument.
The notion of Curtin as reluctant leader is more convincingly overturned here. While Curtin was apparently prepared to walk away from politics if he lost his Fremantle seat, he was by no means timid about the prospects of becoming leader and pursued the post with vigour. A lifelong convert to the Labor cause, he was a voracious reader and thought widely and critically about economic issues. As such, he came to the national leadership as the ‘best prepared and trained leader of his generation’.
In addition to throwing light on some of the misconceptions about Curtin’s prime ministership, the book is valuable in that it traces Curtin’s development as an economic thinker. Born in 1885, Curtin experienced Depression-era poverty first-hand and it was formative in his thinking. Later, he became involved with the Victorian Socialist Party, where he absorbed the teachings of Tom Mann. Also crucial were his observations of the wide-ranging powers held by the government during World War I. Appointed editor of the Westralian aged just 25, he possessed what Edwards calls an ‘easy familiarity with concepts and numbers’.
During Scullin’s ill-fated leadership, Curtin distanced himself from the prevailing wisdom in the party on how to end the Depression, rejecting the conventional analysis, which was to cut wages, and supported the Keynesian notion that reducing spending would not end the Depression. When he became leader, he spoke of the urgent need for ‘the reshaping, in fact, the revolutionising of the Australian way of life quickly, efficiently and without question’. His government assumed control of income tax from the states, made key changes to social security, introduced modern central banking and strengthened Australian involvement in the global economy, participating in talks that eventually led to the nation’s involvement in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It was these developments, Edwards contends, that constitute both Curtin’s greatest achievement and the foundations upon which Australian prosperity would once again flourish.
Edwards, formerly one of Paul Keating’s economic advisers, holds a PhD in economics and is now chief economist at HSBC. As such, he brings considerable economic proficiency to the work, and some will no doubt find this aspect of the text dry and somewhat difficult. However, as a look at how economic policy is inextricably linked to social change, the book is invaluable. And as a study in how Curtin’s hard work in establishing the framework for Australia’s recovery was more significant than his more celebrated and dramatic moments, it’s an incisive look at how politicians are perceived and remembered.
Edwards’s work is by no means the definitive or exhaustive Curtin biography (David Day’s tome still holds that title), but rather a convincing re-examination of some of the key strands of his life. We may revere Curtin, Edwards argues, but we have got him all wrong. For someone who got it right so crucially and so often, perhaps the least we can do is understand him and his precious gift.
Originally appeared in: Eureka Street