Saturday, June 09, 2007

John Curtin, by David Day

David Day’s bio of war time leader John Curtin paints a portrait of an intellectually and morally complex man, the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever see in my lifetime. Curtin started off from the left as a socialist, unionist and anti-conscriptionist. The book describes Curtin addressing rallies in Melbourne, and having to untie his shoe laces in case he was thrown in the Yarra by pro-conscription hecklers and trouble makers.

Curtin was renowned for his ability to compromise, and to get political opponents to find common ground in their disputes. It must have been this ability that eventually led him away from his early political alliance with the left. In order to lead in a Labor Opposition, and then Labor Government, Curtin had to find a middle way between those on his left and right.

Curtin never sought power or to be prime minister, it was more thrust upon him. This is perhaps what makes him such an anomaly as a politician. Compare the humble and self-doubting and troubled Curtin to the flashy and scheming Robert Menzies. Now that’s something Shakespeare could have written about.

There’s much to enjoy in this biography. Having lived in Edward Street Brunswick (Curtin himself lived in the street several times, a part of Brunswick then referred to as Paddy Town), I especially loved the descriptions of Brunswick in the early years of the twentieth century. What a tough, poor working class area it must have been then. I myself often ride pass the rail crossing where Curtin’s aunt

It was also interesting to read about the conscription debate during the First World War. We always have this dreamy image of Australian society being this harmonious, homogenous society. The country was almost ripped in two by the conscription debates, with people being beaten up, or tossed in the Yarra.

Also of great interest is how integral the White Australia policy was to Australia, with Curtin a staunch supporter of it. Indeed, during World War Two when we were asking the US to help us, the war advisory board would not countenance any African-American servicemen being in Australia. Curtin had to talk them around, soothing fears by saying the black soldiers would be out of sight and their numbers low. Unbelievable!

As a war time leader, Curtin went through agonies because he knew the decisions he made impacted so directly on the lives of the soldiers he sent into battle.

When I studied Australian History, one of the few figures I remember was Curtin, chiefly because he died tragically in office. We were taught that the stress of the job had an adverse effect on his health. We also know that by today’s standards he’d be considered an alcoholic.

This is something I’m not usually inclined to say, but John Curtin was a great Australian. It should be everyone’s national duty to find out about him.

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