Liam Byrne
Thursday, 26 October 2023

John Curtin and the beginning of Labor’s Golden Age

Do you know the remarkable story?

Labor history celebrates two significant anniversaries every October, both milestones in John Curtin’s remarkable political career.

Curtin is often branded Australia’s best Prime Minister for his leadership through the darkest days of the Second World War. None less than Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam both considered him to be Labor’s greatest leader.

But Curtin’s ascendancy was less than assured. This is the remarkable story of how Curtin became Labor’s leader in October 1935, and of how, six years later, his elevation to the Prime Ministership began the ALP’s golden age.

1 October 1935 – Curtin becomes Labor leader

John Curtin was born in Creswick in Victoria in 1885. His was a working-class upbringing, one that was deeply marred by the devastation of the economic depression of the 1890s. As a young man he was in constant search of employment to help support his family, but he found only procession of short-term and insecure jobs.

His experience of inequality and insecurity stoked his political consciousness. He rejected the dehumanising notion that the market alone should dictate standards of life for working people. He joined both the Labor Party and the Victorian Socialist Party and agitated for social change.

A young Jack Curtin

The young Jack Curtin

This activism led to his appointment in 1911 as Secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union (a precursor to today’s CFMEU Manufacturing Division). He represented workers in this dangerous and difficult industry, roaming Victoria from camp to camp to meet his members and learn their concerns.

Curtin was diligent in his duties, and a popular leader, but this was a difficult period for him. Curtin was in the grip of alcoholism, a serious problem that tormented the young man. In 1916 he sought treatment. It would be an ongoing battle through his life.

During the First World War Curtin came to national prominence when he led the union campaign against conscription for overseas military service in 1916. The following year he left Melbourne to edit the AWU-backed Westralian Worker newspaper in Perth. In 1928 he was elected as the Federal Member for Fremantle.

In 1929 James Scullin led Labor to power for the first time federally since 1916. Just days after he was elected the Great Depression erupted. Curtin was a backbencher, and largely powerless to shape events. So he spoke and he wrote about how vested interests and the conservatives were leading the country to ruin. He argued that it was workers, once again, paying the price.

Scullin’s government was overwhelmed by events. Its attempts to ameliorate the worst of the depression were blocked by conservatives in the Senate. Bowing to pressure from international money markets and the conservative establishment Scullin endorsed the “Premiers’ Plan” – an economic restructure heavily critiqued within the labour movement for enforcing austerity.

At the end of 1931 followers of the NSW Labor Premier, Jack Lang, split from Scullin’s government and crossed the floor to vote against it. An election was called. Labor was devastated at the polls. Curtin and many others lost their seats.

Scullin stayed on to lead the party, but his leadership was a spent force. Curtin returned to Canberra at the 1934 election. The following year, Scullin resigned the leadership. It was widely expected that Frank Forde would be the new party leader.

Jack Holloway was the newly-elected member for Melbourne Ports. He had won fame in 1929 when he had successfully challenged the conservative Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce for his own seat of Flinders, and won (he lost the seat in the 1931 election). He was also a long-time friend of John Curtin.

E.J. “Jack” Holloway

Holloway did not believe that Forde, or anyone who had supported the Premiers’ Plan during the Depression, could unite the deeply divided party. He asked Curtin if he had stopped his destructive drinking. Curtin assured him he had. Holloway convinced him to run for the leadership.

Forde was far more prominent then the barely-known backbencher from Western Australia. Holloway was convinced that the ballot would be close. Curtin had strong support in Victoria, but there was one Victorian MP whose vote for Curtin was not guaranteed: Maurice Blackburn, who had said he would not support either candidate.

Maurice Blackburn

Curtin and Blackburn had butted heads since they were both members of the Victorian Socialist Party decades before. The two had clashed over major questions of the day, such as compulsory military training, which Curtin had opposed and Blackburn supported. But there was also a clash of personalities between the two young men. Blackburn had the benefit of a university education. Curtin worked as an estimator in a factory who had left school in his early teens. There had always been tension between them.

Blackburn could not bring himself to vote for Curtin. He announced he would not even attend the caucus meeting where the ballot would take place.

Holloway sought to marshal the numbers. Another Curtin supporter, Arthur Drakeford, appealed directly to Blackburn, trying to convince him that only Curtin had the required attributes to lead. Blackburn rebuffed Drakeford. But on the day of the vote, Drakeford received a letter from Blackburn. The letter gave Drakeford Blackburn’s authority to cast his ballot by proxy for Curtin if he genuinely believed it to be the right thing to do. Drakeford did.

Curtin was never a fan of Blackburn, even after the ballot. He once wrote of Blackburn that he was: “a blanc mange, clever, proper, a man without sin he is really destitute of virtue. He is personally too good to be politically worth a damn.” But on the 1st of October 1935 John Curtin was elected as Labor leader by one vote -Blackburn’s vote.

October 1941 – Prime Minister Curtin

Six years after being elected as Labor leader, Curtin faced the extraordinary challenge of being elevated to national leadership amid the crisis of the Second World War.

Earlier that year Robert Menzies had resigned as Prime Minister. His devotion to Britain and his faith that it would be able to protect Australia was proven false. He was unable to provide the leadership Australia needed, and it showed. Members of his own conservative United Australia Party had turned against him. He was replaced by the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden.

The end of the UAP in 1941

Fadden led the divided Country Party-UAP government for 39 days. When Australia needed unity, vision, and purpose, the conservatives were divided, short-sighted, and obsessed with themselves.

Curtin was wracked with reluctance and self-doubt: was he really up to the moment? He did not grasp greedily for power. But when responsibility came, he accepted it.

Fadden governed in the minority – relying on the support of two independent MPs. By October 1941 they had become convinced that the conservatives could not provide the leadership Australia needed. They were ready to switch support. Curtin moved an amendment to reduce the government’s budget by £1. The independents voted with Labor on the 3rd of October.

The independents vote vote for Curtin to replace Fadden as Australia’s wartime leader in 1941.

Curtin and his government were sworn in on 7 October. The years ahead were ones of collective sacrifice, but also promise. The promise that there would be a better tomorrow, a new dawn after the war was won: Reconstruction.

As wartime leader, Curtin promised that the toil and hardship required from the Australian people would be redeemed. A more equitable country would be built after the war. He promised “Victory in war – Victory for the Peace.

Curtin sets the course.

Even while the war was still being waged, his government set in train the postwar reconstruction era that led to full employment, growing prosperity, and the expansion of the welfare state. This was an unprecedented improvement in the lives of millions.

Curtin died on 5 July 1945, and was widely considered to have been a casualty of the war. After a lifetime campaigning for the social conditions that he believed would lead to enduring peace, Curtin’s tragedy is that he did not govern for a single day in peacetime. But his government lay the basis for the post-war reconstruction project that was pursued by his successor Ben Chifley.

Both Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke contended John Curtin is the greatest Prime Minister Australia has had. He provided unmatched leadership when Australia needed it most. We all have a lot to be thankful for that in 1935 Jack Holloway saw this when so few others did, and that Maurice Blackburn decided to trust his friend Arthur Drakeford with the one vote that changed Labor’s, and Australia’s, history.

For more on Curtin’s political life you can read Liam‘s comparative biography of Curtin and James Scullin as young men, Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin (Melbourne University Press: 2020). Find out more:

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About Liam Byrne:

Dr Liam Byrne is a Labor historian and author of Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin: The Making of the Modern Labor Party." He maintains an online newsletter for true believers: