history meme » 1/4 prime ministers » John Curtin

"His contemporaries knew John Curtin as a shy and somewhat aloof man with a taste for sport, books and musical comedy … He called himself a simple, ordinary man. But in extraordinary times he achieved, if not greatness, something very close to it. His responsibilities made him a lonely figure, but one universally admired for his selflessness, dedication and courage." — Mungo MacCallum

John Joseph Curtin was Australia’s 14th Prime Minister, and is widely considered to be one of its greatest. He was something an accidental leader, who had the top office thrust upon him after Menzies resigned and the Fadden government lost parliamentary support; but with war threatening Australian shores, he rose to the occasion.

In 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies had not so much declared war on Germany as he had bowed to the inevitability of Australia joining Britain’s war. By contrast, after the Pearl Harbour bombing of 1941, Curtin issued a separate declaration of war on Japan and, with an attack on the Australian mainland looking ever more likely, penned the famous words: “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” He further enraged Churchill by refusing to redirect two home-bound Australian infantry divisions to Burma.

Certain that Australia would be ignored unless it had a strong voice in Washington, Curtin established a close working relationship with General Douglas MacArthur. He also, with some misgivings, reversed his lifelong opposition to conscription to deploy Australian conscripts in the Pacific, arguing that since American conscripts were fighting in Australia’s defence it was only fair that Australians should do the same.

On the home front, he enacted a wide range of social reforms, including the introduction of widows’ pensions, increased wages for women; funeral, unemployment and tax benefits; and tax reform. He laid the groundwork for a huge increase in immigration and the development of a network of universities.

Ultimately the stresses of the job, combined with a lifetime of poor health, caught up with him; he died on July 5, 1945, just forty days before the Japanese surrender.

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