Overcoming Australia's Greatest Challenge: The Curtin Years | 1935 - 1945

Rising International Tensions

By 1935, when John Curtin came to the leadership of the Federal ALP the worst of the Depression was over. There were still many unemployed workers, and the economy would not completely revive till after war mobilisation took hold, but the sense of crisis that had driven public affairs between 1929 and 1932 had lifted. Moreover there were signs that the fortunes of the Labor Party were reviving. The party was in power in three States Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania and Lang's stranglehold on the NSW party was starting to slip after he lost another election. At a Special Federal Conference in 1936 there seemed some promise that the NSW Branch might be re-admitted, and at least in the Commonwealth Parliament, prominent Langites such as John Beasley and Eddie Ward returned to Caucus.
Curtin had come from a radical socialist background in Victoria, through work as a union organiser, moving to Western Australia as editor of the AWU's journal in that State.

He had been militantly anti-conscription, and, indeed, anti-war, being convinced that most wars were trade wars waged on behalf of capital. He had a brief period as MP for Fremantle in 1928-31, when he had been uncomfortable with Scullin's support for the Melbourne Agreement, preferring Theodore's approach. He had also been an alcoholic, finally giving up the drink before returning to Parliament in 1934. He was a surprise choice as leader only a year later. By then his radicalism had mellowed, balanced by tolerance and a realisation of what was politically achievable. He had always been a fine public speaker, and the national stage brought out the best in his oratory. He proved to be the right choice for the times.

In Europe during the 1930s there appeared to be a wholesale rejection of democracy, giving way to authoritarian, and often overtly Fascist, forms of government in countries like Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal. It was a contagion that spread very rapidly, with eager missionary Fascist movements in Britain, the USA and even Australia. Most such movements proclaimed their concern to halt the expansion of an equally totalitarian regime that of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Soviet Communism also had its missionaries in democratic countries including Australia. The two ideologies came face to face in the Spanish Civil War, starting in 1936.

In many ways the Spanish Civil War has been seen as the curtain-raiser for the Second World War, giving the opportunity for the authoritarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin to fine-tune their military machines. In Australia it also served to divide the attitudes of the major political parties about where the greater threat was to be found in Fascism or Communism. In general the conservative parties regarded Communism as the greater immediate danger, and conservatives tended to support General Franco and the Nationalist rebellion. On the other hand most leaders of the Labor Party were insistent that Fascism was the enemy and in Spain their support went to the democratically elected government of the Republic. The UAP Commonwealth government under Joe Lyons was not convinced of the dangers of Fascism, or the ambitions of Japan in our region, so saw little need to prepare for war.

The Labor Party, led strongly in this by Curtin, warned that war was imminent, that Hitler in Europe and Japan in the Pacific posed direct threats to Australia. Curtin did not need convincing that Fascism was a genuine threat. One of his concerns as opposition leader was to warn Australians of the imminence of war and to press for better preparations in terms of both manpower and materiel. He was also aware before war broke out that Australia could not depend upon Britain for complete support in a Pacific war if she was also engaged in a European struggle. As events proceeded he was proven correct. When the Second World War did break out the Labor Party had much greater credibility with the electorate to lead the defence of the nation than did the conservatives.

Other topics in The Curtin Years

Coming to Power

When Curtin took over as leader his party was still deeply divided and crippled by the Lang influence in NSW, and also by ideological differences which made any firm decision especially on foreign affairs potentially divisive. At the Federal elections in 1937, when there was…

Fighting the War

When Japan entered the war in December 1941 it was clear that Britain was not willing to divert extra resources to the Pacific. When two British warships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, were sunk by the Japanese off Malaya it was also clear that Britain…

Planning for peace: The 1943 election

While Labor had come to power in 1941 with only the barest majority, depending upon the continued support of two Independents, the chaos in the Opposition parties meant that Curtin's government was fairly secure. Yet there was a sense in which it still lacked a…