The life of John Joseph Curtin might be considered the triumph of the ordinary—that is, if an ordinary person is understood to be a political activist, party leader, and prime minister. He came to be held in high regard by political allies and adversaries alike. This was in no small part due to his guidance of Australia through the chaos of the Second World War, in the face of the greatest threat the young country has yet faced.
John was born to Irish immigrants John and Catherine in January 1885 AD at Creswick, Victoria. John (the elder) worked as a warder at the Pentridge Gaol, soldier, policeman in Creswick, then as a manager in various hotels in Melbourne, Dromana, Macedon, and elsewhere. The family eventually ended up in Brunswick, quite poor. What with all the moving about, John (the younger) had an erratic education, mostly in Catholic schools. Around the age of 13 he left school to help the family finances by taking a job as a copy-boy at the newspaper 'Age' in Creswick, then an office-boy at the 'Rambler,' and a laborer in a pottery works. Finally, in September 1903, the young John landed a job at the princely salary of two pounds per week with the Titan Manufacturing Company. This left him some time free to spend in the public library, where he became engrossed in reading "serious" books and essays on politics.
By 1911, when he was employed as the Secretary for the Timberworkers’ Union, John had read a lot, shed his Catholic faith, joined the local Political Labor Council and the Victorian Socialist Party, gained a reputation as a “Labour-boy orator,” started writing for radical and socialist newspapers, and played with the Brunswick Football Club. In 1917 he married Elsie Needham, the sister of Labour senator Ted Needham, and moved near Perth to become editor for the 'Westralian Worker.' Western Australia must have agreed with him, for he was soon elected president of the Australian Journalists’ Association. But not before he was charged with failure to enlist in the First World War, convicted in absentia to three months imprisonment, and eventually jailed for three days.
After serving as the Australian delegate to the annual conference of the International Labour Organization in Geneva in 1924, the "red-ragger from the east" ran for and won the federal seat of Freemantle in 1928 and again in 1929. Few members have entered the Parliament with more grassroots experience of the working class, but Curtin was miffed when he was not appointed one of the ministers in James Scullin’s administration. Frustrated, morose, alienated and drinking heavily, Curtin considered withdrawing from politics.
Instead, when the much-maligned Scullin resigned as the Labour Party’s leader in 1935, Curtin decided to stand in the election to replace him. His opponent to lead the party was Frank Forde, who had been closely associated with the disastrous economic policies of the Scullin administration. Thus, the left-wing factions and the trade unions backed the untested and inexperienced Curtin—on the promise that he would abstain from alcohol. He defeated Forde by just one vote to become the leader of both the Labour Party and the (Loyal) Opposition in Australia.
Bringing his usual energy to the fractured party, Curtin toured the state and local party centers constantly, and—according to political pundits—his "quiet steadiness and incisive clarity" proved effective in resurrecting Labour’s fortunes. While the Labour Party did make gains, the outbreak of war derailed everyone’s plans. In the wake of Great Britain’s declaration of war on Nazi Germany, the celebrated Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies promptly announced his country's support for the Commonwealth’s war efforts. Unfortunately for Menzies, his own party withdrew their support while he was away in England. Menzies was forced to resign.
With Japan’s growing saber-rattling a concern to all Australians, Parliament supported Curtin as prime minister—after a series of false starts and unappealing candidates left him the best (but untested) choice. Curtin was sworn in October 1941, at the age of 56 … just in time for a December that saw a renewed Japanese naval offensive throughout the Pacific.
The destruction of the last two British battleships in the South Pacific, the fall of Singapore, and Japanese air raids on northern Australia led to great fear of invasion. Consequently, Curtin realigned Australian interests with the United States, instituted a policy allowing conscripted soldiers to be deployed outside of Australia, and affirmed Australia's dominion status for a greater degree of independence from Great Britain. Though Labour opposed many of his government's military policies, Curtin's progressive social reforms pleased all but the hardliners—work for anyone who wanted it, pensions for those who could not work, and expanded rights for Aboriginals.
For four years of war Curtin navigated the shoals of public morale, military defeats and victories, and cooperation with impatient allies. By all accounts, he did so brilliantly—but it took a toll on his health. Late in April 1945, as the conflict neared its bloody end, his lungs became congested. After several weeks in hospitals, Curtin insisted on returning to work. He died in July, six weeks before the end of the Second World War.