Acclaimed by many as Australia’s greatest prime minister, John Curtin overcame alcoholism and a troubled relationship with the Scullin Labour Government to win the Labor leadership by one vote in October 1935. Rescuing the Labor Party from division and humiliating defeats in 1931 and 1934, he put it in a position to win in the years after 1937. A constructive wartime Leader of the Opposition, he engineered the creation of an Advisory War Council to help minority Coalition and Labor governments manage a divided House of Representatives.
From October 1941 he steered his wartime Labor Government through perhaps the greatest strategic challenge that Australia has ever faced. In doing so, he led Labor to one of its most emphatic electoral victories in 1943 and put his party in a position to enshrine long-held aspirations such as national control of banking and provision for a welfare state. His death in July 1945 was met with a national outpouring of grief that underlined the extent to which Curtin had been recognised as a national leader above party.
David Lee is Associate Professor in History, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Canberra. He was General Editor of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Documents on Australian Foreign Policy series from 1997 to 2019. His publications include Australia and the World in the Twentieth Century (2005), Stanley Melbourne Bruce: Australian Internationalist (2010) and The Second Rush: Mining and the Transformation of Australia (2016).