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John Curtin oration.



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The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre

John Curtin Oration given by The Hon R J L Hawke AC at Creswick, Victoria on Sunday 20th August 2000

I tend not to have heroes - but if anyone in Australian political history approaches pedestal status, in my mind it is Curtin. It is easy to establish the particular elements of his character and the specific achievements which legitimately attract to Curtin the description a - "great" man. I will of course traverse those matters.

But it seems to me that in the broad sweep of political history real greatness in individuals comes to be identified not simply with their intrinsic talents but with their relationship to history. To be precise, the great person is the one who draws upon, but is not beholden to, the past, dealing with the challenges of the present not simply to create tranquillity but to optimise the chances of a better future for their country - and who does so in the certain belief that the challenges and the environment of that future will not simply be a replication of past experience.

From that preliminary sketch let me first fill out the canvas to show you the picture of a man who, in my judgement, met these tests of greatness. And then, taking inspiration from this image of John Curtin - born here in Creswick in 1885 but a parliamentary representative of WA - I want to share with you my reasons for believing it is important that another Labor man from that State - Kim Beazley - must be the next Prime Minister of Australia.

John Curtin was typical of so many men I met in the labour movement when I first came to join the ACTU in Melbourne in 1958. Unable for financial reasons to continue the formal education their talents deserved -Curtin left school at 13 - these men, in later generations would have had the opportunity to have gone on to a whole range of tertiary -qualified professional careers.

What they lacked in opportunity they made up with a passionate conviction. A conviction that they had been born into a world where the capitalist system exploited the labour of men, women and children as just another commodity in the production process; a world where access to education, health, medical and hospital services, adequate retirement provisions, housing, recreation and travel was a function of wealth; a world in which workers had no say in the economic decision making of industry or the nation but who paid the heaviest price when those decisions were ill-judged - an unjust, asymmetrical world.

With that conviction went a commitment to devote their lives to alleviating those injustices, to redressing that abundant lack of symmetry. Some chose the political, others the industrial, labour movement to give effect to that commitment. To some extent the choice reflected differing views as to whether injustices, exploitation, asymmetry were so endemic to the capitalist system that it was incapable of acceptable reform through the parliamentary process.

For many years Curtin was intellectually convinced that the system was basically irreparable and that the only genuine answer was its replacement by socialism effected through the education and conversion of the working class. Heavily influenced by Tom Mann, Curtin was cynical about the Parliament which he once described as "an upholstered gas-works."

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In many ways the story of John Curtin in the first quarter of the twentieth century is the unfolding dilemma of a radical socialist torn between intellectual conviction and an emerging awareness that this engine of reform would not arrive at the Australian station in his lifetime, if at all.

Through his voracious reading, attention to those more experienced than himself, the development of his writing and oratorical skills Curtin became the supreme polemicist - he enjoyed the felicitous conjunction of harnessing his skills in advancing a cause in which he deeply believed.

However, Curtin slowly but inexorably came to the conclusion that if he were going to do anything effective in addressing the inequities of Australian society he had to transfer those skills and transform himself - the polemicist must become the parliamentarian.

His recent biographer - David Day - suggests Curtin's 1924 visit to London, which included a pilgrimage to the reading room of the British Museum where Marx and others had "laboured on their massive critiques of capitalism" was the final turning point. Certainly, as Day says, Curtin made his first serious attempt the next year to enter the Federal Parliament; but neither Day, nor I think anyone else, has sufficiently identified the continuing inner torment this fundamental decision caused Curtin throughout his life. Some inkling of this may be gained from a letter he sent, just ten months before his death in July 1945, to one of those close associates from his earlier days in the Victorian Socialist Party with whom he maintained a close friendship and sense of intellectual identity. Writing to Yatala Ovenden on 19th September 1944 Curtin said: "One thing must never happen! ………..forgive me my transgressions. Not to do so would cut me out of a very precious circle."

While Curtin was referring specifically to the compromises he had to make as war-time leader his words reflected a wider lament. In many ways John Curtin was a melancholic man. A part of the sadness that seemed so often to envelop him sprang from his belief that he had glimpsed an unattainable vision but had to operate pragmatically to do the best he could to improve the world as he found it.

That Curtin and many of his contemporaries should have contemplated a radical alternative to a system that had so manifestly failed the tests of fairness and efficiency was entirely unremarkable. What was unequivocally commendable in John Curtin was that when it came to the crunch he set his dream aside and put the interests of his country and the interests of its citizens first.

Elected Leader of the Opposition in 1935, despite the misgivings of even many of his own supporters about his capacity for self-discipline, Curtin welded together a more unified Australian Labor Party. Campaigning vigorously for Labor candidates in the eastern States he very narrowly held his seat of Fremantle in the 1940 election but took a freshly invigorated Party into the new Parliament just two seats - held by the Victorian Independents Coles and Wilson - short of government.

Within 13 months of that election held on 21st September 1940 those two Independents made the judgement that the conservatives led by Menzies, and then Fadden, were unfit to retain the power of governing an Australia at war with Nazi Germany. On 1st October 1941 these hitherto supporters of the conservatives voted their government down and the reins of office passed to John Curtin.

I can assure you that not all Prime Ministers are reluctant to assume that office. But in Curtin's case there had been precisely that concern among some of his colleagues. He had incurred the wrath of some of them by the extent of the co-operation he had extended to Menzies and Fadden including his participation in the Advisory War Council. These colleagues did not grasp the quality of Curtin who put his position with a simple eloquence: "We are opposed to the Government of the country, not to the country it governs." One of those colleagues in fact observed when Curtin informed the party room that he was going to Government House to receive his commission: "You'll be Prime Minister against your will."

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But the comment did less than justice to Curtin. He had prepared himself for this time, reading and discussing widely across the range of domestic economic and social issues and in the fields of defence and international relations. By 1937, he had become absolutely convinced that the international situation, in both Europe and the Pacific, demanded that the Labor Party abandon the isolationist, neo-pacifist, position it had taken in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, and the conscription split of 1916. This was Curtin's theme at Conference after Conference, especially in New South Wales, where the fight for Labor unity and the fight for Australia's security became, for him, an indivisible cause and commitment.

Curtin made a landmark speech in the House of Representatives on Australian defence during the Estimates debate on 5th November 1936. Its theme was: "A greater degree of self-reliance in Australia's defence is essential." He told the House of Representatives: "The dependence of Australia upon the competence, let alone the readiness, of British statesmen to send forces to our aid is too dangerous a hazard upon which to found Australia's defence policy."

The UAP Member for Barton, Mr Albert Lane, interjected: "Great Britain has never failed us." Curtin replied: "History has had no experience of the situation I am visualising." Albert Lane again interjected: "it is all imagination." Curtin: "No, it represents a reasonable examination of the possibilities of the situation. Great wars in which Australia's security is to be imperilled would not be European wars. They will be wars in the South Pacific."

In less than ten weeks of Curtin's assuming office his brilliant prescience was tragically vindicated and Australia's very survival put on the line with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941. Twenty days later Curtin issued a statement which I have previously described as perhaps the most significant ever uttered by an Australian Prime Minister: "Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom."

The Victorian President of the ALP, Fred Riley was not guilty of overstatement when he described this as "a clarion call to nationhood." It was a cool-headed assessment of Australia's national interest, a statement by the nation's leader that he would not allow the question of Australia's survival to be a residual of the conflict in Europe. Churchill regarded the statements as "insulting" but while Curtin informed him that it did not indicate any break with Britain he was remorseless in following his words with action.

He established an intimate, effective relationship with General Douglas MacArthur in the prosecution of the war in the Pacific and successfully fought Churchill on the timing and the route of the return of Australia's military forces from the Middle East to our own immediate theatre of war.

On the home front he co-operated with the captains of industry to optimise defence production and against the bitter recriminations of some of his party colleagues he courageously reversed his First World War anti-conscription position (for which he had been briefly jailed) to force a change in party policy to enable the deployment of conscripted militia outside of Australia.

Through the whole of his Prime Ministership Curtin endured indifferent and increasingly debilitating ill health. But he drove himself relentlessly, rallied his colleagues and inspired a nation. Suffering from a serious heart attack he desperately hoped to live to see the end of the war in the Pacific. This was not to be. I can still recall the sense of loss throughout the community, when he passed away on the 5th July 1945, as though the family of the Australian nation had suffered a casualty of war.

If we are to appreciate fully the stature of this man and his achievements it is not enough however simply to recognise his pivotal role and the ultimate sacrifice he made in rallying and organising the nation at its time of greatest peril. For Curtin this was indeed his supreme responsibility for which a fickle fate had destined him.

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In that letter to Yalata Ovenden he said: "I was not trained to be a war lord. Yet fate pushed on to me at least the appearance of being one……..All the hard things war is, become part of the man who has war to deal with."

But Curtin was dealing with more than war. As he said to the Federal Labor Conference in November 1943: "………the world can never be the same in the years to come as it was before the war. Australia's capacity to govern involves adaptability to resolve new problems and meet new conditions. What was good 20 years ago may not be good enough now."

Not only could the world never be the same again but Curtin was determined that Australia would not be the same again. He was looking to the future, utterly committed to ensuring that Australia would be a different and better nation than the one he had known throughout his life. In those darkest hours he assembled some of the country's finest minds under the leadership of Dr Nugget Coombs within a Department of Post-War Reconstruction to plan for that future.

Australia had never experienced full employment before the Second World War. Curtin determined that in this planning, full employment should be put at the centre of the objectives of the nation's fiscal and monetary structures. This became an article of faith in Australian politics and indeed, with brief exceptions, full employment was the norm for the next generation in Australia.

Curtin had formed a close personal rapport with members of the armed forces. He was determined that they should be well looked after following their return to civilian life. In particular he insisted that in the field of education they should be given the opportunities that had been denied to tens of thousands like himself. Under the imaginative and generous Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme any serviceman or woman, whether or not they had completed secondary school, were provided with a University place. I witnessed the success of this wonderful scheme at first hand. From my first year at the University of Western Australia in 1947 I studied and mixed with these CRTS students. It was enormously satisfying to watch people, who otherwise may never have had the chance, go on to outstanding professional careers. For me these people embodied the vision of Curtin and the philosophy of Labor to which he had given practical expression based on his own life experience.

That experience had instilled in John Curtin a profound and tender respect for the Australian people. In a moving speech in the House of Representatives on the 16th December 1941 he had said: "The qualitative capacity of our population compensates in large measure for the shortage of numbers… I, like each of you, have seen this country at work, engaged in pleasure, and experiencing adversity; I have seen it face good times and evil times, but I have never known a time in which the inherent quality of Australia has to be used so unstintingly as at this hour."

But Curtin knew that in the challenging new post-war era Australia could not realise its potential without a massive increase in its population. And so was born one of the greatest immigration programs in history. As a result of that program, conceived by the Curtin war-time Labor government, Australia's then population of just seven million people has been boosted by the addition of nearly six million migrants from more than 140 different countries together with another three-quarters of a million people who have come under refugee or other humanitarian programs. No other single policy decision in our hundred year federal history has done more to change, for the better, the character and the capacity of Australia.

We have been economically strengthened and culturally enriched by these millions of good citizens who have helped to widen our horizons while we all, as a nation, continue to respect and enjoy the benefits of our British heritage - parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. This enhanced quality and strength of the Australian nation is Curtin's permanent memorial - a permanent testament to the vision of Australia's greatest

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Prime Minister.

And may I remind this audience and say to our current Prime Minister and his Government - these people of narrow vision and divisive temperament - that Curtin, Chifley and their conservative successors Menzies and Holt all recognised this great program would not have been possible in the way it has been without the active co-operation of the Australian trade union movement. Unemployment, which had reached thirty per cent during the Great Depression, had still remained in double digit figures at the outbreak of the Second World War. Many trade unionists were, understandably, apprehensive about the impact on job opportunities of the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But the leaders of the ACTU, particularly my predecessor, Albert Monk, shared the wider vision of Curtin. They were consulted and from the beginning of the concept were active participants in its planning and implementation - a role I was proud to continue as President of the ACTU.

John Curtin was an inclusionist who realised that the way this nation is going to maximise its potential is through co-operative attempts to harness the knowledge, resources and commitment of both sides of industry and the rest of the community rather than consistently demonising one particular group. Trade unions have been crucial in creating a new, stronger, more vibrant post-war Australia and they deserve better than the constant carping hostility of this government.

Kim Beazley's father followed Curtin in the federal seat of Fremantle and Kim himself follows in the Curtin tradition. It is this tradition that Australia desperately needs today, the rejection of the politics of divisiveness and the elevation of the national interest as the only constant criterion of policy. Curtin, more than anyone else before him, understood Labor's national role and responsibility - its national role beyond its sectional role and responsibility; and who by his leadership, perseverance, courage and eloquence, taught the Australian Labor Party to understand and accept that national role and responsibility in full measure.

This did not mean and never can mean that the Australian Labor Party should or could foreswear its fundamental allegiance to the cause of the upliftment of the working men and women of Australia, the cause of the underprivileged and disadvantaged, the cause of progress, reform and equality of opportunity.

Rather, Curtin taught the Labor Party that the achievement of its specific goals and its more sectional aims were indissolubly linked with its wider national responsibilities. He gave the Australian Labor Party this message of profound importance - that no sectional advantage can be enduring if it be won at the expense of the higher national interest. And that, by the very action of seeking and accepting the responsibility of the national government of Australia, the Australian Labor Party commits itself to an over-riding obligation and duty towards the people of Australia as a whole.

That was the covenant with the people which John Curtin accepted on behalf of the Australian Labor Party in the crucible of war. It is the covenant which Kim Beazley, on behalf of the Labor Party, will make with the Australian people to meet the momentous challenges of this new twenty-first century.

Those challenges will continue to have a heavy economic emphasis but we will not be able, as a nation, to carry through the necessary reforms and adjustments in that area if we are not at peace with ourselves. More than anything else this requires a Prime Minister who will say, on behalf of the nation as a whole, to our Aboriginal fellow Australians that we are sorry for the accumulated injustices that have been inflicted upon them.

But under this Prime Minister what we have had on the one hand is a deliberate, divisive misrepresentation the relationship to the land of traditional Aborigines - spreading fear by holding up on national television a map of Australia implying, without foundation, an open-ended land grab by Aborigines. And, on the other, an attempt to avoid the tragedy of the stolen generation by substituting mathematics for morality - not every

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Aboriginal child was stolen from his parents, only some thousands.

The whole miserable approach of the Prime Minister and his government is wrapped up in the specious argument that this generation cannot be identified with what was done by previous generations. The same Prime Minister, rightly, glories in the magnificence of our soldiers at Gallipoli. You cannot conveniently slice your history and your inheritance in this way. The character of Australia has been shaped in part by the men of Gallipoli. And we are affected today by what has been done in the past to our Aboriginal people. We should express our pride in the good things in our past and we should express sorrow for the bad. Kim Beazley as Labor Prime Minister will do that on behalf of the Australian nation. And we will be a better nation for it - reconciled at home, respected abroad.

John Curtin's perceptions that government and the people must prepare to face and equip themselves to deal with a changing world has an even more compelling relevance today. The impact on the economy and society of developments, particularly in the fields of computers, telecommunications and biotechnology, dwarfs anything that has happened before in human experience. In a world which has gradually become, and will, inexorably continue to be more globalised, government has a fundamental responsibility to create the environment for maintaining, and through time, increasing, the competitive capacity of Australian industry by lifting the levels of education and research and development. The Conservative parties in Australia have a consistent record of irresponsibility in this crucial area.

In the decade prior to 1981-2 real business expenditure on R and D had been falling to the point where in that year it was 40% below what it had been ten years earlier. As a result of a number of initiatives taken by Labor governments after 1983, total federal support for science and innovation, and business expenditure on R and D expanded in unprecedented terms with the latter rising from 0.25% of GDP in 1981-2 to 0.86% in 1995-6.

The advent of the Howard government witnessed a decline of such proportions in both these areas that the business and scientific communities have expressed serious concerns about the effect on the future competitiveness of Australian industry. The same pattern of neglect is reflected in education policy with the universities describing themselves as being in a condition of crisis.

Kim Beazley has committed a Labor government to reversing these disastrous directions in which the Howard government has taken Australia. His commitment is founded on considerations of equity as well as economic competitiveness. The employment opportunities of the future are increasingly going to require tertiary or technical qualification. Just as my government revolutionised the school retention rate from the miserably low one-third that we inherited from the conservatives so will Kim Beazley move to reverse the erosion that has occurred under this Government of the principle that access to quality education should be equally available irrespective of the income of students, or their parents.

Labor under Kim Beazley, in other words, will act to ensure that Australia is in a position to perform efficiently and behave equitably in an increasingly competitive world. If change is justified on the basis that it will benefit the community as a whole then the community as a whole will be required to assist those who may be adversely affected by change.

It is also an increasingly inter-dependent world. Australia desperately needs a government which will articulate and implement policies both at home and abroad that intelligently protect and advance the nation's interest in that world. Pre-eminently, we need a government that will unequivocally and at all times make it abundantly clear that in our country we will give no aid or comfort, explicit or implicit, to those who advocate any form of discrimination based on race, colour or creed. John Howard failed that test on Pauline Hanson and One Nation. Unlike some of his colleagues in the Liberal Party, the one man able to put the total stamp of repudiation upon Hanson and One Nation declined to do so. He tolerated electoral deals by members of the

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coalition with that Party.

Under a Beazley Labor Government no Australian and no peoples beyond our borders will be in any doubt that discrimination will not be tolerated or condoned in this country.

Under the Howard Government our relations with East Asia and countries of the South Pacific have fallen into some disrepair. This is dangerously short-sighted as is the recent evidence of a tendency to accept too unquestioningly the expressed preferences of United States policy.

The Party of John Curtin is entitled to be heard with respect on this subject. As I have said, Curtin forged the relationship with that great country which saved Australia at its time of greatest peril. And in Curtin's tradition I, as Prime Minister, recognised and sustained our alliance relationship when the world was still confronted by the realities of an expansionist Soviet Union and the Cold War. But as I said in September 1983, after reaffirming the importance of the ANZUS alliance in discussions with the United States,… "In reaching this conclusion we in no way impinge Australia's independence of attitude or action.…we have… emphasised our preparedness as a close but independent friend and ally to speak out and act where necessary in support of our own national interest."

And when we believed it necessary we did precisely that. President Reagan personally pressed me, vigorously, to associate Australia with his Star Wars initiative and, with equal vigour, I refused. Our relationship still prospered.

I find it deeply disturbing that the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister now seem to be saying that if we are to maintain our relationship with the United States we are bound to participate in proposals emanating from that country for National and Theatre Missile Defence systems. I share the views of opponents within and outside the United States who argue that the proposals, if implemented, would be destabilising of the international arms control system. I am certain that participation by this country would be against Australia's national interests. The protection of that interest will be best served by a Beazley Labor Government.

And so, my friends, I trust you will understand why, reluctant as I am to embrace heroes, I put John Curtin on a pedestal in a pantheon of the greats. This nation owes so much to him; and the debt to him of our Party, a great party in large measure because of his influence, is immeasurable.

We will best honour John Curtin by devoting all our energies to the election of a Beazley Labor Government -including a Labor representative from Ballarat. We can do that in the sure knowledge that Kim Beazley will be true to the tradition, the principles, the integrity and the vision of John Curtin.

And in doing that, Kim Beazley and Labor will as John Curtin did, give Australia the unifying government it so desperately needs and deserves.

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