josh rosner

BOOK REVIEW – JAMES CURRAN: ‘CURTIN’S EMPIRE’

In Book Review on March 25, 2011 at 4:45 am

Below my recent review of James Curran’s book Curtin’s Empire, published in the Canberra Times.

Curtin’s Empire. By James Curran. Cambridge University Press.

If there is one thing the Labor Party constantly excels at, it is attributing hero status to its former leaders who served as prime minister. Few have been venerated more than our 14th Prime Minister.

To this day, Labor leaders continue to evoke the wartime legacy of John Curtin in the hope that any association with a great leader will rub off. The problem many of them face, including the incumbent, is that Curtin, like Churchill and Roosevelt, was a great man. For the recent crop of Labor leaders, the bestowing of greatness may take a little longer.

Curtin was a complicated character. A journalist before entering parliament for the Perth seat of Fremantle, he drank too much, suffered from depression and during the war he treated every soldier’s death like he would have his own son’s. And yet, at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, Curtin charted a new foreign policy course that would change Australia forever.

Curtin’s famous statement, published in Melbourne’s The Herald on 27 December 1941, is taught in high school history classes. He wrote, “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.”

In his excellent book, Curtin’s Empire, James Curran suggests that Curtin’s words were less an “epiphany of Australian independence and a rejection of the nation’s Britishness” and more a cry for help. It’s a compelling argument.

We know from David Day’s outstanding biography of Curtin that the Labor leader would often spend hours on end during the night pacing the lawns of The Lodge worrying about the war effort. I read Curtin’s words as a reflection of the overwhelming stress he was under during an unprecedented national security crisis. It’s little wonder he paced around unable to sleep. I wonder if the current or recent past prime ministers have found themselves in the same situation?

Today, stark competition for cricket’s ultimate prize informs Australia’s relationship with Britain. It’s easy to forget, particularly for those of us who weren’t alive at the time, the solidarity and closeness between our two countries.

Recently my mother-in-law showed me her old passport from 1966. The familiar blue cover announced her as an Australian citizen bearing a British passport, even though she is actually of Swedish heritage. On the inside cover is printed, “Australian Citizen and British Subject”. No such words appear anywhere in my own passport, although I probably have a stronger claim to British ancestry than she does.

It is often assumed Curtin’s statement was the first time in our history that Australia had made an appeal to America to come to our defence. As Curran notes, Alfred Deakin, Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies each made such an appeal to America and Curtin’s ‘look to America’, “although pronounced in far more dramatic circumstances, was entirely consistent with the orthodox Australian foreign policy doctrine of searching for security in the Pacific.”

Curtin’s Empire is not a new biography of John Curtin and it holds no such pretentions. It is the latest publication in Cambridge University Press’s Australian Encounters series, which aims to bring new ideas and perspectives to issues that are important to Australian society. To that end, it has achieved its goal.

Curran has scoured the archives in Canberra, Washington and London to reveal new material, including some of Curtin’s private correspondence, to cast a new light on Curtin’s vision for Australia’s place in the British Empire.

Although at times Curran writes like the academic he is, Curtin’s Empire is an elegant mix of scholarly research and accessible prose. This short book works both as an academic monograph and an important addition to Australia’s history.

By my reading, there are two valuable lessons in Curtin’s Empire. First, Australia’s relationship with Britain is, as it always has been, complicated and any future national discussion regarding independence will be unavoidably emotional.

And second, John Curtin shows us what it is to be a conviction politician. Future Labor leaders who aspire to The Lodge could do worse than read Curtin’s Empire in order to study a leader who knew what he stood for, knew how to articulate a vision and trusted in the Australian people.

If John Curtin is the benchmark for great Labor prime ministers, I can’t help but imagine it might take Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard some time yet to reach the revered status of legend, even amongst their party’s faithful.

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