The Australian Literary Review

by James Curran

In June 2008 Julia Gillard, as deputy prime minister, addressed a gathering of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue in Washington, DC. Speaking in the lavish US State Department dining room that overlooked the Lincoln Memorial, Gillard drew on the familiar rhetoric of shared values and common interests that defined the relationship between Australia and the US. The occasion was widely seen as her debut on the foreign policy stage, a chance to show the supposed movers and shakers of the alliance and the Washington power elite that she had the necessary mettle to handle international affairs.

When Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister two years later, it was the text of this speech to which many journalists and analysts turned to try to discern what her prime ministership might mean for the direction of Australian foreign policy.

Her speech traversed the traditional terrain of cultural exchange and shared military sacrifice. She recalled the co-operation between Australian and American soldiers on the Western Front in World War I, and emphasised that Australia had been the only country to fight alongside the US at every major conflict since. But her words were securely anchored to the memory and legacy of a Labor hero, former party leader and prime minister John Curtin.

She was keen to point out that the ANZUS alliance, though officially signed in 1951, "reflected the judgments -- clear, accurate, brutally frank judgments -- of an Australian prime minister a decade earlier". Conceding that her audience would be all too "familiar with John Curtin's declaration in December 1941 about the need for Australia to 'look to America' for its national security", Gillard instead quoted the words he had spoken on the day following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. She recalled that during an evening broadcast on December 8, 1941, the prime minister had explained to the people of Australia the imperative to defend the continent "as a place where civilisation will persist".

Gillard's speech was apparently well received by those present and it attracted warm endorsements from the Australian press. One declared that the deputy prime minister had been "inducted into the political culture and rituals of the alliance" and could now be counted one of its "true believer[s]". The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher joined the chorus of celebration: Gillard's "Curtin call" was an "excellent debut", proving that she "has come a long way since the Victorian Socialist Left". One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief among the commentariat: if the leading light of Labor's left-wing could utter such statements, the alliance was in safe hands.

But what went undetected by journalists was that Gillard's depiction of Australia as a "place where civilisation will persist" was only the tail-end of a much longer quote from Curtin's speech -- a speech in which he had famously declared that Australia was at war with Japan. In the section of that momentous broadcast from which Gillard drew inspiration, Curtin had said: "We Australians have imperishable traditions. We shall maintain them. We shall vindicate them. We shall hold this country, and keep it as a citadel for the British-speaking race, and as a place where civilisation will persist."

It was a fiery address in which the Labor leader, who for the previous 20 years had regularly voiced his abhorrence of war, sounded his "tocsin" to the "men and women of Australia". He depicted a Pacific Ocean "reddened with the blood of Japanese victims" and foreshadowed an attack on Australia if the Japanese had their "brutal way".

And at the close of his remarks that evening, Curtin had reached for verse from a work by the 19th-century English poet Charles Swinburne, The Eve of Revolution, beckoning his Australian listeners to "Hasten thine hour and halt not, till thy work be done".

The missing words from Gillard's speech say much about the way the legend of Curtin has been inoculated against any association with Australia's once fervent identification as a British country. On the face of it, an omission of this kind was understandable. Gillard clearly could not draw on the outdated language of Australian Britishness in speaking about the alliance with the US. But in one fell swoop the entire meaning of Curtin's original speech had been changed, and changed utterly.

Gillard's stress on civilisation was no doubt carefully pitched to an American ear, one that would be more receptive to the language of universalism and the struggle against a totalitarian foe. But when Curtin referred to civilisation, as he often did in his wartime speeches, he was depicting Australia as a trustee and guardian for British civilisation in the Pacific. In the face of an external enemy he like many of his contemporaries had no hesitation in defining his country in these terms.

The point is not to expose or condemn the routine cutting and pasting of the modern speechwriter, though this is a particularly egregious example of the practice, or the excitable nature of some media reportage. And Gillard is by no means the first political leader to draw selectively on the words of former party icons. It is simply to highlight that Curtin's particular concept of the British Empire is barely recognised or acknowledged today. It is a part of the former prime minister's world-view and policy record that has been airbrushed from history, fit neither for domestic nor international consumption.

Gillard joins a long list of Labor leaders who have invoked Curtin as a means of channelling powerful party and national myths. Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd all summoned the memory of the wartime leader at various points in their prime ministerships. For Whitlam, Curtin was at heart a great reformer forced to put aside his social vision and instead lead the nation in war. For Hawke, he was the epitome of consensus leadership, a man who could bring the country together in a time of existential crisis; for Keating he was the ultimate symbol of Australian resistance to British duplicity; the perfect foil for bourgeois Australian Anglophiles with their "compromised nationalism". For Rudd, Curtin was the ticket to a Labor tribalism that his own past and political career so clearly lacked.

In popular culture, too, the presentation of Curtin's legacy to a new audience has only amplified the claims that his period in office has something profound to say about Australian nationalism. The director of a recent ABC telemovie about Curtin's wartime leadership was moved to say that he couldn't "think of a more profound story about a more complex character in a more complex time in our history. There's nothing so big, not even Whitlam. And this is pivotal to who we are."

Actor William McInnes, who played the role of Curtin in that production, opted for a more straightforward assessment of Curtin as "the guy who took Australia away from England and looked to America . . . it was a seismic shift in the way Australians see themselves and what they were". Geoff Morrell, starring as Ben Chifley, looked to the period to bring some perspective to the Howard government's commitment of Australian troops to the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. He felt that there was "an interesting parallel to present-day politics. At that time we really were just the providers of fodder for the protection of the empire. To have a prime minister who stood up to these foreign leaders and who genuinely had the interests of the people at heart, that really does bring into perspective some of the stuff going on today." Ultimately, however, the telemovie was more revealing of the ongoing tug-of-war over Curtin's memory than the inner psyche or political philosophy of the man.

These are only the most recent manifestations of how Curtin's period as prime minister continues to exercise a powerful grip on the way in which some Australians understand that period in their history and its implications for the country's identity, the question of its independence and how Australia ought to act in the world. In a country that has seen no civil war or engaged in no act of military rebellion against the mother country to act as the baptismal font for a self-sustaining national mythology, the Curtin story offers a tale rich in the vital ingredients of nationalist drama and human experience.

And yet there is by no means a consensus about the Curtin story. Indeed, few Australian prime ministers, save perhaps for Robert Menzies and Whitlam, have left such a contested legacy.

On the one hand, it is the painful tale of a reluctant warlord. In this reading the Labor leader is viewed primarily as a pacifist forced to take on the mantle of national leadership in a time of crisis; a nervous, angst-ridden man who would pace the moonlit grounds of the Lodge fearing for the safety of Australian troops returning from the Middle East to defend Australia against the Japanese advance.

On the other hand, it is the stirring epic of a decisive leader, prepared to put Australia first, lock horns with Winston Churchill, forge a new alliance with the US and thus become the "saviour of Australia".

But the tension between Curtin the resolute commander-in-chief and Curtin the worried, wavering leader too often means that we receive a picture of the man as a sum of his tortured parts rather than a singular political phenomenon. For many, Curtin's celebrated nationalism is seen as being fundamentally at odds with his periodic lapses into imperial patriotism. Because there remains such a need to hold Curtin up as the great hero of Australian independence -- in effect, to ennoble him as Australia's George Washington -- his commitment to Britain is often depicted as a strange anomaly.

Yet in August 1943, in preparation for his visit to London the following year for the Dominion Prime Ministers Conference, Curtin announced to the Labor Party and the Australian people his vision for the post-war British Empire. Speaking to the United Commercial Travellers Association he called for a "new approach to empire government". It was simply no longer sufficient for Britain "to manage the affairs of empire on the basis of a government sitting in London".

At the core of his thinking was the need to create a permanent imperial secretariat or "Empire council", which would oversee the introduction of a new era in imperial affairs once the war was over. Curtin wanted this new machinery to "provide for full and continuous consultation" between Britain and her overseas dominions -- Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. He envisaged more frequent prime ministers conferences that could be held in all parts of the Empire, not just London, with a secretariat of high-level officials to provide advice on matters of common interest.

As Curtin put it, such a body in its ability to meet at all corners of the Empire would represent "everything inherent in dominion status" and thus symbolise the ideal of organic imperial unity. In other words, he wanted an Empire that worked better to protect Australian interests, an Empire truly representative of its constituent parts, not confined to the corridors of Whitehall but a "moveable venue", equally at home in Ottawa and Canberra, Pretoria and Wellington, and therefore equally attentive to the needs and interests of all parts of greater Britain. Curtin was trying to find the means by which the British peoples around the globe could face the world as one.

But there has been a great reluctance to believe that Curtin's heart and soul were in this call for greater imperial unity. For some, it should be seen as merely a cunning electoral strategy employed by Curtin to win over the hearts and minds of the Australian people in a federal election year. For others, it epitomises yet again the basic national need for a great power protector. But such treatments of Curtin's desire for a common foreign policy for the Empire fail to appreciate that this episode connects to fundamental concerns Australia had about its relationship with Britain and the Commonwealth from the end of the 19th century down to the 1960s.

The proposals for an imperial secretariat that he took to the party and the people were connected to a long-standing tradition in Australian foreign policy, that of desiring closer co-operation with Britain inside a united Empire. This gave expression to the Australians' own sense of being British and also their need for defence against Asia, especially Japan.

For the Labor Party this in itself was remarkable. During the previous two decades it had been living with the aftershocks arising from the bitter conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917, when the party had split and its credibility on questions relating to international affairs, especially its attitude to the Empire, had been brought into question. Throughout the 20s and 30s many in Labor ranks nurtured deep suspicions of being entrapped in another imperial war in which the Australian people would have no say. As a result their conservative opponents ruthlessly exploited Labor's internal divisions and tagged the party as disloyal to empire, a label that undermined the party's claims to be defender and protector of the national interest.

Despite these frictions and fissures, however, Labor's political troubles on these international questions never developed into a full-blown platform of anti-Britishness, and separation from the mother country via the inauguration of an Australian republic was never placed on the party platform. It is testament to the deep currents of British race patriotism in Australia's political culture at this time that no leader or senior figure in the federal parliamentary Labor party could hope to be elected adopting such a stance. It also helps to explain why Curtin, when setting out his policy for the Empire's future, could give it a history of its own.

He told the federal Labor conference in late 1943 that his new Empire council would come to occupy an important chapter in the "the history of the British race" and that it would be seen as a vital stage in the "British race's great experiment in a British Commonwealth".

At the prime ministers' meeting in London in May, 1944, Curtin knew that his plans were unlikely to win the support of his Commonwealth colleagues. The British had seen similar proposals from Australian leaders many times before, and the Canadians and South Africans believed Curtin's plan spelled a a centralisation of policy in London. But the Australian PM stuck to his guns. He reminded his British hosts of the crisis his country had faced in meeting the Japanese threat, and made no apology for asking for American assistance when Australia had been "seriously threatened" by Japan. The result was that a "continent which was an integral part of the British Empire and was occupied and defended by British people, had been held through a period of grave peril". And, he added, the acceptance of this assistance from the US had "in no way affected the Australians' deep sense of oneness with the United Kingdom". But there was a lesson to be learned for Australians from this moment of peril, one that Curtin hoped to underline in presenting his memorandum on closer imperial co-operation.

When that time came, however, his proposals were met with a studied indifference. Churchill and Jan Smuts were not even present at the session in which Curtin spoke to his plan, having been summoned to a briefing for the Normandy landings that would take place just over a month later. And thus the vast bulk of his proposals were quietly interred in that most bureaucratic of graveyards, a technical committee.

The failure to implement his vision is one thing. But it does not explain why Curtin's particular view of Australian Britishness has been so consistently overlooked or dismissed. It is as if Curtin has been frozen in time, forever the author of the "Look to America" statement of December 1941 and the leader who refused to be bullied by Churchill.

But the awkward contortions of some historians and commentators, in which the supposedly hallowed rhetoric of that statement has been twisted from a turning point to a half-turn, from a seismic shift to having "no lasting effect on the Australian population" suggests a belated recognition that the Curtin story is more complex than the heart-warming tale of an Irish-Catholic nationalist kicking a great power in the shins.

Indeed, such a reading obscures one of the defining features of the nation's political culture in the 20th century: its overwhelmingly British character. Moreover, it fails to acknowledge that the imperial idea struck distinctive roots in the Australian experience, one that proved in many respects to be at odds with the prevailing views of the meaning and purpose of empire in Britain and elsewhere. Britishness was not only at the heart of Australian foreign policy; both sides of politics agreed that it was at the centre of their national existence. They believed Britishness itself was more pervasive and purer in Australia than in Britain. Where they differed was on how that idea should be expressed and who was better placed to articulate Australia's interests within the Empire. Each party voiced its own distinctive variant on the rhetoric, symbolism and ritual of the imperial ideal. And the effect of that discord was significant: it not only cast Labor as the outcast of loyalty, thus putting it on the defensive for nearly two decades, it meant neither side of politics could treat foreign policy on its own terms.

None of this is to detract in any way from Curtin's wartime leadership or the foundations he was laying for post-war reconstruction. Equally, however, it should be stressed that the Empire was no spectre that taunted Curtin from afar. It was an idea and a philosophy that animated him from within. He might not have grown up imbibing the stories of imperial heroism contained in W. H. Fitchett's Deeds that Won the Empire, but he could quote at will from English poets, speak eloquently of the need to defend British liberty and envisage a productive Australian trade union movement working within the empire.

That story in itself is remarkable: Curtin cut his political teeth in the rough and tumble of the labour movement: his eyes for so long firmly fixed on the bread-and-butter issues of improving the lives and lot of the ordinary Australian. And yet as a national political leader he came to promote the idea of closer Empire co-operation, giving voice to a distinctive rhetoric of Australia as a bastion of the "British-speaking race". The Times could not have put it more succinctly: "Mr Curtin's convictions concerning the place of the British Commonwealth in the world are the deeper for having been acquired not from textbooks on British political institutions but in the hard school of political experience." Throughout his time in representative politics, it was one thing for Curtin and Labor to disagree with the policies of successive Conservative governments in Britain; quite another to suggest that Australia opt to break free from Britain entirely. Curtin and his party never seriously entertained such a prospect. Indeed, standing with Britain as a proud dominion in the face of totalitarian evil was a story that Labor could be proud of. And it was a form of co-operation it wanted to see continued, albeit one where Australia's equality was formally enshrined in a form of imperial organisation.

The reality, however, was that both political parties for too long pursued an illusion, believing that Britain would naturally and inevitably acquiesce to Australia's desire for a greater say in the Empire's affairs. But it was not to be. Australians were forced to acknowledge that an enlightened concept of the Empire's affairs burned brightest at the periphery, and not in the imperial centre. It would take nothing less than the post-war collapse of British power around the globe and the rapid decline of the Empire for Australians to begin in earnest the task of resetting the co-ordinates of their foreign policy and the process of remaking their national image.

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Former prime minister Kevin Rudd seemed desperate to align himself alongside John Curtin's memory.

When in opposition he was one of the first to rush to the former leader's defence after Alexander Downer attacked Curtin as the author of a "little Australia" mentality.

Keen to shore up his tribal Labor credentials, Rudd accused Downer of "playing battleships in his bathtub" before going on to highlight Curtin's national leadership, as opposed to Menzies' subservience to the British.

In March 2008, during a press conference in Washington following his first official meeting with George W. Bush, Rudd recounted how he had been shown Curtin's signature in the guest book at Blair House, the residence across from the White House reserved for visiting VIPs.

Almost dewy-eyed, Rudd said that sighting Curtin's autograph on the morning of his official talks with Bush underlined to him "how much this alliance has been the product of common nurturing by presidents and prime ministers for a long time".

Most American scribes would have been hard-pressed to even know of Curtin's existence, let alone grasp the full implication of Rudd's statement, namely that the alliance had been forged by the Labor leader amid the crisis of World War II.

And while the remarks contained a generous dose of bipartisanship, they were also code for emphasising Labor's alliance management credentials. This was Rudd's way of not only staking a claim to his party's history and heritage, but saying to the Americans and his audience back home: Labor has the history to best handle the relationship.

Yet Rudd's efforts to bask in the warm glow of the Curtin myth went beyond the autograph hunt. He wanted to leave his own mark on Australia's civic cultural landscape.

Inside his first year as prime minister he inaugurated the "Battle for Australia" day -- to be marked every September 3 hence -- as an occasion which aims to ensure that the nation's role in the Pacific war, and by implication Curtin's leadership, are accorded the same mythic significance as Gallipoli and the Western Front.

As Rudd told those assembled at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to mark the inaugural commemoration, Curtin, "like Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ... was an outstanding leader of a democracy who rose to the occasion when he needed to serve the nation". He had "poured himself out in the defence of our nation", and this new addition to the country's commemorative calendar would allow the people to remember "the spirit of Curtin and all of those who served in this nation's defence in the Pacific during our nation's darkest time". The nation might have been born at Gallipoli, Rudd intoned, but at the "Battle for Australia, our nation stood up and confirmed that we as a nation, would endure".

Rudd himself seemed ever keen to anchor his leadership in the language and rhetoric of war. When he was not talking about the formation of "war cabinets" and "war councils" to address pressing social problems, he likened the collapse of global financial markets in 2008 to the "economic equivalent of a rolling national security crisis".

In doing so, Rudd was doing much more than trying to shape a narrative for his government that would save Australia from the icy blasts of world-wide economic turmoil.

Only one Labor leader of recent times, Kim Beazley, has refused to be seduced by this mythology. In his view, both Churchill and Curtin were right in the dispute over whether to bring the Australian troops back from the Middle East. Beazley saw it as a simple case of different strategic priorities: for Britain, beating Hitler first; for Australia, protection from the threat of Japanese invasion.

"It is possible," he told a journalist in 2001, "that your principal ally has a strategic interest that does not contain your strategic priority. Your fundamental strategic priority is the survival of your nation . . . So you had Churchill, for very good strategic reasons, contemplating with equanimity the survival or otherwise of Australia. That could never be valid for Curtin."

Not for Beazley the undignified whine of the embittered Australian nationalist. In essence he was saying the historical problem had to be examined in its own time and its own context, free of the emotional trammels that had plagued its discussion in the post-imperial era.