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  Issue No 118 Official Organ of LaborNet 02 November 2001  




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War And Politics

By Neale Towart

The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say it's a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.


Three PMs: Curtin, Fadden and Menzies

John Curtin didn't quite get the majority in the September 1940 federal elections, but the result showed that the public was through with Menzies and the United Australia Party. The ALP got there on the floor of the house 13 months later.

Paul Hasluck noted that the 1940 campaign was brief. Government campaigning was less intensive than usual, with Menzies taking the view that the Government would be commending itself to the electorate by its undertaking the war effort. Hasluck saw the main issue as whether the war effort was best left to the responsible types in the UAP (such as himself) or handed to the ALP.

Some also felt that a government of national unity should be put in place for the duration.

Other issues that got a lot of attention was petrol rationing that the UAP government had introduced and a claim by wheat growers for special assistance, a claim the government resisted but the ALP promised to act upon.

The ALP's difficulties going into 1940 were enormous, or at least the section of the ALP that Curtin led. In NSW Lang's Non-Communist Labor Party was the largest and most noisy. Then there was the Hughes-Evans group. Curtin's ALP was the smallest. However Curtin was gaining in stature and seemed able to pull the party together despite factional divisions (Lang excepted). The split was only official in NSW. The poor showing of the UAP assisted Curtin's emergence as an alternative PM despite the ALP infighting. The internal dissent from Menzies on the conservative side got a bit of attention. ALP supporters in NSW were alarmed at the fighting in NSW but the Curtin groups decision to use the term Official ALP was the best move they made.

Another big plus for Curtin's group was Doc Evatt's decision to resign from the High Court and stand for the ALP. Evatt didn't get a clear run however, and had to contest against a sitting UAP member.

Curtin quickly broadcast that the ALP would prosecute the war actively alongside other British Commonwealth nations. He also promised to increase pay for the militia and the A.I.F, guaranteed higher wheat prices and the restoration of the Commonwealth line of steamers to ensure cheap transport of primary products overseas. Also on the list were an increase in old age and invalid pensions and a review of taxation to make assessments conform with the ability of people to pay. Themes that are strangely familiar.

The ALP also campaigned heavily on Menzies and co. having conducted the war effort poorly so far, and in a way that had favoured the privileged in the community.

Menzies approach was pretty bleak and uninspiring, calling for a national effort and emphasising ALP divisions.

Another striking similarity with today was a dispute about the ALP's commitment to certain national security regulations. Curtin made this a winning point as he emphasized the ALP National Executives ability to make decisions in this area and to ensure party unity. Curtin during the campaign also began what we see today as his hallmark - his promotion of Australia's national security as a priority, not something that was per favour of the British government. His later recall of Australian troops during the war was the most famous example of this.

Curtin almost cost himself a seat in the federal parliament, even as he lifted the ALP to equality with the UAP in the final count. For days after the election he seemed certain to lose his seat of Freemantle (another aspect he seems to share with Beazley who looked a possibility to lose his seat in 1998 before winning comfortably and almost lost in in 1996) because he had to spend so much time attending to the ALP in NSW. The close result for Curtin was seen from two perspectives. It was perhaps a source of strength for the ALP afterwards as they realised how important his role was and thus it served to unite the disparate groupings. Some rivals in the ALPIt saw it as a problem for his leadership. He was shaky in his own electorate, and others were ambitious, notably Evatt and Calwell. One of Curtin's great achievements was to maintain the leadership and to be able harness Evatt's undoubted abilities to a solid ALP cause, despite Evatt being thwarted in his ambitions at the time..

Another significant gain for the ALP was the re-election of Ben Chifley. Chifley's candidature was also part of the general ALP push to reunite in NSW. Curtin and former PM Scullin were keen to get Chifley and Evatt back in. He had previously been a federal member from 1928-31 under Scullin (he was defence minister at that time). The NSW factions were at each other over the war effort and much else (the attitude to Russia was causing ructions from the Left). Then it seemed Evatt would seek the seat of Macquarie that Chifley had pre-selection for. Chifley was in hospital at the time with pneumonia. The nurses actually worked for Chifley on the polling booths. Evatt got the Barton endorsement instead.

The election result saw a deadlock The new House of Reps had 32 ALP, 4 Langites, 2 independents, 14 Country Party and 22 UAP. With the UAP providing the speaker, there was equal strength of the majors.

The two independents, Alex Wilson and A W Coles, followed the UAP/Country Party. The ALP did well in NSW and lost ground in Tasmania.

Before the election the ALP had 27 seats, and the Non-Communist ALP had 5. The UAP had 25, Country Party 16 and the Independent Country Party 1.


Following the election, concern about Japanese policy gradually sharpened focus, and the war in Europe looked worse for the allies.. Menzies was still keen to have a national unity government. Curtin remained opposed to the notion, but was willing to support an Australian War Council, with representatives from all political parties, to advise and assist the government in the war effort. The government accepted the proposal. Jack Beasley was head of the Langites and they also were drawn into Curtin's proposal, a big step towards unity of the ALP factions.

However, the Advisory Council and its role also led many in the ALP to see Curtin as being to close to Menzies. He was carrying co-operation too far they thought. Evatt was one who thought they should use their strength to move against Menzies and UAP. Eddie ward and Arthur Calwell were vociferous opponents of Curtin's approach.

The Advisory Council wanted to bring naval forces closer to home. Curtin was a prime mover in the move to ensure Australia was adequately defended from a Japanese threat. Many on the left saw some war preparedness as attempts to intimidate militant workers, particularly in a dispute at Newcastle. Curtin met with union leaders about his fears and their concerns.

On top of these issues, the Beasley group proposed terms on which it would unite with the ALP. Curtin told them that they should ask the NSW Executive of the ALP to readmit them as individual members. They responded angrily but Curtin wasn't budging. Negotiations continued and the Langites realised they were withering on the vine. Five delegates from each party formed an interim state executive. Lang himself signed a pledge of loyalty

Menzies failed with his "trumpet calls" for national unity. Crisp feels that his public image gave the impression of urbanity and superiority that did not appeal to the Australian public at the time. Dowsing is more to the point., highlighting Menzies habit of "antagonising the vast majority of workers" They "believed, rightly or wrongly, that he represented big business interests exclusively.... Time and again he offended by what were considered arrogantly word statements.

On one occasion, he was reported as saying that he had "respect for the rights of the top dog," adding that there was ' no foolish doctrine of equality between the active and the idle, the intelligent and the dull, and the frugal and the improvident.""

Chifley felt that the war administration required more drive and zeal than Menzies approach of letting the apparatus move things along. A leader to sustain the drive and who could transform oratory to effort was needed, and that wasn't Menzies. He also saw that if Menzies had showed more steady and determined application he might have a party behind him, rather than the backbiting and faction riven crew that he had.

By July 1941 the Menzies government was at a low ebb with Menzies under fire from Government members and the ALP. ALP leaders were sticking to an understanding of general support of the war effort, but others were not so circumspect. Menzies requested a party truce so that he could head for London again. The ALP as a whole were suspicious of the Government's motives for wanting Menzies, unpopular in the UAP, 10,000 miles away. After the August budget was introduced, Curtin granted the government a recess to enable its completion. Menzies resigned as PM and Artie Fadden took over. The government disunity was wide public knowledge and Curtin spoke several times over the next few weeks about Labor being ready and willing to govern. A further scandal engulfed Fadden and co concerning their devious funding of front organisations The government survived by one vote in the House. Curtin then came out criticising the re-introduced budget, especially the inequality of sacrifice for the war effort. Compulsory savings schemes for wage earners were contrasted with cosy schemes for banks. The two Independents, previously supporters of the government, spoke against the budget too. Coles in particular spoke strongly against the coalition approach. The budget was defeated in the House on 3 October and the ALP took the reins.

Chifley pointed out later that the reason the government was defeated was not because the ALP had sought to distract them from the war effort, on the contrary the ALP had gone out of its way to ensure unity. The problem was within the UAP-Country Party coalition. They "could not reach a reasonable degree of harmony amongst themselves, much less harmony amongst the people of this country, in constructing its war effort....Before the previous Government lost the confidence of the people it had lost the confidence of the members of the parties constituting it."

Curtin thus became the first ALP Prime Minister since 1931, and the fifth in forty years of Federation. In a statement as Prime Minister designate he said:

"I am ready to form a government, I am confident it will be a stable government, and I know it will devote itself with singleness of purpose to what is the undoubted desire of the Australian people, concentration on the prosecution of the war, and the distribution of the inevitable burdens of the war over the whole community..."

Further reading

There is a huge amount of stuff to go into but I have skimmed these books:

L.F. Crisp. Ben Chifley (London Longmans, Green, 1960)

David Day. John Curtin: a life (Pymble, NSW: HarperCollins, 1999)

Irene Dowsing. Curtin of Australia. (Blackburn, Vic. Acacia Press, 1969)

Paul Hasluck. The Government and the People 1939-1941 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952)

Lloyd Ross. John Curtin: a biography (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1977)


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 118 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Flying High
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
*  Corporate: Howard's List of Shame
ACTU President Shaharn Burrow runs through the litany of corporate collapses and down-sizes that have cut a swathe through the Australian community.
*  Campaign Diary: Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
*  Industrial: Desperately Seeking Solutions
They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.
*  Economics: Manufacturing Prosperity
Neale Towart looks at the hidden debate of the election campaign - the degree of intervention government should take through Industry Policy.
*  History: War And Politics
The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say itís a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.
*  International: Globalising Labour
On the eve of the International Metalworkers Federation Congress general secretary Marcello Malentacchi argues all nations need to retain a manufacturing base.
*  Review: Security - Who Needs it?
What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.
*  Satire: Locksmith Promises "Greater Security" If Elected
A Melbourne locksmith has agreed to run for federal parliament, campaigning on the key issue of security.

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