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John Curtin, empire, WW2. « Previous | |Next »
June 3, 2007

Last night I watched a copy of the ABC 's television docudrama on John Curtin about the early months of his wartime prime ministership. Made during a period of conservative political ascendancy it's narrative was simple: it was Curtin who insisted against Winston Churchill that the Australia divisions that had been fighting in the Middle East had to come back to Australia and not be sent to confront the Japanese in Burma. Churchill was an obstacle to the survival of Australia and he acted in an devious manner. Curtin finally prevailed.

Curtin.jpg What is shown is how the responsibilities of office gnawed at Curtin's body so that he was frequently unfit for action. It implied that the job cost Curtin his life.

Though he stood up for Australia against an embattled British Empire and fought the entrenched conservatism and Anglophilia within Australia.

Australia had always until then accepted that decisions would be made in Whitehall for Australia and that Australians would do as directed by Britain. It stands marked contrast to the whole Gallipoli campaign in WW1.

Curtin's brillance was that he clearly recognized the threat to Australia came from Japan, that the momentous struggle for Australia was with Japan, especially in PNG and the Dutch East Indies, and that Britain was unable to provide military assistance to Australia. So Curtin turned to the United States of America for support: he handed over responsibility --- ceding control-- -of the Pacific war to the Americans and let Macarthur run things.

True the characters were decidedly wooden in the docudrama the prose stilted, and there was myth making. But the technical production were good, and the use of the post cards about Canberra was insightful. It was good to see our own TV/film industry focusing on Australia's remarkable political history in an insightful way.

It was a truncated docudrama since what was left out was the conflict between Earl Grafton Page and Menzies, and the crossing of the floor by the two independants, the role of Evatt, the political background of Curtin (he came from the left of the ALP), or that Australia that did not have the resources to defend itself. Another docudrama is needed to explore the political history of conscription for service in New Guinea, the arrival of MacArthur in Melbourne, and the crucial battle of the Coral Sea, the partnership between Macarthur and Curtin, mobilising Australian industry for the war effort, the tensions in the ALP over strike action and Kokoda.

The docudrama undercuts the conservative's central argument that the ALP stood for appeasement, isolationism Little Australia, and shirking international treaty obligations.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:05 AM | | Comments (5)
Comments

Comments

Curtin is a man for his time; and unlike other anglophiles such as Menzies, understood that Australia stood alone.

Churchill sent Australians to slaughter in the Dardenelles and Greece in two world wars. He left Singapore undefended and almost cost another division in Burma.

English obviously have a different opinion; and rightly so.

Dominions jsut see the use of Australian lives to extend a dying Empire.

Nick,
The ABC docudrama is a great way to learn history--my partner had knowledge of these events at all. Such story telling comes wrapped in myth (legend)---the Labor Party could govern in a time of crisis and Curtin creates a new Australian identity. Once Australians were Britons after 1942 they're Australians.

Curtin was an ex alcoholic and pacifist who became a war leader--a war leader just like Churchill and Roosevelt. 'Curtin' was supposed to be part of a series but the ABC ran out of money so the docudrama finishes abruptly with the arrival of Douglas Macarthur in early 1942.

However, it shows that ALP represented the national interest in WW2, and so undercuts the Liberal Party's standard claim that Labor only represents narrow class or sectional interests, whereas the Liberal Party represents the national interest.


One thing that never seems to get mentioned is that policies which Menzies and Curtin pursued were exactly the same - they just switched who the "great and powerful friend" was. The policy did not change at all.

Cam,
one thing the 'Curtin' docudrama showed was just how close Menzies and Curtin actually were. They talked together a lot and Menzies was part of the war council.

Gary,
what was also missing from the 'Curtin' docudrama was any account of Laborism--the view that a capitalist state could be managed to the advantage of workers through a combination of strong trade unions and a powerful Labor party in parliament.

The Labor Party up to 1942 was devoted to both Australian nationalism and the British empire, and few of its members saw any conflict between them.