John Curtin Oration

Creswick, Victoria.



12 JUNE 2016


I acknowledge that we are meeting today on Jaara country, and I pay my respects to the members and elders of the Dja Dja Wurrung, the custodians of this land.

I thank the Creswick-Clunes Branch of the Australian Labor Party for inviting me to give this – the 2016 John Curtin Oration.

Labor – an ‘old party’

It is a great honour to be in Creswick today.

Of course it was here in Creswick in 1885 – more than 130 years ago now – that John Curtin was born.

It is worth remembering what life was like here at that time.

In 1885, the Labor movement Curtin would one day lead in government was still in its infancy. This region saw the foundation of the Miners Union in 1874 and the Shearers Union in 1883.

The Australian nation Curtin was to guide through the maelstrom of World War II – the only time this country has fought for its very existence – was still a daydream for a small group of provincial politicians. This continent was home to nothing more than a collection of British colonies. In 1885 not all were even self-governing.   

It is important to remember the extraordinary change that took place during Curtin’s lifetime, and of course to remember the immense contribution that he himself made to the life of our nation.

I am a great believer in the importance of history. Our country has a rich history stretching back as far as 60,000 years.

You can only truly know Australia if you know our history, our story.

One of the regrettable developments in our politics is, I think, that it has become fashionable for some of our detractors to refer to Labor and the Coalition collectively as “the old parties”.

Labor supporters – true believers – rightly take offence at being mentioned in the same breath as our conservative opponents. We know what Labor values are. We know what Labor Governments do – what they stand up for, who they protect, the type of Australia they seek to build. And we know just what a gulf exists between our values and those of the conservative parties. The past three years of conservative government is ample proof of that. 

But we also know that this idea – “the old parties” – betrays a breathtaking ignorance of history.

Australian politics has always been a struggle between Labor and whatever conservative grouping is organised from time to time to oppose us. Sometimes those groupings have even been honest enough to actually describe themselves as the anti-Labor parties.

Labor is the driving force of Australian political history. Labor is the agent of progress in this country.

Whatever the stated policies and values of our conservative opponents, their basic impulse has only ever been to fight the labour movement and then the Labor Party. To refuse our demands. To keep us from government. To obstruct and delay.

This was true in 1885.

It was true in Curtin’s time in public life.

As we watch the modern Liberal Party descend into a very undignified panic at the prospect of a Labor victory on 2 July, we can see that it is still true today.

So we might well be offended by being grouped in with the conservatives, but we should certainly feel no shame that Labor itself is an old party.

Labor is the oldest and most successful party in the history of Australia, which is itself one of the world’s oldest democracies.

And just as we have renewed our democracy in many ways since 1901, so too have we renewed our great party.

We in Labor know how to set new directions, and make new plans, when that is needed to build our country.

And make no mistake, it is Labor that built this country.

Modern Australia is scarcely imaginable without the achievements of Labor: a safety net for all; fair workplaces; education and health care as rights not privileges; multiculturalism; a thriving creative culture.

One of the virtues of the Labor Party is that we cling tight to these achievements. We don’t forget the struggles of our predecessors. We remember our heroes.


In the pantheon of Labor leaders, there is perhaps no greater hero than John Curtin, the topic of my speech today.

Indeed, there has probably never been a greater Australian Prime Minister of any political persuasion.

We should all hope that no Prime Minister ever again has to lead Australia through the perils Curtin faced.

John Curtin was a complex man, who rose to the enormous challenges of leading our nation through the terrible years of the Second World War.

They were challenges that he met with great dignity and integrity.

Challenges so great that they ultimately broke the man, who died in office just months before the surrender of Imperial Japan – his great work done, Australia once again secure.

At the outset of hostilities in Europe, then-Prime Minister Menzies famously told the nation:

‘‘It is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of a persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war.’’

This was the old Australia. An outpost of the British Empire in the Pacific.

By war’s end, things had changed forever.

We all remember, of course, his famous declaration:

“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 Curtin’s handling of Australia’s moment of wartime crisis, we see the makings of the Australia we know today. An Australia increasingly mature, assertive and independent, seeking security in its own region. 

This much of Curtin’s story is well known.

Today, though, I want to focus on three parts of his life’s work, which hold lessons for us as we face a double dissolution election in less than three weeks, perhaps the most significant election in a generation. 

First, unity.

Curtin became federal Labor leader in 1935, leader of a deeply divided and fractious caucus.

This was less than two decades after the momentous split in the Labor Party in the First World War caused over the conscription debate and the great rat Billy Hughes.

In the interim, Labor had suffered the misfortune of returning to national government under James Scullin on the eve of the Great Depression. The consequences of that calamity saw Labor split once more and lose office after just one term – an indignity the people of Australia might yet see fit to impose on our current government.

As Curtin took the leadership of Labor in 1935, the aftershocks of these great upheavals still reverberated through his party.

He doubted his ability and stamina to unite the party, but fortunately he was also determined to persist. “I can’t let go. I’ve got to do my best,” he said.

A gifted leader, he was able to unite the party by the power of his speeches and by his negotiating ability, which achieved the seeming impossibility of bringing back rebel Labor MPs into the caucus.

Second, fairness.

Though we celebrate Curtin as a practitioner of international relations and a wartime leader, we should not forget his domestic achievements.

Even as he navigated the maelstrom of the Second World War, he did not for a second neglect the task of making Australia a fairer, more just society.

As Curtin led Labor to the polls in 1940, Western Europe had fallen to Nazi German control and Britain was under siege from the Luftwaffe.

But his election speech that year was not confined to military matters.

A Labor Government would, he promised, increase the rate of pensions. It would for the first time provide family allowances to widows with dependent children. It would take on social housing as a federal responsibility. It would reform Australia’s workplace laws to improve conciliation of disputes.  

Even at a particularly dark moment, this was a traditional Labor agenda.

Curtin declared that Labor would protect “the interests of the basic wage earner and the great body of middle-class citizens” while the conservatives were “burdened with the class interests of the wealthy...”

Sure enough, when he finally took power in 1941, he set about enacting a swathe of social reforms even as he waged war.

Third, ambition.

It was Curtin’s friend and successor Ben Chifley who spoke so famously of the “light on the hill”, but that sweeping vision for Australia’s future belonged to them both.

Like other social democratic leaders in allied nations, Curtin looked beyond the war to the achievement of a better, freer society in its wake.

He was determined that Australia would not ‘win the war yet lose the peace’.

He said:

‘‘the words 'freedom' and 'democracy' must be more than a slogan. They must represent real and living things in the lives of ordinary men and women.’’

Postwar reconstruction was to be a new social order based upon democracy and the rights of all men and women to enjoy the fruits of honest toil.

And it was to begin apace, even as the war raged on. The war had to be won for reconstruction to proceed, and the war could only be won if reconstruction commenced.

Curtin said that “the workers and the people are entitled to some instalments of the new social order… while they are being called upon to make this great sacrifice”.

So sweeping was Curtin’s vision that the Constitution would have to be amended to give the Commonwealth Parliament sufficient power to enact Curtin’s program.

At the 1944 referendum, Curtin sought fourteen additional powers for the Commonwealth over a period of five years.

In the face of opposition from the Menzies opposition, most of the press, and the Institute of Public Affairs – political headwinds Labor men and women remain familiar with today – the referendum was lost.

In a blistering attack, Ben Chifley described the no vote as “the camp of the speculators, the land-sharks, the profiteers, the jerrybuilders, the monopolists, the politically bankrupt and the politically irresponsible”.

These are still our opponents.

Nonetheless, the struggle to realise Curtin’s ambitions for a fairer, freer Australia would go on, a struggle inherited by Chifley and his successors. 

Bill Shorten, Labor and the 2016 election

I said at the outset of my speech that history matters. That we must remember Labor’s past achievements, its past struggles.

All the same, we must not live in history’s shadow.

Some commentators now believe in a lost Golden Age.

It is common to hear it said that politicians of earlier times were of a different order of character.

That the battles they fought were more momentous.

That modern politics, modern politicians, can’t measure up.

You must not allow yourselves to be deceived by these notions.

Labor’s cause today is just as meaningful as it ever was.

What we fight for is just as important.

We face just as much resistance from our conservative opponents.

Three Saturdays from today, Labor will go to the polls. The Australian people will have the chance to remove our conservative government, a Government which has clearly and demonstrably failed. They will have the chance to elect Labor.

I am very optimistic about the choice they will make.

I am optimistic because modern Labor, under our leader Bill Shorten, displays each of the three qualities I spoke about earlier.

Labor has unity.

In my time in the Parliament, I have never seen the Labor Party more united than we are today behind Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek.

Given the divisions we faced only three short years ago, this is an extraordinary achievement.

Bill is an exceptional leader of the Shadow Cabinet, the Shadow Ministry, the Caucus and the movement. He is a unifier. He builds consensus.

All of us in the parliamentary party have seen this over the last three years, and I believe now that the Australian people are coming to appreciate it.

Labor has an agenda of fairness.

In 2014 the current Government launched the most fulsome ideological attack on Australia’s social fabric seen, I think, in my lifetime.

The Government handed down a Budget which would have undermined Medicare, restricted university to the wealthy. Which imposed savage cuts on services Australians rely on.

It’s taken for granted now, but it took courage for a freshly defeated Opposition to oppose that Budget.

We fought hard, and we broke the back of that unfair Budget and of the Government that dared deliver it.

Finally, Labor has ambition.

We are committed to the long view. We see a brighter future for Australia not just next year, but next decade.

We are the only party committed to tackling the big challenges Australia faces.

It is Labor that will invest in education for the next generation.

It is Labor that will invest in hospitals and protect Medicare so Australia has the health system we need for the future.

It is Labor that will take real action on climate change which will see Australia transition to 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

It is Labor that invests in the arts, because we believe in a creative Australia.

And it is Labor that invests in nation-building infrastructure like the National Broadband Network.


As I said earlier, Australia has changed immeasurably since Curtin’s birth in this place in 1885. It has changed immeasurably since his death in 1945.

Some things do not change, however, and the values that informed John Curtin’s life and his work, even many decades ago, remain our values today.

I thank you for the honour of allowing me to speak to you today.