Labor’s great wartime heroes
This October marks 75 years since John Curtin became prime minister and Ben Chifley was appointed treasurer. The wartime duo of Labor reformers continues to cast a long shadow over Australian politics, even though they seem remote from contemporary times.
In Canberra, there is a statue of the two venerated Labor icons that reimagines them walking to Parliament House in the 1940s. It prompts memories of an age when there was a greater degree of comity across the aisle and politicians garnered respect from voters.
Two new books about Curtin and Chifley give readers a fascinating insight into the men behind their statuesque modern-day image. One deals with how Curtin manipulated the media and honed his oratorical skills. Another looks at the private life of Chifley told through stories passed from generation to generation in the Chifley family.
Caryn Coatney’s John Curtin: How He Won Over The Media is an academic study that reveals the secrets behind Curtin’s powerful wartime broadcasts, stirring parliamentary debates and his spellbinding oratory delivered to enraptured audiences at home and abroad.
Curtin, a former journalist, used the media to present himself as a strong wartime leader through the power of his speech. As Coatney shows, his voice projection and hand gestures were planned and rehearsed. The diaries of Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King divulge how these tactics helped Curtin become in public what he was not always in private.
Coatney quotes King’s diary, noting he was impressed with Curtin’s private presentations to Winston Churchill, his public speeches and his handling of journalists’ queries.
But King saw Curtin as privately “self-absorbed” with a “lack of any gracious manner”, someone who “seemed more interested in ascertaining the effect of his media messages than meeting dignitaries” on a visit to Ottawa.
More than any other contemporary politician, Curtin understood how he could use the emerging mediums of radio and film “to promote his war leadership” and “enlist support for Australia’s role in global battles”.
The images voters saw on movie screens were of a “man of the people” at ease with workers and children.
Curtin used radio more than Franklin Roosevelt, who made his Fireside Chats a feature of his presidency.
Confidential briefings to journalists, including the sharing of secret cables from Churchill, were another element of Curtin’s tactics. He traded information with journalists and proprietors and enlisted them to his cause. Coatney uses journalists’ diaries, memos and correspondence to show how Curtin’s courted the media.
As he battled personal demons and deteriorating health, there was no one Curtin looked to more than his party comrade, cabinet colleague and friend Chifley.
After Frank Forde’s eight-day prime ministership in July 1945, Chifley won a ballot for the Labor leadership and became the fifth prime minister during World War II.
But as Sue Martin recalls in Remembering Ben Chifley, he decided not to contest the leadership and was happy to remain treasurer. Chifley was so distraught at Curtin’s death that he could not attend the funeral and returned home to Bathurst. It was only when former Labor leader Jim Scullin urged Chifley to nominate for leader, and said it was Curtin’s dying “wish”, that he sought the prime ministership.
This is just one of the stories from Chifley family lore recorded by Martin in a fascinating book written with the assistance of her sisters Jane and Elizabeth Chifley. They have collected stories told by their father, John Chifley, who was Chifley’s nephew, along with tales from other family members and friends.
While he sat at his desk in a small office in Parliament House — Chifley did not use the prime ministerial suite — the phone would often ring with meat orders for the Manuka butcher. The shop’s phone number differed by only one digit from Chifley’s direct line. Rather than embarrass the callers, usually “housewives”, Chifley would take their orders and then phone them through to the butcher.
The book shares anecdotes from Chifley’s childhood living with his grandfather, his work in the railways and imprisonment during the 1917 strike, his excommunication from the Catholic Church and rivalry with NSW premier Jack Lang. Predominantly self-educated, he ordered a parcel of books from Dymocks every month and retained much of what he read.
There is no Labor leader more loved than the down-to-earth, pipe-smoking Chifley. His only security when occasionally staying at The Lodge was a one-eyed guard dog named Nelson. He refused to wear a dress suit to dinner with George VI. And he believed an array of external forces were out to destroy his government: the banks, the communists, the Catholics, the media, the CIA, MI5 and the FBI.
Mary Elizabeth Calwell, the daughter of for-