La­bor’s great wartime he­roes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-

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