John Curtin

John Curtin (1885-1945) came to power as a result of parliamentary manoeuvres in 1941, but led Labor to a landslide victory in 1943. Many revere him as one of Australia’s greatest leaders, whose administrative ability and rhetorical genius consolidated Australia’s wartime mobilization to unprecedented levels and built a strong alliance with the USA. He established the basis of postwar economic and social planning, and maintained Labor unity after decades of factional division.

His reputation as a wartime leader has been attacked by others, particularly in terms of his credibility as a strategist. Curtin went to work as a copyboy for the Age at 14, and later became a union organiser and journalist. He was the first federal president of the Timber Workers' Union, and Victorian Secretary of the Anti-Conscription League during the First World War. He died in office and lay in state in King’s Hall at Parliament House before his burial in Western Australia.

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7 October 1941

John Curtin becomes Prime Minister

The Fadden government falls when two Independent Members of Parliament vote with the Labor opposition. Opposition Leader John Curtin is sworn in as Prime Minister. During Curtin’s term of office, Australia declares war on Japan following the Japanese bombing of the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbour. Darwin is attacked by Japanese bombers, and Curtin engages in a fierce cable war with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the use of Australian forces in the Pacific. For more information, visit the Australian Prime Ministers Centre.


John Curtin c.1941.
17 February 1942

Curtin’s cable war

In an extraordinary exchange of cablegrams, Prime Minister John Curtin defies British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt and orders Australia’s 7th Division home rather than to Burma. In March, Rangoon falls to Japanese forces and Allied troops are interned as prisoners of war, with many forced to work on the notorious Burma railway.


John Curtin, c.1942.