5 July 1945

17th Parliament · 3rd Session

The President (Senator the Hon. Gordon Brown) took the chair at 3.0 p.m., and read prayer*.

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Senator KEANE:
Minister for Trade and Customs · Victoria · ALP

– It is my melancholy duty formally to inform honorable senators of the tragic death early this morning of the Prime Minister, the Right Honorable John Curtin. To-day, the Australian nation mourns and offers to this son of the people a tribute of affection, gratitude and honour which has been offered rarely, even to kings. For this man was truly one with the masses who populate our country. He had striven and struggled among them, and when he came to the highest place in the land he was still one of them. John Curtin is1 as one to-day with those fighting men of our race who have given their lives that we might live. For them, interposing, as he himself put it, their bodies between us and the enemy, he worked day and night for many weary months and years that they might have the strength to hold out. For the British race and for the cause of the United Nations, he did everything that was in his power to shape policies that would produce the maximum effort on the part of this country.

The captain has been stricken in sight of the shore. His memorial stands around us - a free land, a free people. He has chosen his own epitaph, in the words of Swinburne, which he quoted to the Australian people on that momentous day, the 8th December, 1941, when Japan struck. They were -

Come forth, be born and live,

Thou that hast help to give,

And light to make man’s day of manhood fair,

With flight outflying the sphered sun,

Hasten thine hour

And halt not till thy work be done.

John Curtin’s work was well and faithfully done. Nothing remained for fulfilment but the laurel wreath of victory and the benefaction of peace. And so he was called home to rest. It may be said that the call came before its time, but I think I interpret the feeling of all men when I say that I am thankful that he was spared for so long during this dreadful struggle to guide our nation’s destiny. It is true that he had dreams for the future. He had an abiding faith in the future national greatness of Australia, and I recall the vivid picture he painted of what he could see for the future in a speech he made in Sydney in June, 1943, when addressing the New South “Wales conference of his political party. But it was not to be for him. For those of us who remain, he has set a course for us to follow and the best tribute we can pay to his memory will be to do as he would have wished us to do.

His faith in Australia was expressed by himself on that day in April, 1939, when, in this building, he offered the sympathy of his party to the family of the late Mr. J. A. Lyons. Mr. Curtin said then : “ We believe that the country that yielded such a man can continue to produce such men”. When the hour arrived, Australia produced John Curtin, and now that he has gone this country is without its leader. In this moment of grief, I am sure that he would, if he could, tell us to have faith in ourselves and to carry on the task of building our nation to greatness.

We, in this Parliament, here and in another place, have lost a colleague. We have lost, too, a guide and a friend. Parliament, as a democratic institution, has lost one of its staunchest adherents who revered it, and did much to uphold its dignity and influence. We of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party cannot assess our loss by a measure of words. His period of leadership, extending over the record term of nine years, nine months and five days, commenced at a time of trouble in the party’s fortunes. His untiring work, shining example and high ideals raised it to its zenith, and to-day it has a strength unapproached at any time in its history. All of us will treasure those rare moments when, with the informality of which he was suddenly and spontaneously capable, he would chat with” us individually or in groups. To those of us who had the honour and privilege to sit under his chairmanship in the Cabinet room, he gave a wealth of knowledge which will stand us in good stead.

I had refrained from referring to the feelings of persons and governments and countries other than our own, but, I feel that as a tribute to Australia, it should go on record here that during this morning and this afternoon expressions of sympathy and deep regret have been received from all parts of the world. On behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia we acknowledge them with pride. The tributes paid by the world to our great Australian, reflect John Curtin as a world figure. That is very fitting, for he worked for all humanity. And so we bid farewell to a man for whom, I am confident, history will mark a place as Australia’s greatest son. It is a consolation to every one to know that this gallant, happy warrior passed on without pain. He faced the last great crisis, fortified by the philosophy which had seen him through many personal and political crises, both before and after he became Prime Minister. His last words were spoken to his dearly beloved wife, his constant and never-failing helpmate and counsellor.

I place on record the formal account of the late Prime Minister’s public service -

In 1924, he was a delegate to the International Labour Office Conference at Geneva and visited Britain. During 1927-28, he was a member of the Royal Commission on Child Endowment, and I pause here to add that he lived to see his minority report translated into law by an act sponsored by his own Government. In 1928, he was elected to the House of Representatives for the division of Fremantle, and was a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Public Works from 1929 to 1931. He was defeated at the general election in 1931. The Government ofWestern Australia appointed him as its advocate before the Commonwealth Grants Commission from 1933 to 1935. In 1934 he was again returned as member for Fremantle in the House of Representatives and he has represented that division since. He became leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labour party on the 1st October, 1935, and was Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives until the 7th October, 1941, on which day he became

Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. He had previously joined the Advisory WarCouncil - in October, 1940. His Majesty the King created him a Privy Councillor in May, 1942. Mr. Curtin attended the conference of Prime Ministers in May, 1944, and during his stay in London he was received by His Majesty and was formally sworn as a Privy Councillor. He was made a Freeman of the City of London and an honorary Doctor of Law of Cambridge University. During his visit overseas, he met the late President Roosevelt in the United States, and was also received by the Prime Minister of Canada at Ottawa.

It should be noted that Mr. Curtin was Prime Minister continuously for a longer period than any previous holder of that office from his party - three years, nine months and a day. The late Mr. Andrew Fisher held the office for a greater period, but during three distinct terms.

Those are the biographical details of a career about which many volumes could be written. Death has written “ finis “, but death can never take from our hearts and minds the memory of John Curtin. It is now my sad task to submit the following motion: -

That the Senate expresses its deep regret at the death of the Bight Honorable John Curtin, member of the House of Representatives for the Division of Fremantle, and for more than three years Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia; places on record its appreciation of his distinguished public service; and tenders to his widow, his son and daughter, and all relatives, its profound sympathy in their bereavement.

Senator LECKIE:
Acting Leader of the Opposition · Victoria

– It is with a feeling of great personal sorrow that I rise to support the motion, and I believe that that feeling is echoed in the hearts of not only every honorable senator in this chamber, but also of all people in Australia, regardless of the political party to which they belong. The late John Curtin was an outstanding figure in our lives; every one of us recognizes that a great leader has passed from our ken. It has been said that a man must first conquer himself before he can go on to conquer anything else. As a man, John Curtin conquered himself, and then he went on to do great things. I believe that in the hearts of the people of Australia there is, and will be, a sense of gratitude to him for the part that he played in placing Australia on a firm basis and bringing it from danger to safety. Our feeling of sorrow is deepened by the fact that he was not granted the privilege of seeing his hopes and plans brought to fruition. He has left his mark on this country, and what is more, he has made for himself an abiding place in the hearts of the people. I probably knew John Curtin longer than did any other honorable senator in this chamber. I first met him when he was still a young man, and I was immediately struck by his capacity. I looked forward then, many years before he entered politics, to the time when he would occupy a position of authority. I did not think at that time that he would rise to the great heights to which he later attained, but it is some satisfaction to me to reflect that 30 years ago I recognized the outstanding qualities of the man who has just passed away. Our feelings at the moment are so confused, because of the suddenness of his death, that we cannot adequately express them. John Curtin was a man with an extraordinary facility of expression; he had extraordinary gifts as a parliamentarian, and he had a great love for his fellow men. I cannot say any more, except that in my own heart, and in the hearts of the people of Australia, there is, in addition to a deep feeling of sorrow, a sense of gratitude that this man was granted to us in our time of need.

Senator COOPER:
QUEENSLAND · NAT; CP from 1935

– I rise to support the motion and to associate the members of the Australian Country party with the tributes paid to a great man by the Minister for Trade and Customs (Senator Keane) and the Acting Leader of the Opposition (Senator Leckie). The Senate meets to-day in the shadow of a great sorrow to honour one who has passed on. Australia has lost a distinguished Prime Minister in the person of John Curtin. His death will be a loss to Australia, but the greatest loss will be that to his sorrowing widow and family. His term of office as Prime Minister covered the gravest period of Australia’s history, when this country was facing the threat of an enemy invasion. To every one of us those were trying times, but how much more trying must they have been to one who carried the responsibility of the high office of Prime Minister ! Although members of the Country party differed from him in political matters, we pay homage to a man who put service to his country above all other considerations. John Curtin was a true patriot, who never looked for applause or approbation for ‘the service that he gave so generously to all classes of his fellow citizens. He was a gifted orator, and in debate he was lucid and convincing, and always showed courtesy to his opponents. He has gone from among us, but he will long be remembered for his human friendliness, his constant endeavour to improve the conditions of those who were less fortunate than himself, and his great service to his country in its gravest hour. To his sorrowing widow and family we extend our sincere sympathy.

South Australia

– I join with those who have already spoken in tribute to one with whom it was my privilege to be associated because of my position as an executive member of the Australian Labour party. John Curtin and I were associated in many conferences, and I was impressed by his wonderful understanding of the ills from which humanity suffers. “When the time came for him to be called to the highest sphere of duty, he proved beyond all doubt a great leader. Not only the people of Australia, but also those of many other lands deplore the passing of a man of rare distinction.

Senator TANGNEY:
.Western Australia

– I rise to support the motion with feelings of very great personal sorrow. I knew the late John Curtin since my early childhood days. He always stood as an example of integrity, publicspiritedness, and humility - qualities which any public leader would do well to emulate. I shall not dwell on his many qualities as a great war-time leader, because they are well known to every honorable senator. To-day, when speaking to some friends in Perth on the telephone, one of them said to me “ Perth is a city of mourning to-day “. I replied,

That is true not only of Perth but also of every town and city of Australia “. This Commonwealth mourns the death of one of its greatest sons - great not only in terms of achievement, particularly in the sphere of national service during a great war, but great also in human qualities. John Curtin never forgot a friend. No matter how busy he was, or how important the duties of state that called for his attention, he always found time to visit and cheer his friends, however humble their station^ or unfortunate their lot. I have known him, after a journey of thousands of miles, to call at the hospital to cheer some sick friend before going to his little home at Cottesloe, which was always a haven of rest to him. His greatest quality was that he always kept closely in touch with the common man; although he rose to the highest position in this country, he remained to the end one of the common people. His fellow Western Australians mourn his passing deeply. Great as is the loss which Australia as a whole has suffered by his death, Western Australia’s loss is greater still. I know that John Curtin would ask for no other monument than that Australia has remained free. I agree with those who have said that he is no less a casualty in this war than men who actually gave their lives in the .battle line. On one occasion Mr. Curtin said to me, “ I am no war god “. That was true, because basically John Curtin was a man of peace. It is remarkable that such a man should have become a great war-time leader when the national necessity demanded it. I join in the expressions of sympathy with his widow and family, and I feel that every one in. Australia, regardless of party political associations, will mourn his passing as they would mourn the death of a personal friend.

Senator COLLETT:
Western Australia

– As a representative of Western Australia, it is fitting that I should pay a tribute to the memory of one who served that State well for a number of years. On this sad occasion, I think of John Curtin as a man with many likeable human qualities, chief among which was the quality of friendliness. He had many friends. When I, myself, was seriously ill about eight or nine years ago, my recovery was aided by his personal visits and the assistance which he gave to me in various ways. Knowing the man, I have no doubt that quite early in his life he interested himself in the lot of those among whom he lived, and thus became acquainted with” the ramifications of politics and the abstract theory of government; and, later, when he offered his services to this country, and those services were accepted, he found himself directing the destiny of Australia in a crisis unprecedented in its history. We have lost a Prime Minister whom we could ill spare at this juncture in our history. His contributions to government and to successful world strategy in this war will never be fully appreciated until the fog of war and fug of politics have cleared away. All honorable senators are conscious of the worthiness of his contribution to the nation’s welfare. We shall honour his memory. I sympathize deeply with his widow and family in their bereavement, and join with honorable senators in supporting the motion submitted by the Leader of the Senate.

Western Australia

– Western Australia has given many prominent men to represent it in ,the Commonwealth Parliament, and among them the name of John Curtin will be recorded as one of the most illustrious. With other Western Australian representatives I mourn the passing of a great Australian. He had many human qualities. When I was seriously ill in London it was his voice speaking from Canberra that reassured my wife in Perth regarding the state of my health at that time. Similar sympathetic little acts endeared him to very many people. I believe that the fact that the late Prime Minister was a Western Australian contributed to his loss of health, because the incessant travelling over long weary miles to Canberra, that is imposed on Western Australian representatives adversely affects even the most robust constitution. But John Curtin continued his services for the good of his fellow men in Australia ; and he has paid with his life. I extend to Mrs. Curtin and her family my sincere sympathy in their bereavement.

Senator ASHLEY:
Minister for Supply and Snipping · New South Wales · ALP

– In the passing of John Curtin, Australia has lost the greatest leader in the history of this country. When Australia faced its darkest hours, the late Prime Minister revealed a measure of courage, vision and foresight in a world at war that proved to our nation his capacity as a leader. John Curtin Was a man who could appreciate the other person’s point of view. He endeared himself to his colleagues in Cabinet and in Parliament, and, I am sure, to the Australian people. Our nation to-day is the poorer for his passing; and in history yet to be written I am sure that the pages recording his service and achievements will be an inspiration and incentive to every son of Australia.

Senator SHEEHAN:

– I cannot let this occasion pass without expressing my very deep regret at the death of our Prime Minister. Many years ago it was my privilege to be associated with John Curtin in the development of the La’bour party of which he was such an ornament. We were associated on the industrial side of our movement. I remember full well that .when he left Victoria and went across to Western Australia we in Victoria felt that we had lost the services of a man who was destined to play a very important part in the history of this country. Those thoughts were fully justified by later events. And it was not very long after he had come back from the west to serve . in this Parliament that he began to make a distinguished place for himself in federal political life. Only a very short while afterwards he was elected leader of the Parliamentary Labour party. His service since that time has been referred to by the Leader of the Senate in submitting the motion now before us. J ohn Curtin was a remarkable man. To those who knew him he never claimed to have any great qualities. He was a most humble man. There was something about him which to the ordinary individual waa difficult to define. In spite of the great honour that came to him in later years he never displayed the vanity which one less honoured than he would have shown.

The passing of this great leader is a national sorrow. It is unfortunate that he and President Roosevelt have not been spared to see the fulfilment of the tasks which they undertook on behalf of their respective nations when those nations were facing the greatest crisis in their history. As has been said, John Curtin was a man of peace. He gave expression to the ideals of peace and the brotherhood of man. Yet, when his native country faced a great peril he was magnificent in organizing its resources in order that it might remain free. While to-day we mourn his passing, it is to the future ‘ generations of Australia that the work of John ‘Curtin will have the greatest significance. I’ believe that his name will never die because, as young Australians inherit a free land with the opportunity to work out their destiny according to their own ideas or ideals, they will remember that in the period of the nation’s greatest crisis, it had a leader who was able to organize Australia for battle, and to hand on a free country to posterity. I join with honorable senators in expressing sympathy with Mrs. Curtin- and her family and with this young nation which so early in its career was able to produce such a leader as the man whose passing ve now mourn.

Minister for the Interior · Queensland · ALP

– It was given to few men to have the same opportunity of service to his time and to his people as was given to John Curtin. He is no longer with us, but he is not dead; his influence will live on. If ever I felt that it was a privilege in some humble way to serve under a great leader, I felt that in all my relationships with John Curtin. There is one lesson which his life and leadership, particularly during the war years, has impressed upon my mind, and, I am confident, on the mind of every member of this chamber who has heard his voice in this Parliament and has been under the inspiration of his example. Throughout the years of the war, he insisted that it was our duty to make democracy work. That was a favorite expression of his. As has been Bald this afternoon, when it became necessary to refashion his thinking because of the great needs of the nation, he did not hesitate to do so, and he had the capacity to make those whom he led see that his vision was right. They had faith in him and they trusted his knowledge and his intuition. All the time when the struggle was obviously between those powers which sought to destroy Australia’s way of life - the British way of life; in fact, the way of life for which all lovers of freedom and liberty stand - when, as a nation, we had to make the choice between oppression and liberty, John Curtin always insisted in the party room to those of us who were his colleagues, and in the Parliament, to those others who served according to other ways of thinking, that thegreat task in front of us was to show that there was no need for other forms of government, life, or conduct followed by the enemy, and that the way to prove that was by making democracy work. If he could speak to us this afternoon, he would say to us - irrespective of the side of the chamber on which we may serve - “ Carry on; keep on keeping on and prove that democracy can work”.

Question resolved in the affirmative, honorable senators standing in their places.

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SenatorKEANE (Victoria - Minister for Trade and Customs), - by leave - I inform the Senate that the Acting Prime Minister (Mr. Forde) proposes to wait on His Royal Highness the Governor-General to-morrow to tender certain advice with regard to the administration of the Government of the Commonwealth until a new ministry is appointed.

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Motion (by Senator Keane) agreed to -

That the Senate, at its rising, adjourn to Wednesday, the 18th July, at 3 p.m.

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Senator KEANE:
Minister for Trade and Customs · Victoria · ALP

.- I move -

That, as a mark of respect to the memory of the late Prime Minister, the Senate do now adjourn.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 3.37 p.m.

Cite as: Australia, Senate, Debates, 5 July 1945, viewed 22 October 2017, <>.