Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin  is available through Melbourne University Publishing

Your new book chronicles and analyses the early political development of two important figures in the twentieth century Australian Labor Party (ALP). Why did you decide upon a joint biography of Curtin and Scullin’s formative years?

Curtin and Scullin are both well-known as prime ministers – though Scullin less so of the two. I wanted to understand how they became these defining figures.

In the early twentieth century, well before they became prime ministers, Curtin and Scullin rose through the ranks of the labour movement as activists, journalists, and powerbrokers. Theirs is the story of how the Labor Party was lived and experienced by those who dedicated their lives to its cause. This early part of their journey reveals a great deal about how they became the politicians best known to history, but also tells the story of how the ALP was made. Labor was not the product of its parliamentary leaders alone, but of all those who assiduously toiled at the grassroots for the realisation of its vision. The party’s culture was defined by the creative clash over ideas conducted by socialists and moderates, such as Curtin and Scullin.

The biography was an attempt to tell this very human story, and in the process to draw out the dynamics that led to the construction of Labor’s unique political culture.

 

Both Curtin and Scullin were committed to a better future for working class people. To what extent did their family backgrounds determine the type of politicians that they would later become?

Curtin and Scullin had very similar backgrounds: they were born nine years apart in small towns either side of Ballarat to Irish parents. Both were from the working class, left school in their early teens, and experienced the Great Depression of the 1890s firsthand. Each learnt from that cataclysmic event the ills of market capitalism if allowed to operate untrammeled – a lesson that endured throughout their lives.

Image via Melbourne University Publishing

This meant that Curtin and Scullin had direct lived experience of working-class life. They drew on these experiences throughout their political careers. It helped to ground them, and fuel their convictions in the necessity for change. I don’t think you can fully appreciate their journeys without understanding the significance of this personal dynamic.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the way in which it highlights the influence of socialist Tom Mann on John Curtin. Without Mann’s intellectual example, would Curtin have risen as far as he did as a political leader?

Tom Mann, the famed British labour leader and radical, visited Australian from 1902 to 1909. In 1906 he founded the Victorian Socialist Party, of which Curtin was a member. Mann’s intellectual influence on Curtin was clear. Mann was a deep thinker, an adaptive thinker, and one of generosity of spirit, including towards his opponents in the movement. Curtin certainly took on these traits.

Mann influenced Curtin’s thinking and helped to shape his socialism. Curtin reminisced on Mann’s greatness and influence throughout his life. But Curtin embarked on his own intellectual journey. I don’t think there is much doubt that Mann helped equip him with the tools to do so. But Mann and Curtin went in very different directions. Mann became a founder of the British Communist Party, and Curtin the leader of the ALP. It was a testament to their relationship that they retained a bond and a sense of comradeship, even though they came to very different perspectives on the future for labour.

 

Despite the clear idealism of both Curtin and Scullin, they were ambitious young men who wanted to ‘get ahead’ in the Labor Party. A strong theme in the book is the work both men did to become ‘noticed’ by the movers and shakers in their party and ultimately gain influence and position. In the 1900s and 1910s, how did a young political apprentice become noticed by their peers and potential mentors?

Ambition can fuel great change. Ambition should be a desired trait in our political leaders. But the question is: is the ambition of political leaders purely personal, or is their personal ambition driven by a desire to influence change and transform the lives of Australians for the better?

Curtin and Scullin were drawn into networks of powerful and influential figures of the ALP: Curtin as a socialist initially under the tutelage of Mann, and Scullin as part of the AWU-backed moderates cultivated by Ted Grayndler. They came to attention because of their beliefs and their convictions, and through these connections, came to act as intellectuals and powerbrokers of these sections of the movement.

They attracted the attention of these influential figures because they had genuine belief and conviction in the cause of labour. They wanted to change the world. It was noticed.

 

This was also a time when ideas within the Labor Party were hotly contested within its ranks, more so than today. What circumstances and processes made this possible?

It is important to remember that in the early twentieth century there was a huge amount of creative energy in Australian politics. A new country had been made with Federation, and there was excitement and contest over what that country would look like.

There were, of course, huge negatives to this creativity – one of the major points of confluence between conservatives, liberals, and labour alike was support for racist policies of exclusion and of dispossession. We should not forget or excuse that.

But there was also a sense that Australia was experimenting with new social and economic policies that could deliver a more egalitarian society than existed elsewhere.

In this context, Labor became the first workers’ party in the world to govern a nation. There was a sense that all things were possible ‘down under’. There was excitement in the air. Labor had a large and unwieldy organisation, made up of large and dedicated branches and affiliated unions. Activists of different persuasions came together in the party’s forums and debated pathways forward. There was an intellectual culture where what happened in a party conference could be decisive for the future of the party, and of the nation.

This is the culture of creative contest that Curtin and Scullin came of political age in, and contributed to.

 

Did the Victorian-born Curtin’s decision to move to Western Australia alter his political and personal worldview?

Curtin’s worldview certainly changed after he moved to Western Australia. But it is difficult to ascribe this to geographical location alone. He was responsible for editing a labour newspaper backed by a moderate union, he did not have direct contact with friends and comrades from the Victorian Socialist Party, and he confronted different local issues. All this had an effect on him, no doubt. But so did the general passage of time, the responsibility of being a sitting MP, the long-term changes in the Australian and international economic situations at this point of history, and so on.

He certainly enjoyed the weather out west a lot more though.

 

What lessons did Scullin and Curtin draw from World War One, especially in terms of their reflections on the purpose of the ALP and the labour movement?

Each man drew different conclusions, but they agreed with one major point: the war had demonstrated that the government could intervene to direct the economy. Both drew from this the significant lesson that if the state could manage economic affairs to prosecute war, it could do so to take substantive action to ameliorate social want and deprivation. They differed over the scale of this, but in rejecting the market-reliant orthodoxies that prevailed over much economic thought at the time, they were strikingly similar.

 

Scullin is a largely forgotten figure today. Why, in your view, should Australians remember Scullin?

Scullin contributed to Australian public life over the course of decades. In the 1910s and 1920s he warned of the dangers successive governments were exposing Australia to through imprudent economic policy. Despite warning against such measures, he ultimately bore the cost of them when Australia was over-exposed to the Great Depression, mere weeks after he became Prime Minister. This was a difficult time for Scullin, and there are many potent critiques that can be made of his leadership. Yet he has unfairly had responsibility for the failings of the era cast upon him, erasing those decades of service from mind.

He should be remembered for all he contributed over the course of decades, as someone who helped to shape the ALP, and who pursued, often in circumstances of great difficulty, a project of creating a more equal Australia.

 

During his Prime Ministership, Curtin became close to Scullin. What was the significance of their wartime relationship?

Image via Melbourne University Publishing

During the Second World War Scullin was not a minister in Curtin’s government, but his office was located between Curtin’s and that of his Treasurer, Ben Chifley. Scullin had become an elder statesman of the party and a valued advisor to Curtin. He was someone who knew intimately what it was like to hold the responsibility of the prime ministership at a time of extraordinary crisis. On a variety of matters – conscription, tax, and so on – Scullin played an important role in supporting Curtin, and helping him to win the Labor caucus to his plans. The two men would also go walking together in Canberra, and Curtin had someone he could share the emotional and intellectual burden of the time with. After decades of political contest, in that time, they became mates.

 

Your book tends to suggest that the Australian Labor Party of the present day is out of touch with its constituents and lacks a clear alternative vision to the neoliberalism that permeates public policy. How can the history of the early party help the ALP find a way forward into the future?  

Labor is the party of progressive change in this country. For all its faults and failings, it is the ALP that has brought working people to parliament, it has transformed Australia’s economic and social life to be more fair and egalitarian, and it has consistently overcome the long stagnant periods of stupor that conservatives have consistently driven Australia into. But in recent times the party has ceased to imagine a big-picture vision of what Australia could be, a bold vision of our potential future, and to work towards its realisation.

Labor’s history shows that the party can become this force for change again. To do so, it needs to reconsolidate its link with labouring people so that the direct and lived experience of workers guides party action and thought. I can put this very simply: we need more nurses in the Labor Party!

Curtin and Scullin honed their beliefs over decades. They pursued what they believed would achieve change, not just what was popular. They did so because their ideas were grounded in the lived reality of working people. This reality allowed them to develop a big-picture for change that was not abstract, or rhetorical, but grounded in the wants and needs of working communities – communities that Curtin and Scullin belonged to. Labor is the party of big ideas, big-thinking, and big change in this country, and its success has always been based upon embracing this role. That is the biggest lesson for Labor from this history.  

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Liam Byrne
Liam Byrne

Dr. Liam Byrne was awarded his PhD by the University of Melbourne in 2017. He is an Honorary Fellow at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. 

Lyndon Megarrity
Lyndon Megarrity

Dr Lyndon Megarrity is the Books Editor of Australian Policy and History. Lyndon completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer.