Scullin and Curtin: Through a covid lens

by Stephen Holt

(A review of Liam Byrne’s new book Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin: The making of the modern Labor Party. The article was published in The Canberra Times of 7 July 2020 and is posted here with the permission of the author.)

On 14 December 1918 an election took place in the federal seat of Corangamite. It was held to choose a successor to the previous member J. C Manifold who had fallen victim to the influenza pandemic that was then sweeping the world.

The Labor Party’s candidate in Corangamite was a former member and future (1929-32) Prime Minister James Scullin. He lost the election.

A few months later, on 25 April 1919, the pandemic claimed yet another victim in the person of the Victorian trade union leader Frank Hyett. Some 5000 people attended Hyett’s funeral. The mourners included his close friend John Curtin, another future (1941-45) Labor Prime Minister.

These two pandemic-related vignettes feature in Liam Byrne’s newly published account, Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin, of the formative years of Scullin and Curtin both of whom helped to guide the Labor Party in the period leading up to its adoption of a socialist objective in 1921.

Looking at the two men through a covid-tinted lens is a tempting thing to do after reading Byrne. It helps us to make better sense of the world of fevered decision making that dominates his narrative.

Scullin and Curtin came from working class families in Victoria. Their heritage was Catholic and Irish, though Curtin lost his religious faith and sought a substitute for the church in the form of the Victorian Socialist Party.

Scullin’s Labor connections took off when he became an organiser for the Australian Workers Union (AWU). His views were conventional. He supported White Australia and compulsory military training.

Curtin likewise worked for a Victorian union – in his case the Timber Workers – but his brand of politics was to the left of Scullin’s. He viewed capitalism in a lurid light. Overproduction and imperial wars, he insisted, followed in its wake.

The war years of 1914-18, which merged into the pandemic of 1918-20, tested both Scullin and Curtin. They became more prominent after the Labor Party split over the issue of conscription for overseas service in 1916. They were involved in efforts to rebuild and reposition the battered party.

Labor’s duty, as Scullin saw it, was to win parliamentary elections so as to be in a position to enact laws to reform the economic system from above in an orderly way. Curtin, in contrast, was a visionary. He wanted his comrades to formulate a grand plan of socialist reconstruction.  Steely resolve on both the political and industrial fronts would result in a New Social Order.  This was seen as an immediate objective rather than as, in Scullin’s case, a distant goal.

The day of reckoning came in Brisbane in 1921 when a conference met to endorse a binding statement of Labor’s resolve to usher in radically new political and economic arrangements.

Brisbane proved to be a let down though. The push for socialism ran out of puff. Curtin, its best advocate, found himself marooned in Perth, his home since 1917. It was left to those present  – who included Scullin – to attempt to assuage the mood of discontent while keeping internal foes who included newly emerging Communists in check.

The socialisation of industry, the delegates readily agreed, was Labor’s ultimate objective. But a majority went on to decree that fighting for socialisation would not form part of Labor’s immediate electoral priorities.  It was relegated to the never-never.

The fever had passed. Lethargy reasserted itself.

James Scullin re-entered federal parliament in 1922 and became Prime Minister in 1929.  The largely symbolic nature of the 1921 objective was clear for all to see when the Great Depression hit the nation shortly after his government took office. None of the conflicting Labor plans and plots that luxuriated during the Depression years indicated any commitment to dismantling capitalism.

In the wake of the Great Depression John Curtin admitted in now published correspondence that the Australian Labor Party was not in the business of creating a New Social Order.

In the 1940s Curtin became a revered wartime Prime Minister. His conservative political foes faded into insignificance in comparison. A newly re-established Liberal Party only began to gain traction when Curtin’s post-war successor Ben Chifley sought to nationalise the private banking system. It was the Liberal Party faithful, and not Labor’s true believers, who were truly energised by any hint of a turn to socialism. Fear was stronger than piety.

Scullin was always more temperate than Curtin. But Scullin, with his ultimate if vague commitment to socialism, would still stand to the left of practically everyone else in today’s Australian Labor Party, dominated as it is, as Byrne points out, by “a professional core of parliamentarians, staffers and policy-cum-media advisers”.

The unsettled atmosphere in Australia after World War One, augmented as it was by pandemic-style fearfulness, bred a high level of demand for radical change.

In 2020, a century on, similar unsettled and feverish circumstances are again evident in Australia.

It is Liam Byrne’s hope that Labor, partly by reflecting on the past contributions of Scullin and Curtin, can again open itself up to big ideas. The dubious fate of the culmination of their early efforts – the 1921 socialist objective – is however the chastening take away message from his book.

In 2020 a big collective response to crisis conditions is again required but whether any of it gets channeled through the Labor Party must be a matter of doubt given its composition as Liam Byrne himself seems to freely admit.