John Curtin occupies the top tier in the pantheon of Australian national leaders. ‘Expert’ rankings of former officer holders – a practice lately imported from the United States, where presidential rating exercises have been fashionable for decades – have placed Curtin narrowly ahead of other prime-ministerial virtuosos: Alfred Deakin, Ben Chifley, Robert Menzies, and Bob Hawke.
Curtin’s allure is not hard to fathom. Socialist, committed anti-militarist during the Great War, his political career blighted by bitter setbacks, he conquered adversity and went against type to steer Australia through World War II. In doing so, he subdued his own demons: alcoholism and a melancholic disposition. His leadership also has the stuff of heroism exemplified by his doughty insistence, against the wishes of Winston Churchill, on the return of the 6th and 7th AIF divisions to Australia for homeland defence and his sleepless vigil as the convoys transporting the troops made their perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean. And there is the tragic arc of his prime-ministerial story – careworn by the burdens of wartime office, he died in July 1945, months short of victory.