John Curtin Rhetorical Analysis

8 Feb

Did John Curtin have his eyes shut? Heading into the 1937 election he attempted to spur Australians into readiness to receive a Labor Prime Minister. Apparently, Australians were not ready. A man with limited formal education, a moody temperament and a drinking history would have to wait another near four years before assuming the leadership of Australia, surviving to become a leader in the lessons of honour and good governance. The prominent feature of the 1937 federal election for Curtin was defence. His endeavours to prepare Australia for war on its own territory compelled him to integrate defence into every aspect of his campaign, illustrated through a selection of his campaign speeches. Curtin was a man with his eyes wide open to the prospect of war, of what it meant for Australians and of what it could mean for Australia’s future. However, his orations proved to be ineffective in securing the position of Prime Minister until such a time came where defence was the only issue.  

As a member of the Australian Journalists’ Association and with experience in running a trade union and national campaign against conscription, Curtin was an esteemed orator and the best qualified Prime Minister Australia has had to date, according to Geoffrey Serle and K. E. Beazley. A selection of three of Curtin’s September and October 1937 electoral speeches, broadcast by radio, cover issues ranging from the problems of malnutrition to the Commonwealth banking policy; each issue addressed served as a means to bettering Australia’s internal and external defences. Curtin’s speeches “National defence, employment and banking”[1], “Malnutrition and the birth rate”[2] and “Social services, health, defence, poverty and war”[3] are excellent orations to illustrate the political importance Curtin attributed to defence. Curtin’s credibility is evident right from the outset with his declaration of his position as leader of the Australian Labor Party, its reputation recently rebuilt through his own efforts affording him a greater amount of authority. Curtin’s realist style exemplified his self-control and his use of description to hide his judgments portrayed his perspective as seemingly inevitable. He uses tropes and figures, artful deviations from the original significance and arrangements of words, respectively, within skillfully identified commonplaces to emphasize the issue of defence.

Curtin’s campaign speeches seek to portray his virtue, practical wisdom and selflessness to voters. With his plain style Curtin effectively controls the issues at hand by controlling the moment:

 “On Saturday then you vote to keep in office a government … that has bungled and muddled the great opportunities which it has had in the past three years. If you do that you will not do a service to Australia. But if you change the government, if you elect Labor to power and entrust to myself the leadership of the Party of Labor, I pledge you, as an Australian, that we will stand for great Australian purposes…”[4]  

Curtin efficiently allocates blame to the Lyons-Page government, draws upon values in demonstrative tense, and through his deliberative tense declares the choice Australians have to make. Curtin exhorts the action of voting Labor and stresses the personal accountancy each voter has to remove the current administration. His intention in broadcasting his speeches over the radio is to reach the largest possible number of people as mass media allowed and in doing so to interact on a personal level with voters. Radio broadcasting enables him to address a large number of his intended audience of Australian Labor voters as well as reaching other voters who he may be able to persuade into electing a Labor candidate.

The content of Curtin’s campaign speeches is centralized around the importance of the defence of Australia against the looming prospect of war. Curtin appeals for new measures to increase social justice and a reorientation of Australia’s defence policy to a more insulated regional and national approach; a position contradictory to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons who assured Australian’s that the depression was nearly over and that they could rely upon the protection of the British Empire. Unfortunately Curtin’s constant references to developing the nation’s security were revealed at that time to be inappropriate in their decorum for the audience of Australian voters. Curtin’s realist interpretation of inescapable preparedness for war did not increase his perceived selflessness, as it did a few years later, but rather increased the anxiety of his audience and damaged his ethos as a leader. Curtin’s effective presentation of his content through using tropes and figures to describe the importance of defence and also to connect figurative and literal descriptions of defence with other campaign issues is his most effective rhetorical technique. The overall affect is to create a constructive cultural memory for his audience based upon his word associations with defence. Although entirely unhelpful in the 1937 election the cultivation of his audience’s memory was evident in the Australian public’s ready acceptance of Curtin as Prime Minister in 1941 and his landslide victory in the 1943 election.

In the analysed selection of campaign speeches there are regular examples of tropes and figures within Curtin’s discussion of common Australian and socialist values in accordance with his defence policy ideas. Curtin in particular makes use of the categories of comparison and relationship, enabling him to place Australia in an important world context. Curtin uses the commonplace of degree of similarity and difference between Australia’s preparedness for war compared to that of other countries:

“All governments, in all countries, and whatever their policy or label, profess to favour international peace.  All claim to be non-aggressive; all claim to be armed purely for defensive purposes. Not one admits the desire for war, but all are ready for participation in war.”[5]

Curtin’s use of anaphora to emphasize the absolute of ‘all’ functions to exaggerate the juxtaposition and therefore, the degree of difference. The repetition of ‘claim’ also serves to emphasize the juxtaposition in the level of preparedness. He discredits Lyons current position towards the inevitability of war; however, his audience refuses to accept the need for defence and the contention of his point is lost.  Although Curtin hides his judgments through description he fails in his realist style by not anticipating his audience’s objections to the inevitability of war.

Curtin, through his tropes and figures, logically draws rational conclusions about the direct interaction of issues with his central issue of defence. Curtin connects unemployment, food shortages, the economy, industrial development and defence when he says “Industrial armies engaged in the construction of homes, roads, schools and other permanent works are sustained, just as our military armies, by production and transport armies in the rear.”[6] He offers practical wisdom for the problems of the depression through proffering the solution of developing metaphorical ‘armies’, also alluding to militaristic imagery. Curtin’s appeals to pathos are powerful and sparingly used. He uses the paradoxical notion of a humane defence policy to appeal to sentiments of nationalism: “Labor’s defence policy is humane because Labor has most to lose in time of war.  It stands to lose the lives of its own people, which are more valuable than those of the so-called patriots who would sacrifice them on foreign battle fields.”[7] By drawing upon feelings of nationalism he successfully implants in the memory of his audience the Labor Party’s negative position towards Australian’s fighting on foreign ground. Curtin’s use of antithesis and parallelism are some of his most effective figures for appealing to pathos: “Poverty is the great evil, the great internal evil. War is the great evil, the great external evil.” He then continues, declaring his practical wisdom, “[t]hese twin evils which threaten our civilization have to be met and grappled with.”[8] The emotional appeal expresses, in Curtin’s opinion, the two greatest challenges facing the Australian public and the foundations of his campaign.

Curtin’s campaign could be said to have had too greater emphasis on defence. David Day has argued that colleagues in the Labor Party had pressed Curtin to change the focus of the election policy away from defence. However, Curtin maintained his strategy arguing that the Australian voters needed to be informed about the issue. The importance of the issue, proven in hindsight, serves to diminish the thought that his focus was unwarranted. It is not disputed that the Lyons Government ran a more effective campaign to deservedly win the 1937 election; nevertheless, it was in the 1937 campaign that Curtin created the constructive social conscious enabled him to take over the Prime Ministerial position at the disintegration of the Lyons’s government leadership.  It was Curtin’s memorable speeches which eventually won over the Australian people and allows him to achieve, what Dr. JF Cairns’ states as “…control of his Party, and of his country, to a degree that had not been equalled by any other Prime Minister.”[9]

John Curtin may have been unsuccessful in his campaign for the 1937 election but his place in the history of Australia is one of more than success. Through Curtin’s orations he created an active, constructive social conscious in Australian voters. He was masterful in his identification of commonplaces, accentuating them through powerful tropes and figures which appealed to the pathos and logos of his audience and emphasized his credibility as a leader. He created the platform to becoming arguably Australia’s most celebrated Prime Minister, who, serving at a pivotal point in the history of Australia and the World, led his country to a prosperous future.  Curtin portrayed a credible leader, speaking of issues relevant to the context of the 1937 election. The campaign’s central point of defence was skilfully integrated with every issue of the campaign; however, he failed to anticipate his audiences protest to what we can view in hindsight to be the inevitable path of the future. His success was in his memory associations exemplifying his practical wisdom, so that when defence was the only issue Australia gave the Curtin call.

Speeches accessed at Curtin University Library. Jan. 2008.                                                    Accessed 1/8/08

Appendix A“Speech by John Curtin on National Defence, Employment & Banking Policy , 1937.” John                     Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Helen Ralston.  Speaker John Curtin.                                         National Public Radio. October 1937. Transcript.

Appendix B“Speech by John Curtin on malnutrition & the birth rate, 1937.” John Curtin Prime                                     Ministerial Library. Records of Helen Ralston.  Speaker John Curtin. National Public                                 Radio. October 1937. Transcript.

Appendix C Speech by John Curtin on Social Services, Health, Defence, Poverty & War, 1937.”  John                     Curtin Prime Ministerial Library.  Records of Helen Ralston. Speaker John Curtin.                                         National Public Radio. November 1937. Transcript.



Beazley, K E. John Curtin: An Atypical Labor Leader; John Curtin Memorial Lecture, 1971. Canberra:          Australian National University Press, 1972.

Black, D. In His Own Words: John Curtin’s Speeches and Writings. Perth: Paradigm Books, 1995.

Dowsing, Irene. Curtin of Australia. Blackburn, Australia: Acacia Press, 1969.

Hampson, Ian , and David E. Morgan . “Post-Fordism, Union Strategy, and the Rhetoric of             Restructuring: The Case of Australia, 1980-1996.” Theory and Society 28.5 (1999): 747-96.

Lloyd, Clem and Richard Hall. Backroom Briefings: John Curtin’s War. Canberra: National Library of            Australia. 

McEwen , John M. “The Liberal Party and the Irish Question during the First World War.” The Journal      of British Studies 12.1 (1972): 109-31.

Serle, Geoffrey. For Australia and Labor: Prime Minister John Curtin. Canberra: John Curtin Prime            Ministerial Library, 1998.

Ward, Ian. “The Early Use of Radio for Political Communication in Australia and Canada: John Henry         Austral, Mr Sage and the Man from Mars.” The Australian Journal of Politics and History 45.3         (1999): 311.

[1] Appendix A

[2] Appendix B

[3] Appendix C

[4] Appendix C

[5] Appendix A

[6] Appendix A

[7] Appendix A

[8] Appendix C

[9] Dowsing, Irene. Curtin of Australia. Blackburn, Australia: Acacia Press, 1969. Preface (i).


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