Book Review by Richard O’Brien.
Liam Byrne: BECOMING JOHN CURTIN AND JAMES SCULLIN. The Making of the Modern Labor Party.Melbourne University Press. June 2020. 277 pp
It was an enormous joy to read Liam Byrne’s meticulously researched, entirely, engrossing and brilliantly crafted study of the life and times of two exceptional Australians (both of Irish descent) who helped to guide their continental homeland through traumatic periods of economic depression and armed conflict and both of whom played central roles in shaping the modern nation that is today so greatly admired and respected across the international family of democracies and indeed well beyond.
However, Liam has given us much more than an important volume of outstanding historical value. He takes us well behind and far beyond the fascinating stories of how James Scullin and John Curtin – two political and parliamentary giants – guided their continental nation through periods of extraordinary social and political transformation. Ultimately – and I believe most crucially – he challenges all of us, and in particular the leaders of today’s Labor movement, to reflect on their stories and to learn from their achievements as we – hopefully very soon – will begin to chart a new path beyond the medical, political and social uncertainties of these challenging days and journey into what are likely to be much changed domestic and international world orders – into what many forecast will become ‘a new normal’.
Liam’s gift to us is a most perceptive work of history in which he never sacrifices depth for pace, delivering both with magnificence in style and detail in substance. Across the pages of his book we encounter two young men both of whose parents were Irish born. I might mention that my first encounter with ‘political Australia’ took place in 1987 when I escorted Prime Minister Bob Hawke (then on a State Visit to Ireland) to the top of the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. From that iconic location – and on a beautiful sunny day – he paused briefly to view the gorgeous green countryside. He looked south towards County Cork where John Curtin’s parents were born. Looking north across Tipperary he saw the area from where Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s grandparents had emigrated. Well beyond sight to the distant north of the island of Ireland lies County Derry from where James Scullin’s parents made their way (separately) to Trawalla in Victoria where James was born on 18 September 1876.
James Scullin was eleven years old when his family moved to Ballarat where he finished school and engaged in local community organisations, becoming President of Ballarat’s Catholic Young Men’s Society. He also engaged in local politics and in so doing was undoubtedly inspired by the events at the nearby Eureka Stockade where most of those who gave their lives in the early hours of 3 December 1854 while demanding democracy and ‘a fair go for all’ were Irish. Today they are commemorated by ‘The Pikeman’s Dog’ (a life-sized statue of an Irish terrier sculpted by two talented Irish born artists Joan & Charlie Smith who live in WA) which continues to stand guard at the Stockade. Interestingly, Ballarat was the only town in regional Victoria visited by Eamon de Valera during his 47- day tour of Australia in 1948. He had been invited by his close friend Archbishop Daniel Mannix to attend the centenary celebrations commemorating the establishment of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. The man who fought in Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, served as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) for 22 years following the adoption of the 1937 Constitution and subsequently as President of Ireland for 14 years was accompanied on his visit to Ballarat by Arthur Calwell then Minister for Information and Immigration who would later lead the Australian Labor Party.
But it is to a grocery store on Skipton Street in Ballarat that Liam takes us to meet the young, already politically active, James Scullin who was long remembered by his customers as ‘warm and unassuming’ as well as ever ‘fastidious with detail and compassionate in spirit’ and whom they all called ‘Jim’. Liam tells us that compassion combined with an unassuming disposition would remain life-long characteristics of the future Australian Prime Minister.
It is also in Ballarat that James engaged in his first political battle and it was ‘in at the deep end’. He was selected to challenge then Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, a leading architect of Federation and the country’s second Prime Minister. While his attempt to unseat Alfred Deakin was unsuccessful, it launched James into the political arena with profile and prestige. During the campaign, he articulated a new vision for everyday hard-working Australians and brought into focus a political philosophy that he hoped would resonate and eventually unite them in their quest for a compassionate and caring society. As a result, he soon became a political organiser for the Australian Workers Union and found himself travelling across Victoria.
On his travels, James Scullin soon met John Curtin whose deep commitment to social justice went far beyond organising protests about living costs and poor wages. He demanded a widespread social transformation. The era immediately following the First World War in Australia and elsewhere would be influenced, however indirectly, by the writings of Marx and Engels, the advent of the Bolshevik Revolution, the overthrow of the Russian Empire and the emergence of the Soviet Union.
John Curtin was among those impressed by new socialist thinking as it attempted to grapple with the dominance of capitalism which provided wealth for the few and left many in poverty. But Scullin hesitated – could Chifley’s ‘best’ become the enemy of Labor’s ‘good’? Both became central players in the struggle to define the soul of the Labor Party – both were elected to the key working group charged with the task of elaborating the meaning and message of ‘new Labor’. Both also entered the world of journalism where they sought to win the hearts and minds of their readers. Yes, socialism would be central to its message as Labor moved forward, but it would be a socialism grounded in the essential values of democracy and responsive to the practical needs and ambitions of working women and men.
While Liam’s impressive work tells us the story of two exceptional personalities it is also, in a most profound manner, the story of the movement they nurtured, inspired and led. It is a story that comes together in the book’s final chapter as Liam discerningly reviews the recent past and calls on the Labor Party’s current leadership to restore its ‘capacity to host alternative world views’ that advance local, national and regional interests, to again become a party of ideas and ideals that articulate the vision of viable alternatives to class structured capitalism and that are fully grounded in the lives of patriotic everyday Australians.