Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen ... friends and fellow Australians.
In September last year I was in Ben Chifley’s Bathurst home.
In a room where the self-educated author of Labor’s greatest words – “the light on the hill” – once read in the evening.
In March this year I was in John Curtin’s Cottesloe home.
In the suburb where a gun carriage stood in 1945, bearing Australia’s greatest leader, under the stars of Australia’s flag.
Today we are in the city where John Curtin and Ben Chifley worked and lived and served our country.
On the street where they walked to work.
To witness a humane and humble tribute to two great men.
And they were great men.
Two great men of courage and conviction in their ideas.
Yes, John Curtin was jailed in Victoria in 1916 fighting conscription in the Great War.
Yes, Ben Chifley was a “lily-white” who lost his job in the New South Wales rail strikes the following year.
And they were two great men of vision for all Australians.
Men of politics, leaders of party. But more than that. Prime Ministers. Patriots. Leaders who served the whole nation, in war and in peace.
And two mates ... whose trust and sympathy speaks to us still.
Whose mateship shines in Don Stephens’ famous photograph and is enshrined in this tribute we unveil today.
Looking at his icon of these men, it’s impossible not to reflect on what were they saying to each other as they walked to work that day.
They were men of their time.
They might well have been talking about billiards and pipe smoke.
Reminiscing about the fall of the Bruce Government fifteen years earlier ... the way old Billy Hughes led dissidents away from the conservative Government, including one wavering MP, who he locked in a long billiard game in Old Parliament House so the government loyalists couldn’t get to him during the dinner break.
They were Labor politicians.
There’s every chance they were talking about how to manage the colleagues!
When Curtin made Arthur Calwell Minister for Information he said: “He's been fighting with newspapers all this time – now he can learn to live with them.”
Of course, we can’t know.
But here today I like to think I do bring some insight.
From my own knowledge of Curtin and Chifley. From what I’ve seen in the houses they lived in at home.
From what I feel of them in my Canberra lodgings now, where they must have met so often, where Curtin lived and died.
From the share I take in their succession.
Because they were true leaders ...
... I can’t help but believe they would have been talking about the future.
And in turn, that means, they would have been talking about us.
So I hope this remarkable tribute serves not only to prompt reflection on what they might have been talking about then.
I hope it also serves to prompt reflection on what they thought we would be doing for Australia now.
Friends, life is long.
With history’s hindsight, we see two great Australians, without fear or blemish.
But Curtin and Chifley were tested by their times.
One biographer wrote of Chifley’s failures in Opposition “he had responsibility far too long ever to be a destructive oppositionist”.
The engine-driver who became a nation-builder couldn’t become a wrecker.
Another writer reminds us that Curtin lost an election in 1937 “when he stood for air strength for Australia”.
Four years later the bombing of Darwin brought a terrible vindication – and an education in the bitter ironies of politics and war.
Tested by their times ... but history judges them well. Their courage became its own reward.
John Curtin died in Canberra, in the Lodge. At his grave in Karrakatta we can read this tribute:
His country was his pride His brother man his cause.
Ben Chifley died in Canberra, in the Hotel Kurrajong. On his tomb in Bathurst we can read this tribute:
If an idea is worth fighting for, no matter the penalty, fight for the right, and truth and justice will prevail.
John Curtin and Ben Chifley live in our minds and hearts still.
I am very proud to unveil this new tribute now.
The Prime Minister made these remarks unveiling Peter Corlett's Prime Minister John Curtin & Treasurer Ben Chifley, ca 1945 (2011), on 16 September 2011