Pivotal time that made a nation
Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s By Stuart Macintyre NewSouth, 596pp, $34.99 Stuart Macintyre’s latest book examines the vast reconstruction and nation-building project in Australia after the end of World War II and throughout almost all of the 1940s.
Australia’s Boldest Experiment is dedicated to the historian’s wife, Martha — also an esteemed academic — who was born early on August 16, 1945. Martha’s mother, born the year the Great War ended, went into labour as the news broke in Australia late in the morning of August 15, 1945, that World War II finally was over.
As Macintyre rightly argues in this highly personalised yet thoroughly researched and usefully illustrated and indexed book, the marks of the Depression were starkly visible in Australia in 1939. A quarter of a million men, onetenth of the workforce, remained unemployed. Thus plans for postwar development were desperately needed and intertwined with the nation’s experiences of the two world wars.
Part one of this book explores how the demands of World War II, which radically upset the established patterns of Australian life, eventually led to detailed plans for national reconstruction.
Part two sets out the areas that were embraced by our planners — who included prime ministers John Curtin, Ben Chifley and Robert Menzies, as well as that extraordinary public intellectual and long-serving bureaucrat HC “Nugget’’ Coombs, who helped guide some of the most important projects. Indeed Coombs was a key member of the Department of PostWar Reconstruction. In 1942, he had also been Australia’s director of rationing.
But the most fascinating section of the book is part three, which resumes the narrative in 1945, deals with demobilisation and the beginnings of national reconstruction that set Australia on a sustained path of economic growth. As Macintyre points out, after the federal ALP was re-elected in 1946, “it struggled to maintain the initiative against powerful interest groups that opposed its reforms and challenged its controls”. By 1949 the forces of reconstruction were largely spent and the national government exhausted.
Menzies and 20 years before World War I fetched up in Australia. The international arrangements for the millions displaced after the war were a shambles, most notably the Minorities Treaties, drafted to protect the patchwork of nationalities that remained stranded in foreign nation-states after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Neumann pays little attention to these, beyond outlining the Australian government’s overall attitude to international refugee negotiations, but focuses again when the rise of Nazism began to make the position of Jews in Europe untenable. Coombs, other notable individuals were crucial to the pivotal task of nation-building in the 1940s. In particular, these included conservative federal minister for postwar reconstruction John Dedman and ex-Queensland Labor premier and federal treasurer EG “Red Ted” Theodore, arguably the most talented politician never to be prime minister of Australia.
It was the hardworking, talented Theodore who filled the crucial roles of director-general of the Allied Works Council and head of the Civil Construction Corps.
In a highly publicised stoush, militant East
Australia was vaguely sympathetic, mostly apathetic and, without the pressure of public opinion spurring them on, federal politicians prevaricated. “In monocultural Australia, eastern European Jews in particular were often considered to be too different (and, in the eyes of the immigration authorities, to be an ‘inferior type’),” Neumann writes. The same, mind you, was said of southern Italians and Greeks.
Australia did eventually take some European refugees during the war, under pressure from the British, and more after it, choosing them carefully for what they could contribute to the Sydney Labor firebrand Eddie Ward, who was then minister for labour and national service, retaliated against Theodore’s power by withholding workers from the Allied Works Council. When an exasperated Theodore threatened to resign, Labor PM Curtin rebuked the outspoken Ward — who was a strong supporter of Theodore’s arch-enemy in Labor politics, former NSW premier Jack Lang. In so doing, Curtin confirmed Theodore’s authority and, in the process, kept some anti-reconstruction militants in check.
Unfortunately there is no photo of Theodore in this resourceful book. However there is a revealing black-and-white shot of the mustachioed and gimlet-eyed Dedman taken in 1941 when he was minister for war organisation of industry. There is also a fine photo of the pipesmoking Chifley, taken in London in 1946. In it, Chifley stands between future Labor leader HV Evatt and British Labour prime minister Clement Attlee.
Macintyre’s narrative is highly polished and persuasive. His new and vigorous account of postwar reconstruction in Australia illuminates the fact the first nine years of the 40s were an absolutely pivotal time in the development of country: vigour, health and northern European looks. Neumann doesn’t comment on it directly, but it’s creepy now to realise how closely our benchmarks mirrored Nazi eugenics.
Even as the war played out, Australia was already thinking of postwar expansion — a turnaround from the 1930s, when politicians had been against immigration-driven population growth. In 1941, Arthur Calwell told parliament that even if Australia were to win, it could not remain a “white man’s country” in the midst of Asia without a population of 40 million. By 1944, cabinet was acting on advice to consider displaced Europeans within a “vigorous policy of white alien immigration”.
Glowing stories abound of Australia’s huge postwar, post-refugee migrant intake in the 50s and 60s, which powered, among other things, the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Neumann steps us through the era, charting shifting national and international attitudes and laws specifically concerning refugees. The cross-purposes of the various governments and policymakers in Foreign Affairs, Immigration, Labour and other departments is remarkable, almost comic at times.
We responded to political unrest and war in Lebanon, Cyprus, Uganda, Chile and West Papua, but hardly wholeheartedly.
It would not be until the Vietnamese refugee crisis of the 70s that an Australian government would specify humanitarian criteria that in- our economy and of our economic history. Australia’s Boldest Experiment demonstrates that many of the key components of the relatively wealthy society and economy many of us take for granted — including the creation of jobs, improvements in working conditions, welfare, health and education, as well as initiating a national housing scheme and a more internationalist role for Australia — were not the offspring of military endeavour but the result of what Macintyre pithily describes as “policy, planning, politics and popular resolve”.
Some of the changes wrought by postwar reconstruction are familiar to older Australians. These include a vast influx of migrants into what had been a largely Anglo-Celtic country; the epic engineering works in the Snowy Mountains; and the building of Australia’s own car, the Holden.
But while other changes have received some attention in specialised historical journals and other academic publications, their place within the larger plan to reconstruct this country, up to now, has been largely forgotten. Indeed some key changes have hitherto not even been recognised at all.
Postwar reconstruction in the 40s was indeed an occasion of highly creative national endeavour that much deserves to be celebrated and remembered. It is also difficult to disagree with Macintyre’s conclusion that, especially under the influence of Chifley, who died in 1951, and of his personal friend and political enemy Menzies, postwar Australia effectively reconciled capitalism with democracy.
In the final section of the book, McIntyre usefully puts it thus: “Economic progress secured voters’ acceptance of a market economy, while governments in turn accepted a responsibility to intervene in markets and correct their outcomes in the interests of their citizens.”
Macintyre’s path-breaking study of the economic, social and political advances that occurred in the 40s fills a significant gap in Australian historical scholarship. In particular Australia’s Boldest Experiment makes a singular contribution to our nation’s political and economic history. cluded, for example, taking in the elderly and the ill.
“Fraser favoured a multicultural and, if need be, a multiracial Australia,” Neumann writes, “and he believed the government’s response to refugees should also be guided by humanitarian considerations.” It was Fraser who broke the White Australia mould.
Across the Seas is essential reading at a time when poisonous rhetoric in the asylum-seeker debate, on the margins of Australia’s generous “orderly” intake of refugees, is muddying our past. In his introduction, Neumann evokes the Brechtian word Verfremdungseffekt, a distancing effect preventing an observer being totally mesmerised by a narrative and allows a cleareyed, critical response. The foreword by Melbourne author and refugee advocate Arnold Zable, however, is an impassioned plea for generosity, which is nice but doesn’t suggest a scholarly, objective or distanced account to come. In the event, Neumann keeps political interpretation to a minimum, which is just as well because what there is sounds tentative, even hasty, as though he was asked by his publishers to make the book “relevant”. It also seems to assume Zable’s position without actually arguing for it. A light underpinning of political theory might have strengthened his hand.
A woman pushes her ration of firewood home in the winter of 1942; prime minister Ben Chifley launches the first Holden in November 1948