Piv­otal time that made a na­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

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.

As well




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

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