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 AugÃ‚Âust 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, one-tenth 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 Post-War 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 as Curtin, Chifley, Menzies and 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 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 pipe-smoking 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 that the first nine years of the 40s were an absolutely pivotal time in the development of 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 votersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ 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.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, June 6-7, 2015, review, Books, p 21.