Thursday, 23 January 2014

Australian History Post World War Two

IIn 1945 Australia was a foreign country. The population was about seven million Life expectancy for men was about 65; somewhat more for women. Less than five percent of the population had tertiary education. Wool and wheat were our major exports. There was little mining for export. Industrial disputation was endemic 873,000 days a year in 1951 compared with 500,000 in 1994 and even less now. The population was predominantly English, Scots or Irish by descent. The leader of the opposition, Menzies, considered himself British. Married middle class women overwhelmingly did not work. Aborigines were not citizens, did not have the vote and lived largely on remote reserves from which they needed permission to leave.  (These and other statistics can be gleaned from The Transformation of Australia’s Population 1970 –2030 edited by Siew-Ean Khoo and Peter McDonald and Australian Political Facts edited by I. McAllister, M.Makerras and C.B.Boldiston)

The ‘Australian settlement’, established in the first decade of Federation by an unholy alliance of conservative Victorian manufacturers (who got high tariffs) and Labor Unionists (who got Conciliation and Arbitration and White Australia) had proven remarkably robust. Although Labor was seldom in power prior to 1941 the two longest serving ‘conservative’ prime ministers in the inter war period – Hughes and Lyons - were both former Labor parliamentarians; Hughes, a Labor prime minister; Lyons a Labor treasurer. They ratted on  the ALP on points of principle: conscription and external debt repayment respectively; but had no interest in attacking the Australian settlement. The only genuine conservative in the interwar period with the numbers in parliament to effect real change, Stanley Bruce, lost government in a land slide in 1929 after trying to dismantle the Commonwealth’s arbitration and conciliation system (sound like anyone we know?).

In 1943 the Curtin Labor government was returned to power in yet another  landslide, winning absolute control of both houses of Federal Parliament. They proceeded to put in place key reforms such as the pay as you earn income tax system, an effective central bank and child endowment. Curtin is a sympathetic figure: sensitive, intelligent and compassionate. See David Day’s John Curtin A Life for an account of Curtin’s inner struggles with grog and responsibility.

Curtain died in 1945 and Ben Chifley succeeded as Prime minister. Following another election win in 1946 the Chifley government set about some serious nation building. Mass assisted migration was introduced. The Snowy Mountains hydroelectric project was commenced. Manufacturing was encouraged and the first Australian made car was produced in 1948. See Graham Davidson's The Car  for a history of automobile manufacture in Australia. Australia participated actively in the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreement on exchange rates. In many ways the Chifley government set the structural shape of Australia until the eighties and did so without dismantling any part of the Australian settlement.

The recently published Chifley A Life  by David Day is a good source on the achievements of the Chifley government as is Fred Alexander’s From Curtin to Menzies.

Change would happen but it owed little if anything to the conservative side of politics.  The politics of the late forties and early fifties laid the foundation for Menzies hegemony. By 1949 Menzies and the liberal party were providing effective opposition working on middle class fears of socialism. The defeat in the High Court of the bank nationalisation legislation did not help but what really did for Chifley in 1949 was a protracted coal miners strike (broken using the army) and the reintroduction of petrol rationing. Chifley remained leader of the ALP until his death in 1951 after another election loss. His home in Bathurst had remained a semi-detached workers cottage and he died in the Hotel Karrajong with its communal bathrooms and lack of room service. His reputation as a man of the people was cultivated but it was also genuine.

Menzies is not well understood today. His Britishness appears bizarre to most native born; his objections to the use of racist propaganda (against the Japanese) at the height of World War Two would probably surprise contemporary hard nosed conservative apparatchiks and his consistent advocacy of a mixed economy (with significant state intervention to alleviate poverty and unemployment) would not get him preselected to Kooyong today. 

There is surprisingly little written about Menzies which is readily accessible, even in major libraries. There is no essay on Menzies in Paul Hasluck's The Chance of  Politics (a collection edited by his son) which is a pity because Hasluck was a keen and candid observor of his fellow politicians and, unusually for the conservative side of polotics, bothered to record his impressions. His portrait of Barwick for example is a corker. Ian Hancock’s essay ‘The Rise of the Liberal Party’ in The Australian Century is a useful introduction. Judith Brett's Forgotten People attempts to psychoanalyse Menzies.Gerard Henderson’s Menzies’ Child is a fairly concise history of the Liberal party and contains considerable information about Menzies and his successors up to Howard. Henderson is a liberal insider who thinks Liberals do not value their history sufficiently. The result is that others tell their story for them. 

Menzies having gained power was determined not to lose it any time soon. The Korean War marked the high point of the Cold war with Australian troops fighting against the Chinese PLA in North Korea. See Robert O’Neill’s Australia in the Korean War for a scholarly and comprehensive treatment.

In the early fifties Stalin still ruled Russia and China had just fallen to Communism. It was an atmosphere conducive to a conservative scare campaign and Menzies proceeded to drum one up. The Communist Party Dissolution Act provides perhaps the first example in modern times of wedge politics. Ultimately Labor let it pass and the trigger for the double dissolution election in 1951 was, curiously, legislation to appoint a board to govern the Commonwealth Bank. The Liberals won comfortably. 

Apart from abolishing rationing (which ironically enough had been necessitated by Chifley’s desire to assist great Britain overcome its food and foreign currency shortages) and some fairly technical changes to the jurisdiction of the federal arbitration court, this was the extent of Menzies’ attack on the Chifley socialists’ arrangements. As Ian Hancock points out in his essay 'The Rise of the Liberal Party' in The Australian Century the second half of the forties saw the non Labor political tendency subscribe to a national consensus that required the national government to play a central role in preventing another depression and protecting the disadvantaged.

Thereafter Menzies manipulated the arguably deranged Doc Evatt into portraying himself as a fellow traveller with Stalin’s Russia and won a third term in the 1954 election comfortably. The DLP split from the ALP in 1955 and  Menzies won elections in 1957, 1960 (by one seat, during a recession) and 1963 on DLP preferences.  Holt won in a landslide in 1966 and Gorton scrapped back in 1969. But for DLP preferences the ‘Menzies era’ would have ended in 1960.

Gavin Souter’s Acts of Parliament, as always, is a reliable guide to the political history of the Chifley and Menzies eras and deals even handedly with both Labor and Liberal. As a result it is a fairly dry read. Bob McMullin’s Light on the Hill provides a detailed account of the Labor split set in a larger narrative history of the ALP.  Jim Murray’s essay ‘The Split’ in The Australian Century, edited by Robert Manne is a lucid and concise account of the Byzantine politics of the Labor party at this time. 

And so to bed.  Fifteen years of Menzies and economic prosperity created the apparently contented, somewhat boring society described in Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country       (first published in 1965). Horne’s book found an extensive market: not people who wanted to find out about Australia but Australians who wanted to be told how they were special. Craig Macgregor’s Australia in Profile served a similar purpose for a slightly more left wing audience.

Forty years on these books make strange reading. Their observations are of anecdotal value (because they are devoid of any systematic empirical backing) but what does come through is a tremendous complacency and a lack of anxiety. Full employment and a diet of barbequed meat, beer and sport will do that to you.

Beneath the surface however there were tensions: class, politics, religion, gender and sex were all about to get a good run. And the pretext was another war.

At a distance of forty years it is easy to forget how radically society changed in the course of the sixties. The Australian involvement in supressing the Communist insurgency in Malaya had been a matter of course. In 1966 it was all the way with LBJ; Askin growling ‘run over the bastards’ and the athletic Harold Holt was returned in an avalanche. But things were happening. In 1967 Australians approved a referendum that reflected a widespread desire to see the status and living conditions of Aborigines improved. Ann Cuthoys The 67 Referendum tells this story. Feminism was increasingly assertive. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch was published in 1969 and was enormously influential: it sold 90,000 copies in two weeks in Australia.  In the 1969 Federal election Gorton was lucky to hold on to Government and the end of an era was in sight. 

Gorton, at least according to John Hancock in He Did It his Way , was doing his best to usher in that new era. Gorton is a curious case: a man who had such confidence in his own way of doing things that he could rouse the American ambassador out of bed at 2 am, accompanied (Gorton that is) by an attractive young female journalist, to discuss matters of state. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to quietly terminate the White Australia policy. This was the first brick in the wall to go of the Australian settlement. 

Gorton looked good on television and had a way with words: not something his successor Billy McMahon was ever accused of. I am not aware of a McMahon biography but stand to be corrected. 

But what is undeniable is that by the late sixties the complex of attitudes, policies and reflexes which had seen Australia commit virtually its entire army (including conscripts) to a fundamentally misconceived war in a far away land was on the nose. Paul Ham’s Vietnam the Australian Story is an excellent military history which does due justice to the social and political dimensions of the war. Ham, who has also written an excellent history of the Australians on the Kokoda track, is very much on the side of the diggers and is palpably angy about the mistreatment meted out to individual soldiers on their return from active service by peace activists. And yet it happened – inconceivable today- soldiers in uniform were spat at and called baby killers. The war became unpopular. About six hundred Australians died. Over fifty thousand Americans. And at the same time youth culture with its own music, means of intoxication, literature and value system (which didn’t last) was born.

Reading  Frank Moorhouse’s Days of Wine and Rage, published in 1980 but about the bohemian/anarchist/rat-faced world of Sydney’s ‘liberterian’ intelligentsia in the late sixties and seventies engenders a peculiar, squeamish feeling. On the one hand it is irrefutable evidence for the proposition that by the era described a lot of people had moved beyond Queen and Country and dib dib dib dob dob dob…on the other hand many of the people described are a bit unlikeable if not slightly grubby. The sort of people you would hesitate to leave alone with your girlfriend while you went to the bar for your shout. 

Meanwhile, serious work was being done but where it always had been. Whitlam’s election in 1972 was the material evidence that something had changed. Medibank, free tertiary education and a cultural renaissance followed; as did a 25 percent tariff cut and a series of astonishing ministerial scandals. But the change was still not to the core of the Australian settlement. Tariffs were still high; centralised wage fixing prevailed. The White Australia policy had already been folded up and put away by Gorton. 

What is hard to grasp now is how little interest people and politicians had in economics back in 1972. After twenty years of prosperity Whitlam thought  the problems of economics had been solved. A lot has been written about the Whitlam Government; a fair bit of it by persons involved in it. Graham Freudenberg’s A Certain Grandeur while obviously partisan is still regarded as an invaluable source. For a conservative but balanced perspective Robert Manne’s article , ‘The Whitlam Revolution’ in The Australian Century is worth reading. Alan Reid’s The Whitlam Venture is a journalistic, near contemporary account.

The pity is that the constitutional coup of 1975 has obscured the real merits of the Whitlam government. The great lie is that Whitlam, by himself, stuffed the economy; as if the Yom Kippur war (in 1974) and a doubling of the oil price were irrelevant. In fact the 1973/4 budget was in surplus at the time the effects of the oil shock and a wages boom combined to produce a blow out in inflation and unemployment in the second half of 1974. Perhaps Jim Cairns was not an inspired choice for treasurer and the 1974/5 budget did damage business confidence and fuelled inflation further because it was highly expansionary. But Hayden’s budget for 1975 became the first Fraser budget and no one complained. 

If you must revisit the dismissal both Whitlam’s The Truth of the Matter and Kerr’s Matters for Judgement are self serving. There is no doubt Kerr breached convention and behaved, on a personal level, like a scoundrel. And there is also no doubt Whitlam’s government had a limited shelf life: the electorate, unused to even five per cent unemployment and any inflation at all was waiting with the proverbial base ball bat in the parking lot. Paul Kelly's 11 November is a more balanced account.

Any amount of  hand wringing resulted from the untimely demise of the Whitlam Government. Most of it is now forgotten. Horne’s Death of the Lucky Country is an example of the genre. 

It is difficult now to remember how profoundly disliked Fraser was by about half the electorate. This is because Fraser has not changed while the world around him has and as a result he now comes across as quite an old softie. According to Paul Kelly,  Fraser – not Howard – was  in fact the genuine inheritor of Menzies. In keeping with that tradition he ran the odd scare campaign; got stuck into the unions when he could (but without changing the institutional arrangements that permitted centralised wage fixing) and basically maintained most of the existing settings. He did abolish Medibank – socialised medicine – but probably regretted it. He took a highly principled approach to issues such as apartheid, Vietnamese refugees and aboriginal land rights. 

So neo conservatives see the Fraser years as a lost opportunity. But Fraser was simply doing what the Liberals have always done best: minding the shop. Radical change was on the way but it would be introduced by the Labor Hawke Keating government. Paul Kelly’s End of Certainty is an excellent overview of the eighties and their dramatic changes. Kelly is first and foremost a journalist and can’t quite restrain himself from pushing the economic rationalist barrow but his book is an important one for understanding the full implications of what was happening. Because finally the days of the Australian settlement were numbered.

The settlement didn’t go quietly and tonnes of paper has been devoted to arguing the merits and fate of what one could loosely call the economic rationalist agenda. The best critique of the pure version of this agenda I have read is Brien Toohey,s Tumbling Dice, a book that deserved a wider audience than it got. Toohey does a good job of showing how equilibrium market theory is empirically bogus. He also documents how the high watermark of Treasuries influence was probably in 1989. The recession of the early nineties brought Government intervention back into the good books. Not that the rhetoric reflects that. 

A genre of works bemoaning our fate in a globalised economy are now principally of interest to show how difficult it really is to get crystal ball gazing right. Humphrey Macqueen’s Gone Tomorrow Australia in the 80s is full of good arguments and  well researched and almost entirely wide of the mark in its predictions. Craig McGregor’s Class in Australia, written in 1997 when the seismic shifts in tertiary education participation should already have been apparent reads like a report from another universe. John Pilger's A Secret Country, published in 1989 is not as grim as you might expect but is predictably self righteous and right on.

The fall of Keating in 1996 evoked another round of literary anguish. Like Gough, he had been a generous patron of the Arts. Bob Ellis’s Goodbye Jerusalem is a typical example. Mr Ellis enjoys a good lunch (as does the writer) and has dined with the best. Not all the people he mentions in conversation however reciprocate in their books. One struggles to find any reference to Bob in say, Freudenberg or John Edward’s Keating the Inside Story or even the equally self referential Don Watson in Confessions of a Bleeding Heart (which appropriately, in the hard back edition, has a photo of the author hugging himself on the back fly leaf).

Which brings us to the nineties and John Winston Howard. Now we really are within the historical equivalent of ‘dead ground’. You can’t see, let alone shoot, someone on dead ground. Howard won three elections and for the most part continued the economic agenda of the Hawke Keating government. But he lost his fourth election and his seat in parliament (remember Stanley Bruce in 1929) following an attempt to destroy the final surviving plank of the Australian settlement: the award system. Howard is reputed to be interested in history. Maybe he agrees with Mark Twain: history doesn’t repeat itself; but sometimes it rhymes.

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