by Max Solling

This morning I would like to share some thoughts on the impact of two World Wars and a Depression on the fabric of our society and on the government’s 1940s post-war reconstruction plans for remaking Australia.

The First World War transformed the framework of Australian politics, society and culture with enduring consequences. The war began with the enthusiasm of enlistment, found meaning at Gallipoli, brought melancholy scenes of anxious families waiting for hospital ships, and ended with veterans finding a country different from the one they left.

Max Solling addressing the approximately 100 people who gathered for the Glebe Anzac Day Service (photo: Phil Young)

Over 416,800 Australian men enlisted, and over 300,000 embarked for war service. Around 60,000 were killed or died of wounds or illnesses, and at least 150,000 were wounded in body and mind. Those who returned home wrestled with memories of the war, which took a heavy toll. They faced a country divided over conscription issues, and the resulting acrimony still rankled, and they faced a nation burdened with war debt. Poverty and inequality were rife: the Commonwealth’s 1915 War Census revealed that most people owned nothing beyond what they carried, and 5% of the population owned two-thirds of all private wealth.

In the lead-up to WWII, there was no doubt that this loyal Dominion would follow Britain and take a stand against German aggression, should that be necessary. A further reason for caution was the threat of Japan. Australia’s defence planning relied on British military strength to prevent a Japanese thrust south. After war was declared in August 1939, German forces overran France in June 1940, and Britain and its Dominions were fighting alone. The attack upon the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 signalled Japan’s entry into the war and a campaign which saw Malaya, Singapore, Burma and the Dutch East Indies captured by the Japanese by March 1942. The loss of Singapore on 15 February 1942 showed the sun was setting on the British empire, and 17,000 Australians were taken into captivity. The Dominions had once sent soldiers to fight in distant wars assuming that British sea power would keep their homeland safe. On 19 February 1942, Japanese aeroplanes bombed Darwin, inflicting 243 deaths and sinking eight ships in the harbour.

American troops began disembarking in Australia in December 1941, and General Douglas MacArthur landed in Australia in March 1942 as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. The US Navy repelled the Japanese Fleet heading for Port Moresby in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, and one month later, the Japanese were defeated decisively by the US Navy at Midway Atoll and lost control of the Pacific. Almost one million Americans passed through Australian towns and ports between 1942 and 1945 en route to action in the Asia-Pacific region. Australian forces held the Japanese attacks on Papua and New Guinea and, in desperate fighting in the jungles and mountains, retook Kokoda in November 1942. By the end of 1942, the Japanese advance was halted, and, after the Battle of Stalingrad ended early in 1943, the tide in Europe had turned against Germany.

Over 30,000 Australians were taken prisoner during WWII. Of the 22,000 prisoners held by Japan and its allied territories, one-third died in captivity, representing one-quarter of all Australian combat deaths in the war. Japan signed the Surrender on 2 September 1945. WWII was less divisive than 1914-1918 and cost fewer lives – 34,000 in a population of seven million – yet it stimulated much greater change.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was an abject failure of protective arrangements in Australia. House construction had come to a standstill in the 1930s, and there was a marked shortage of accommodation. Most households in Sydney and half those in Melbourne were made up of tenants, the most vulnerable renting terrace houses in the inner suburbs that had fallen into disrepair and lacked the most basic facilities. The birth rate was low, and population growth stalled: Australia’s population had reached five million in 1918, six million in 1926 but was still under seven million in 1939. Australia was hit hard by the worldwide Depression; over a third of the workforce was unemployed in 1932, a time of great wealth inequality. A new kind of economic management was needed to maintain full employment and to expand the provision of education and social welfare.

Post-WWII reconstruction

WWII marked a significant shift in the social compact. There were widespread and vivid memories of the sacrifice that war entailed and a strong belief that the burden must be shared fairly across the community: ‘There will have to be a fairer distribution of wealth’, John Curtin told parliament in 1942. Post-war reconstruction was a term applied to plans of the Curtin-Chifley governments to provide a new post-war economic and social order. As there was an estimated shortfall of 350,000 houses, an important part of their agenda was a housing program to protect low-income earners. Thousands of families were living in sleep-outs, garages, boarding houses or doubling-up with families or friends.

Idealists in Australia got together to make plans to rebuild a better country and those who planned and directed these plans were resolute in the commitment to bring about lasting improvements. H.C. (‘Nugget’) Coombs and Ben Chifley were fundamental figures in the peculiarly Australian design of reconstruction. Moved by Keynesian ideals and troubled by the suffering he had seen in England during the Depression, Coombs, as Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, declared that a commitment ‘to a better life after the war, especially for those who had been denied it by unemployment and poverty, would make it important to ensure a physical and social environment in which an adequate and fulfilling life would be possible’.

In an enlightened time of universal provision of social services and egalitarianism, Coombs’ department appointed the Commonwealth Housing Commission, which emphasised that ‘a dwelling of good standard and equipment is not only the need but the right of every citizen – whether the dwelling is to be rented or purchased, no tenant or purchaser should be exploited for excessive profit’. The Post-War Reconstruction Department also prepared ambitious plans for health, transport, rural reconstruction, industrial development, migration and public works. The planning also emphasised the importance of local communities in nation-building and expanding support for families through local facilities such as libraries, health centres and recreational clubs. In his autobiography, Trial Balance, Coombs reveals that throughout his career, he was guided by a deep humanitarianism, a passionate conviction that the function of government – of public service – was to assist the weak or less fortunate and that the economic system should be managed to ensure a more secure and better lifestyle for the community as a whole.

Post-war reconstruction was a unique opportunity to break with past inefficiencies and inequities. Although the Labor government was re-elected in 1946, it struggled to maintain the initiative against powerful interest groups that opposed its reforms and challenged its controls. The improvements effected by post-war reconstruction came to be taken for granted, yet it was an occasion of creative endeavour that deserves to be remembered.

For the first three decades of the 20thcentury, Australians’ opportunities for social mobility were limited by a struggling economy and an education system that was intent on keeping people within their class. The four decades from the 1940s was a time of higher social mobility. However, in the last 30 years, according to Andrew Leigh’s study of inequality, we have become a more unequal society. Australia today is almost twice as unequal as it was in 1980.

The new model of socio-economic organisation we have today, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells observed, was designed to achieve higher profits and reduce the power of the labour force. State intervention has shifted away from social redistribution and toward capital accumulation