My father, Keith Dettmer, was discharged from the RAAF in early 1946. He had joined the RAAF as soon as he turned 18. Through his four years’ enlistment he had worked at a variety of jobs but spent most of his time as a messman before being promoted to cook. But he had no formally recognised skills: the Great Depression robbed my dad of his opportunity to learn a trade, as it did so many others.
The good news for my Dad was that the CRTS awaited after ‘demob’. The Commonwealth Rehabilitation Training Scheme had been set up in 1944 under the Curtin Labor Government as part of its Department of Postwar Reconstruction. And like thousands of other returning ex-servicemen and women it gave my Dad a chance at life as a skilled worker with a trade.
In mid-1942, Japanese bombers had recently attacked Darwin, the battles along the Kokoda track were in full swing, yet this was the moment that the Curtin Government issued a directive to identify industries suitable for post-war development. Twenty four were selected. Later that year, Ben Chifley, already Curtin’s Treasurer, had the Dept of Postwar Development added to his responsibilities. In early 1943, ‘Nugget’ Coombs was appointed Director-General.
Postwar Reconstruction had at its heart the need for a new world, and not just for ex-servicemen and women. Instead of Lloyd George’s ‘Country fit for heroes’, Curtin and later Chifley sought a better world for all.
Before the war, Australia had been incredibly insular. The Premiers’ Plan had cut deeply into the Australian economy and the Australian psyche. Successive governments from Scullin to Lyons to Menzies had followed Sir Otto Niemeyer’s mantra for Australia to pay down its debt and ‘live within its means’. Their deflationary policies ensured that Australia’s economy had bumped along with low growth and continuing high unemployment; the 10% reduction in GDP and the corresponding 10% cut in wages which occurred in 1930-31 had been barely made up when the ‘mini-depression’ of 1938-39 hit. The economically fearful Lyons Government’s policies caused a further loss of nearly 5% of GDP.
Chifley was deeply, personally, struck by the mass unemployment of the period. As much as Curtin, he saw the need to remake the Australian economy. It helped that he had been influenced by John Maynard Keynes’ ideas—and that his Director General of Post War Reconstruction, Coombs, had likewise absorbed Keynesian theories while at the London School of Economics.
The sacrifice of war led to an upsurge in a belief that life must be better than the boom and bust cycle dictated. This was not just felt in Australia —in the UK, William Beveridge’s report on social welfare was released in 1942 and FDR’s ‘New Deal’ still resonated in the USA. In colonial Africa and India, increased demands for decolonisation and independence mounted.
Australia’s response was no less ambitious. Under Curtin, and then Chifley, the Australian Government engaged independently for the first time with its international allies. And at the same time, domestic policy was created to ensure that Australia could recover from the war without the dislocation experienced after 1918; Curtin released his government’s Full Employment White paper in May 1945.
The White Paper envisaged that full employment would be achieved if there was at most 5% unemployment, but that this would mostly occur when workers transferred from one job to another, better paid, one. Accompanying it was a major program of public investment, of major and minor projects, the latter ‘on the shelf’ for use when the economy dictated. Government policy under Chifley had, as central policy objectives, both full employment and a rising standard of living.
Australia took a leading role in forming the new United Nations. Curtin, Chifley and Evatt demanded that any new international post-war settlement be based on full employment. Australia participated in the Bretton Woods conference which formed the IMF, World Bank, GATT and other instruments of the post-war settlement with that commitment to full employment at the forefront.
As well as the White Paper, an ambitious program of industrial reconversion of munitions factories and restoration of housing construction was scheduled to commence before the war ended. As S.J. Butlin and C.B. Schedvin wrote in War economy, 1942-1945, unless this took place, ‘it was anticipated that demand for consumer goods and housing would exceed supply…that a period of rapid inflation would be followed by a sharp depression’. It just made good economic sense, then as now.
Australia’s post-war reconstruction effort took shape long before Japan’s final surrender in August 1945. The extension of Australia’s manufacturing base was a specific decision of government. According to historian Stuart Macintyre, traditionally-inclined economists like Prof L.F. Giblin ‘thought Australia would remain dependent on the uncertain demand for commodity exports and “in some danger of being given the permanent role of a hewer of wood and drawer of water to the highly industrialised countries”.’ Instead, under Chifley, bold policy prescriptions were turned into equally bold Government decisions like the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme.
Reconstruction’s bringing together of business, unions and the community under the leadership of the Federal Governmemnt was also a deliberate policy decision. Instead of the desire to let the ‘free market’ prevail—a decision which botched the post-WWI recovery and blighted Australia’s development—Chifley determined that Government would lead the rebuilding of prosperity in this country.
The comparisons with the present are clear: prescriptions in our time which fall back on the policy vacuum of neoliberalism are likewise bound to fail.
People who try and make parallels with the Marshall Plan of 1948-51 miss the point: the Marshall Plan was a bold decision by the USA to help Europe to recover from the privations of WWII. It was an emergency response to the collapse of the terms of trade suffered by European nations following the victory over Nazi Germany. While it had at its heart a strategic program of recovery and growth (and as such was based on the same thinking as Reconstruction in Australia), its origins arose from the successive failures of national economies suffering from the destruction wrought by six years of war and occupation.
By 1948, Australia’s reconstruction efforts were well under way. Limited rationing continued, but Australia was able to make a £20m sterling donation (the equivalent of $A163m today) to the UK during the period of Marshall assistance as well. The first Holden rolled off the production line at Fisherman’s Bend the same year.
Menzies was elected at the end of 1949 with an electoral strategy of the promise of the modern. He could not wait to terminate the dept of Postwar Reconstruction. He did so immediately—and then pursued its policies for the next 17 years of his premiership.
We have the same opportunities today; to give the Keith Dettmers of this generation a future, by training them and employing them in the industries of the present and the future. The simple thinking of the ‘snap-back’ would again have us thinking that the pursuit of a government surplus is a goal in itself. It is not. It never was.
While the overall cost of Reconstruction was never subject to a strict accounting, the Marshall Plan was. It is hard to recall with the current incumbent that US Presidents were usually seen as generous benefactors to friends and allies. George Marshall’s European Recovery Plan would have cost about $135b in today’s US dollars, or around $A205b. This compares with the $320b already earmarked by the Morrison Govt for stimulus spending since March.
For my parents, the policies of Reconstruction had a personal and immediate impact. When they married, they bought a new house in South Oakleigh in southeast Melbourne. They were only able to do so because as a veteran Dad qualified for a low-interest war service loan; our street was full of them. The past of those men, and some women, had secured their future in houses in Australia’s suburbs, built with loans guaranteed by government.
Better yet, they were able to gain employment close to home. As I rode my bike to high school, I passed the factories of Brownbuilt and PBR-Repco. W.D. and H.O. Wills was just around the corner. The uniform suburbia and shops which now exist in that area was once a manufacturing powerhouse.
Then, as now, we need to harness the productivity and ingenuity of our businesses and workers to create a future. As historian Tony Judt described the Marshall Plan and its policies, ‘It constrained governments, businesses and labour unions to collaborate in planning increased rates of output and the conditions likely to facilitate them. And above all, it blocked any returns to the temptations that had so stymied the inter-war economy: under-production, mutually destructive protectionism, and a collapse of trade.’
Postwar Reconstruction set Australia up for the prosperity of the next 30 years. It is a living example far more deserving of emulation than current proposals which seem to see the construction of a gas pipeline as the answer to all our needs. The creation of a new, digitally-enabled manufacturing industry in our era is as critical as the creation of the car industry was to Chifley in his. While the products will be vastly different, the need to harness the skills of Australian workers is identical.
Unlike the Dept of Postwar Reconstruction, current policy proposals founder on the absence of policy talent in our federal public service. Regardless of the goodwill created by the National Covid Coordination Commission (yes, Scott Morrison finally found Sally McManus’s telephone number) it is increasingly likely that those policy proposals will simply pass into the void.
As opposed to Postwar Reconstruction, which launched or assisted the long public service careers of Coombs, Fred Wheeler, Arthur Tange, and others, the current Department of Industry is a shadow of its former self. It’s hard to see how it can provide advice to govt or to industry on matters of such import.
Successive Governments have congratulated themselves for avoiding recession since 1991. And while this is a major economic achievement, it is worth remembering how Reconstruction set up Australia’s prosperity from 1945 to 1975. Australian wages and productivity have languished for the last eight years, with effective unemployment being at least 10%. In the 1950s GDP in Australia rose 2% annually, and 3% in the 60s. Unemployment remained under 3%.
My father ended his days as a pasty cook after more than 30 years with the one employer. He retired at 60, as he was entitled to do as a war veteran; it was time to hang up his flour-encrusted boots. The Morrison Government seems to be prepared to spend millions on commemorating Australia’s role in many wars, by expanding the Australian War Memorial into something approaching a theme park, yet Australia’s remarkable transformation under Reconstruction goes unremarked. While we’re unlikely to see a monument to the Unknown Pastrycook any time soon (although with the proliferation of TV cooking shows, who knows?) my father made a great and lifelong contribution to manufacturing in this country.
He died at 71, with a war-related injury contributing to his early death. He was always proud of being a tradesman, and a unionist. It was a career he never would have had without the CRTS and the far-sighted policies of Reconstruction.
It is time for us to look to this past, of boldness, skill formation, industry policy, cooperation and productivity, for inspiration in the current crisis. Chifley and Curtin did it with the Japanese army breathing down their necks, and they and our parents and grandparents did it with an international effort which they were proud to be a part of. And they did it with hope.
The least we can do is follow their example.
Andrew Dettmer is National President of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.