Stuart Macintyre: Australia's Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s.
Australia's Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s
(Sydney: NewSouth, 2015)
ISBN 9781742231129 (pbk) $34.00
Post-war Australia was a time of sweeping change in the country. The influx of migrants from warravaged Europe, the expansion of the Commonwealth government, the onset of the Cold War and the birth of the modern welfare state transformed Australia from a predominantly rural population of seven million to ten million in just over a decade. Despite being thought of as a progressive experiment that invented the secret ballot and first elected a labour party to its national government, it was post-war reconstruction that pushed Australia into modernity. Stuart Macintyre's Australia's Boldest Experiment is a monograph that recounts, in vast detail, the people, events and wider historical forces that brought about this remarkable transformation.
Macintyre astutely reminds us, in the first sentence of the book, that on the eve of World War Two Australia was recovering from the Depression. A million people were still out of work. An unwilling participant in a war being waged on continental Europe, imperial loyalties pulled Australia into another conflict. From the outset, Australia's Boldest Experiment recounts the war and its effects on domestic Australia. Brushing aside jingoistic assumptions of ANZAC mythology, Macintyre asserts that Australia's senior politicians and public servants defined a new post-war settlement reconciling political and economic instabilities of the recent past. John Curtin, Ben Chifley, John Dedman and H.V. 'Doc' Evatt are some of the key players in the book. These senior figures in the Australian Labor Party toiled to oversee reform. Curtin died in office and Chifley's health deteriorated significantly after taking over from Curtin. As Macintyre takes pains to remind the reader, the task of both winning the war and rebuilding after was a mammoth one. Australia's peace was one that was carefully planned by the Commonwealth government.
Aside from this 'Labor's greatest hits' list, Macintyre also pays close attention to less known figures, key public servants who planned for reconstruction. H.C. 'Nugget' Coombs, the Director-General of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction features prominently in Australia's Boldest Experiment. Macintyre portrays Coombs as Chifley's expert-in-chief who was central in framing Labor's new Australia. Though Coombs was non-partisan, Macintyre takes great pleasure in letting us know that the rapport between him and Chifley was important in implementing Labor's reforms. Macintyre's fixation on such public servants is central to the narrative. Their machinations, personal idiosyncrasies and long gruelling hours imply a different kind of wartime sacrifice.
The key theme in the book is the idea of planning. Government planning, a notion frowned upon by contemporary politicians as an arcane mechanism of social engineering, takes centre stage in post-war Australia. Macintyre tirelessly details the machinations of politicians and public servants and their trials and tribulations in planning for a new 'golden era' of economic security. The government, through public works, an expanded education system and-most importantly--full employment, envisioned a society with egalitarian ambitions. Macintyre reminds us that, if led well, there is a place for big government in solving social and economic grievances. In this vein, Keynesian economics is rightly given precedence as the philosophy that mended the boom-bust cycles of capitalism. The country, having been shaken by both Depression and war, was now promised a new golden age of prosperity.
As the title of the book suggests, the 'experiment' of post-war reconstruction lay in the application of such large scale planning to all areas of national life. Macintyre argues at length that while bold in its objectives, not all ambitions could be met. Frustrated by conservative state governments and further straightjacketed by constitutional restraints, the dollar crisis and finally union militancy, the government's energy and vigour were spent by the time Labor lost office. Macintyre rightfully asserts that these misfortunes meant that Australia's boldest experiment could have been bolder. Despite winning the 1946 election, by 1949 the Labor Party was consigned to a quarter-century of electoral oblivion.
The new Liberal government cut short many of Labor's reforms. Menzies kept Labor's Keynesian economic structures and successfully guided the country through the golden age that Labor had been promising. Macintyre dispels the myth that Menzies was the architect of Australia's long boom but gives credit for his wisdom in maintaining Keynesian economic controls. There is a firm sense that Macintyre is reminding us that state regulation was both successful and adopted in a fairly bipartisan manner.
This book is no doubt an institutional history. The senior figures of the Commonwealth government loom large but are not omnipotent. Macintyre takes a sweeping view of Australian society. He details, for instance, how post-war reconstruction affected female employment, Indigenous Australia and migrant populations in a time of social as well as economic change. Macintyre's history is indeed totalising in much the same vein as Eric Hobsbawm.
One of the concluding assertions the book makes is that despite the government's planning and increased welfare provisions, Labor's new Australia was not a socialist one. Here Macintyre revisits an age-old argument that surrounds the contested historiography of the Curtin-Chifley era. Compared to Britain's post-war program of nationalisation, he argues, reconstruction here was modest: '[t] he dimensions of Australian dalliance with socialism are thrown into relief by comparison with Britain's ardent romance.' Perhaps if Labor's planning had not been straitjacketed by conservative forces things may have been different. Labor's plans for Australia may have instead implied socialism rather than enforced it, a point that could have been fixated upon in a more extensive manner. However this is a minor issue.
This book is groundbreaking in its scope. The foundations of modern Australia were laid in this era. Macintyre's book is a thorough and extensive testimony to this formative period of Australian history.
University of Melbourne
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|Publication:||Melbourne Historical Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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