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Research Guides

Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

Public works

In November 1941 Roland Wilson proposed that a Commonwealth Public Works (Reconstruction) Committee be appointed to consider the place of public works in reconstruction. A few weeks later, the Reconstruction Division prepared a lengthy memorandum on public works. It dealt with the economics of reconstruction, summarising optimistic and pessimistic predictions about the post-war economy. Public works were necessary to provide goods and services that private enterprise was unable to provide, including both new services and improvements in existing facilities. They were also needed to provide employment, especially if there was a recession such as occurred after World War I. Methods of finance would be decided later, but there was an immediate need for public authorities to identify projects and establish priorities for the early post-war years. The paper was discussed by LF Giblin and AC Joyce of the Treasury. Joyce considered that works should be justified primarily on the grounds of usefulness, rather than as a means of demobilising the wartime economy. He referred to state sensitivities and thought that more consideration should be given by the proposed committee to federal difficulties in determining a works policy.

The first meeting of the Public Works (Reconstruction) Committee was held on 11 May 1942. Wilson spoke of the need for analysis of works programs and central coordination to ensure there were sufficient short-term projects, as well as long-term projects, taking into account the availability of materials. The question of a meeting with state coordinators of public works was discussed, but Sir Harry Brown later told JB Chifley that more preparatory work was needed.

National Works Council

Soon after he became Director-General of Post War Reconstruction, HC Coombs discussed with Chifley the idea of a National Works Commission constituted, like the other commissions, under national security regulations. The commission would be responsible for ensuring that all government, semi-government and local authorities prepared detailed and specific plans for works projects suitable for execution after the war. The program should cover works needed to improve Australia's productive capacity and public services with less urgent works to start when the employment situation made them desirable. In April 1943 Chifley told Parliament that a commission for public works was planned. However, LG Melville, who was then standing in for Coombs, had some doubts and Sir Harry Brown feared that a commission would create suspicion among the states. He suggested an extension of the present system of coordination under the aegis of the Loan Council.

The department prepared a paper stressing the need to create and ensure an adequate reservoir of public works, partly for development, partly to absorb men and women who would be released from wartime occupations. The reservoir should comprise both capital works and maintenance works that had been deferred during the war. The structure could take the form of either a National Works Commission, with Commonwealth and state representatives, or an extension of the existing coordination system under the Coordinator-General of the Loan Council. In any case, the determination of works priorities would be an essential feature of the system.

There was a long discussion on public works at the premiers conference on 14 July 1943. Chifley said he was not wedded to a National Works Commission, but there had to be some central authority to prepare a complete plan. The premiers feared that a commission or a Coordinator-General would deprive the states of a voice in planning. For a while there was a deadlock, but Sir Harry Brown intervened and persuaded the premiers that a new authority was needed. John Curtin, who declared that the system must ensure that 800,000 people were not left jobless after the war, moved that a National Works Council be established, chaired by the Prime Minister, with a representative of each state.

Following the meeting, the secretariat, with help from the state coordinators, produced a standardised form to record details of each planned work, irrespective of whether it was to be financed by revenue, trust funds or loan funds. Details were sought on the labour, materials and equipment likely to be involved. The works were classified according to money value, degree of urgency and the estimated labour requirements. After consultation with the state coordinators, the Coordinator-General prepared a consolidated listing, grouped into three categories of priority.

Meetings of the National Works Council were held in conjunction with meetings of the Loan Council, and the states were usually represented by the premiers. The council held its first meeting in January 1944 and approved an 'A' priority program of more than 4000 works, amounting to £153 million. At this meeting Brown was appointed Commonwealth Coordinator-General of Works, with Charles Hoy as his deputy. They were based in Sydney and were assisted by a few Post War Reconstruction staff, headed by Philip Dorrian. Brown retired in 1945 on account of ill health, and was succeeded by Hoy. In November 1946 the secretariat was dissolved and Hoy moved to the Department of Works and Housing in Melbourne.

Resources for construction projects

The estimated cost of the national works program steadily increased: from £153 million in 1944 to £358 million in 1947, £743 million in 1949, and £977 million in 1950. In 1950 the reservoir contained 8271 proposals, 31 per cent of which were ready to begin. The biggest categories were railways and tramways, dams and reservoirs, buildings, transport rolling stock, water and sewerage, and roads and bridges. Many of the projects were not expected to be completed for many years; one example is the eastern suburbs railway in Sydney, which was finally opened in 1979. Loans approved by the Loan Council for public works, including housing, also increased: from £19.9 million in 1944 to £31 million in 1945, £45 million in 1946 and £100 million in 1948. However, submissions by the Commonwealth and states were usually reduced by the Loan Council on account of shortages of labour and materials. In his report in August 1946 Hoy stated that many essential services, such as transport, water supply and electricity, were in a precarious position because of the curtailment of capital and maintenance expenditure. Along with increased expenditure, there was an urgent need for the diversion of men and materials to public construction projects.

In July 1944 Coombs raised with Sir Harry Brown the matter of developmental works of a national character. He suggested that, in conjunction with the states, a limited number of major works should be selected because of their national importance and profound effect on economic life. Brown, however, always preferred to concentrate on urgent works delayed by war rather than visionary projects, such as rail standardisation or the diversion of rivers. Dorrian was also unenthusiastic. He questioned the focus on large-scale, spectacular developmental projects, arguing that the provision of ordinary amenities, such as hospitals, improved school buildings, piped water for country towns and electricity for farms, would raise the living standards of many sections of the community. However, by 1947 more attention was being given to long-term projects such as the development of northern Australia, the south-western water supply scheme in Western Australia, and the Snowy River diversion proposals in New South Wales (see chapters 17, 19).

During the war, Commonwealth public works proposals were considered by the works priorities sub-committee, with the Department of War Organisation of Industry examining the availability of labour and materials for each proposal. The sub-committee made recommendations to the defence committee on works costing more than £5000. In June 1944 a Commonwealth works reviewing committee was set up, chaired by Hoy, and it considered works proposals of Commonwealth departments. Brown and Hoy regularly complained that departments were slow to prepare detailed plans or even make submissions at all. After 1945 the Department of Post War Reconstruction had little involvement in works planning, which by then had become the responsibility of the Department of Works and Housing.

As it eventuated, the reservoir of planned works was not needed immediately after the war for employment absorption. In 1948 and 1949, with widespread fears of an impending recession, Coombs and Allen Brown urged that advanced planning of public works reserves should proceed as quickly as possible, so that if necessary public investment could be sharply increased. Hoy referred to a lack of technical officers needed for planning, while Russell Dumas in Western Australia argued that shortages of materials would militate against an expanded public works program. With a change of government, the concept of national public investment planning lost favour and the National Works Council quietly came to an end in 1952.

Series: A2700
Post-war works, 4 July 1944 680
Commonwealth post-war works program, 18 January 1945 764
Commonwealth post-war works program, 30 July 1945 764A
Priority of works, 25 September 1945 941
Public works program in relation to maintenance of employment, 18 January 1946 1038
Proposed procedure for review and approval of proposals for new works to be carried out on behalf of all Commonwealth departments, 11 November 1947 1405
Department of Civil Aviation: new works program 1948–49, 14 September 1948 1530
Series: A3306
Cabinet Sub-Committee on New Works, 1947–49
A Cabinet submission (4 November 1947) by JJ Dedman and N Lemmon on proposed procedure for the review and approval of proposals for new works, and agenda papers and minutes of a meeting (14 September 1949) of the Cabinet sub-committee on works.
Cabinet Sub-Committee on Works, 1948–49
Reports (7 September 1948, 18 January 1949) of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Works (chair: LJ Loder) on the review of the departmental works program, letters of N Lemmon to JJ Dedman, and agenda papers for a meeting (28 June 1949) of the Cabinet sub-committee on works (chair: N Lemmon).
Allied Works Council
Series: B95
Post war reconstruction: public works and general, 1942–46
Memoranda by JA Prescott and AEV Richardson, minutes of a meeting (11 May 1942) of the Public Works (Reconstruction) Committee, observations (November 1942) of CA Hoy on the post-war works program, and correspondence on the proposed National Works Commission, the disposal of defence buildings at the end of the war, post-war housing and industrial relations. The correspondents include EG Theodore, CA Hoy, LF Loder, HM Rolland, HC Coombs and LG Melville.
Department of Labour and National Service
Series: MP574/1
Public works: general inquiry by Coordinator-General of Works, 1943–45
Correspondence and forms relating to post-war works requested by the Department of Labour and National Service, particularly school training facilities. The correspondents include JB Chifley, JJ Dedman, R Wilson, CA Hoy, AW Welch and EP Eltham.
Series: MT116/1
Labour: National Works Reserve, 1945–52
Reports, minutes and notes on resolutions of the National Works Council, the National Works Reserve, plans for expansion of public works in a recession, investigations by the Investment and Employment Committee, and discussions (1949) with CA Hoy and the Department of Post War Reconstruction. The correspondents include HA Bland, RJ Walker, AS Brown, D Butt and CA Hoy.
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A9790
Public investment: National Works Program, 1947–49
Memoranda, correspondence and notes on the relationship between the national works program and employment policy, the inclusion of industrial works in the reservoir of planned works, the development programs of Commonwealth authorities, and reviews of the national program. The correspondents include HC Coombs, AS Brown and TW Swan.
Coordination of national works projects, 1947
Correspondence between TW Swan and CA Hoy on the coordination of Commonwealth and state works projects, including the standardisation of rail gauges.
National Works Reserve: miscellaneous notes, 1947–48
Notes on the National Works Reserve, Commonwealth–state national planning authorities, local government finance and works and related subjects.
Series: A9816
Research on internal subjects: public works, 1941–43
Correspondence and memoranda including an undated paper by PR Judd on the planning of public works for post-war reconstruction.
IDC on Public Works, 1941–42
Minutes of a meeting (11 May 1942) of the Public Works (Reconstruction) Committee and correspondence and statements on the establishment of the committee, public works and post-war reconstruction, works approved by the committee, and the position of Sir Harry Brown. The correspondents include JB Chifley, R Wilson, GG Firth, AC Joyce, AB Corbett and Sir Harry Brown.
Public works documents prepared by Reconstruction Division, 1941–43
Memoranda by PR Judd, GG Firth, AH Tange and JG Crawford on the place of public works in post-war reconstruction.
Relations of Division with Coordinator-General of Works, 1941
Notes prepared by Sir Harry Brown for the Inter-Departmental Committee on Reconstruction.
Public works planning: setting up and policy, 1942–44 (2 parts)
Correspondence, memoranda and notes on the proposed National Works Commission, its relationship with the Department of Post War Reconstruction, planning of post-war works, the establishment of the National Works Council, discussions with Sir Harry Brown, the appointment of CA Hoy as Assistant Coordinator-General, the need for a secretariat, and proposals for long-term projects. The correspondents include HC Coombs, LG Melville, PA Dorrian, JS Collings, Sir Harry Brown, CA Hoy and LF Giblin.
Allied Works Council, 1943–46 (2 parts)
Correspondence and statements concerning labour employed on Allied Works Council projects and the interest of the Commonwealth Housing Commission in organising a mobile labour force.
Works priorities and post war reconstruction, 1943–45 (2 parts)
A War Cabinet submission (6 September 1943), correspondence and notes on priorities for civil works, meetings of the works priorities sub-committee, priorities for state works, and specific proposals such as the Cockburn Sound Naval Base, Brisbane water supply, a new bridge at Rockhampton, Perth Hospital and the Melbourne Dental School. The correspondents include HC Coombs, GT Chippindall, PA Dorrian, KJ McKenzie and AW Paul.
Allied Works Council, 1943–44
Correspondence on the future of the Allied Works Council and the Civil Construction Corps and the possibility of creating a new authority responsible for works and housing. The correspondents include HC Coombs, JG Crawford, PA Dorrian, Sir Harry Brown and JK Jensen.
Non-governmental utilities post-war works program, 1943–44
Correspondence concerning works proposals of non-governmental utilities, such as gas and electric light companies. The correspondents include HC Coombs, PA Dorrian and G Gray.
Works priorities: basis for determination, 1943–45
Correspondence and notes on the principles determining post-war works priorities. The correspondents include HC Coombs, KJ McKenzie and Sir Harry Brown.
Commonwealth Works Reviewing Committee, 1944–48 (5 parts)
Agenda papers and minutes of the Commonwealth Works Reviewing Committee (chair: CA Hoy) and correspondence concerning the formation of the committee in June 1944, the drafting of a Cabinet submission, the tardiness of Commonwealth departments in submitting proposals, and delays in completing the planning of post-war works. The correspondents include JB Chifley, JG Crawford, PA Dorrian, KJ McKenzie, Sir Harry Brown, CA Hoy and AC Joyce.
Finance for post-war works: policy, 1944–46
A statement (1 July 1946) by JB Chifley on the National Works Council and correspondence between JJ Dedman and Federal parliamentarians on financial assistance for local projects.
Materials required for post-war works, 1945–47
A report (March 1945) and minutes by PA Dorrian and KJ McKenzie on progress in public works planning and materials required for A priority works.
Public works: secondary industries and employment, 1945–47
Minutes of conferences (14–15 November 1945, 11–12 April 1946) of Commonwealth and state officers to consider public works in relation to the maintenance of employment (chairs: HC Coombs, CA Hoy) and correspondence about information required by state coordinators. The correspondents include JJ Dedman, HC Coombs, AS Brown and FH Wheeler.
1945/471 Pt 1
Commonwealth post-war works and Parliamentary Public Works Committee, 1945
A Cabinet submission (26 July 1945) and correspondence concerning the referral of public works proposals to the Parliamentary Committee on Public Works.
National Works Council: reserve, 1949–50
Notes of a conference (15 August 1949) of Commonwealth and state officers to consider a National Works Reserve (chair: CA Hoy) and correspondence on the use of the reserve as an instrument of employment policy. The correspondents include LF Crisp, D Butt, HA Bland, RJ Walker and CA Hoy.
1947/50 Pt 3
Department of the Army
Series: MP742/1
National Works Council program, 1944–49
Lists of army works projects, correspondence and minutes concerning planning of the post-war works program, the Post-War Works Reviewing Committee, resolutions of the National Works Council, and the inclusion of army works in the reservoir of planned works to meet future threats of unemployment. The correspondents include JB Chifley, FM Forde, JJ Dedman and CA Hoy.
Department of the Interior
Series: A431
Commonwealth Statistician: information on works expenditure and employment for Loan Council, 1946–47
Statistical papers and correspondence on information required by the Loan Council, the decision of the council to reduce the borrowing program to 75 per cent of endorsed works programs, and the purchase of rolling stock for the Commonwealth Railways. The correspondents include HA Barrenger, R Wilson and CA Hoy.
New works program to be carried out by Department of Works and Housing, 1947–52
Correspondence, minutes, priority lists and financial statements concerning a three-year program of public works in Canberra and the Northern Territory and for the Meteorological Bureau. The correspondents include JA Carrodus, WC Lancaster, WA McLaren, AR Driver, HN Warren and LF Loder.
Department of War Organisation of Industry
Series: CP80/1
Post war reconstruction: National Works Council, 1944–45
Correspondence and minutes on the relations between the National Works Council and the Department of Post War Reconstruction, the establishment of the Post-War Works Reviewing Committee, and the program of post-war works for CSIR. The correspondents include JB Chifley, HC Coombs, EJB Foxcroft, WH Ifould and G Cook.
Bundle 9/S513
Priorities for non-governmental works, 1943–44
Correspondence and memoranda concerning the allocation of workforce and materials for non-governmental works, the works priorities sub-committee, priorities of state works, and the monitoring of building and construction projects. The correspondents include GT Chippindall, EJB Foxcroft, RE Banks and WC Wurth.
Bundle 10/S540
National Works Council
Series: CP630/1
Details of Works Program procedures: maintenance of reservoir of fully planned works, 1946–50 (2 parts)
Correspondence and minutes concerning the maintenance of a reservoir of fully planned works, planning of public works in the states, resolutions of the 4th meeting of the National Works Council, the relationship between the works program and full employment, and the possibility of a rapid expansion of public works in a recession. The correspondents include CA Hoy, HC Coombs, PA Dorrian, AS Brown, LF Crisp and RJ Dumas.
Bundle 3/W46/345
Administrative machinery for coordination of programs, 1943–49
Correspondence and notes on the authorisation of public works for rehabilitation of servicemen, post-war housing, discussions between the Coordinator-General and HC Coombs, and dollar equipment required for major national works projects. The correspondents include Sir Harry Brown, HC Coombs, PA Dorrian and LF Crisp.
Bundle 4/W44/14
Post-war works: administrative arrangements, 1946
Correspondence of PA Dorrian and CA Hoy concerning the closure of the public works section in Sydney and the transfer of duties to the Defence Division of Treasury.
Bundle 4/W44/117
Post-war works: administrative arrangements and publicity, 1943–51
Includes reports (1944–45) of the public works section and a statement (March 1944) of the Department of Post War Reconstruction's activities in relation to public works.
Bundle 4/W44/231
Matters of government policy bearing on public works, 1944
Correspondence on the financing of post-war public works, including advances to local government authorities. The correspondents include Sir Harry Brown, HC Coombs, AC Joyce and W Thomas.
Bundle 4/W44/236
Post-war works: matters of government policy and finance, 1944–45
Correspondence on the financing of post-war public works and the advance authorisation of the public works program. The correspondents include Sir Harry Brown, HC Coombs, PA Dorrian and AC Joyce.
Bundle 4/W44/283
Post-war works: administrative machinery for coordination of programs, 1943–47
Correspondence concerning post-war railway construction and developmental projects carried out by state authorities. The correspondents include CA Hoy, HC Coombs, TW Swan, RJ Murphy and Sir Harold Clapp.
Bundle 4/W44/305

Files of the Commonwealth Coordinator-General of Works (Sir Harry Brown, CA Hoy) dealing with both the general administration of the works program and specific works projects.

Note: Most of the items in this series have not yet been cleared for access.

Series: MP38/1
Collaboration with State Governments and State Coordinators, 1943–46 W44/5
Collaboration with Reconstruction Commissions and Ministry of Post War Reconstruction: meetings and correspondence with the Minister, 1943–45 W44/12
Employment stabilisation: general policy, 1943–45 W44/59
Burdekin River bridge, 1946 W46/349
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
Post war reconstruction: works, 1943–50 (3 parts)
Reports of the National Works Program and correspondence of J Curtin and JB Chifley mainly with state premiers concerning the establishment of the National Works Program, the recording of works proposals, the financing of public works, delays in planning of Commonwealth works, reforestation, irrigation and other state projects, housing targets, and the allocation of priorities.
Series: A571
Relationship of Loan Council to National Works Council, 1943–50
Memoranda and minutes of FH Wheeler and M O'Donnell on the relationship between the Loan Council and the National Works Council, discussions with the Department of Post War Reconstruction on investment and employment policy, and the proposed policy to augment the works program in order to absorb unemployed workers.