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Research Guides

Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

Discussion groups and the New Order

An AIF education scheme was devised in the very last months of World War I and in 1919 lectures and classes were provided to servicemen and nurses in France and England during the long wait before they returned to Australia. In March 1941 the War Cabinet drew on this experience in setting up an Australian Army Education Scheme. It was placed under the command of Colonel Robert Madgwick, who in peacetime had been closely associated with the Sydney University Extension Board. In October 1943 the scheme became the Australian Army Education Service. By the time it was dissolved in 1946, the service had employed 975 education officers who had given nearly 150,000 lectures, 31,000 recitals and 3200 film programs. It also organised correspondence courses and discussion groups, in conjunction with technical colleges and universities, while its extensive library service lent hundreds of thousands of books to troops in Australia, the Middle East, New Guinea and forward posts in the Pacific.

Madgwick stated that 'the prime purpose of the A.A. Education Service in wartime is to sustain and build morale by developing in troops a sense of social responsibility and a capacity for clear and intelligent thinking'. Its activities extended from general education to vocational training, recreation and diversion from tedium. Publications were a crucial part of its work, especially in stimulating thinking about the post-war world. Salt, the weekly journal of the Army Education Service, began publication in September 1941 and enjoyed enormous popularity. Its circulation rose from 55,000 to a peak of 180,000. It was edited by Major Mungo MacCallum and staff writers included Frank Hardy, Vane Lindsay and Ambrose Dyson. Salt included poetry, stories and drawings, as well as news and commentaries on politics and economic and social issues. Many articles dealt with post-war Australia. Examples were the Constitutional Convention (January 1943), post-war planning (June 1943), town planning (November 1943), public health (January 1944), rail standardisation (April 1944), the Fourteen Powers Referendum (July 1944), soldier settlement (July 1944), the Reconstruction Training Scheme (November 1944), the Re-establishment and Employment Bill (April 1945), the Commonwealth Bank (May 1945), civil aviation (August 1945) and demobilisation (August 1945). Some of these subjects were highly controversial and inevitably the Army Education Service faced charges of political bias.

The service also published a series of pamphlets on topical issues, such as the population problem, Australia's industrial future, unemployment and the housing problem. In 1942 it began issuing the Current Affairs Bulletin, originally for the use of education officers and discussion groups. After the war the journal was taken over by the Commonwealth Office of Education and later by the University of Sydney. It eventually ceased publication in 1998. LF Crisp, NB Palethorpe and other staff of the Department of Post War Reconstruction contributed to both Salt and early issues of the Current Affairs Bulletin.

Salt was originally intended for members of all the services, but in April 1943 the RAAF Directorate of Public Relations began publishing its own journal. Wings appeared at varying intervals and it did not have the literary aspirations of Salt. Its articles tended to deal with subjects of immediate interest to servicemen, such as the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, vocational guidance, the Re-establishment and Employment Act, post-war housing and demobilisation.

In the defence services and in the Australian community generally, discussion groups and listening groups were an important feature of adult education in the years immediately before and during the war. Often sponsored by the Workers' Educational Association, groups were formed in cities and towns, in workplaces, and in churches, trade unions and other organisations. For instance, in Canberra the discussion group movement was launched in April 1939, with a course on international affairs, and within a short time eight study groups had been formed. By the end of the war, it was estimated there were more than 10,000 discussion groups in Australia. In encouraging thinking and discussion about post-war Australia, both the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) and the Department of Post War Reconstruction made effective use of listening groups and discussion groups.

In 1939 the ABC appointed an organiser for listening groups and by 1944 there were 300 groups in New South Wales alone. In 1941 Kenneth Henderson joined the staff of the ABC Talks Department and soon began producing a program entitled Tomorrow's World. It was broadcast on Sunday evenings and members of ABC listening groups received the scripts of each session. Another ABC program, After the War, Then What? was broadcast nationally in 1943–44. Nation's Forum of the Air was first broadcast in August 1944 and was a popular ABC program for many years. Organised by William McMahon Ball, who based it on the Town Meeting of the Air in the United States, each session comprised an hour-long debate, usually with four speakers, followed by questions from the audience and listeners. Subjects in 1944–45 included the population problem, nationalisation of coal mines and airlines, control of banking, the San Francisco Conference, and communism and trade unions.

Henderson regularly consulted the Reconstruction Division when he was arranging ABC programs and from 1943 onwards the Department of Post War Reconstruction also worked closely with the ABC. It accepted responsibility for printing and distributing the transcripts of each Nation's Forum of the Air debate. HC Coombs, Ronald Mendelsohn and Walter Bunning appeared in After the War, Then What? and Lloyd Ross was one of the debaters in a particularly fiery session of Nation's Forum of the Air. In 1944–45 the Public Relations Division of the department encouraged the formation and operation of discussion groups which would consider various post-war questions. A series of pamphlets was issued, each one summarising a topic, suggesting some questions for discussion, and inviting comment and criticism. In July 1944 Curtin told Parliament that already 693,000 copies of post-war discussion notes had been distributed. There were multiple issues on major topics such as post-war Australia, housing and social security, while others dealt with more specific subjects: films in post-war progress, food and agriculture, the Tennessee Valley experiment, and cultural activities in Australia. Lloyd Ross, who described discussion groups as 'an important experiment in democracy', gave many talks and travelled widely promoting the discussion group movement.

War Cabinet
Series: A2671
Educational and vocational training for the AIF and the Australian Military Forces in Australia, 6 February 1941 55/1941
Educational and vocational training for the AIF and the Australian Military Forces: extension of scheme to RAN and RAAF, 9 May 1941 55/1941 Supp. 1
Army Education journal Salt, 16 June 1942 260/1942
Joint Services journal, 31 August 1942 260/1942 Supp 1
Army Education journal Salt, 30 January 1943 260/1942 Supp 3
Australian Army Education Service, 13 November 1942 442/1942
Army and Air educational services, 17 December 1942 442/1942 Supp 1
Army and Air educational services and basis of entitlement to post-discharge training, 2 March 1943 442/1942 Supp 2
Provision of funds for AA Education Service 1943–44, 4 February 1944 48/1944
Army Education journal Salt, 6 March 1944 66/1944
Provision of funds for Army Education Service 1944–45, 6 March 1945 73/1945
Provision of funds, AA Education Service: textbooks for post-Armistice training, 18 August 1945 356/1945
Service journals: amalgamation or termination of existing journals, 12 November 1945 441/1945
Advisory War Council
Series: A2684
Army journal Salt: policy in regard to publication of matters of political interest, 1945
Advisory War Council minute (31 May 1945) and correspondence concerning the claim by AW Fadden that the views of the Country Party should be included in articles of political interest published in Salt.
Australian Broadcasting Commission
Series: B2111
Discussion groups, 1939–45
Correspondence and minutes (mostly 1939–42) on the appointment of a listening groups organiser in Victoria; distribution of lectures, broadcasts and programs of talks; and activities of listening groups in other states. The correspondents include RC McCall, BH Molesworth and LR Thomas.
TKS 19
Series: MP298/4

Correspondence and scripts of two special programs: Nation's Forum of the Air and The Watchman, including letters from participants in the programs.
WD Borrie, 1944 BEN/3/1
DB Copland, 1944 CO/6/1
HC Coombs, 1944 CO/6/2
RG Menzies, 1944 ME/15/1
Nation's Forum of the Air: general, 1944–46 N17/1/1
Population Unlimited, 1944 NN
Lloyd Ross, 1944 R/19/1
Professor SM Wadham, 1944–45 WA/23/2
Series: SP369/3

Booklets published by the ABC based on transcripts of its talk program Nation's Forum of the Air.
Control in industry? 1944 VOLUME 1/1
Should the coal-mines be nationalised? 1944 VOLUME 1/4
The battle for population, 1944 VOLUME 1/9
Should the airlines be nationalised? 1945 VOLUME 1/11
Houses – how, when and where? 1945 VOLUME 1/12
What Australia can expect from the San Francisco Conference, 1945 VOLUME 1/16
Can governments ensure full employment? 1945 VOLUME 1/24
Do we need another powers referendum? 1946 VOLUME 2/1
Is railway unification vital and urgent? 1946 VOLUME 2/4
Re-establishing the ex-serviceman – what progress have we made? 1947 VOLUME 3/5
Department of Air
Series: A705
RAAF Educational Services: discussion groups, 1943–45
Correspondence between RAAF officers and related papers on the establishment of RAAF discussion groups, advice to discussion group leaders, films and course notes, including references to army and civilian discussion groups.
Department of Information
Series: SP109/3
Naval monthly paper DIT, 1944–45
Correspondence about costs incurred by the Department of Information in publishing the first nine issues of DIT for the RAN.
Series: SP112/1
Supply of Army Education Service, 1942–43
Correspondence and minutes on the supply of material for publication in Salt and for broadcasts to the forces and the publication of Army News in the Northern Territory. The correspondents include N McCauley, M MacCallum and M Erskine-Wyse.
Army Education Service, including Salt, 1943–44
Includes a report on the aims and activities of the Army Education Service and correspondence on the supply of material by the Department of Information for publication in Salt. The correspondents include M Stanley and LG Wigmore.
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A9816
ABC: talks, listening groups and special sessions, 1941–49 (2 parts)
Radio scripts, articles and correspondence on collaboration between the Reconstruction Division (and later the department) and the ABC and contributions to series such as Shape of Things to Come, After the War, Then What?, Servicemen and Women Want to Know and Nation's Forum of the Air. The correspondents include R Wilson, HC Coombs, LF Crisp, L Ross, NB Palethorpe, K Henderson and R Parry.
Army education: Salt and Wings, 1942–44
Correspondence concerning articles written by staff of the Department of Post War Reconstruction for publication in Salt and Wings on such subjects as the Constitution, a national health service, social security and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (CRTS). The correspondents include LF Crisp, NB Palethorpe, C Dean, M MacCallum and M Stanley.
Publicity speakers' panel, 1943–45
Correspondence and minutes in response to requests for information on post-war reconstruction from the Workers' Educational Association, Returned and Services League, ALP branches, student organisations, local government authorities and other organisations.
Current Affairs Bulletin, 1943–47
Typescripts of articles and correspondence with the Army Education Service about articles written for the Current Affairs Bulletin by the staff of the Department of Post War Reconstruction and the distribution of the publication by the department. The correspondents include LF Crisp, NB Palethorpe, WGK Duncan and FR Sinclair.
Army education: lecture outlines, 1943–44
Correspondence and minutes concerning lectures given by staff of the Department of Post War Reconstruction at Army Education Service schools, and the publication and distribution of reconstruction leaflets. The correspondents include L Ross, NB Palethorpe and R Mendelsohn.
Forum of the Air debate on full employment, 1945–48
Correspondence and minutes about the publication of the transcripts of the ABC program Nation's Forum of the Air, including expenditure incurred by the Department of Post War Reconstruction.
Department of the Army

Files of the Army Headquarters relating to the wartime administration of the Australian military forces, including administration, defences, the operation of the Australian Imperial Forces, and staffing and employment of civilian personnel within the Department of the Army.

Series: MP508/1
Army Education Service: broadcasts, 1942 89/701/56
Army Education Service: cooperation with universities, 1942–44 89/706/302
Documentary films for Army Education Service, 1942 89/711/80
Listening groups and ABC radio talks, 1942 89/715/8
Criticisms of educational journal Salt, 1941 89/716/161
Introduction of discussion groups, 1941–42 89/718/34
Army Education Service: discussion group scheme, 1941 89/718/81
Methods used in organising discussion groups, 1942 89/718/107
Series: MP742/1
Discussion groups: formation and operation, 1943
Reports (May 1943) by Army Education Service officers in Papua New Guinea, the Northern Territory and army headquarters on the formation and maintenance of discussion groups, including the experiences of various education officers in New Guinea.
Series: A571
Service journals Wings and Salt, 1942–45
War Cabinet submissions on the establishment, funding and frequency of Salt, Wings and the Current Affairs Bulletin and minutes by WE Dunk, GPN Watt and AC Joyce.
Army journal Salt and Air Force journal, 1942
War Cabinet submission (31 August 1942), with minutes by GPN Watt and AC Joyce.
Series: A649
Army Education Service: correspondence courses, 1943
Correspondence between FR Sinclair, Department of the Army, and GPN Watt about expenditure on correspondence courses undertaken by the Army Education Service.
Sir Frederick Shedden
Series: A5954
Service journals Salt and Wings, 1941–45
War Cabinet minutes and submissions and Defence Committee minutes on expenditure on Salt and Wings, the size of the publications, the possible publication of a joint services journal and the amalgamation of the publications in 1945.

Further reading

Dymock, Darryl R, 'Learning in the trenches: a World War II distance education programme', Distance Education, vol. 6, no. 1, 1995, pp. 107–19.

Inglis, KS, This is the ABC: the Australian Broadcasting Commission, 19321983, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983.

Whitelock, Dereck, The Great Tradition: a history of adult education in Australia, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1974.