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Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

Soldier settlement

When discussing plans for post-war soldier settlement, Commonwealth ministers and officials were profoundly aware of the hardships and failure of thousands of Australian soldier settlers in the 1920s. About a third of the settlers (nearly 12,000) had abandoned their farms within a few years. The report on land settlement by the Rural Reconstruction Commission enumerated factors that led to the 'settlement disasters' after World War I: lack of farm management skills on the part of many settlers, inadequate advisory services, excessive prices for stock and equipment, the fall in commodity prices in 1920–24, poor quality of Crown lands, over-valuation of properties, inadequate farm sizes, heavy capital debt and interest burdens, and unsatisfactory Commonwealth–state relations.

In addition, the commission held that there was insufficient involvement by the Commonwealth in schemes devised by the states, even though they benefited from Commonwealth funding. State officials, many of whom had administered the earlier schemes, tended to be more complacent. For instance, JM Tully, the New South Wales Minister for Lands, told Chifley in 1944 that on balance soldier settlement after the 1914–18 war was highly successful. In his opinion, there was no need for the Commonwealth to establish its own settlement authority; it should simply assist the state programs financially and lay down some general principles.

In 1941 the New South Wales Parliament passed a War Service Land Settlement Act. As Treasurer, Chifley was concerned that the Commonwealth might be forced into accepting financial responsibility for hasty and ill-considered schemes of the states. In May 1942 he prepared a Cabinet submission on rural reconstruction. Cabinet accepted his recommendation that a small commission should investigate post-war rural problems, including soldier settlement. The Rural Reconstruction Commission, which was not appointed until after the creation of the Department of Post War Reconstruction, began its public hearings in March 1943. They continued for most of the year. It also had meetings with the Federal Executive and branches of the Returned and Services League (RSL). The National Congress of the RSL had resolved that soldier settlement should be a Commonwealth responsibility and it had drafted legislation to set up a Commonwealth Land Settlement Commission, staffed entirely by returned servicemen.

There was general agreement between the commission and the RSL on the failings of earlier schemes, but disagreement on other matters. The RSL favoured leasehold tenure, whereas the commission considered that freehold would provide settlers with the incentive to develop their holdings. In its second report, presented to the government in January 1944, the commission stated that Commonwealth involvement in soldier settlement was inevitable, due to repatriation and financial aspects. The role of the states should be to select the land and the settlers, and assist in administration, while the Commonwealth should assess production requirements in relation to market prospects and decide which plans were feasible. It proposed that there be a Commonwealth Investigating Authority, with the power of veto over state settlement plans, and a Commonwealth Financial Authority, attached to the Commonwealth Bank.

The report was studied closely by JG Crawford in the Department of Post War Reconstruction, CL Steele in the Department of Commerce and Agriculture, and other officials. In general, there was opposition to the creation of two Commonwealth authorities. Crawford thought that a distinction should have been made between servicemen returning to the land and those planning to take up rural occupations for the first time. Moreover, settlement should not be the only form of rural re-establishment. The commission had suggested that possibly 50,000 men would seek to take up land, but Treasury officials sought an assurance that the figure would be much smaller. They pointed out that, rather than promoting closer settlement for economic reasons, the government would be sponsoring settlement for political reasons, arising from the strong emotional attitude of many sections of the community in favour of land settlement for servicemen. They also claimed that the proposals were discriminatory, as they would offer much more generous treatment to soldier settlers than other servicemen. Moreover, it meant that public funds would be used to build up substantial private assets. They recommended that the scheme should only provide for leasehold tenure, with rents based on productive value.

On 14 July 1944 Cabinet considered the report of a sub-committee which had analysed the Rural Reconstruction Commission report. It approved settlement provided that it was undertaken gradually as part of a long-term developmental program; a competent authority would assess the qualifications and experience of applicants; sufficient land was allotted to settlers to enable them to farm efficiently and earn a reasonable income; all settlement would be by perpetual leasehold; and adequate guidance and technical advice was available. Apart from the leasehold requirement, these conditions were in accord with the recommendations of the commission. In a public statement, Curtin referred to 'mistakes of the past' and said that the scope of the settlement scheme should be determined by settlement opportunities and market prospects, together with careful selection of servicemen.

Avoiding past mistakes

Soldier settlement was discussed at the premiers conference in August 1944, but there was disagreement on the extent to which the Commonwealth would bear losses on settlement. In addition, leasehold tenure was unacceptable to the Victorian government. Another conference was held on 5 October 1944 and it was agreed that New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland would be 'principal' states, assuming the major financial and administrative responsibilities. The Commonwealth would provide some financial assistance, including meeting half the cost of acquiring and improving the land. It would also provide training and a living allowance for settlers during the initial period. The three 'principal' states could decide on the form of land tenure, thereby enabling Victoria to retain its freehold system. South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania would be 'agent' states, with the Commonwealth undertaking the administration and meeting most of the costs. A draft War Service Land Settlement Agreement was sent to the states in May 1945. By early 1946 the federal parliament and all the state parliaments had ratified the agreement.

Crawford had originally suggested that at the Commonwealth level the scheme might be administered by a Commonwealth Rural Rehabilitation Board, within the Department of Commerce and Agriculture. However in discussions between HC Coombs and Edwin McCarthy it emerged that the Department of Commerce and Agriculture was not in a position to take on responsibility for the scheme. In January 1945 Chifley agreed that a Director of Land Settlement would be appointed within the Department of Post War Reconstruction, the rural division headed by Crawford would investigate settlement proposals, and an inter-departmental committee on land settlement would be formed. During the next month Coombs and Crawford chaired conferences in Adelaide and Sydney attended by state officers and, although it had no legal basis at this stage, the War Service Land Settlement Scheme began operating.

Crawford and his officers started to investigate settlement proposals that were being considered by the state governments. In particular, Jack Kelly, who had been a soldier settler in the 1920s, spent much of the next two years travelling extensively, meeting state officials and landholders, and preparing reports on estates that might be subdivided for soldier settlement. In July 1945 WA McLaren was appointed Director of the War Service Land Settlement Division and a staff establishment was approved by the end of the year. In addition to settlement, the division was responsible for rural training and the administration of agricultural loans under the Re-establishment and Employment Act.

General demobilisation began in October 1945 and as time passed there were widespread complaints and criticism about the lack of settlement opportunities for returning servicemen. An article in Farmer and Settler in November 1945 claimed that 'Government ineptitude is robbing Australian agriculture of scores of recruits. Not one estate in New South Wales has been acquired for settlement'. It took time to set up administrative structures. For instance, in Victoria the Soldier Settlement Commission only began work in 1946. With no suitable Crown land available, time was spent in negotiating with owners of estates, determining purchase prices and organising subdivisions. Delays were also caused by the need for Commonwealth approvals, although in 1946 a system of joint inspections expedited the process. Gradually progress was made. By February 1947, 2.9 million acres had been approved for acquisition, although only 348,212 acres had actually been allotted to servicemen. In addition, approval had been given for 4467 agricultural loans and 3084 applications for rural training.

Commonwealth–state difficulties generally arose in the three 'principal' states. State ministers were inclined to omit any reference to Commonwealth funding when extolling the success of soldier settlement, yet were quick to blame 'dual control' when problems arose. In November 1947 McLaren told the RSL Federal Congress that there had been 'a magnificent spectacle of buck passing on land settlement, with the Commonwealth always on the receiving end'. He praised the Victorian and South Australian governments for their settlement work, although privately he regarded the chairman of the Land Settlement Commission in Victoria as 'vehemently uncompromising'. He was publicly critical of the Lands Departments in New South Wales and Queensland. One area of contention was farm sizes. Commonwealth officials were anxious to ensure minimum standards for farm size and productive capacity to ensure that a settler of average ability would derive a reasonable income. They considered New South Wales officials to be excessively optimistic in applying standards and their subdivision proposals were often unacceptable. Disagreement on this subject came to a head in 1949, with an exchange of insults between John Dedman and Billy Sheahan, the State Minister for Lands.

Another area of disagreement was land valuation. The agreements specified that valuation of land acquired for settlement purposes was to be based on prices prevailing in February 1942. Rising land prices after the war meant that this condition operated unfairly against landowners whose estates were purchased for soldier settlement. Land sales controls were lifted in most states in 1949. Chifley corresponded with the premiers throughout 1949 on land valuations and it was eventually left to the states to determine the amount of compensation for compulsory acquisition of land.

Ultimately, the War Service Land Settlement Scheme provided farms in every state to about 12,000 returned soldiers, compared with more than 37,000 who acquired farms in the years after World War I. In general, the efforts of the Commonwealth Government and its advisers to avoid the mistakes of the past were successful. By providing more comprehensive training, greater care in the selection and subdivision of land, and funding on a much larger scale, they ensured that most soldier settlers remained on the land and achieved a reasonable standard of living. Many of them also benefited from high export prices in the post-war years. The short-term failure rate was about 10 per cent and in Victoria, where half the settlers lived, only four per cent had given up farming by 1962. Nevertheless, as Treasury officials had warned in 1944, the re-establishment of this relatively small number of servicemen had been costly for governments. By 1976 the Commonwealth and state governments had written off the current equivalent of more than $500 million on the War Service Land Settlement Scheme.

Series: A2700
Rural reconstruction, 21 May 1942 245
Rural employment and settlement of returned servicemen, 31 May 1944 665
Land settlement of servicemen, 7 November 1944 665B
Ex-service land settlement: restrictions of transactions in rural land, 4 June 1945 665C
Land Settlement Sub-Committee of Cabinet, 2 July 1945 665D
Rural training of ex-servicemen: payment to trainees, 30 October 1945 953
War Service Land Settlement: single farms, 2 July 1946 1203
War Service Land Settlement: Northern Territory, 15 January 1948 1419
Acquisition of lands for War Service Land Settlement: agreements with principal States: 1942 values, 5 September 1949 1627
Attorney-General's Department
Series: A432
War Service Land Settlement Agreements Bill, 1945–49
Correspondence relating to the drafting of the War Service Land Settlement Agreements Bill. The correspondents include HC Coombs, Sir George Knowles and JGB Castieau.
Department of Commerce and Agriculture
Series: A606
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth, 1944–52
Correspondence and memoranda on various aspects of soldier settlement, including a survey of an infantry battalion in relation to post-war land settlement, Northern Territory army farms, agricultural machinery and statistics of allotment of holdings under the War Service Land Settlement Scheme (1946–52). The correspondents include CL Steele, WA McLaren, WT Doig and R Wilson.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: administration, 1945
Letters (June 1945) of HC Coombs and E McCarthy concerning the appointment of WA McLaren as Director of the War Service Land Settlement Division.
Soldier settlement: policy agreement between Commonwealth and the States, 1944–45
Agenda papers and notes of conferences of Commonwealth and state officers and correspondence on the draft agreement between the Commonwealth and the states on soldier settlement and the establishment of a Cabinet sub-committee. The correspondents include HC Coombs, JG Crawford, WT Doig and CL Steele.
Soldier settlement: meetings of Commonwealth Land Settlement Committee, 1945
Minutes of meetings (March–July 1945) of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Land Settlement, chaired by JG Crawford and WA McLaren.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: farm values and costs, 1944–46
Correspondence and notes of a conference (22 June 1944), chaired by JG Crawford, on farm values and costs.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: rural training, 1945
Report of a conference (4–5 June 1945) of Commonwealth and state officers on rural training of ex-servicemen and memoranda on training policy by JG Crawford and PWE Curtin.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: restrictions on transactions in rural land, 1944–49
Cabinet papers and correspondence on the powers of the Commonwealth to restrict the transfer or lease of rural land to investors and large landowners. The correspondents include AA Dunstan and JG Crawford.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: re-establishment loans, 1945
Correspondence between JJ Dedman and CW Frost relating to rural loans and a paper on assistance for servicemen on the land other than through the Land Settlement Scheme.
Soldier settlement, Commonwealth: WSLS Consultative Committee, 1945
Minutes of a meeting (5 September 1945) of the Farm Plans Consultative Committee, chaired by JG Crawford, and related correspondence.
Soldier settlement, NSW: general: 1945
Correspondence about a proposed New South Wales scheme to assist servicemen to acquire farms. The correspondents include HC Coombs, E McCarthy, JM Tully and WA McLaren.
Soldier settlement: NSW proposals for ex-service land settlement, 1945–47
Schedule (5 June 1945) of settlement proposals submitted by the New South Wales Minister for Lands and correspondence on the purchase of single unit farms. The correspondents include WJ McKell and W Pratt.
Soldier settlement, Queensland: Dalby–Taroom scheme, 1945
Reports of JH Kelly of his tours of inspection of Queensland properties, tables of properties and submissions by the Queensland government.
Soldier settlement, Queensland: Dawson Valley scheme, 1945
Reports of places listed as suitable for soldier settlement in the districts of Theodore, Rockhampton and Nanango.
Soldier settlement, Queensland: Dalby–Taroom scheme, 1945–47
Reports of places listed as suitable for soldier settlement in the districts of Dalby and Taroom and correspondence about drought relief in the Dalby area.
Soldier settlement, South Australia: irrigation schemes, 1945
Statements by the South Australian Department of Lands on irrigation projects.
Soldier settlement, Western Australia: general, 1945–52
Includes a report (3 December 1952) by a select committee of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly on all aspects of the War Service Land Settlement Scheme.
Soldier settlement. Tasmania: King Island, 1945
Reports by the War Service Land Settlement Division on the timber country and Reekara project at King Island.
Series: A609
Post war reconstruction: soldier settlement, 1941–54
A preliminary draft (January 1943) on soldier settlement by the Department of Post War Reconstruction, notes (May 1943) by Margaret Dunbabin on soldier settlement in Canada and New Zealand and related correspondence. The correspondents include JF Murphy and PR Judd.
Department of Post War Reconstruction

Correspondence files relating to the work of the War Service Land Settlement Division, in conjunction with state governments, from its establishment in 1945 until 1972, when it ceased to be a division within the Department of Primary Industry.

Series: A2665
Advance to settlers: policy, 1946–80 S318
Valuation of holdings: general policy: Agent States, 1946–64 S439
South Australia proposal: Loxton Irrigation Area, 1946–53 S1564
Series: A9816
Servicemen land settlement: land surveys, 1945
Correspondence of JG Crawford with J Taylor and C Stephens about soil surveys undertaken by the Commonwealth and the states, including the soils of estates in the south-east of South Australia.
Servicemen land settlement: Commonwealth IDC, 1944–45
Minutes of meetings (March–June 1945) of the Commonwealth Land Settlement Committee, chaired by JG Crawford, and related correspondence.
Servicemen land settlement: land tenure, 1945–46
Correspondence on Commonwealth and state policies on land tenure, including the possibility of leasehold being converted to freehold. The correspondents include JJ Dedman and HC Coombs.
Servicemen land settlement: Commonwealth Territories, 1945
Correspondence concerning the extension of land settlement agreements to Commonwealth territories.
War Service Land Settlement: Cabinet Sub-Committee, 1945–48
A Cabinet submission and correspondence about the appointment of a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Land Settlement, chaired by JJ Dedman.
Soldier land settlement and public works coordination, 1945
Includes a letter (10 May 1945) by KJ McKenzie to JG Crawford on soldier settlement and public works.
Cooperation between War Service Land Settlement and Rural Divisions, 1946
Correspondence between JG Crawford and WA McLaren concerning reports on soldier settlement proposals in New South Wales and Western Australia.
'Tulla' Estate conference, 1946
Correspondence about a conference between Commonwealth and New South Wales agencies concerning a proposal to acquire the 'Tulla' Estate in the Wakool Irrigation Area.
Monthly Bulletin, statistics and notes on land settlement, 1946–47
Issues (August 1946 – February 1947) of the Monthly Bulletin produced by the War Service Land Settlement Division containing statistics on war service land settlement, agricultural loans, agricultural allowances and rural training.
Regional planning: land settlement projects, 1947–49
Correspondence of AS Brown relating to land settlement problems and projects, including a report on the progress of the scheme in Western Australia.

Correspondence, memoranda, reports, surveys, maps and newspaper cuttings relating to the establishment and re-establishment of returned servicemen in agricultural occupations in Queensland.

Series: BP216/1
Land settlement: general, 1947–52 SS11
Determination of capital values, 1947–50 SS22
Housing, 1947–51 SS35
Rural training policy, 1947–53 SS38-1
Assistance period: policy, 1948–51 SS51

Correspondence and reports relating to investigations of properties in Western Australia and agricultural, soil analysis, meteorological and other surveys carried out by the War Service Land Settlement Division, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and other agencies.

Series: K1204
WSLS investigations, 1946–50 G1/3
Use of migrants in agricultural development, 1949–51 G1/5/8
Successful applicants: wheat and sheep farms, 1947–51 G1/21
Advances for acquisitions, 1947–52 G2/2

Correspondence files relating to investigation of estates in New South Wales and recommendations concerning acquisition.

Series: SP777/1
Edinglassie Estate, Muswellbrook, 1947–52 LS282
Maryvale Estate, Burrowa, 1947–48 LS1364
Waterloo Estate, Glen Innes, 1947 LS1413

Correspondence files relating to the work of the division in reviewing properties and estates in New South Wales, determining suitability for division and settlement, and making recommendations for purchase to the minister.

Series: SP777/2
NSW proposals, land settlement: Bolong Estate, Crookwell, 1946–53 S82
NSW land settlement: Camden Park scheme, 1946 S234
NSW land settlement: Struan Estate, Grenfell, 1947 S688
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
Land settlement: policy, 1942–50 (4 parts)
Correspondence of J Curtin and JB Chifley, mainly with state premiers and JJ Dedman, concerning the establishment of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, Commonwealth–state conferences, investigation of properties, valuations and prices, availability of plant and equipment, loans to settlers purchasing freehold property, responsibilities of the Commonwealth under War Service Land Settlement Agreements, payment of living allowances to settlers, criticisms of slow progress with soldier settlement, compensation to landowners, and disputes between the Commonwealth and the states on valuations and the division of estates.
Land settlement: general representations, 1945–50 (4 parts)
Correspondence with individuals, organisations, local government authorities and the Department of Post War Reconstruction concerning soldier settlement, the purchase of single farms, and re-establishment loans to returned servicemen.
Series: A9504
Premiers Conferences, 1933–46
Includes proceedings of the premiers conferences on 25–26 August 1944, 3 October 1944, 20–23 August 1945 and 20–21 August 1946 which discussed soldier settlement and the Commonwealth–State War Service Land Settlement Agreements.
Rural Construction Commission

Transcripts of evidence submitted to the Rural Reconstruction Commission.

Series: A6182
Series: A6188
Settlement and employment of returned men on the land, 1944
Report (18 January 1944) of the Rural Reconstruction Commission (chair: FJS Wise) on post-war soldier settlement.
Series: A571
Ex-service land settlement: proposals from Victoria, 1945
Includes a letter (13 July 1945) from JG Crawford to HJ Goodes forwarding proposals from the Victorian Department of Lands for soldier settlement in the Murray Valley.
War Service Land Settlement Agreement: living allowance to settlers, 1947
Correspondence of HJ Goodes and WA McLaren concerning a proposed increase in the living allowance for soldier settlers during the 'assistance period'.
Rural reconstruction and soldier settlement, 1942–48
Includes a Cabinet submission (21 May 1942) by JB Chifley on rural reconstruction and a letter (17 April 1944) from NF Stuart to WT Doig about Treasury comments on the draft scheme for soldier settlement.
Sir John Crawford
Series: A12085
Soldier settlement: draft second report, 1943–44
Correspondence concerning the report of the Rural Reconstruction Commission on soldier settlement and a draft (19 March 1944) by JG Crawford on the re-establishment of service personnel in rural occupations. The correspondents include JG Crawford, CR Lambert, PR Judd, CL Steele and CP Dowsett.
Land settlement: valuation work, 1946
Includes a letter (3 March 1946) from P Reid to WA McLaren on state proposals for the valuation of holdings under the War Service Land Settlement Scheme.
Land settlement: proposals by RSL, 1943
A Land Settlement Bill prepared by the Returned and Services League and related correspondence.
Land settlement: farm size, 1943–47
Correspondence and memoranda on the size of farm holdings and the financial position of settlers. The correspondents include M Dunbabin, CP Dowsett and JH Kelly.
Land settlement investigations: grazing proposition, 1946
Correspondence between JG Crawford and WA McLaren on the question of whether grazing properties should be included in the War Service Land Settlement Scheme.
Land settlement investigations: Farm Plans Consultative Committee, 1945
Minutes and agenda papers of the first meeting (5 September 1945) of the Farm Plans Consultative Committee, chaired by JG Crawford.
Land settlement: capital investigation, 1946
Capitalisation estimates for War Service Land Settlement sub-divisions and correspondence on financial aspects of soldier settlement.

Further reading

Barrett, AR, A History of the War Service Land Settlement Scheme Western Australia, Government Printer, Perth, [1965].

Butlin, SJ and Schedvin, CB, War Economy 19421945, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1977.

Harris, Thomas D, Soldier settlement in Australia: post-World War II experience, PhD thesis, University of New England, Armidale, 1961.

Nunn, Jean, Soldier Settlers: war service land settlement Kangaroo Island, Investigator Press, Adelaide, 1981.

O'Connor, Pam and O'Connor, Brian, In Two Fields: soldier settlement in the south east of South Australia, SE Soldier Settlers Committee, Mount Gambier, 1991.

Smallwood, Rosalind, Hard to go bung: World War II soldier settlement in Victoria 19451962, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1992.

Vellacott, Morna, War service land settlement in Victoria 1945–1960, B.Litt. thesis, Australian National University, Canberra, 1980.

Whitford, Troy and Boadle, Don, 'Formulating war service land policy: the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia and the Rural Reconstruction Commission', War and Society, vol. 26, no. 1, 2007, pp. 239–60.

Wilson, RW, 'Soldier settlement and development', Regional Development Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 1951, pp. 87–93.