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Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction


In an address that he gave in Melbourne in January 1943, John Dedman declared that 'already it looks as though the word Reconstruction is becoming as blessed a word as Mesopotamia used to be to an earlier generation'.1 'Reconstruction’ had, in fact, been in common usage in earlier times, particularly in the United States after the Civil War and in Britain in the later stages of World War I. A Reconstruction Committee was set up in London in 1916 and in the following year the Lloyd George government created a Ministry of Reconstruction. While the ministry was required to give close attention to the problems of demobilisation and the future needs of ex-servicemen, its view of reconstruction was much wider than simply repatriation. Acting as a central planning unit that transcended departmental boundaries, the Ministry of Reconstruction issued policy documents and set up committees on such subjects as post-war priorities, subsidised housing, building materials, education, public health, industrial insurance, new industries, land policy and unemployment.

In contrast to Britain, the term 'post-war reconstruction' was only occasionally used in Australia during World War I and its aftermath. Instead, the focus of public policy and debate was on the repatriation and re-establishment of servicemen. In March 1918 a Repatriation Commission was appointed and in the following month a Repatriation Department came into existence, with Senator Edward Millen as the minister. Its principal activities were the organisation of vocational training for discharged servicemen; the establishment of hostels, convalescent homes and other institutions for servicemen with disabilities; and providing grants and loans, living allowances, tools of trade, medical fees and free transport for ex-servicemen undergoing training or medical treatment. The department also provided advances to the states to finance soldier settlement schemes. In 1919 a War Service Homes Commission was also set up to assist servicemen in purchasing homes.

The situation was quite different in World War II. Post-war reconstruction in Australia became a much broader phenomenon than simply the re-establishment of servicemen and women. After more than a decade of economic depression and war, there was a widespread belief that radical political, economic, social and cultural changes in Australia and in the wider world were necessary. Cultural nationalism, evident in much of the art and literature of the 1940s, influenced attitudes to reconstruction. The historian Geoffrey Serle later recalled that in the war years many young Australians 'felt themselves to be a new generation of independent Australians, were fed up with the cringe to Empire, were inspired by idealism for post-war reconstruction (having grown up in the Depression) and saw themselves as contributing to the description and definition of Australian society'.2


From 1941 onwards, the uplifting if vague terms 'post-war reconstruction' and 'New Order' became household words, so commonplace that they often appeared in newspaper cartoons and advertisements. In books and pamphlets, articles and broadcasts, conferences, tutorials and discussion groups, thousands of individuals and numerous organisations expressed their hopes and ideas about the post-war world. The titles of a few publications issued in those years point to the range of concerns of many Australians: More Power to the Commonwealth (1941), Unemployment and the New Social Order (1941), Housing the Australian Nation (1942), Are There Enough of Us? (1942), The New Order: nationalised banking (1942), The Case for Decentralisation and Defence (1942), The Problem of Maintaining Full Employment (1943), The Advance to Social Security (1943), The Church and Post War Reconstruction (1943), Post-war Trade, Tariffs and Labour (1943), Post-war Industrial Policy and Private Enterprise (1943), Adult Education in Post-war Australia (1944), Education and Reconstruction (1944), Reconstruction and the Primary Industries (1944), Blueprint for the Health of a Nation (1944), The Organisation of World Security (1944), Water Conservation and Australia's Eventual Population (1945) and How Many Australians Tomorrow? (1945).

In a pamphlet issued in April 1942, the trade unionist Lloyd Ross succinctly brought together many of the strands that made up 'reconstruction':

The New Order will be a world without insecurity, without unemployment, without poverty, without malnutrition, without all evil things. It’s a world without many things, because it's so much easier to make promises to eliminate than it is to evolve plans to create. Yet, even the plans are plentiful: water conservation to absorb labor and remove the fear of drought from Australians; housing schemes to employ labor and to eliminate slums; free libraries, kindergartens and cultural centres to be organised and built by the labor released from war needs; educational opportunities to raise the cultural level of our people; afforestation and the elimination of soil erosion; and so on.3

In the early months of 1941 a small reconstruction division was set up in the Department of Labour and National Service, and it promoted thinking and discussion about post-war problems and policies in the wider community. As in World War I, the division and other government agencies initially concentrated on repatriation issues: the organisation of demobilisation, re-establishment benefits, professional and vocational training of discharged servicemen, and the vexed question of preference of employment for ex-servicemen. At the same time, the division offered reconstruction grants in order to encourage research and writing within the universities on other aspects of reconstruction. The scope of these research projects was broad, including population growth, immigration, housing, the building industry, land settlement, irrigation and external territories. Gradually, officers of the division took on the task of investigating such matters as post-war housing, public works and rural reconstruction. In conjunction with the Department of External Affairs, they also began looking at problems of international reconstruction, particularly nutrition, commercial and monetary policy, and Australia's response to the 1942 Anglo–American Mutual Aid Agreement.

At the end of 1942 the Reconstruction Division was superseded by the Department of Post War Reconstruction, with JB Chifley as its minister and HC Coombs as the Director-General. At the outset, the staff of the department provided research and administrative support for three semi-independent commissions that carried out extensive investigations into housing, rural reconstruction and secondary industries in Australia. They also provided support for the National Works Council, which was established in 1943. As the research staff of the department gradually expanded, they began to specialise in particular areas: re-establishment, rural policy, secondary industries and decentralisation, housing and town planning, the building industry, public works, employment policy and international reconstruction. During 1944 their work resulted in a number of Cabinet submissions on such matters as re-establishment and preference, soldier settlement, post-war housing, town planning, post-war control of government factories, and the motor car industry.

Coombs hoped that, like its British counterpart in World War I, the new department would coordinate post-war planning by a range of government agencies. Other long-established departments did not always welcome offers of collaboration from a new department with rather vague responsibilities. Post War Reconstruction officers generally had good relations with the departments of External Affairs, Labour and National Service, Commerce and Agriculture, and War Organisation of Industry.

Their relations with the departments of Trade and Customs, Interior, Health and External Territories were more strained. In particular, they found that the Treasury was often obstructive and opposed to any initiatives that might disturb the balance of federal–state relations. Some Treasury officers also feared that their authority in economic matters was being challenged by the clever young economists recruited by Post War Reconstruction. Occasionally, post-war plans were drawn up by a single individual, such as Sir Harold Clapp on rail standardisation and WGK Duncan on adult education. In general, however, planning was entrusted to inter-departmental committees, chaired by Coombs, Roland Wilson, JA Carrodus, Ronald Walker and other officials. In 1943 and 1944 inter-departmental committees produced reports on post-war demobilisation, training, employment, education, housing, community facilities, the building industry, civil aviation, shipping and shipbuilding, the reconstruction of Darwin, migration, the Australian birth rate, territories and international economic relations.

In 1942 many Commonwealth ministers and officials were convinced that post-war reconstruction would be a failure if the Commonwealth did not have greater constitutional powers. This was particularly the view of the Attorney-General HV Evatt, who led a group of officials in drawing up a list of 14 powers that should be transferred to the Commonwealth for a limited period. At a convention in Canberra in November 1942 the premiers agreed that the states would refer the specified powers to the Commonwealth for a period of five years after an armistice. Opinion polls at the time suggested that there was strong public support for the transfer. Within a short time, however, four of the states backed away and failed to pass the necessary legislation. Consequently, the Commonwealth Government decided in December 1943 that the 14 powers would be sought in a referendum.

It was not held until August 1944 and during the long campaign it was evident that, with the national crisis averted and growing resentment of government regulations, support for greater Commonwealth powers was dwindling. The defeat of the referendum meant that the validity of much of the government's legislation would rest on the defence power, which in peacetime would be open to challenge. In addition, many plans would have to be abandoned or modified because of the hostility or obduracy of state governments. For instance, proposals for Commonwealth involvement in town planning, community facilities and adult education were dropped during the course of 1945.

The Commonwealth Government was able to implement a series of major reforms and initiatives during the last year of the war. The demobilisation plan was approved by the War Cabinet in March 1945. The Re-establishment and Employment Act 1945 set out in detail the re-establishment entitlements of ex-service personnel, including preference of employment for seven years, and created the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and the Commonwealth Employment Service. Legislation was introduced and passed to strengthen the central banking powers of the Commonwealth Bank, nationalise the interstate airline services, and set up the Commonwealth Office of Education and the Universities Commission. The government also announced its commitment to standardising railway gauges and to establishing a national university.

In May 1945 the White Paper on Full Employment was presented to Parliament, summarising the policies, measures and controls that the government considered necessary for the maintenance of full employment and low inflation in the immediate post-war years. In August 1945 Arthur Calwell outlined the government's post-war immigration policy, including an ambitious target of 70,000 immigrants each year. After lengthy negotiations, agreements were signed between the Commonwealth and the states relating to public housing and war service land settlement. Internationally, Australian delegates played an active part in the formation of the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Peace and recovery

On 15 August 1945 the war with Japan came to a sudden end. Many Commonwealth officials had expected the war to continue into 1946 and were not entirely prepared for the transition to a peacetime society and economy. Meetings were frantically held to put into operation the demobilisation plan and to begin the long process of dismantling wartime controls. After a short delay, general demobilisation started in October 1945 and by the end of 1946 more than half a million men and women had returned to civilian life. Fears of post-war unemployment were unfounded: most discharged servicemen found jobs reasonably quickly and for many years the unemployment figure remained very low. The first two or three years of peace were a difficult time for many Australians and they responded to the terms 'New Order' and 'Golden Age' with a degree of cynicism. Labour shortages were especially acute in the building industry and progress in home-building was much slower than had been planned. Large-scale immigration was seen by many as a solution to labour shortages, but lack of shipping resulted in relatively few migrants arriving before 1948.

sharp fall in coal production compared with the early years of the war caused a series of crises, while strikes in the coal and transport industries led to power blackouts and disruptions to rail and tram services in most states. Many wartime controls were removed or relaxed but, in order to control inflation, controls over wages, prices, rents, capital issues, interest rates, marketing and allocation of essential materials were maintained. Rationing of sugar, meat and clothing ended in 1947–48, but rationing of petrol, tea and butter was retained, despite its unpopularity, until 1950.

Coombs had always seen the Department of Post War Reconstruction as a planning agency and with the coming of peace he expected that it would be dismantled within a short period. The department did withdraw from certain areas: officers concerned with housing were transferred to the new Department of Works and Housing in 1945; the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, headed by JG Crawford, was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Agriculture in 1946; and by 1947 the task of monitoring employment conditions was left to the new Commonwealth Employment Service. However, John Dedman, who had succeeded Chifley as minister in February 1945, was averse to overseeing a dwindling department. In any case, it became evident that several important functions would need to be retained by the department for the time being. They included re-establishment, the administration of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme and War Service Land Settlement Scheme, the development of manufacturing industries, and the promotion of tertiary education. Dedman and Coombs also believed strongly that the department had the expertise to assist the government in formulating economic policies, especially in relation to employment, trade and investment. In 1946–48 the two men led the Australian delegations to international trade and employment conferences in London, Geneva and Havana, and played major roles in the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The department continued to have multiple functions until it was finally disbanded by the Menzies government following the 1949 federal election.

Transition to prosperity

It was during 1948–49 when the popularity of the Chifley government was waning that Australian post-war reconstruction became a tangible reality. By that time, the process of re-establishment was at its peak and more than 170,000 ex-servicemen and women were receiving training under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Of this figure, about 20,000 were undertaking university courses. The wartime involvement of the government in tertiary education had been maintained, with substantial increases in government research grants to universities and the 1949 decision to fund a permanent Commonwealth Scholarships Scheme. The Australian National University was beginning to take shape and it was formally opened in October 1949. Despite ferocious opposition from the medical profession, the first tentative step towards a national health system was taken with legislation on hospital benefits and pharmaceutical benefits.

The housing shortage remained serious, but by 1949 more than 130,000 houses and flats had been built since the end of the war. Soldier settlement was also beginning to make progress, after several years of planning and recrimination. Australian primary industries had generally recovered from wartime drought and stringent controls, and wool prices tripled between 1946 and 1949. Similarly, there was a great expansion in secondary industries, with the number of factories almost doubling since pre-war years.

The launching of the Holden, the first all-Australian car, in November 1948 was one of the symbolic moments in post-war reconstruction. Despite shortages of materials, by 1949 a large range of public works were being constructed by the Commonwealth and state governments. In particular, ambitious water conservation and power projects were being planned, culminating with the opening of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme in November 1949. These mega-projects were to continue for many years: water storage completed in Australia in the next decade had a larger capacity than the combined total of all dams built in the previous century.

Finally, in 1948 and 1949 enormous changes in the size and composition of the Australian population began to take place. Free and assisted passage agreements had been signed with the British government in 1946, but it was only after 1947 that the number of British arrivals escalated. Simultaneously, refugees from European countries began to arrive in large numbers, reaching a peak in 1949 and 1950. Gloomy wartime predictions of a declining population were forgotten and the high post-war Australian birth rate and the high level of migration to Australia from Britain and Europe continued for more than 20 years. By 1970 the population had almost doubled in size and, in terms of its prosperity and its cultural diversity, it bore little resemblance to the Australian society of the pre-war years.


Chapter notes | All notes


J Dedman, 'Some thoughts on post war reconstruction', an address to the Political Science Group of the Workers Educational Association, Melbourne, 21 January 1943. Dedman Papers, National Library of Australia MS 987/1/437.


Geoffrey Serle, 'Recreating an era: Victoria in the 50s and 80s', in David Duffy et al. (eds), Historians at Work: investigating and recreating the past, Hicks Smith & Sons, Sydney, 1973, pp. 51–2.


Lloyd Ross, Labor in the Post-war World, Australian Railways Union, Sydney, 1942, p. 5.