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Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression


Appendix 1: Chronology of events

January 1929
Australia is unable to raise further long-term loans while short-term debt on the London money market is at an alarmingly high level and increasing. There is the persistent problem of an adverse balance of trade. The unemployment level is 10% and increasing. Curtailment of public works programs because of lack of finance exacerbates the unemployment situation, while the introduction of new industrial awards results in strikes on the waterfront and among timber industry workers.

March 1929
Lockouts of miners begin on the northern coalfields and will continue until June 1930.

May 1929
At the Premiers' Conference, Prime Minister S M Bruce issues an ultimatum: either industrial powers shall be transferred in full to the Commonwealth Government or the Commonwealth will withdraw from arbitration, retaining responsibility only for the maritime industries.

October 1929
The Bruce–Page Government, having introduced the Maritime Industries Bill, is defeated. The Labor Opposition led by Joseph Scullin wins a landslide election victory on 12 October 1929 and takes office on 22 October.

November 1929
First parliamentary sitting for the new Labor Government starts on 20 November. Australia is facing the prospect of national insolvency.

December 1929
The Scullin Government increases tariff protection to an unprecedented level.

On 10 December the Commonwealth Government announces that £1 000 000 accrued as a result of the Federal Aids Roads Agreement will be provided to the States on a population basis to provide relief work for the unemployed.

27 February 1930
The Sydney Morning Herald reports serious clashes between police and the workless in Sydney.

10 March 1930
Trading banks announce the devaluation of the Australian pound against the pound sterling.

June 1930
Prime Minister Scullin announces that Sir Otto Niemeyer of the Bank of England will conduct an inquiry into Australia's financial situation.

12 June 1930
The Prime Minister announces a grant of £1 000 000 for the relief of unemployment to be distributed amongst the States on a population basis. Welfare of the unemployed is seen to be a State rather than a national responsibility.

9 July 1930
The Federal Treasurer, E G Theodore, resigns from Cabinet after the Queensland Government announces an inquiry into the probity of his personal business affairs. The Prime Minister assumes the Treasury portfolio.

11 August 1930
The Prime Minister convinces his Cabinet that Sir Robert Gibson should be re-appointed to the Commonwealth Bank Board.

18 August 1930
Sir Otto Niemeyer, the Bank of England's emissary to Australia, addresses the Premiers' Conference in Melbourne. He informs the conference that Australian living standards are too high and that it is essential that severe deflationary measures be taken.

Under the Melbourne Agreement, the Premiers agree to work towards balancing their budgets, to refrain from overseas borrowing and to curtail programs of public works.

25 August 1930
Prime Minister Scullin leaves Australia to attend an Imperial Conference in London. He is overseas until 6 January 1931 during which time J E Fenton is Acting Prime Minister and J A Lyons is Acting Treasurer.

25 October 1930
J T Lang wins the New South Wales State election for the Australian Labor Party, defeating T Bavin.

17 December 1930
The Commonwealth Government announces that £500 000 will be distributed among the States to provide relief work for the unemployed prior to Christmas. The States find it difficult, in the short time available, to organise relief work that satisfies the Commonwealth Government's requirements for reproductive public works programs and the maintenance of award rates of pay.

6 January 1931
The Prime Minister arrives back in Australia.

10 January 1931
During the 'Beef Riot' in Adelaide, a large number of the unemployed, protesting at the content of their sustenance rations, clash with police.

22 January 1931
The Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration announces a 10% reduction in the basic wage, in addition to reductions made in accordance with the fall in the cost of living index. The reduction was effective from 1 February 1931.

29 January 1931
Prime Minister Scullin reinstates E G Theodore as Federal Treasurer.

Federal Cabinet receives a report of a riot in Darwin in which 50 relief workers demanding more frequent work clashed with police.

4 February 1931
J E Fenton and J A Lyons resign their Cabinet positions.

5 February 1931
The selection of candidates for a by-election in the safe Labor seat of East Sydney brings political rivals J T Lang and E G Theodore into open conflict. Lang's candidate, E J Ward, wins the seat, but is subsequently refused membership of Federal Caucus by the Prime Minister.

In Canberra a group of Labor men led by J A Beasley and including Ward form a splinter group, 'Lang Labor'.

6–26 February 1931
At the February Premiers' Conference, E G Theodore proposes a mildly inflationary plan of credit expansion.

The Premier of New South Wales, J T Lang, puts forward a radical plan of default on interest payments to British bond-holders and the drastic reduction of interest on all other Australian borrowings.

6 March 1931
A demonstration by the unemployed outside the Treasury Building in Perth, WA escalates into a riot.

13 March 1931
During a vote on a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives, Fenton, Lyons and three other Labor men cross the floor to vote with the Nationalist Opposition. Only the votes of the six members of Lang Labor save Scullin's Ministry. Lang Labor now holds the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

30 March 1931
New South Wales Premier Lang defaults on interest payments due on loans raised in London by the State Government. The Commonwealth Government has to pay the due amounts and commences legal proceedings for their recovery from the New South Wales Government.

2 April 1931
Sir Robert Gibson, Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board, issues an ultimatum: unless Commonwealth and State Governments reduce their deficits, the bank will refuse them further short-term accommodation.

17 April 1931
The Senate rejects the Fiduciary Notes Bill, the first in a series of legislative proposals for controlled inflation by which the Government hoped to create credit.

23 April 1931
The Government Savings Bank of New South Wales is forced to close its doors after a run on its holdings.

7 May 1931
Lyons emerges as Leader of the United Australia Party.

10 May 1931
Armed police suppress resistance organised by the Unemployed Workers' Movement outside the sustenance ration depot at Bulli on the New South Wales south coast.

13 May 1931
After Sir Robert Gibson is called before the Bar of the House, the Senate defeats the Gold Shipment Bill, by which the Government had hoped to reduce the nation's short-term debt.

25 May – 11 June 1931
The Premiers' Conference results in the severely deflationary Premiers' Plan.

8–16 September 1931
After correspondence between the Prime Minister and Sir Robert Gibson, the Commonwealth Bank agrees to provide the Government with £3 000 000-worth of credit over six months to assist wheat-growers. It refuses, however, to provide £5 000 000 to the Government to fund relief work for the unemployed. As a concession, the bank is prepared to consider applications on their merits when they are delivered to it directly by local authorities.

8 November 1931
Prime Minister Scullin endeavours to instil some confidence by heralding signs of economic improvement during a radio broadcast. He announces that the Government has appropriated £250 000 from the Consolidated Revenue Fund, to be spent on refurbishing Commonwealth property in the various States and provide relief work for the unemployed prior to Christmas. He estimates that 14 000 men will receive temporary employment. The Appropriation (Unemployment Relief Works) Act 1931 refers to this.

25 November 1931
'Stabber Jack' Beasley, leader of Lang Labor in the House of Representatives, accuses the Federal Treasurer, E G Theodore, of political corruption in the allocation of relief work. Scullin accepts this as a no-confidence motion and in the subsequent division Lang Labor crosses the floor to vote with the Opposition and the Scullin Government is defeated. The Twelfth Commonwealth Parliament is dissolved on 27 November 1931.

19 December 1931
Both Houses of Parliament go to the polls, and the Labor Government suffers a decisive defeat at the hands of the United Australia Party led by J A Lyons.

6 January 1932
The Lyons Ministry takes office.

29 January 1932
Lang Government in New South Wales defaults once more on interest payments to British bond-holders.

3 May 1932
The Loan (Unemployment Relief Works) Act 1932 authorises the granting of £1 800 000 by the Commonwealth Government to the States on condition that employment councils be established in each State. Funds are allocated to State Governments, except in New South Wales where the funds are to be provided directly to local government bodies. Works to be undertaken require specific approval of the appropriate employment council.

13 May 1932
J T Lang is dismissed from office as Premier by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game.

11 June 1932
J T Lang is defeated in the State election by the United Australia Party–Country Party coalition led by B S B Stevens. The new Government undertakes to pay New South Wales's interest bills.

30 June 1932
Unemployment among trade union members is running at 30% nationally. This is the highest unemployment level reached for unionists during the Great Depression.

7 September 1932
A supervisory committee comprising senior Commonwealth public service officials is formed to ensure that relief work for the unemployed funded by the Commonwealth is properly reproductive – ie capable of generating financial returns sufficient to meet interest payments on loan and sinking fund contributions.

8 April 1933
A compulsory referendum held in Western Australia supports a proposal to secede from the Federation.

30 June 1933
A census reveals that approximately 50% of unemployed males have been without a job for over two years. Approximately one in ten have been unemployed for four or more years.

However, the first indication of an improvement in employment levels since the onset of the Great Depression becomes apparent in 1933, with the number of unemployed unionists falling from 26.5% in the first quarter of the year to 23% in the fourth quarter.

October 1933
Lyons and his party are returned to government as a result of a Federal election.

November 1933
The Federal Budget is hailed as the 'restoration' Budget.

December 1933
The Commonwealth Government places tax on wheat to subsidise wheat-growers.

2 November 1934
The Prime Minister indicates that the Commonwealth Government has accepted overall responsibility for the welfare of the unemployed by inviting the cooperation of the States in the formulation of a national plan for the relief of distress as a result of unemployment. State premiers are requested to provide schedules of possible public works together with estimates of costs so that the share of financial liability may be ascertained.

5 December 1934
The Under-Secretary for Employment opens a national employment mining conference with the objective of stimulating employment within the mining industry.

January 1935
A national conference of forestry officials in December 1934 leads to announcement of a national three-year afforestation scheme. The scheme will employ relief workers and is to be subsidised pound-for-pound by the Commonwealth.

June 1935 to June 1936
Commonwealth Government expenditure on relief works for the financial year 1935–36 provides full-time employment for approximately 55 000 from a total of 300 000 jobless. The amount spent on dole payments is now twice that spent on the provision of relief work for the unemployed.


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