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Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression


3 The Premiers' Plan

Earlier in his career as Premier and Treasurer of Tasmania, Joseph Aloysius Lyons had followed orthodox economic advice with some success. In 1931, as Prime Minister, and faced with the complexity of the Great Depression, he sought the opinions of the few academic economists the nation possessed, as well as those of conservative businessmen. The advice he received stated:

Australia could do no more than mitigate the effects of the Depression until a rise in export prices and a resumption of capital inflow restored the nation's financial equilibrium... Budgets must be balanced, wage levels must fall in accordance with the fall in price levels, interest rates must be reduced, the exchange rate of the Australian pound with sterling must be allowed to depreciate, and a degree of controlled inflation should be used to ease the severe deflation.13

The opinion of J M Keynes was in marked contrast. When invited to comment on the Australian situation, Keynes wrote the following in the Melbourne Herald:

Every country in the world has the same problem as Australia in some shape or form. If each attempted to solve it by competitive wage reductions and competitive currency depreciations nobody would be better off. There is no exit along that route. Indeed, the tendency of wage reductions must necessarily be to rivet more securely the existing level of prices, for, in the long run, it is the wage level which mainly determines the price level, especially with currencies not rigidly linked to gold…

There is more chance of improving the profitableness of business by fostering enterprise and measures like public works than by further pressure on money wages, or further forcing exports. Problems of budget and unemployment are more pressing than balance of trade…

Above all, expand the internal bank credit and stimulate capital expenditure as much as courage and prudence allow. The substitution of wages for doles needs more credit, but not necessarily much more currency.14

But the Lyons Government formulated its policy according to the canons of orthodox finance. The deflationary principles of the Premiers' Plan were to be observed strictly. The Government would bide its time until events overseas produced a rise in export prices and stimulated Australia's economic revival. In the meantime there would be no extensive program of public works. The Government conceded that some relief work and sustenance would of necessity be provided for the unemployed, but the scale and cost of these measures would be minimised.

In April 1932 employment councils were established in each State following the handing down of the report from a committee of academic economists and businessmen established by the Commonwealth Government. These councils were to engage in detailed planning of relief measures while also ensuring that the works approved for this purpose were labour-intensive and financially self-liquidating, or 'reproductive'. The councils were to comprise representatives of both the State and Commonwealth Governments. The exception was New South Wales where, as a consequence of that State's default on its interest payments, the council comprised Commonwealth officials only.

In May the proclamation of the Loan (Unemployment Relief Works) Act 1932 authorised the Commonwealth's expenditure of a total of £1 800 000 to provide relief work in the various States. In New South Wales the money was to be made available as a loan or grant to local government authorities. In the other States the money was made available to State Governments. In all cases money was to be released only for relief works approved by the employment councils which in turn had to obtain the approval of the respective State Treasurer, the Commonwealth Treasurer and the Commonwealth Bank. As Schedvin pointed out, this was a cumbersome system of control and, particularly as a consequence of the Commonwealth Bank's involvement, long delays were introduced before relief works could begin in the States.15

On 13 May 1932, on the basis that he had repeatedly flouted Commonwealth law, J T Lang was dismissed from office as Premier by the State Governor of New South Wales, Sir Philip Game. Lang submitted without demur. B S B Stevens, Leader of the Opposition in NSW, was called on by the Governor to form a government and at the State election held on 11 June 1932 Labor was resoundingly defeated.

On 7 September 1932 a Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Employment was established. Comprising four senior Federal public service officials and an academic economist, who was also Acting Commonwealth Statistician, the committee's function was to coordinate the work of the State employment councils. In particular it was to ensure that any relief work provided for the unemployed complied with the reproductivity criterion. Little money, however, was actually spent on relief works before the end of 1932.16

Of that parsimony, only minimal rates were to be paid to relief workers. On 22 August 1932 the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration suspended industrial awards for twelve months and directed that workers engaged in relief work should receive only the lowest rate of pay prescribed for any form of work. Any margin for skill, as prescribed in the original award, was additional. Relief work performed for Commonwealth departments or public authorities was paid at rates prescribed under section 23 of the Unemployment Relief (Administration) Act 1932.

When asked in the House of Representatives on 2 November 1932 whether there was any likelihood of funds being specially granted to provide relief work for the unemployed prior to Christmas, the Prime Minister continued the fiction that the Commonwealth, while maintaining a financial interest in the funds provided, would delegate responsibility to the State Governments for the actual welfare of the nation's unemployed. He announced:

No special arrangements for the granting of unemployment relief during the Christmas season were made at the recent Premiers' Conference, because it was considered that the works programmes of the States would meet the needs of the unemployed for the whole of the financial year.

…But the actual expenditure for the first three months of the financial year has been less than was expected, so that the States may now spend money more freely, and, if necessary, provide specially for the Christmas period.17
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, MULTIPLE NUMBER SERIES, 1899–193
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: A458
Quantity: 49.77 metres
Recorded by: 1923–34 Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Unemployment relief grants – awards, conditions and rates of pay, 1931–32
This item contains a letter of 30 August 1932 from the East Sydney branch of the Australian Labor Party to the Prime Minister, protesting that relief workers were being engaged at rates lower than the Federal award.
A458, AQ502/3
1932 grant for the relief of unemployment preference to returned soldiers, 1932
This item deals with complaints from the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia that unemployed returned soldiers were no longer receiving preference in the provision of relief work from Commonwealth funds in various States. The Government replied that the funds were provided for the relief of unemployment generally and could not be confined to one class of recipient. The item also contains allegations of preferential treatment in the distribution of relief work in Corrimal, NSW.
A458, O502/8
Industrial – unemployment relief grant 1932 – method of engaging labour, 1932
This item deals with complaints by industrial unions of inequity in the engagement of men on projects funded by a Commonwealth grant for the relief of unemployment.
A458, Q502/8
Unemployment relief funds in Australia, 1932–33
This item details the expenditure and administration of unemployment relief funds throughout Australia. The data was collected from the Commonwealth Treasury and from State premiers in response to a request for information from the Government of South Africa.
A458, BA502/3
Unemployment relief – general – part 3, 1932–34
This item contains an extensive collection of unsolicited letters from individuals suggesting various schemes to the Prime Minister to solve the unemployment problem.
A458, C502/3 part 3
Unemployed migrants – requests for repatriation, part 1, 1926–31 A458, Q154/19
Unemployed relief grant, 1932 – preference to Australian materials, 1932–33 A458, P502/8
Unemployed relief – drill halls and shelters for unemployed, 1923–32 A458, AC502/3
Winter relief – unemployed soldiers, 1933 A458, BB230/16
Postal concessions for unemployed, 1932–33 A458, BG502/3
GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE SERIES, 1901–39
Melbourne
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: MP273/1
Quantity: 49.14 metres
Recorded by: 1901–39 Postmaster-General's Department, Central Administration (CA 9)
Leave on furlough where the provision of additional assistance for relief is not involved, 1931 MP273/1, 1931/5030
FOLDERS OF CABINET PAPERS, 1901–41
Canberra, smaller quantities in each State office, microfilm in all offices
This series is more fully described in Chapter 1. It was created by the National Archives of Australia (formerly the Australian Archives) to make access to Cabinet documents easier. It contains Cabinet papers, submissions and other material originally copied from departmental files.

Details of parent files are provided at the foot of the entries for each paper.

Series: A6006
Quantity: 9.18 metres
Recorded by: 1976–81 Australian Archives, Central Office (CA 1720); 1981–94 Australian Archives, ACT Regional Office (CA 3196); 1994 National Archives of Australia, National Office (CA 7970)
Special unemployment relief grant – Funding – Defence works, Darwin, 1932
This item contains a memorandum from the Department of the Interior advising that £5 000 had been allotted to the Northern Territory and Central Australia as a special grant to provide relief work for the unemployed. It was proposed to spend 50% of the money on landing strips in Darwin and Katherine, with the balance going towards roadworks in Central Australia.
A6006, 1932/12/31
Northern Territory - De Cean and others - Assistance to prospect A659, 1942/1/7721 (Parent item)
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, MULTIPLE NUMBER SERIES (THIRD SYSTEM), 1901–50
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: A461
Quantity: 143.82 metres
Recorded by: 1934–50 Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Unemployment relief – Federal Capital Territory, 1930–34
This item includes a Canberra Times report from 19 September 1932 about a meeting of more than 100 unemployed Canberra men. The meeting resolved that 'working for the dole be eliminated and work substituted.' Another resolution carried was that:
… the utter misery now being felt by Canberra unemployed should be brought under the notice of the Government. The sustenance obtained from relief work, viz. one week in every three barely works out at 25/- per week for married men and one week in six for single men means 10/- per week, which, together with the high cost of living existing at Canberra, makes it an utter impossibility for a mere existence.

A Hansard report from 23 May 1932 records that the Minister for the Interior informed Parliament that unemployment relief work in the FCT was available only to applicants who had been resident in the Territory during the period December to June 1929–30.

A461, F351/1/7
Schemes for relief of unemployment – Victoria, 1932–38
This item describes a farm labourers' scheme providing single unemployed men with work on farming properties. Under the scheme the Victorian Government granted a subsidy to rural landowners who gave work to unemployed single men.

The item also contains a report of the Victorian Employment Council from September 1932 noting that the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration had decided to suspend industrial awards for 12 months from 22 August 1932. The court directed that men employed on relief work were to be paid at an hourly rate equivalent to the lowest rate of pay prescribed for any work plus any margin for skill prescribed by the awards. In the case of men engaged on unemployment relief works by the Crown or any Government department or public authority, the rates of pay were those prescribed under section 23 of the Unemployment Relief (Administration) Act 1932 and were subject to cost-of-living adjustments.

A461, F351/1/9
Unemployment – Christmas relief, 1932–38
This item contains an extract from Hansard (2 November 1932) in which Prime Minister Lyons informed Parliament that the Commonwealth Government did not need to organise any special relief for the unemployed prior to Christmas.

The item also deals with the grant of £30 000 for relief works in the Federal Capital Territory and the provision of £100 000 to the States as Christmas relief for the unemployed. From this amount, a further £10 000 was set aside for expenditure in Canberra.

A461, G351/1/7 part 1
Federal coal for relief of unemployed, part 2, 1931–34 A461, D321/1/1 part 2
Federal coal for relief of unemployed, part 3, 1934–39 A461, D321/1/1 part 3
Sales tax – materials purchased for unemployed relief work, 1932–33 A461, C344/4/6
BILL FILES, 1901–97
Canberra (Sydney)
This series consists of files containing manuscript drafts, proof and final copies (with manuscript amendments) of Bills as at their first, second and third readings. It also contains correspondence about the preparation of Bills.
Series: A2863
Quantity: 330.84 metres (118 metres)
Recorded by: 1901–70 Attorney-General's Department Central Office (CA 5); 1970 Office of Parliamentary Counsel (CA 2965)
Loan (Unemployment Relief Works) Act 1932
This item contains a statement made by the Prime Minister to the press on 20 April 1932, referring to a conference of Commonwealth Government ministers and State premiers at which it was decided to continue with the deflationary measures of the Premiers' Plan.

The item also deals with the distribution of a special winter relief grant of £2 400 000 among all the States, except NSW. Since the NSW Government had defaulted on its internal and external interest payments, no amount could – or would – be raised by the Loan Council on its behalf. It then deals with the arrangements subsequently made by the Commonwealth Government to provide relief work for the unemployed in NSW.

A2863, 1932/9
Image 10: Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression - Christmas relief work.

Image 10: Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression - Christmas relief work.
National Library of Australia: Plate 284 (photograph from the Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1932).
Enlarge image - View image gallery

CORRESPONDENCE FILES, ANNUAL SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 1903–38
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: A1
Quantity: 454.65 metres
Recorded by: 1903–16 Department of External Affairs [I], Melbourne (CA 7); 1916–28 Department of Home and Territories, Central Office (CA 15); 1928–32 Department of Home Affairs [II], (Central Office) (CA 24); 1932–38 Department of the Interior [I], Central Administration (CA 27)
Rations for travelling unemployed – returned soldiers whose cases are under consideration by the Repatriation Commission, 1931–32 A1, 1931/3126
Rations to unemployed returned soldiers drawing pensions, 1931–32 A1, 1931/6152
Free bus transport to school for children of the unemployed, 1931–32 A1, 1931//8106
Unemployment and relief work – Canberra, 1931–35
This item contains information about the Australian Youths' Settlement League, a body that had sent young men for training on experimental farms established by the New South Wales Government. By 1932, because of its own circumstances, the State Government could not continue to be so generous.

The item deals in some depth with the hardships experienced by the unemployed following a curtailment of relief work projects undertaken in the FCT. It covers the provision of work relief to married and single men and the distribution of rations. The item also contains an article from the Canberra Times of 4 April 1932, complaining that the unemployed of the FCT were receiving little more than promises of 'sympathetic consideration' from the Commonwealth Government.

A1, 1935/2405
Unemployment relief loan, 1932–35
This item contains a memorandum from the Prime Minister's Department to the Department of the Interior reporting that the Premiers' Conference had decided to provide £600 000 for relief work in New South Wales.
A1, 1935/3349
'Deputation' to Minister – Pine Creek and Darwin – by Northern Australia Workers' Union and unemployed, 1935 A1, 1935/9282
DEFENCE ARMY SERIES (401), 1912–45
Melbourne
This series consists of correspondence files maintained by Army Headquarters between 1936 and 1945.
Series: MP729/6
Quantity: 26.3 metres
Recorded by: 1936–39 Department of Defence [II], Central Administration (CA 19); 1939–45 Department of the Army, Central Office (CA 36)
Railways – roads (project for unemployment relief), 1934–37 MP729/6, 41/401/17
CORRESPONDENCE SERIES, 1912–64
Sydney
Records in this series contain correspondence about the administration, function and policy of Eastern Command, including accounts; ammunition; Victoria Barracks; camps; casualties; compensation; clothing; establishments; and provisions and stores.
Series: SP459
Quantity: 65 metres
Recorded by: 1912–21 Second Military District, New South Wales [I] (CA 6335); 1921–39 Second District Base, Australian Military Forces, New South Wales (CA 4334); 1939–42 Headquarters, Eastern Command [I], Australian Military Forces (CA 1876)
Liverpool Camp – housing of unemployed, 1931–32 SP459/1, 518/2/13
CENTRAL REGISTRY SERIES – RIFLE RANGES AND TRAINING DEPOTS, 1913–62
Melbourne
This series contains administrative and correspondence records about rifle ranges, drill halls and training depots.
Series: MP1142/1
Quantity: 9 metres
Recorded by: 1913–21 Department of Defence [I] (CA 6); 1921–24 Department of Defence [II], Central Administration (CA 19); 1924–39 Army Headquarters, Department of Defence [II] (CA 2671); 1939–60 Department of the Army, Central Office (CA 36); 1960–62 Army Headquarters, Department of the Army, Melbourne (CA 2585)
Hurstville drill hall – use for unemployment relief, 1931–32 MP1142/1, 55/130/22
Rifle range, Williamstown – reconstruction work by unemployed, 1932–33 MP1142/1, 310/15/466
CENTRAL REGISTRY SERIES CONCERNING RIFLE RANGES AND TRAINING DEPOTS, 1913–62
Melbourne
This series contains administrative records about rifle ranges and training depots.
Series: MT1461/1
Quantity: 10.62 meters
Recorded by: 1913–21 Department of Defence [I] (CA 6); 1921–24 Department of Defence [II], Central Administration (CA 19); 1924–39 Army Headquarters, Department of Defence [II] (CA 2671)
Unauthorised use of Adamstown Rifle Range by unemployed, 1930–32 MT1461/1, 310/66/212
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 'G' (GENERAL) PREFIX, 1913–39
Canberra
This series is described in Chapter 1.
Series: A430
Quantity: 4.14 metres
Recorded by: 1930–32 Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Branch, Department of Home Affairs [II] (CA 756); 1932–39 Civic (ACT) Administration Branch, Department of the Interior [I] (CA 757); 1939–51 Civic (ACT) Administration Branch, Department of the Interior [II] (CA 757)
Canberra Unemployment Relief Fund Committee – general matters, 1930–32
This item contains correspondence between the Canberra Unemployment Relief Fund Committee, the Minister for Home Affairs, the Department of Home Affairs, FCT Branch, and the Department of Works about the allocation of funds and the organisation of relief work for Canberra’s unemployed.

The item also contains a report from the Civic Administrator to the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Canberra. This is largely a repetition of an earlier report on unemployment in the FCT which can be found in A1, 1935/2405.

A430, G180
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 'E' PREFIX, 1914–34
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: A6272
Quantity: 1.44 metres
Recorded by: 1930–32 Federal Capital Territory Branch, Department of Home Affairs [II] (CA 756); 1932–39 Civic (ACT) Administration Branch, Department of the Interior [I] (CA 757); 1939–51 Civic (ACT) Administration Branch, Department of the Interior [II] (CA 757)
Unemployment relief works – reconstruction of portion between Canberra Avenue and State Circuit, 1931–32
This item deals with the Federal Capital Territory's share of a £250 000 Commonwealth grant to the States to provide relief work for the unemployed.
A6272, E434
Special relief measures for unemployed persons in the Federal Capital Territory prior to Christmas, 1930–31 A6272, E175
Blankets for unemployed from Commissariat Stores, 1929–31 A6272, E202
Firewood supplies for unemployed, 1930–34 A6272, E227
Unemployed workmen – miscellaneous matters, including accommodation and various general complaints, criticisms and demonstrations, 1930–31 A6272, E301
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 'G' SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 1918–74
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 2.
Series: A2421
Quantity: 110.25 metres
Recorded by: 1929–52 Repatriation Commission [II], Registry (CA 225)
Unemployment relief grant, 1931–33
This item contains an application by the Repatriation Department for unemployed relief work funds. It includes a schedule of refurbishment works in NSW considered suitable for the employment of relief workers.
A2421, G854 part 1
GENERAL POLICY FILES, SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 'G' PREFIX, 1918–
Adelaide
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: D2048
Quantity: 14.04 metres
Recorded by: 1918–20 Deputy Comptroller of Repatriation, South Australia (CA 3153); 1920–65 Deputy Commissioner of Repatriation, South Australia (CA 877)
Living and compassionate allowances, 1929–53 D2048, G828 part 5
Restorations Financial Relief Act 1933, 1931–54 D2084, G952
Office accommodation and rented premises (permission to erect flood light, stocktaking, general maintenance of buildings, unemployment relief work, rents payable, hired properties etc), 1927–54 D2048, G206 part 4
Unemployment Relief Council, 1932–34 D2048, G960
CORRESPONDENCE SERIES – POLICY AND GENERAL – 'G' PREFIX, 1921–68
Sydney
Records in this series contain correspondence on a variety of subjects, including disclosure of information; registers of medical practitioners; use of departmental facilities by outside organisations; building alterations and repairs; stocktaking; and policy.
Series: SP948/1
Quantity: 63 metres
Recorded by: 1921–68 Deputy Commissioner for Repatriation, New South Wales (CA 875)
Employed and Unemployed Ex-Servicemen's Association, 1934 SP948/1, G764
CORRESPONDENCE FILES, 1922–97
Perth
Records in this series deal with a diverse range of activities undertaken by the Public Works Branch and its successors in Western Australia. The records contain correspondence, designs drawings, contracts, minutes and press releases.

Matters dealt with include administrative, finance and tender and quotation procedures; contract conditions; material specifications; instructions on the engagement of consultants; fire protection policy and standards; standard specifications and requirements of State and Commonwealth instrumentalities; and project files on various construction projects (including War Service Homes).

Series: K279
Quantity: 175 metres
Recorded by: 1922–32 Public Works Branch, Western Australia (CA 760); 1932–46 Works and Services Branch, Western Australia (CA 971)
Financial Relief Act, 1934 K279, 1934/119
CORRESPONDENCE SERIES, 'DP' PREFIX, 1928–55
Darwin
This series is currently being researched. Early indications of its content indicate that its records are generally about policy matters.
Series: E68
Quantity: 8.1 metres
Recorded by: 1946–54 Crown Law Office, North Australia (CA 885)
Poor persons' legal assistance ordinance – draft legislation correspondence, 1927–37 E68, DP331
CORRESPONDENCE, CIRCULARS, ETC ON ADMINISTRATION OF INDUSTRIAL AWARDS AND OTHER CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT, 1929–32
Canberra
This series consists of one file.
Series: CP942/2
Quantity: 0.18 metres
Recorded by: 1929–30 Federal Capital Commission (CA 226); 1930–32 Department of Works and Railways, Central Office (CA 14)
Copies of correspondence and circulars – unemployed relief – industrial officer's file, 1929–32 CP942/2, bundle 1
CORRESPONDENCE FILE, SINGLE NUMBER SERIES, 'C' (COMMONWEALTH DEPARTMENTS) PREFIX, 1929–50
Canberra
This series was described in Chapter 1.
Series: A292
Quantity: 25.02 metres
Recorded by: 1930–32 Department of Works and Railways [Central Office] (CA 14); 1932–38 Works and Services Branch [I], Canberra (CA 740)
Unemployment relief, 1932
This item contains a letter from the Canberra Chamber of Commerce to the Minister for the Interior suggesting that the local unemployed should be given relief work prior to Christmas by constructing a recreation ground in the vicinity of Black Mountain and repairing Government-owned cottages, many of which were reported to be in poor repair.
A292, C2993
Unemployment relief – Canberra, 1932
This item contains a response from the Minister for Home Affairs to a parliamentary question in the House of Representatives on 3 March 1932, about unemployed single men who had settled more or less permanently in rest camps established for the travelling unemployed in the Federal Capital Territory. The Minister stated:
It is not… proposed to continue supplying rations to these men while they occupy the camps to the exclusion of bona fide travelling unemployed who desire to use the buildings as a rest camp.
A292, C2028
Canberra aerodrome – general – a) unemployment relief works – b) minor jobs and maintenance work, 1932–39
This item contains departmental correspondence about the expenditure of £1 000 on the development of the Canberra Aerodrome. The money had been provided by the New South Wales unemployment relief fund.
A292, C16170
Industrial – unemployment relief workers – allocation for work for end financial year, 1934 A292, C6118
GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE SERIES (ARMY HEADQUARTERS), 1939–42
Melbourne
This series contains files about the wartime administration of the Australian Military Forces. Papers on these files prior to 1939 were registered under systems in use in the Department of Defence.
Series: MP508
Quantity: 133 metres
Recorded by: 1939 Army Headquarters, Department of Defence [II] (CA 2671)
Purpose recondition of the Sutherland-Liverpool Road and Christmas relief to the unemployed, 1931–41 MP508/1, 289/701/300

Notes

Chapter notes | All notes

13 Hart, op cit, p. 66.

14 Melbourne Herald, 25 May 1932.

15 Schedvin, op cit, p. 338.

16 Schedvin, op cit, p. 338.

17 House of Representatives Hansard, 2 November 1932, Government Printer, Canberra, FCT, vol. 136, p. 1 755.


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