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Research Guides

Working for the Dole: Commonwealth Relief during the Great Depression

5 The National Unemployment Relief Plan

On 22 January 1934, the Unemployment Relief Council of Adelaide reported that, with business reporting an improved turnover, Christmas 1933 had been the best for several years. The problem of unemployment, however, remained unsolved. In New South Wales, for example, while the number of those in receipt of food rations decreased by 67% during 1933–34, the number who needed relief work increased by 121%.21

By this time, skilled tradesmen in the Federal Capital Territory could find work on the construction sites of the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia, but generally the number of people registered as unemployed was still growing. As a result the Commonwealth funds to provide relief work for 1934–35 increased by 5% over the previous year. According to a report in the Canberra Times of 2 August 1934, this caused a 'heated debate' in Federal Parliament.

A Loan Council meeting held on 29 October 1934 to discuss the financing of the current public works program and future unemployment relief works provoked a series of newspaper articles in the conservative Melbourne Press.

The Argus opined that Australia had to a large extent 'weathered the storm', but had done so, it complained, by piling up debt without dealing with the fundamental problem of unemployment:

What is wanted is a genuine effort to restore industry to normality, not an orgy of public spending upon relief works, which will add to the already huge debt without making the outlook of surplus workers any the more hopeful.22

Under the headline 'Watch our Borrowing', the Melbourne Herald of 30 October 1934 joined the chorus of disapproval with:

The new plan consists thus far of borrowing for relief works. Although works programmes are fully justifiable for the time being, their accumulating cost will not permit of their being authorised on the existing scale from year to year. The Commonwealth Government is pledged to examine means of relieving unemployment in a permanent way, a task that has been attempted and to some extent overcome in most other civilised countries.

Part of that borrowing was to be raised under the Loan Appropriation (Unemployment Relief) Act 1934 by which the Commonwealth Government would provide £200 000 to renovate and maintain Federal properties as a way of providing some relief work before Christmas. Accordingly, Commonwealth departments were invited to submit schedules of proposed works as a matter of urgency.

The Commonwealth Government, in contrast to its earlier attitude, was now beginning to accept that since the welfare of the unemployed bore a direct relationship to the future economic progress of the country as a whole, it was of national and not merely State concern. As an article in the Daily Telegraph of 30 October pointed out:

…one of the worst features of the decrease in employment of recent years is its effect on the regular progress of youth from school to productive work.

The article continued:

The dole in England, established for far longer than ours, and apparently, according to competent observers, destined to be a feature of the country's economy, has actually raised a considerable number of hopeless youths who have never worked, and never will work. From that fate all means to save our own young people is amply justified.

Prime Minister Lyons advised State premiers on 2 November 1934 of the Commonwealth Government's intention to formulate a national plan for the amelioration of distress due to unemployment. As part of that plan, the premiers were called on to provide schedules of public works that might provide relief for the unemployed. In addition, a committee comprising Commonwealth and State representatives was to be established to consider both the feasibility of the proposed works and the appropriate division of financial liability. The premiers were also asked to cooperate in a national survey into unemployment to be undertaken by the Commonwealth Statistician.

The Premier of South Australia, R L Butler, reacted swiftly to the Commonwealth's announcement of its proposed 'national' plan. On 27 November 1934 he announced an ambitious scheme to clear and drain 700 000 acres of swampy land in the south-east of the State. Premier Butler envisioned that over the following five years, 1 500 small farms would be established, providing homes and permanent livelihoods for 6 000 persons who would form a peasant population.

On 18 December 1934 the Commonwealth responded that £125 000 had been allocated to South Australia as part of a national plan, and the Premier, it suggested, should concentrate upon provincial water supply, flood prevention and sewerage installation schemes. Were these undertakings found to be suitably reproductive, they would then be gazetted by the Commonwealth and the money disbursed. South Australia's grandiose development scheme was finally laid to rest in the House of Representatives on 27 March 1935 when Dr Earle Page, the Acting Prime Minister, advised 'there is no probability of this matter being dealt with in the immediate future'.23

Other State premiers were far less responsive to the Commonwealth's call for work relief schemes. In fact, on 28 November 1934 they had to be coaxed to submit one or two of their more urgent proposals for examination so that some relief work could be provided for the unemployed before Christmas. On 6 December the Commonwealth Government officially announced that to fulfil its election pledges, it was strenuously attempting to provide work for the thousands of unemployed and was examining every aspect of the situation. The sum of £176 000 was to be provided out of revenue and would be spent on special relief works for the unemployed prior to Christmas. Ambitious schemes were evidently in the air. On 1 December the Prime Minister proposed a conference of State premiers to be held in Canberra within the fortnight. The conference agenda was to include a discussion on the practicability of proceeding with the standardisation of the intercontinental rail gauge as a way of providing work for the unemployed. The conference did not eventuate.

Another grand but ultimately unrealised plan was mooted in Federal Parliament on 12 December 1934 when it was suggested that the Commonwealth Government should consider establishing a hydro-electric scheme on the Snowy River to provide work for the unemployed. The Acting Prime Minister replied that it might be more appropriate for the NSW Government to consider the suggestion.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Employment observed in a memorandum to the Prime Minister on 7 December 1934 that among the lists of proposed works being submitted by State premiers were included projects such as water supply and sewerage schemes which involved substantial expenditure by local and State Governments as well as by the Commonwealth.

It is hardly surprising that when dealing with an ambitious and expensive list of proposals for public works from the Premier of Western Australia, the Commonwealth Government responded on 18 December 1934 that the installation of sewerage works in country towns was the most suitable type of relief scheme. The Premier of Western Australia was asked to expedite proposals of that kind so that relief work could be commenced as a matter of urgency. On the same day, a proposal from New South Wales for a series of water and sewerage works as well as some roadworks met with ready Commonwealth approval.


Chapter notes | All notes

21 A G Colley, 'Unemployment Relief in New South Wales', Australian Quarterly, vol. xi, no. 2, June 1939, p. 88.

22 Argus, 30 October 1934.

23 House of Representatives Hansard, 27 March 1935, Government Printer, Canberra, FCT, vol. 146, p. 317.