Joan Beaumont, Australia’s Great Depression: how a nation shattered by the Great War survived the worst economic crisis it has ever faced, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2022.
Review by Janet McCalman.
This is the first general history of Australia’s Great Depression that embraces city and the bush, all states and territories, politics, economics, and human experience. It is a masterly achievement of synthesis and historical judgement. It won’t please everyone because like the Great War, we all have our favourite ‘Depression’ narrative. Those narratives have influenced the histories produced by so many of us, using a somewhat restricted lens that has focussed on our respective chosen people.
The general historian, a special breed that includes Joan Beaumont, Frank Bongiorno and the late Stuart Macintyre, employs a wide-angled lens that sometimes can lead readers to feel dissatisfaction that their preferred narrative is not receiving its due attention. Thus already Beaumont’s history has been criticised as ‘conservative’,[i] male-dominated and depending on a dubious explanatory device in the concept of ‘resilience’, borrowed from medicine and apparently ‘neoliberal’ in its focus on ‘outsourcing’ coping mechanisms to the individual instead of to society.
Beaumont comes to this history with exceptional credentials: a deep knowledge of the Great War in the trenches, at the firesides, in the parliaments and in the farms and factories. She also possesses a wider economic and political expertise from her early work on the British supplies to the Soviet Union in World War II. She is comfortable with economic history, as well as political history, and charts a way through the scholarship with admirable clarity. Her political history credentials also range beyond the Labor Party and its antagonists, again producing a careful pathway through the scholarship, the challenges, the personalities and tragedies of this great national and international crisis where all sides were groping in the dark for solutions.
Keynesian stimulus theory was in its infancy but Ted Theodore, the enigmatic Labor treasurer, sensed that spending rather than austerity offered a path to recovery. Standing in the way of increasing the money supply was the immovable Sir Robert Gibson, chairman of the Commonwealth Bank. Also pressing down hard on Australian indebtedness were the British bankers and lenders, who dismissed Australia as profligate and the author of its own debts and disaster. Australian leaders were hamstrung by the nation’s restrictive ties to the Mother Country, limited by the immaturity of the economics profession and the intellectual weakness of the public service, and beset by the competing egos of state politicians, in particular Jack Lang.
It broke Scullin and it broke his government and the Labor Party, which split for the second time in less than twenty years. States with stronger local economies, more stable governments and able premiers such as Queensland, came out of the Depression more quickly. Labor recovered in NSW, despite the continuing irritation of Lang, but South Australia and Victoria entered decades of conservative rule. Nationally, former Labor Minister Joe Lyons headed a new United Australia Party. Lyons proved a healing, if quiet prime minister, emanating a reassuring decency. But it killed him also.
But Australia’s Great Depression was above all about people and their utter vulnerability to economic forces, mismanagement and profligacy beyond their control. It is a narrative of helplessness. Beaumont threads the social history through the political and economic narrative, writing with real feeling for the tone and experience of ordinary people. We are never allowed to forget that the real tally of the Great Depression is counted in human lives—lives stunted, hopes dashed, marriages broken, children hurt, men humiliated and shamed, women driven to distraction with anxiety. It all went on for so long for many, especially the unskilled whose employability was easily compromised by age and injury, and whose casual work was often the first to be cut.
It is refreshing to this Melburnian, to read so much of the Depression story in South Australia and Western Australia. The chapter on Aboriginal Australians is harrowing, concentrating as it does on the scandalous history of race relations in Western Australia, a legacy of repression and immiseration that lasted until relatively recent times. Beaumont has recovered national perspectives that have been over-shadowed by the tropes of inner Sydney and industrial Melbourne, of the camps at La Perouse and Dudley Flats.
But what of the focus on resilience? There are problems with the way we have historicised the Great Depression and I have been one of the problems. When I began interviewing people for my book Struggletown it was already more than forty years after the Depression had eased. When I later came to reconstitute cradle-to-grave population cohorts, starting with impoverished whites born in the Melbourne Lying-in Hospital in the second half of the nineteenth century, the youngest of whom were in their thirties in the Depression, I began to realise that the people who had had the hardest time of it, were already dead. The survivors interviewed by myself and David Potts’ students, projected their own trials on to others or played hardy (i.e. ‘it was bad but we got through it’), giving us a version of themselves and their history that minimised shame. So yes, it was hard to find oral evidence of real suffering. Wendy Lowenstein’s informants were people of the left who survived the ordeal with a heroic political narrative that could over-estimate the significance of resistance and protest. (When Noel Counihan gave his speech from the cage in Brunswick, the local Communist Party comprised nine members; more significant were the hundreds of Brunswick people who packed the streets to hear him.)
As Beaumont argues, the perhaps surprising statistics are the strong population health figures: the fall in tuberculosis deaths, the lack of any spike in infant mortality, the steadiness of suicide statistics after a peak in 1930. What matters is that resilience came from people’s own families and communities, but also from just enough social infrastructure to make a difference—especially to families with children: child and maternal health centres, council creches, free kindergartens, local charity from churches, schools with their breakfasts and lunches. The presence of a three-tiered government system with local government being close to communities, offered more interventions. In other words, there were just enough institutions minding the backs of children and their families, to get them through. Resilience, therefore, was also institutional and the very poor fell back on the time-honoured strategies of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ to get by from day to day. ‘Did you ever go hungry?’, I would ask, ‘Oh, you’d always get something from someone’ they’d reply.
If I were to sum up Joan Beaumont’s achievement in this book is that she is judicious, and her final reflection is on the resilience of Australian democracy. Its enemies were numerous and powerful, but its spirit lived on in the values of decency and democracy that, as we have seen in our lockdowns in the pandemic, are with us still.