Good Reading : March 2008
18 good reading ı MARCH 2008 In 1945 Australia was a foreign country. The population was about seven million, predominantly English, Scots or Irish by descent.The leader of the opposition, Menzies, considered himself British. Life expectancy for men was about 65; somewhat more for women. Less than five percent of the population had tertiary education. Wool and wheat were our major exports.There was little mining for export. Industrial disputation was endemic. Married middle class women overwhelmingly did not work. Aborigines were not citizens, did not have the vote and lived largely on remote reserves from which they needed permission to travel. In 1943 the Curtin Labor govern- ment had been returned to power in yet another landslide, winning absolute control of both houses of Federal Parliament.They put in place key reforms such as the pay-as-you-earn income tax system, an effective central bank and child endowment. Curtin is a ympathetic figure: sensitive, ntelligent and compassionate. David Day’s John Curtin: A Life gives an account of Curtin’s inner struggles with grog and responsibility. Curtin died in 1945 and Ben Chifley succeeded him as prime minister. After another election win in 1946 the Chifley government set about some serious nation building. Mass assisted migration was introduced.The Snowy Mountains hydroelectric project began. Manufacturing was encouraged, and the first Australian-made car was produced in 1948. (Graeme Davison’s Car Wars is a history of automobile manufacture n Australia.) Australia par- ticipated actively in the establishment of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Agreement on xchange rates. In many ways the Chifley govern- ment set the structural shape of Australia until the eighties.The recently published Chifley: ALifebyDavidDayisa good source of information about the achievements of this government, as is Fred Alexander’s From Curtin to Menzies. Change owed little if anything to the conservative side of politics. By 1949 Menzies and the liberal party were providing effective opposition by working on middle class fears of socialism.What really did for Chifley in 1949 was a protracted coal miners’ strike (broken using the army) and the reintroduction of petrol rationing. Chifley remained leader of the ALP until his death in 1951 after another election loss. His home had remained a semi- detached workers cottage in Bathurst and he died in the Hotel Kurrajong with its communal bathrooms and lack of room service. His reputation as a man of the people was cultivated but it was also genuine. Menzies is not well understood today. His Britishness appears bizarre to most native born, and his consistent advocacy of a mixed economy, with significant state intervention to alleviate poverty and unemployment, would not get him preselected to Kooyong today.There is surprisingly little written about Menzies that is readily accessible, even in major libraries.There is no essay on Menzies in aul Hasluck’s The Chance of Politics, which is a pity as Hasluck was a keen and candid observer of his fellow politicians; his portrait of Barwick, for example, s a corker. Ian Hancock’s essay The Rise of the Liberal Party’ n The Australian Century, edited by Robert Manne, is a useful introduction. Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People attempts to psychoanalyse Menzies, while Gerard Henderson’s Menzies’ Child is a fairly concise history of the Liberal party and contains consid- erable information about Menzies and his successors up to Howard. Henderson categorical another country the past is During the sixty-odd years since the end of World War II, Australian society has trans- formed itself. GRANT HANSEN steers us through the maze of books that have shed light on major post-war changes.