Australia: A brave new world — Federation to Depression

Brick layers union campaigning for an 8-hour day in the 1920s.

During the 1890s the Australian colonies were ravaged by unemployment, industrial conflict and misery. Economic conditions became so bad there was a determined attempt to create a different society, a society that was protected from the ravages of capitalism.

One such attempt was by journalist William Lane who, in 1893, had little difficulty in recruiting members to his new utopian society in distant Paraguay. This attempt was ultimately a failure, mainly due to Lane's demanding personality, but the idea of a new, fairer society lingered.

Once the colonies had agreed to form a federation, the opportunity arose to create something different, something new. Australia would not be like other countries. It would avoid the ugly ravages of capitalism. The new Australia would be fair, different, white and utopian.

Racist Australia

White people, made up mainly of English, Scottish and Irish stock, formed most of the population of the new Australia of 1901. But there were also substantial numbers of Chinese, South Pacific Islanders, Japanese and Afghan people living in Australia, especially in the north.

The new government immediately set about correcting this racial “imperfection”. Under the Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901, Pacific Islanders were to be deported. By 1908, 8500 of the 10,000 South Pacific Islanders who had been working on sugar cane and cotton farms in Queensland in 1901 had been sent home.

Other non-whites experienced racial discrimination and were shut out of jobs and land tenure. The Chinese, who had been the backbone of the banana, maize and vegetable industries in far-north Queensland before federation, mostly drifted back to China.

Racism, fanned by the media, coupled with race riots, ensured that non-whites found the new Australia a very unpleasant place to live. Race was linked with jobs and jobs were for whites.

To ensure that Australia remained white, the Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1901. The Act was designed to turn away potential non-European, non-white settlers to Australia by the simple method of presenting any would-be non-white migrant with a dictation test in any European language.

Australia as utopia

Utopia was in full ascendancy when the government passed the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902, which gave women the right to vote and also to stand as candidates in federal elections. This was ground-breaking stuff compared with other so-called civilised societies.

By comparison, all women over the age of 21 years were not given the right to vote in Britain until 1928. Women gained the vote in the United States in 1920 and in France, home of liberty and revolution, in 1944.

The new Australia would also be utopia for the worker. Capitalism would be controlled and tamed.

Jobs would be protected by tariffs on imports that competed with Australian-made products. The Protectionists on one side of politics and the Australian Labor Party on the other, combined to make protectionism of industry the norm by 1910.

But protectionism had a novel twist to it. Under the Excise Tariff Act of 1906, the government removed tariff protection from all employers who did not pay a wage that was "fair and reasonable". One of Australia's largest employers, the Sunshine Harvester Works, where agricultural machinery was built, challenged this law in the courts.

The Harvester decision

In November 1907, Justice Henry Bourne Higgins, president of the new Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, held that Sunshine Harvester was obliged to pay its employees wages that were sufficient for a worker to support his family “in reasonable and frugal comfort”.

Higgins decided that the test of a fair and reasonable wage was “the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilised community”. He also said that the pay of the employee should not be dependent on the profits of the employer.

The judgment was regarded as a benchmark in Australian industrial law and its concept of the minimum wage dominated Australian economic life for the next 80 years. From then on, wages were no longer determined by free market capitalism but were set by arbitration.

This new wages policy became known as the basic wage, a wage that was designed to allow a family to live a civilised life. The wage had to be paid by the employer whether the business could afford to pay or not. This was indeed utopian.

Other welfare legislation soon followed. The age pension was introduced in 1908, an invalid pension in 1910 and a maternity benefit in 1912. Social investigators came from Europe and the US to examine society in Australia.

By 1914, under leaders such as Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin and Andrew Fisher, a combination of protectionism, fair wage arbitration and welfare socialism was shielding white Australia from raw capitalism. It seemed utopia had been achieved.

But the Aboriginal population gained nothing from any of this legislation. Reduced to the margins of society, they played no role in utopia. A lucky few still enjoyed their traditional way of life on ancestral lands. Some worked as unpaid drovers on cattle stations. Others were brought together on missions and settlements. Children were taken from parents.

For Aboriginal Australians the future looked more dystopian than utopian. But utopia gained was also utopia lost.

Utopis lost

World War I saw young Australian men volunteer in their thousands to fight on the side of Britain at Gallipoli and in the mud and sludge of northern France. About 61,000 of them died and 150,000 were injured. This was an appalling number of casualties for a small nation with a population of less than five million.

At home the war years were marked by two volatile and socially disruptive pro-conscription referendums that pitted Australian against Australian and split political parties.

The Irish expatriates at this time were also unhappy. They were angry at the brutal treatment dished out by the British to the survivors of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin. Conspirators in the aborted uprising were executed without trial.

The new pro-Irish Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, the vocal Daniel Mannix, missed none of this and fought hard to oppose conscription. The war years created irreparable social cracks in utopia.

In the 1920s a prime minister came along who trampled on the work done by Deakin and Fisher. This was Stanley Melbourne Bruce, a wealthy businessman who seemed to dislike the working class.

Bruce introduced the Crimes Act which gave police power to crack down on so-called extremists in the workplace. In 1928 he introduced a new Arbitration Act that reduced wages. Strikes proliferated as unions went outside of arbitration to get a pay rise and better conditions. Bruce's government also recklessly borrowed money from Britain.

By the early-1930s utopia was in ruins. The industrial unrest of the 1920s and the worldwide Great Depression, which was caused by unrestrained capitalist speculation, exacerbated the social strains created by World War I. Brutal, raw capitalism was now inflicted on Australia and the world.

Australia was hit hard during the depression years. Thousands lost their jobs and ended up drifting around the continent looking for work that did not exist. Police and vigilantes were used to move the unemployed who camped at the edges of towns. Wages plummeted for those still lucky enough to be in a job. Shanty towns sprang up on wasteland and on river banks. Poverty was back in fashion.

The British, who had loaned millions to Australia in the 1920s, demanded their money back, further contracting the economy. Governments were told to balance budgets. On the streets, Communists fought with the right-wing New Guard. The James Scullin Labor government fell and a state premier, Jack Lang, was sacked. A massive economic depression clouded the land just as in the 1890s. Capitalism had won again. Utopia was but a distant ideal.

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