HISTORY: Australia’s Great Depression, Joan Beaumont, Allen & Unwin, $49.99
Joan Beaumont begins her outstanding and meticulously researched book, Australia’s Great Depression, with a simple yet powerful observation. “Some generations,” she observes, “are born unlucky.” For the generation who survived the devastation of both world wars, the intervening years brought the Great Depression. It was the most severe and cataclysmic economic crisis the country had experienced. At its height in 1932 a third or more of the Australian workforce was unemployed. Thousands lost their homes, businesses, savings, and farms.
One striking and distinctive feature of this world crisis in Australia, notes Beaumont, was that Australia’s political system survived it. Notwithstanding the protests and unrest about the glaring inequalities in how different classes were affected, unlike other countries Australia’s democratic institutions remained intact.
Beaumont sets her task to explore why and how this happened. In charting the sources of resilience of communities, individuals and political structures, Beaumont delivers the most authoritative historical work on Australia and the Great Depression to date. The story is told with a balance of compassion and astute analytical power. Beaumont captures the breadth and depth of this traumatic event that remained indelibly etched on the memories of the generation of Australians who painfully endured it.
The narrative begins with the aftermath of the First World War and ends in 1937. What caused the Depression? Beaumont provides a forensic and compelling examination of Australia’s dependency on the international economic system. The Depression, Beaumont shows, begins well before the New York stock market crash in October 1929 as the Australian economy was before then on the brink of recession, a nation struggling to service its debts. The war itself did not create the Depression opines Beaumont, but it created structural weaknesses that exposed the economy to the vagaries of the international markets.
Her astute observation that prime minister Stanley Bruce’s program of “men, money, markets” emerged from a vision of a better society brutalised by war points to the war’s ever-present shadow. The heavy borrowing by federal and state governments from London and at times New York to finance public works, infrastructure, the manufacturing sector, sewerage, and roads exposed the Australian economy. After expansion in the early and mid 1920s, a decline set in by 1927.
Two years later, in 1929, the Australian economy moved from a recession into a depression. James Scullin, elected in 1929, was in the unenviable position of steering the country out of the crisis. As Beaumont aptly observes, few incoming prime ministers have had their agenda set by factors so much beyond their control. The political turmoil that beset the Bruce and Scullin governments and the state governments is covered with a sharp attention to detail of the political crisis that unfolded.
But this is not a history solely about the challenges that confronted politicians, economists, and bureaucrats. One of the enduring strengths of this work is how Beaumont captures the extraordinary impact of the Depression on a range of groups and communities.