John Curtin is best remembered as a war-time Prime Minister. He is routinely described as Australia’s greatest Prime Minister. His policy work, alongside that of his Treasurer, Ben Chifley, was crucial in establishing a Welfare State, on Australian lines, designed for Australian conditions. Curtin was influenced by the economic theories of Keynes, and he had long wanted to transform life for Australians.
He had seen the damage caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and took the opportunity offered by wartime conditions to transform the nation. In 1942 he imposed uniform taxation on the states, which changed the financial relationship between the two levels of government forever. It also allowed him to increase revenue. The removal of the states’ right to levy their own income taxes was to be compensated by the Commonwealth ‘picking up’ their liability for social programs.
With a uniform income tax he was then in a position to expand his vision of a socially activist Commonwealth Government. The states, especially New South Wales and Victoria, had been adding elements of a social safety net since the beginning of the century. He and Chifley, between them, completed it. Early examples were the Widow’s Pension Act, and the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act.
By the end of that same year (1942) he had set up a Department of Postwar Reconstruction, which laid the groundwork for establishing a Commonwealth Housing Commission, the postwar Rural Reconstruction Commission, the Secondary Industries Commission and the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Many of these programs were designed to assist in re-building Australia, after the war ended.
In 1944 he set up the Department of Immigration which was to be responsible for organising postwar immigration to Australia. These changes were the basis for the enormous growth of the Australian economy in the postwar years.
John Curtin was a believer and a doer. He was lucky to be succeeded in the Prime Mininstership by Chifley, who carried on the commitment. The aim was nothing less than the dynamic re-construction of Australia, post-war. Curtin and Chifley both maintained that the key principle of a successful re-construction was full employment.
Robert Menzies was of a similar mind. He defeated Chifley in the election of 1949, and won seven elections in a row, on a platform which included full employment. In 1961, he was lucky to be re-elected, because the unemployment rate had ‘blown out’ to 2.1%. He won that election by just one seat.
The Welfare State in Australia is under constant threat, by both sides of parliament. This is counter to the wishes of a great proportion of the population, and it is driven by a political class who look after only themselves. They rely on the apathy of the people, who do not inspect governments closely, and who are disengaged from the political process. Politics and society are of no interest to most voters-a sad fact of life.
The Liberal Party has been infiltrated by many IPA-type neoliberals, whose political mantra can be simplified to a “survival of the fittest” trope. The Labor Party, although not yet as badly infested with IPA ideas, is slightly less crass, paying lip service to an egalitarian ethic, while rubber-stamping much neo-liberal legislation. It leaves voters stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Where to from here?
In the Age of Coronavirus, with widespread economic devastation, we need action similar to that which re-constructed Australia in the period immediately after World War 2. We need to accept that we need massive stimulation, and we need to spend our way out of the coming economic disruption. We need Australians to be protected from hardship, because it is the corrective thing to do, but also because the people demand it.
Scott Morrison is a man shackled to his party, by his own ideology, and his limitless ambition. He could form a National Government, which included at least the Opposition Leader, and he could govern for the whole country, and all the people.
You can see that he is torn between being a small-time political hack, and a real leader. He could really lean into the task of re-building the country, from the ground up, after the laying waste of the economy, caused by the pandemic.
It just takes character, and a commitment to Australia’s real needs. That is why we call it the Commonwealth of Australia. Could this be his moment? Let’s see.