Speech given to a Conference held at the University of Sydney on 26 October 1984 and published in Frank Stilwell and David Wilmoth, editors, Development Visions for Australia: Strategies, Policies and Projects, Planning Research Centre, Monograph No. 21, University of Sydney, 1986, pp. 15-19.
I would like to talk about those ideas of post-war reconstruction that interested people in the 1940s, and in particular ideas of Dr. Lloyd Ross. As a socialist, Ross was very much concerned with various ideas about how to improve Australian society after the end of World War II. He was Secretary of the Australian Railways Union between 1935 and 1943. From 1943 until 1949, when he was dismissed by Prime Minister Menzies, he worked in the Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction.
From 1952, after a period with the Melbourne Herald, Ross worked again with the Australian Railways Union as Secretary until his retirement in 1969. He is still alive.
To prepare for the overall theme of “a future vision for Australia”, I looked at what people were thinking 40 years ago.
As it happens in 1944 there was a conference held by the Australian Institute of Political Science on post-war reconstruction in Australia. The papers published in a book from the Conference proceedings are extremely interesting. They include essays by R.G. Menzies, Dr. H.C. Coombs, D.B. Copeland, Lloyd Ross and Dr. H.V. Evatt. It is interesting to compare the optimism of Ross’s paper with the views that are current in the labour movement today. He said:
So let’s gather together the constructive proposals to see if they would make a new order. Where they are inadequate they must be filled out: Where self-contradictory, choices be made; or a synthesis discovered: Full employment, improving standards, social security.
Those issues were identified by Ross as the key priorities that the Labor government should achieve. He went on to say:
Planned immigration dominated by the aims for using the economic resources for improving culture, rebuilding cities, transforming schools, establishing community centres, planning free libraries, national ballets, national theatres …dreams. Given the full use of our national resources and the avoidance of waste by monopolization or by unemployment, anything is possible – even dreams. It is fantastic that we should be depressed at the possibilities before us in Australia. But we need also the recognition of the need for more State control, State guidance, State ownership. That’s the direction – it’s not a dogma. It is a belief that social ownership is inevitable but it’s not a blue print. It’s a challenge to socialist and non-socialist alike that if we are prepared to follow the implication to full employment, we must follow the aim and method of our own choosing.
Ross advocated an optimistic vision about the role of the state in planning for full employment, for improved living standards and for improvements in social security. His references to planning free libraries, theatres and so forth indicate a much more sophisticated vision of socialism than what was current among many of his socialist contemporaries. He referred to the dangers of bureaucracy, the dangers of the vision that he was promoting being corrupted:
There are two dangers which it is necessary to guard against, the first is to take a word like “freedom”, squeeze it dry, turn it into a bone to point it at anything we do not like, use it as a swear word to denounce our enemies. The second, is to take another word, such as “planning”, roll it around the tongue, chew it incessantly, park it under the table, to be produced whenever we need something serving.
He saw freedom and planning as not opposites but as complementary.
Dr. Ross would admit that the dreamy optimism he expressed in 1944 needed to be considerably modified later on. Much of what he wrote in the latter part of the 1940s was related to the difficulties and conflicts associated with reform. The Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction ceased to exist after the defeat of the Chifley Labor government in 1949. The forward march of labour was halted in that year and the enthusiastic optimism that characterised Ross’s contribution was extinguished at the same time.
There has been an enormous shift in attitudes in Australia since the tremendous optimism that gripped the Australian labour movement in the 1940s, which found expression in the Chifley government and in the views of Dr. Lloyd Ross, Dr. Coombs and others. During the 1940s the Australian community lost faith in the idea of planning, lost faith in arguments that were being advanced by the Australian labour movement, including the ideas of security and the policy of controls by government on the economy through bank nationalisation. Some ideas survived, including support for full employment, which became a bipartisan objective.
It seems to me that there were many reasons behind the collapse of the visions expressed in the 1940s. In his biography of Ben Chifley, Fin Crisp makes the comment that it was not in Chifley’s nature to explain patiently and effectively to the community what he was doing and what the Ministry of Post-war Reconstruction was all about. He was Minister for that portfolio between 1943 and 1945. The biography also refers to Chifley’s decision to announce the nationalisation of banks. He walked into a cabinet meeting with a briefing and told the cabinet what was going to happen. The necessary preparatory work of persuading the labour movement and explaining it to the community did not take place. The great weakness that confronted the post-war Labor government was that it failed to communicate its ideas to the people; it failed to train its own supporters in what is meant by post-war improvement or full employment. Indeed, Dr. Lloyd Ross was among those who were extremely critical of the post-war policies of the Labor government concerning full employment, arguing that it was not linked to manpower and industrial relations policies and that the government did not explain it to the community. Too few seminars of union members and ALP members were held on what was the vision of the labor movement at the time.
That memory is part of the experience of the labor movement today: the defeat and misunderstanding of Labor in the 1940s and the years that followed; the “years of unleavened bread” to use the expression that described the period after the fall of the Chifley government.
When Labor was returned to office, during the Whitlam years, the government identified with a social democratic approach to government. However, the Whitlam government failed to develop a coherent prices and incomes policy.
That too, is part of the experience of the labour movement remembered today.
In particular, that memory is part of the reason why the Accord was adopted in February 1983. Now let me relate the Accord to those historical factors. In my opinion the Accord, the document adopted by the ACTU and the ALP in February, 1983, is a new guide for the trade union movement and the Labor government to achieve significant social changes in the economy, in social welfare, and in all of the matters mentioned in the Accord. Unfortunately, despite it often being said that the Accord is the most significant document to refer to when explaining the actions of the current Federal government, the Accord is a document that most people never read. I would be surprised if more than four or five people in this audience have even seen a copy and read it. The document is an extremely significant statement in that it encapsulates the belief that the union movement and the Labor government can achieve important improvements in the economy, and in particular, attack the scourge of unemployment. That optimism, that faith in doing things, that idea of a partnership between the union movement and the Labor government, has not been a part of the labour movement since the collapse of the Chifley government in 1949. The Accord is also important in that it sets out an incomes policy, the lack of which was a great handicap for the Whitlam experiment between 1972 and 1975.
The Accord opens with its reason for being introduced. It states that economic recovery, whenever it should occur, would be affected by government policies:
Sustained economic recovery, sufficient to restore and maintain a situation even remotely resembling full employment, is not possible whilst reliance is placed solely on conventional economic weapons of fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policy, however varied and applied. This is because economic recovery will soon lead to increased inflation, thus forcing the government to adopt contractionary anti-inflation policies which will truncate the recovery and prevent any restoration of full, or even near full, employment.
The major emphasis throughout the Accord is an emphasis on policies that will reduce unemployment. The ACTU adopted the Accord and all that goes with it, including the incomes policy that has led to remarkable wage restraint over the last 18 months, because the union movement believes that it is only by adopting the policies outlined in the Accord that we can reduce inflation, reduce uncertainty about the economy, reduce the level of industrial conflict, leading to a pick-up in the economy and so leading to an improvement in employment.
The ACTU did not “buy” a document that meant long-term wage restraint for its affiliates. It did accept that if short-term wage restraint occurred then the economy would pick up and employment would then pick up. The Accord, however, is not simply a document on wage restraint. It mentions that complementary policies that would be pursued by the Federal government in fields of industrial development, technological change, immigration, social security, education, health, Australian government employment and occupational health and safety. In other words, the Accord stipulates policies that both the union movement and the government support in each of those areas.
In my opinion, the most significant part of the Accord, so far as employment is concerned, are those sections concerned with the development of projects by the government to improve the training of people currently unemployed.
Sir Hermann Black, in his opening contribution to these proceedings, referred to the duration of unemployment for many people and unemployment for people aged between 15 and 19 as being worrying features of modern Australian life. The Accord refers to the need for the Federal government to develop an employment policy that would provide employment for those particular groups. Associate Professor Cass and I have both been involved in one of the products of the Accord, the Community Employment Programme (CEP) set up by the Federal government. This Programme has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for the purpose of providing short-term employment for people who are unemployed. There have been problems with the CEP associated with the identification of priorities for assistance to the unemployed and the provision of meaningful employment and meaningful training for these people. Though they are concerns which flow out of the Accord’s commitment to allocate substantial finances for the unemployed, the details of the issues are beyond the scope of this paper.
The second area that is important in the Accord, so far as employment policy is concerned, is that section dealing with industry policy and technological change. The Accord states that there is no economic sense in reducing protection levels in the midst of high unemployment and that there needs to be significant effort by the Federal government towards employment training and retraining policies. Essential for labour resource planning, these policies in turn will be integrated into the national economic planning processes. One of the results of the Accord has been the establishment of the Economic Planning Advisory Council, which advises the Federal government on economic policy and has representation from industry, the ACTU and the Federal government. In addition, the Australian Manufacturing Council has been set up and a number of industry councils developed. Among those industry councils set up is the Electrical Industry Council, other industry councils have been established in the vehicle, forest products and aerospace industries, and in various sections of the manufacturing industry. They are designed to ensure that unions, management and government consult about appropriate policies for those industries, with a major priority being given to improving and maintaining employment levels.
In these ways the Accord has shown some important results to date. It has led to an incomes policy being developed through the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, and there is a high level of wage restraint in Australia which has not occurred since the 1960s. The Accord has led to positive action being taken by the Federal and State governments in providing funds to the Community Employment Programme. The Accord has also seen the development of industry councils and consultation between the government and the trade union movement on appropriate policies to defeat the problems of unemployment.
In summary, this paper referred initially to some of the historical experiences of the labor movement, with emphasis on the views expressed by Dr. Lloyd Ross and others in the 1940s, especially their optimistic vision of labour movement – the trade union movement and the Labor Party – being involved in the post-war reconstruction for a better society with full employment, social security and improved living standards. The optimistic cries of the 1940s vanished in 1949. The forward march of Labor was halted in that year with the defeat of the Chifley government, and ever since the union movement has tended to be mostly reactive to government policy. The Whitlam years were no exception: that government was limited by the lack of an effective incomes policy and because of the lack of consultation and agreement between the union movement and the Labor government on appropriate policies for the economy and for industrial relations.
The Accord, widely quoted but rarely read, is the product of the experience of the labour movement in the post-war years. It gives major priority to efforts to beat unemployment and to the need for the union movement and the Labor government to adopt policies to achieve this goal.
In that sense it is a return to the full employment ideals of the 1940s.
Perhaps the failure of the Labor governments in the 1940s effectively to tie together employment, industrial relations and social welfare policies will not be repeated in the 1980s.
The Accord is still relatively new and the government has a lot more to do in order to implement its ideas. But over the next decade the Accord will be extremely influential on trade union and Labor government policy. It is certainly part of my vision of a future Australia.
My suggestion to this audience that I doubted if any more than 4 or 5 had read the Accord document was not met with howls of protest — not even a whimper.
Perhaps this reflected good old fashioned, laconic Australian pragmatism. You get judged on what you do, what is served up, not on claims and mere recipes.