26 September 2023

Australia’s Great Depression

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Joan Beaumont, Allen & Unwin, $49.99.

Award-winning Australian historian and academic, Joan Beaumont has compiled a splendid detailed examination about how a nation shattered by the Great War survived the worst economic crisis it ever faced.

The timeframe of this study is 1919 to 1937. World War I did not cause the Depression, but this conflict bequeathed some structural weaknesses in the international economic system on which Australian prosperity depended. This narrative also begins well before October 1929 and the New York stock market crash that is “commonly assumed to have triggered the Depression, because Australia was experiencing serious economic difficulties well before this date.”

“It is the purpose of this book to again give the Great Depression the prominence that it merits in Australian public memory. As the worst economic crisis of the twentieth century, it is tested to the limit Australia’s political institutions, the capacity of its communities to mobilise in support of each other, and the adaptability of individuals. Their endurance and survival provide one of the most impressive narratives of resilience in the nation’s history.”

Professor of History at the Australian National University, Beaumont gives a fresh insight into a history that’s covered widely and fully understood in 565 pages. Her comprehensive grasp of the subject is impressive, covering the hardship experienced by many, the huge community support for those in need and the political and economic forces that shaped this major crisis.

Apart from survival, the personal and communal struggle has another link, as Beaumont adds: “The pandemic has much in common with the Great Depression. Australians today have confronted external threats, that neither they nor their governments could control. Everyone has had to dig deep for resilience. The pandemic like the Depression confirmed how important local and state loyalties are. Voters expected their leaders to protect them, and only them. However, there was one major difference in contrast to the Depression: today’s governments utilized sophisticated policy tools, well beyond the imagination of the Depression-era governments, to prevent the social disaster on the scale seen in 1929-1932.”

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