The Guardian • Issue #1999

The Menzies years

Personal memories of Australian poverty in the 1950s

The Liberal Party has created an image of 1950s Australia as a golden age of order and prosperity under the government of Robert Menzies (1949–1966). The truth is that, besides the rich, the Menzies period was a time of great struggle for the working class. This imagined prosperity became a successful sales tool in spreading the myth that the LNP would recreate this lost time again. The problem is that it is a false memory implanted into minds unwilling to comprehend the struggles faced daily by the working class. It was a time of class struggle successes in which the Communist Party played a major part in the unions and in the streets. The people saw that the Party was fighting for them. Despite the attempt to ban the Communist Party in Australia by the Menzies government, the number of members continued to remain high, and the support for the Communist Party remained high in the federal elections. An outstanding achievement for the class struggle in this country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered his speech for the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture on the 12th of March 2019. He told his audience that Sir Robert Gordon Menzies was “one of our greatest, if not our greatest giant when it comes to the history of modern Australia.” Menzies spent thirty years on the front bench, with eighteen and a half years as Prime Minister of Australia. In that time, Menzies built a Party based on “enduring truths; the truths of liberalism and liberal democracy that outlive any one individual or the fashion of any one time, truths that unite a rich breadth of thought across our community.” In reality, these “truths” are completely false, for the Menzies years were filled with political strife and upheaval. He tried to ban the Communist Party in Australia and sent Australian Defence forces into Malaya to support the British Empire’s fight against the independence movement. On the 17th of September 1950, the Australian Contingent landed in South Korea at the beginning of the Korean War to prop up the US-puppet and brutal dictator, Dr Syngman Rhee.

The mythical greatness of the Menzies years claimed by Morrison had been echoed by another stalwart of the Liberal Party,  former Prime Minister John Howard, who credits Menzies as a driving force behind the creation of the Liberal Party. He redefined “politics as a fight for the hearts of ordinary Australians, rather than a battle to win over unions and those at the top end of town.” Menzies created the middle class and fought for “freedom,” which was an imagined past of a White Australia dominated by men and strong cultural ties to the mother country, Great Britain. It was seen as a period of nation-building and industrialisation, such as the Snowy River Scheme, making headlines. Rather than peace and prosperity, Menzies attempted to ban the Communist Party, refused to give the Indigenous peoples the right to vote, and women were expected to not work after the wedding day. As “New Australian” immigrants poured in from war-torn Europe, Menzies attacked the right to strike, thereby lowering wages further. The ignorance of the LNP was challenged by the ALP.

Julia Gillard, in her speech for the Australian Fabians, “John Howard: 10 Years On” (March 2006), had a different view of John Howard’s Menzies. His is a ‘two-dimensional vision, as simplistically coloured as a child’s picture book, of the white knights of benevolent businessmen battling Howard’s childhood bogeymen – unions and organised labour.” John Howard harmed Australian workers as he fought the same ideological battles that occupied the toy soldiers of his childhood. Howard “hankers for the mono-cultural world he remembers, of white picket fences shielding white families.” However, he understood the political potency of his “stylised representation of security and simplicity, for change weary, anxious Australians.”

Other Labor Prime Ministers had similar memories of Menzies’ Australia. Paul Keating told parliament that Robert Menzies’ 1950s Australia was a country in neutral. Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, said that the Menzies years were “basically, they were too long.” Menzies overplayed his anti-Communist platform and that committing Australia to Vietnam was a “massive mistake.” On the 22nd of September 1951, the Menzies referendum to ban the then-named Australian Communist Party was defeated by the Australian people.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) fought for and won a number of leave provisions for the workers. In 1941 it was one-week annual leave and sick leave. Five years later, it was two weeks annual leave, and 1953 was the beginning of long service leave. Even so, life was tough for most people in this country. In 1953 the basic wage was £11/16/-, which was barely enough for people to live on. In real terms, the buying power of wages remained unchanged since the Great Depression. Consumption of basic foods, including meat, butter, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, and sugar, had fallen, even from the dark days of the 1930s. This meant that the annual per capital food consumption fell from 337 kg in 1936 to only 316 kg in 1957. The public was well aware of the failure of the capitalist system and voted for a better political system, socialism. In the 1955 election, the Communist Party received 161,869 votes, 3.64 per cent of the total vote in Australia. The number of members had fallen since its peak in 1945 with 23,000 members, after years of attack from the Menzies government, the press and the police. The class struggle continued under the leadership of the Party.

I was born in 1953, and life for the working class had changed little from when my parents were born in the 1920s or even my grandparents who were born in 1901, the beginning of federation. There were no fridges, we had an ice chest, and my father collected the ice from the ice factory. We used kerosene lamps, as a lot of people still had no electricity. We had outside toilets, and the “dunny man” came to replace the pan every week. There was no phone unless you went to the local phone both. TV in Australia did not begin until the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956, and then it was the ABC as the only broadcaster. the family “watched” the radio for news and entertainment, such as dramas and comedies.

In state schools in Queensland, at the start of every day students had to stand to attention and take the allegiance to the Queen and the flag. Passports were stamped “Subject of Britain.” In picture theatres, at the beginning of the film, the Queen on her horse was shown, and everyone stood and took allegiance to the flag. Those who didn’t were thrown out, and this was common up to the early 1970s.

Most men drank beer, and if you were a factory worker, this meant having beers most evenings after work. Women drank shandies  (lemonade with beer). Many people smoked, even doctors. The bar was open all hours for politicians who drank heavily during the sitting of parliament, meaning drunks were leading the country. What questions journalists could ask politicians and the Prime Minister were strictly controlled. Crossing that line meant the sack from the news company, and this practice continued up to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Many people, especially women, only had a primary school education. My grandfather left school after grade three to earn money for his parents. His brother died working on the wharfs carrying sacks of wheat. Most women could not drive. My mother never learnt to drive until the 1970s.

My grandmother never learnt to drive, and she died in 1984. It was expected that women would stop working and start raising children once they were married. This was common up to the 1980s. A woman could not get a bank loan unless they had the husband or father act as guarantor. Women could not become a boss; their job was to assist their husbands in his business ventures. In the late 1970s, Bob Hawke, as head of the ACTU, was interviewed, and he said that unions would not support women as unions supported men, who were the breadwinners of families. Women took jobs away from men. A young woman who became pregnant out of wedlock was a family scandal. Some were placed in special homes for wayward women. The one in Redcliffe had bars on all the windows. I remember the sad teenage girls peering out to a world they were shut out from. Violence against women was commonplace, with the man having the right to beat his wife as long as he did not kill her. Then the police would step in. At court, he could use the excuse that he had been provoked and let off. That violence against women is still common in Australia and must be remembered at each  International Women’s Day on the 8th of March.

Most of all, people were poor, and it was a daily struggle to survive. People ate offal — brains, tripe, liver and kidneys — because it was the cheapest cut of meat. On special occasions, there would be a roast chicken. When the spending money ran out, people had bread and dripping (lard) or bread and sugar. Poverty was so widespread that free milk was available at all schools to alleviate child malnutrition. My sister spent months at an institution due to malnutrition. Public transport was available to those who had money otherwise workers walked for miles to get to work, as few owned cars.

Some 120,000, mainly men, were registered as unemployed. They could not get unemployment benefits, the dole if there was any land in the property that could be used to grow food. The workers, therefore, cemented their yards to prove they could not grow food.

There was no Medicare, and if one could not pay for a doctor, there was the hospital. Most working-class men read little other than newspapers. Most would never read a book after leaving school. The men collected in pubs, where women were forbidden entrance. All shops were closed on Sunday except those with Jewish owners, whose shops closed on Saturday, their Sabbath. Men joined the Freemasons and other lodges in which women would not be allowed. My grandfather was the Worshipful Master in the Adelaide Freemasons.

Australia was an extremely Patriarchal society, where everyone had their place. It was very conservative with allegiance to the Monarchy, and the White Australia policy was strictly enforced, and Indigenous people were not allowed the rights of citizenship. Society was very hierarchical by class, religion, gender, and race. It was a violent society where parents, police, school teachers and the elite used violence to enforce their will.

Politics was extremely conservative. Censorship was strictly enforced in all publications, the theatre and cinema, covering not only language and nudity but also politics and race. My mother voted for the Liberal Party, as did her mother. Her father voted DLP (Democratic Labor Party) and supported Bob Santamaria, who established the Catholic Social Studies Movement in 1941, which became the National Civic Council in 1957. He was a major factor behind the split from the ALP, into the DLP, which kept Labor out of federal office for 23 years. My father supported Labor as did his family. There was no such thing as free speech, as we would know it today. This was long before the Vietnam War.

What achievements had been made for the working class were by the unions and the Communist Party. Both were hated by the Liberal Party. Most people accepted the government’s word that “Communists” were to blame for the world’s problems. The Petrov Affair, the defection of the Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov in Canberra in 1954, was in the news for years as support of the Liberal Party’s Anti-Communist policies. Right-wing politics in Australia attempted to crush the Class Struggle for decades and is still doing so today.

After thirty years, the system of quarterly adjustments of the Federal Basic Wage was abolished in 1953 and followed by the states. The freezing of the basic wage led to a massive loss in income for workers of over £144 million by 1959. New taxes amounted to a class tax, as the top bracket of income taxpayers earned over fifty per cent of the national income but paid only forty-six per cent of taxes. Taxation of working-class “luxuries” such as beer and tobacco amounted to fifty per cent. The tax burden was greatest on the working class. On top of this, banks rarely gave loans to the working class, who were forced to buy goods on higher purchase charging thirty-three per cent interest. My father bought his house from a higher purchase company at a huge cost.

Far from an idyllic time for Australians, such appalling conditions led to 13,127 industrial disputes, between 1948 and 1957, resulting in a loss of more than 11.8 million working days. Even with the extensive penal powers of Arbitration Acts, this period was marked by a 600 per cent increase in total disputes. This struggle was fought not only for increased wages but safer conditions. At the 1959 National Industrial Safety Convention in Brisbane, it was revealed that in Australia industrial accidents killed around 600 people every year, maimed 3,500, and caused 350,000 to loss at least one day’s work. As well, over one million people were existing on inadequate pensions. The working-class struggle had reached a level unheard of before the Menzies government.

As Karl Marx writes in Volume 1 of Capital:

“In proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse […]. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.”

This is the true world which Menzies had created, and not the sweet image pushed by the LNP.

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