Reviewed by Richard Tutin
I heard a lot about the Depression Years of the 1930s as I was growing up. Stories about having to make do with very little in the way of food and clothing as well as memories of the great lines of people looking for both food and work abounded during my childhood and teenage years.
It has taken some time to understand the Great Depression and the nation’s response to the ever-changing economic situation in which the newly federated Australia found itself. Joan Beaumont has undertaken a mammoth task in researching this period and putting her research into this book aptly named Australia’s Great Depression. The subtitle puts it well when it reads “How a nation shattered by the Great War survived the worst economic crisis it has ever faced”. Though it is home to the world’s oldest living culture at that time, Australia was a young, federated nation that began to loosen its ties to the United Kingdom to make its way in the world. The Great War (1914-18) had taught the Australia people many things. One was that you couldn’t always depend on the mother country when you needed it most. This was to prove a frustrating reality during the Depression Years.
Beaumont focuses on the years 1929-32 as the time of economic hardship while the years 1933-37 are seen as years of recovery. The climax was 1932 when over a third of the workforce in Australia was out of work. Though economic and political decisions formed a large part of the national and state response to the Depression other responses and effects are carefully examined by Beaumont as she paints a very complex and ever-changing picture of Australian life during the time of crisis. For some segments of society, life seemed to go on as before with little worry about the financial paralysis that was occurring around them. For others, life changed dramatically when unemployment meant that both income and homes were lost, and people had to quickly adapt to changes in circumstances that seemed insurmountable.
Different parts of the country were affected in different ways. Some rural areas maintained their life because the commodities they produced were always in demand both nationally and overseas. It was a different story for the larger urban areas within the capital cities. There those affected by business downturns and closures had fewer resources to combat rising unemployment.
Beaumont points out that the major response to everything that was happening at the time was the growing resilience of the population. People were prepared try and find ways to both feed themselves and their families while keeping an eye on their neighbours whose suffering was greater due to age or ill health. This resilience is further reflected in the ways in which voluntary organisations tried as far as possible to assist through the provision of meals, clothing and, where it was available, accommodation. This became an important resource when Australia found itself facing World War II so soon after recovering from the Great Depression.
Given the time when this book was written and published, there is the temptation to contrast the period of the Great Depression with the present situation around the Covid-19 pandemic. Beaumont sees the pandemic as having much in common with the Great Depression. Again, resilience is playing its part as people and governments respond to the current crisis. While they are two very different eras, there are many similarities with the ways in which responses have been crafted and enacted.
Australia’s Great Depression is a well-crafted textbook on this important time in our nation’s history. Beaumont has, by carefully working her way through a lot of primary source documents and other materials, dug down through the myths and makes the reader aware of the complexities that challenged everyone from the person in the street to those whose strode the halls of government. The resilience they showed at the time gives a great example of how to respond to future crises whether they be economically or pandemically driven.
Joan Beaumont is Professor Emeritus of History at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, and author of the magisterial account of Australia’s experience of World War I, Broken Nation, which, among other awards, won the 2014 Prime Minister’s History Award.
Australia’s Great Depression
by Joan Beaumont
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 176029 398 7