Australia’s Great Depression: New book from Joan Beaumont


Australia’s Great Depression

How a nation shattered by the Great War survived the worst economic crisis it has ever faced

By Joan Beaumont

Published by Allen & Unwin | RRP $49.99 in hardcover | ISBN 9781760293987

Many readers will understand the legacy of the Great Depression in a very personal way: through the thriftiness of a parent or a grandparent. Children of the Great Depression inevitably carried forward an indelible lesson into their adult lives. Do not waste anything.

Pre-eminent historian Joan Beaumont has turned her attention to this important subject following her critically-acclaimed account of Australia’s experience of World War I, ‘Broken Nation’. She begins this book as the Great War ends, covering a period of 18 years to the brink of World War II.

As she writes, some generations are born unlucky. Australians who survived the horrors of the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic that followed were soon faced with the shock of the Great Depression.

The first challenge of the period was repatriating the survivors of the Australian forces sent overseas. These men, while desperate for work, were often damaged, both physically and psychologically, leading to drunk and disorderly conduct that extended to civil unrest.

Reading about the soldier settlement scheme, which Beaumont describes as ‘monumentally flawed’, I am reminded of my own grandfather’s failed attempts to make a living on a miserable block just north of Wiseman’s Ferry, his shrapnel wounds precluding him from returning to his pre-war work as a chef.

While the 1920s did provide some hope of economic recovery, this was a brief respite. In this period, federal and state governments borrowed huge amounts of money in London and New York to build improved infrastructure but well before the stock market crash of 1929, Australia was already struggling to service its debts.

There is, according to Beaumont, no single cause of the Great Depression but there was certainly contemporary disagreement about how to deal with it.

Conservative elements insisted that defaulting on international loans was unthinkable, despite widespread misery.

Over a third of the workforce was unemployed in 1932, making Australia one of the hardest hit countries in the world. Governments resorted to austerity and deflation. Violent protests followed with paramilitary movements threatening the political order.

Fortunately, Australia’s democratic institutions survived the ordeal. Australia’s people, too, survived.

Beaumont has received universal acclaim for this compelling and timely study of the important but often forgotten inter-war period.

In the end, it’s a story of people and a story of resilience.

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