As part of a project into the history and development of Australian currency I have written a little more of the events that took place over WWII that led to Australia’s post war reconstruction. The events start at the end of the thirties and go through to just before the Commonwealth Bank was created and a Central Bank in 1945.
The Commonwealth Bank Act 1945 repealed the previous Commonwealth Bank Act 1911-1943 and recreated it as a central bank. A well known public servant H.C Coombs was largely responsible for the rationing system over the war and the creation of Australia’s post war reconstruction. He trained as a secondary teacher but over the 1930’s received his PhD in economics and went on to work in various capacities for the Commonwealth Government.
If you can obtain a copy of his book Trial Balance (now out of print) he details these extraordinary events and the shift in thinking not only of a defunct economic paradigm that was used over the 1930’s but also in society more broadly.
The finished paper will be a more coherent narrative some of which feature in the following posts and more!
Currency Issuing Governments Finance Themselves
A History of Australian Coinage and Note Issuance- Part 1
History of Australian Currency – More Detail
Let’s have a rational debate on government spending.
The Mainstream are Trying to Stay Relevant
Preparations for WWII and War Rationing
Various financial statements and budget speeches in 1939 and 1940 were stating that with a given workforce and existing pattern of technology and industrial organisation there was a maximum real Gross National Product (GNP) which would for practical purposes be reached when available labour was fully employed.
(Insert EXAMPLES OF THESE SPEECHES)
The National Security Act 1939 had given powers to The Governor General to make regulations for securing the public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth and the Territories of the Commonwealth, and in particular— (h) for preventing money or goods being sent out of the Commonwealth except under conditions approved by any Minister of State; as well as other mechanisms to make provision for the Safety and Defence of the Commonwealth and its Territories during the present state of War.
This act in conjunction with the changes to the Commonwealth Bank amendments 1929, in effect abandoning a gold standard allowed for the Commonwealth to implement a system of rationing. There was contention within the Fadden Government.
By 1941 preparations were being made for a wartime economy. Chairman of the Financial and Economic Committee Lyndhurst Giblin had been in contact with Keynes regarding propositions that if the war effort was to be accomplished an additional transfer of resources amounting to 10 per cent of the total available would from civil to war purposes had to be achieved.
In a response to Giblin, Keynes had replied
…to deprive the economic system of the freedom represented by uncontrolled prices through rigorous price control supplemented necessary by rationing and by strong propaganda in favour of increased saving out of the margins of income preserved in favour of individuals by price fixing policy. (Coombs, 1981 p.11)
In a statement submitted to cabinet Fadden regarding his budget proposal submitted
There is a physical limit to our resources of manpower, equipment and materials and…the new programme will impose a severe strain on those resources. Last year (40/41) 15% of National Income was devoted to the war effort; this year (41/42) it would be 23%. The transfer of resources to achieve this must mean a substantial fall in civil production. The financial measures chosen must be designed to effect the necessary transfer. (Coombs, 1981 p.12)
In terms of an economic strategy the Finance and Economic Committee was preparing for a system of rationing as per the correspondence between Giblin and Keynes. There was awareness that rationing as a result of trade restrictions and production would need to occur. As a result of this Keynes had pointed out to Giblin ‘fairness of distribution social security would necessitate rationing’ In February of 1941 the Committee advised ‘Direct rationing or restriction of supplies of specific goods or services, chosen because the resources they use are most adaptable to war purposes.’ (Coombs, 1981 p.12)
‘There was a view within the Committee that direct rationing to consumers appeared inevitable and that plans to introduce and organise it should be prepared in secret by the Department of Customs’ (Combs, 1981 p.13)
The ABS 1301.0 Year Book Australia No. 35 1942-43 Commonwealth Food Control (1939-49 WAR) notes;
‘Australia began in 1938 to prepare for food control in the event of war, not only to safeguard her economy, in which exports have always occupied an important place, and to protect primary producers against market collapse, but also to ensure that essential supplies moved quickly to the United Kingdom. Plans were laid then for mass marketing to replace individual enterprise, and understandings were reached that as far as shipping was available, the United Kingdom would take the export surpluses of most of our principal foods.’
The Year Book Australia 1944-45 notes the reasoning for rationing.
‘War conditions necessitated civilian rationing of clothing and certain foodstuffs in Australia. The main reasons for clothing rationing were the serious falling off in imports, increased Service demands, and reduced labour for local production of textiles and making up of garments. The supply to the United Kingdom and the Australian and Allied Services of maximum quantities of foodstuffs necessitated the rationing of sugar. butter and meat, while reduction in imports, consequent upon enemy occupation of Java, necessitated the rationing of tea. In addition to the controls exercised by the Rationing Commission, rationing of certain other commodities is directed by other departments, e.g., petrol, tobacco, liquor, etc.’ (ABS 1301.0 Year Book Australia,Clothing and Food Rationing, 1944-45)
As the concern built within the Committee around the Fadden Government’s failure to implement rationing measures onto the civilian population and the political constraints within the Parliament, the Fadden Government’s 1941/42 budget failed to pass the House of Representatives. Two independent members of the House, Alexander Wilson and Arthur Coles crossed the floor. Fadden resigned from office and the support of the two independent members of the house gave support to John Curtin and Ben Chifley delivering the ALP under Curtin and Chifley Government.
By 8 May 1942 Prime Minister Curtin had announced Australia would enter a system of rationing and by 17 May 1942 a Rationing Committee was formed. It was decided that a coupon system be introduced with interim arrangements being proposed before clothing supplies were depleted. (Coombs, 1981 p.20-21)
A coupon system was devised in respect of Clothing, Food and Petrol.
‘Coupon Rationing. After examination of the systems of rationing operating in other countries, it was considered that coupon rationing was preferable to a system of consumer registration, since it allows consumers to purchase from any retailer and also provides a comparatively simple control of traders’ replenishment of stocks by means of the passage of coupons to their suppliers. Food coupons are provided in the general Food Ration Book issued each year.’ (ABS 1301.0 Year Book Australia,Clothing and Food Rationing, 1944-45)
This coupon system would last throughout the war and was the means by which Australian citizens would obtain essential goods and services. The Food Ration Book provided each year per household negated the need to spend currency that was earned.
Australia’s Post-War Reconstruction
Following the end of the war the Government was seeking a means to continue it’s control over the economy with similar wartime powers. A failed 1944 referendum sought an insertion of a Chapter 1A in the constitution
“CHAPTER IA.—TEMPORARY PROVISIONS.
POWER TO MAKE LAWS, FOB A LIMITED PERIOD, WITH RESPECT TO CERTAIN MATTERS.
6oA.—(i.) The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to—
(i) the reinstatement and advancement of those who have been members of the fighting services of the Commonwealth during any war, and the advancement of the dependants of those members who have died or been disabled as a consequence of any war ;
(ii) employment and unemployment;
(iii) organized marketing of commodities ; etc… (ABS 1301.0 Year Book Australia No.35 1942-43 p.65-66)
The failed referendum required another means to continue the Full Employment achieved over the war.
There was a shift in thinking as a new economic paradigm emerged. The collective conscience within our society was driven largely by remembrance of what was experienced over The Depression, what was possible as seen over the war and a desire to maintain the same level of production during peacetime. Within academia, elected representatives and a new generation of public servants – Keynes’ General Theory gave them the authority to implement what only a decade prior was seen as ‘radical’.
These events led through to the 1945 Tax White Paper on Full Employment and The Commonwealth Bank Act 1945 which created the Commonwealth as a central bank. Coombs in his text Trial Balance writes
‘Generally the functions of a central bank are: to print and control the issue of legal tender notes; to hold the country’s international reserves of gold and foriegn currencies; to act as banker to other banks, holding deposits from them; to exercise control over banks’ lending policies; to act as banker for governments and their major agencies, and frequently to arrange their borrowing; and to influence the policies of non-bank financial intermediaries which make loans.’ (Coombs, 1981 p.142)
A position that was resisted by capital for decades was finally defeated and our elected representatives had more discretion on controlling an interest rate and fiscal policy (having been subject to various impediments prior) to achieve their socio-economic outcomes.