Monthly Archives: April 2019
With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.
In the 1949 federal election, a Liberal-Country Party Coalition led by Robert Menzies defeated the Australian Labor Party, ending Ben Chifley’s four years as prime minister. Menzies also dashed expectations that Labor had established itself as the “natural party of government” following decisive victories in 1943 and 1946.
Prior to the 1949 election, Labor had led Australia successfully through the second world war. The popular mood was solidly behind its agenda of full employment and social welfare.
The Chifley government only began to encounter troubled waters in 1947. Its bid to nationalise the private trading banks swung popular opinion behind the Liberal Party. But after the High Court’s invalidation of bank nationalisation, the fortunes of the Labor Party revived. A Gallup poll in April 1949 showed a narrow lead for Labor and presaged a tight contest at the end of the year.
Historians have tended to attribute Menzies’ eventual victory to issues like bank nationalisation and the differences between the major parties over how to handle the Australian Communist Party. While these were undoubtedly factors in the election, the decisive issue was something else: petrol rationing.
Petrol rationing and the ‘sterling area’
In the 1940s, Australia was a loyal member of the British Commonwealth, as well as of a monetary and trading group known as the “sterling area”. Australia and other members of the group pooled their external reserves in London and rationed “hard currencies” like the American dollar. The sterling area was a system that helped British Commonwealth countries get through the second world war.
After the war, Australia continued to import most of its goods from Britain, with the exception of essential items such as petrol and news print. Petroleum, sourced overwhelmingly from US producers, could only be purchased with dollars. But Australians could not secure enough dollars to meet all their petrol needs. This meant that Canberra had to go to the British Treasury every year to ask for extra dollars – a situation that soon became unsustainable.
Britain was virtually bankrupted by the second world war. In an effort to avert a financial crisis, British leaders convened a meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers in July 1949 and asked the group to impose restrictions on dollar imports for the common good.
To meet the British government’s request, Chifley had to overcome a major hurdle: the High Court’s invalidation of federal petrol rationing regulations. Menzies himself had introduced the rations as a wartime measure in 1940. But in June 1949, the High Court ruled that the rationing of petrol could no longer be justified in peacetime. To work around the court ruling, Chifley had to secure the agreement of the states. Once he did, petrol rationing was again in force across the country.
But by that time, Australians were hooked on petrol. In 1949, about one in every 10 Australians had a car in the garage. When rationing came back into effect, it sparked a national crisis. Motorists suddenly found it harder to fuel up than at any time during the war.
The 1949 election and its consequences
Following an electoral redistribution in 1948, the size of the House of Representatives had increased from 74 to 121 seats. A September 1949 Gallup poll estimated the Chifley government still had enough electoral fat to withstand a 3% swing against it in the enlarged House.
It was not enough. In the campaign speeches in November 1949, the Chifley government stood on its record. Menzies, meanwhile, pledged to do away with petrol rationing, in part by drawing on defence oil reserves held in Australia.
This bold, some might say reckless, move by Menzies was precipitated by Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, who had earlier promised in his own campaign speech to eliminate petrol rationing. Fadden would later write:
I am inclined to think that petrol rationing was the rock on which the government finally foundered.
Opinion polls taken after the election confirmed Fadden’s assessment. The Coalition swung 6.61% of the popular vote to its side. Of the voters who switched allegiances, 60% said they considered petrol rationing when casting their votes. At the election on December 10, Menzies’ Coalition won 74 seats to the ALP’s 47 – a sizeable majority.
After the Coalition victory, Menzies followed through on his campaign promise and brought an end to petrol rationing. And the economy began to look up. The Korean War ushered in a boom in the early 1950s. A massive increase in Australian wool exports, as well as other raw materials from British Commonwealth countries, helped bring about a revival in the fortunes of the sterling area.
So, the gamble by Menzies and Fadden on petrol rationing proved lucky. Far from confirming the ALP as the “natural party of government”, as would be the case in New South Wales from 1941 to 1965, the 1949 election actually began a period of more than two decades of Liberal-Country Party rule.
With taxes and health care emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War.
It also happened back in 1929 when Australians went to the polls, focused almost solely on arbitration.
In its early days, Australia pioneered a system of compulsory arbitration — basically a new kind of court to settle disputes between unions and employers and set wages. From the late-1800s, arbitration courts were set up in most of the Australian states, and after Federation, a federal court was established in Canberra. At first, this federal layer was designed only to deal with the most serious, nationwide industrial disputes, but it soon became a full-fledged second layer of arbitration governing all facets of industrial relations.
Most unions and employers rather begrudgingly came to accept arbitration as a kind of compromise – an institution that could make industrial disputes a little more civil and, hopefully, a little less violent.
But not all accepted the compromise. In the 1920s, the Coalition government (it was the Nationalist-Country Party Coalition back then, but they are roughly comparable to today’s Liberals and Nationals), led by Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, made several attempts to water down the arbitration system, or at least remove one of the layers.
While unions saw the dual-layered system as an important check preventing a pro-business state or federal government from watering down hard-won protections and wages, the government believed it allowed unions to “venue-shop” until they got the result they wanted.
The Coalition also believed that high wages were putting off foreign investors and risked Australia’s economic development. Something had to be done.
The Coalition’s unpopular assault on arbitration
Initially, Bruce tried to solve the problem by asking the states to give up their courts in favour of one centralised system in Canberra. The states, then mostly governed by Labor, refused to hand over their powers to the feds.
Next, Bruce sought to change the Constitution to beef up the Commonwealth’s power to regulate industrial relations. The referendum, brought in 1926, failed to gain a majority of votes or states, with only Queensland and New South Wales voting “yes”.
Frustrated, and alarmed by a growing economic crisis and a slew of bitter strikes, the Coalition government changed direction, attempting to abolish the federal layer of arbitration. In 1929, Bruce introduced the Maritime Industries Bill, a law taking the Commonwealth out of arbitration for most industries, leaving just the state courts.
The bill did not pass. Six MPs, led by former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, dramatically crossed the floor to add an amendment requiring a popular mandate for the law, either through a referendum or a general election. Bruce told the house he considered the bill a matter of confidence and called an early election.
(This “hair trigger” approach to confidence has since fallen out of vogue. Losing on any old bill – or indeed, even a very important one – is no longer treated as a proxy confidence vote. See, for instance, the case of the Medevac Bill passed against the wishes of the Coalition government last year. The government continued in office.)
What happened on election day and why it still resonates today
In the 1929 election, both sides of politics insisted that arbitration was the question being answered by the electorate. Labor, under James Scullin, clearly tapped into the public mood with his argument that arbitration, though imperfect, was the best hope for progress in Australia. The Coalition lost 18 seats and with them, their majority. Scullin took Labor into government for the first time since 1917.
To add insult to injury, Bruce lost his own blue-ribbon seat of Flinders – the first time a sitting Australian prime minister lost his seat.
It would prove a rare event, not occurring again until 2007, when John Howard lost Bennelong. Funnily enough, that election, like 1929, was also largely focused on a conservative government’s fundamental reforms to the industrial relations system.
Only twice in the past century have Australians seen fit to throw a prime minister out of parliament, and both times, it was over proposed reforms to industrial relations. It’s a striking fact — one that might tempt us to question whether there is some deep continuity here. It could speak to the legacy of trade unions, which have made industrial relations a fraught area for governments, even well after the heyday of union power and organisation.
For my money, I’d say this speaks more to the basic attitude to government in Australia — what Laura Tingle, borrowing from linguist Afferbeck Lauder, dubbed “aorta politics” (as in, “they oughta fix x”; “they” being the authorities).
Very much unlike our more libertarian cousins in the US and UK, Australians have historically wanted the state to solve many of their problems. Whether or not it is a good idea, we’ve had the state irrigate farmland, deliver the mail, provide electricity, pay for our health insurance and help us buy our first home. Nowadays, Australians seem to expect it to tackle things like domestic violence and climate change.
And even today, as in 1929, we expect the state to keep the industrial peace – to prevent bosses or unions from going too far in their quest for economic power, to keep things civil.
The point here is not that arbitration or even industrial relations shall forever be a sacred cow in Australian politics. What we learn from 1929 is simply that the Australian voter does not take kindly to our governments trying to drop an issue because it is too hard. We are, it seems, a demanding lot.
Finding shipwrecks isn’t easy – it’s a combination of survivor reports, excellent archival research, a highly skilled team, top equipment and some good old-fashioned luck.
And that’s just what happened with the recent discovery of SS Iron Crown, lost off the coast of Victoria in Bass Strait during the second world war.
Based on archival research by Heritage Victoria and the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria, we scoped an area for investigation of approximately 3 by 5 nautical miles, at a location 44 nautical miles SSW of Gabo Island.
Hunting by sound
We used the CSIRO research vessel Investigator to look for the sunken vessel. The Investigator deploys multibeam echosounder technology on a gondola 1.2 metres below the hull.
Multibeam echosounders send acoustic signal beams down and out from the vessel and measure both the signal strength and time of return on a receiver array.
The receiver transmits the data to the operations room for real-time processing. These data provide topographic information and register features within the water column and on the seabed.
At 8pm on April 16, we arrived on site and within a couple of hours noted a feature in the multibeam data that looked suspiciously like a shipwreck. It measured 100m in length with an approximate beam of 16-22m and profile of 8m sitting at a water depth of 650m.
Given that we were close to maxing out what the multibeam could do, it provided an excellent opportunity to put the drop camera in the water and get “eyes on”.
The camera collected footage of the stern, midship and bow sections of the wreck. These were compared to archival photos. Given the location, dimension and noted features, we identified it as SS Iron Crown.
The merchant steamer
SS Iron Crown was an Australian merchant vessel built at the government dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, in 1922.
On June 4 1942, the steel screw steamer of the merchant vavy was transporting manganese ore and iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle when it was torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Type B (巡潜乙型) submarine I-27.
Survivor accounts state that the torpedo struck the vessel on the port side, aft of the bridge. It sank within minutes. Thirty-eight of the 43 crew went down with the ship.
This vessel is one of four WWII losses in Victorian waters (the others were HMAS Goorangai lost in a collision, SS Cambridge and MV City of Rayville lost to mines) and the only vessel torpedoed.
After the discovery
Now we’ve finally located the wreck – seven decades after it was sunk – it is what happens next that is truly interesting.
It’s not just the opportunity to finally do an in-depth review of the collected footage stored on an external hard drive and shoved in my backpack, but to take the important step of ensuring how the story is told going forward.
When a shipwreck is located, the finder must report it within seven days to the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Program or to the recognised delegate in each state/territory with location information and as much other relevant data as possible.
Shipwrecks aren’t just found by professionals, but are often located by knowledgeable divers, surveyors, the military, transport ships and beachcombers. It’s no big surprise that many shipwrecks are well-known community fishing spots.
While it is possible to access the site using remotely operated vehicles or submersibles, we hope the data retrieved from this voyage will be enough.
It was only 77 years ago that the SS Iron Crown went down. This means it still has a presence in the memories of the communities and families that were touched by the event and its aftermath.
No war grave, but protected
Even though those who died were merchant navy, the site isn’t officially recognised yet as a war grave. But thanks to both state and Commonwealth legislation, the SS Iron Crown was protected before it was even located.
All shipwrecks over 75 years of age are protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. It is an offence to damage or remove anything from the site.
This protection is enhanced by its location in deeper water and, one hopes, by the circumstances of its loss.
Sitting on the sea floor in Bass Strait, SS Iron Crown is well below the reach of even technical divers. So the site is unlikely to be illegally salvaged for artefacts and treasures.
Yet this also means that maritime archaeologists have limited access to the site and the data that can be learnt from an untouched, well-preserved shipwreck.
Virtual wreck sites
But, like the increasing capabilities for locating such sites, maritime archaeologists now have access to digital mapping, 3D modelling technologies and high-resolution imagery as was used for the British Merchant Navy shipwreck of the SS Thistlegorm.
These can even allow us to record shipwreck sites (at whatever the depth) and present them to the public in a vibrant and engaging medium.
Better than a thousand words could ever describe, these realistic models allow us to convey the excitement, wonder and awe that we have all felt at a shipwreck.
Digital 3D models enable those who cannot dive, travel or ever dream of visiting shipwrecks to do so through their laptops, mobiles and other digital devices.
Without these capabilities to record, visualise and manage these deepwater sites, they will literally fade back into the depths of the ocean, leaving only the archaeologists and a few shipwreck enthusiasts to investigate and appreciate them.
So that’s the next step, a bigger challenge than finding a site, to record a deepwater shipwreck and enable the public to experience a well-preserved shipwreck.