By Denis Bright
The onset of COVID-19 involves a change in political direction from my old town of Ipswich and every other locality across the nation. The initial public health challenge has extended to new financial, social and environmental problems of unknown proportions. Not since the 1930s has there been such a sudden dislocation in the employment market.
Below is the reference given to my father in 1930 when staff were dismissed forever to save W. Haigh and Sons, an important wholesaler in Ipswich at the time. The file for the reference was developed from an old letter.
The irregularities in the digital copy might offer some authenticity to a paper reference that is almost eighty years old.
Like business entrepreneurs today, descendants of the William Haigh adapted to the economic downturn after the entrepreneur’s own death in 1922. This is two years before my father commenced his employment at W. Haigh and Sons.
Staff members were shed. Assets acquired by the Haigh family were used to support a display of private wealth which are summarised on the Ipswich City Council’s data base of historic sites:
In 1892 Elizabeth Haigh (the fourth daughter of Benjamin Cribb and his first wife Elizabeth Bridson) and her husband William purchased the property. The house is said to be named after a village near Leeds in England, from which Haigh’s husband originally came. Mr Haigh was an agent for the steamship owners, Collins & Son, and he also ran a wholesale fruit market in Bell Street. Dorrington’s grounds extended to Brisbane Road and included an orchard, tennis court and gardens. The Haigh daughters continued to live in the house after their parents’ death. The present owners are only the fourth occupants of the house.
While the Haigh family consolidated household assets in East Ipswich, my father left his parents’ home down the hill in Torch Street to try out casual jobs. His Uncle Walter Ward of Bentley neat Casino in NSW welcomed his enthusiastic efforts. Later, he worked in the in the Currumbin Valley on the Gold Coast and joined the Currumbin SLSC. Being quite a fit swimmer, he was fine with surf rescues.
My father never mentioned this very unpleasant experience from 1932. I found it on the Trove Newspaper site at the National Library Online. It is an extract from The Queensland Times in Ipswich dated 16 January 1932, still five months before the defeat of the Moore Government on 11 June.
The offer of a job at Ipswich Station in the late 1930s provided some relief from the Depression Blues.
When conscription to the Australian Army followed, my father was assignment to non-combatant duties because of his eyesight problem. Colin’s eye had been injured in a childhood accident.
Labor was revitalised during the 1930s at state level during the Forgan Smith era by offering pragmatic recovery strategies. Several rural and regional seats were held by state Labor during the 1930s in the Darling Downs Region and South West Queensland. At the 1935 state election, these seats included Carnarvon (Stanthorpe and Goondiwindi based), Warwick, two Toowoomba seats, Maranoa and Warrego.
At a national level, Federal Labor looked inwardly to heal its internal rifts with Lang Labor in NSW. At the national elections on 21 September 1940, the electorate had become uneasy with Robert Menzies’ wartime leadership. The UAP-Country Coalition had lost its absolute majority. Menzies made a strategic decision to resign as Prime Minister and commenced a series of radio talks on the Macquarie broadcasting network to revitalise the Australian conservative movement at the height of the wartime emergency in 1942.
Arthur Fadden had moved from Minister Assisting the Treasurer and an assortment of other portfolios to become Australia’s second conservative wartime Prime Minister on 7 October 1941.
The wartime election on 21 August 1943 resulted in the formation of the Second Curtin Ministry with an extraordinary majority in both houses of parliament as shown by the tally of seats. In the Senate, Labor won all nineteen places available at a mid-term senate election. The Senate still included sixteen senators from the UAP-Country Coalition who were elected in 1940.
The decisive action by John Curtin to form minority government in 1941 with the support of the two Victorian Independents was political risk-taking of an extraordinary degree. A grateful nation soon endorsed the changes in the direction of wartime policies during the new national crisis over Japan’s thrust into South East Asia and New Guinea.
The numbers needed to form a minority government by John Curtin in 1941 were build up from the economic and social hardships of the depression era generation of Australians. Each of the marginal Labor electorates from the 1940 federal elections is a case study of their endurance in mobilising local campaigns against well-resourced elites who had dominated inter-war politics in cities, regions and rural areas. Some of Australia’s most conservative heartlands were already in Labor hands by 1940 including seats like Gwydir and Riverina in NSW, Wannon in Victoria and Maranoa in Queensland.
With the right leadership, Labor can handle the paradigm changes needed for the current Coronavirus era. Today’s crises extend to employment in essential service industries and to the financial sectors. Similar problems were encountered by the Depression generation when my mother waited for some time to gain employment in state education.
The Queensland Times covered the extent of unemployment amongst teaching graduates in the same edition as its news item about Colin Bright and his request to the Industrial Magistrate’s Court for reduced Award Wages to assist in his re-employment.
By then, my Mother was finally working in state education, initially at Silkstone State School (SS) in Ipswich and then on country service to North Branch School outside Pittsworth with a series of country transfers to follow.
But the ghosts of the old state LNP struck again after the internal tensions within the Gair Labor Government brought election defeat for Labor in 1957. Labor would be in the wilderness for a full 32 years until the ascendancy of Premier Wayne Goss.
By the end of 1958, some married women were selectively dismissed from 31 December to save three weeks holiday pay. The dismissals were selective. School principals had to decide which teachers should go. At Blair SS in Ipswich, the choice was between two married teachers who were both trade union members and Labor supporters.
The LNP could boast that the dismissals helped to balance the state budget at a time when no expense was spared on hosting Princess Alexandra’s tour of Queensland in 1959.
My father worked on refurbishing a royal train for Princess Alexandra. The visiting Princess was treated to a trip through Premier Nicklin’s electorate with its exotic volcanic peaks, pineapple farms, rainforest remnants and quaint towns to enjoy afternoon tea with elites selected by the LNP state government.
Back in the real world, there was no work for my mother in 1959. She sought employment in NSW at Tweed Heads Public School. I went with her to a job interview at the Education Department in Bridge Street, Sydney. We were whisked to Sydney and back on a promotional fare on one of TAA’s new pressurised super viscounts where we spent a few days on holidays.
Working in Tweed Heads might have enabled my father to retire on a partial disability pension with his eyesight problem.
Under the current LNP Government policies, he would have been pushed onto Newstart programmes and excluded from current unemployment rolls because of his partial disability.
Working in railway traffic as a shunter was an occupational hazard as it involved lots of night work coupling coal wagons. There were occasional near misses from this type of work. At his request, Colin Bright was reassigned to the North Ipswich Workshops and eventually worked as an electroplater. He would come home with grazes from the buffing machines as he tried to balance awkward objects on the machines.
Union shop stewards took up his case and its was referred to the administrative tribunal at North Ipswich Workshops. My father was assigned to painting work at both North Ipswich and later Redbank Workshops as he had done a stint at painting for a contractor during the 1930s. Regrettably, the federal LNP could portray this union activity as Communist inspired and subversive.
Before any recruitment to NSW eventuated, my mother was re-employed at Serviceton South State School at Inala in 1960. A transfer to Ipswich District schools followed in 1961 and she eventually gained a transfer to Ipswich North SS until her retirement.
The quest for stability of employment was one of the key priorities in Australian politics prior to the four post-war recessions from the post-Korean War downturn, to the more serious recessions of the early eighties and nineties as well as the GFC during the Rudd-Gillard years. I shared the concerns of earlier generations in our family against any compromises with full-employment policies or breaches of industrial awards and working conditions by employers in their own self-interests.
The 1961 credit squeeze brought a more complacent nation out of their political slumbers. The official unemployment rate of 3-4 per cent or 125,000 registered unemployed in a workforce of around 5 million.
As a student at Bremer SHS in Ipswich, I was appalled by the return to even moderate levels of unemployment. I remember writing to The Queensland Times to express my concerns this issue. I used a non de plume so a search on Trove will not find the article.
Anyway, the little hiccup of the 1961-62 credit squeeze brought a new generation of Labor leaders to national parliament including Bill Hayden as member for Oxley. Oxley had become a more Ipswich based federal seat after the electoral redistribution in 1949.
Although Labor won the two local state seats in Ipswich during the recovery phase from the Great Depression in 1932, federal Labor had little success locally until 1961. By 1949, the LNP used well cultivated frames of economic incompetence and fear of communism to unseat the Chifley Labor Government. After five consecutive LNP victories in Oxley after 1949, Bill Hayden won the seat on his first election foray.
I did not realize the significance of the 1961 election until the results came through on television that evening. Apart from my Uncle Les Cooper who was a shop steward for the AEU (now AMWU) at the North Ipswich Workshops, members of our extended family had no hands-on political involvement aside from trade union membership. I am the sole survivor of that family network who watched the results at our place in East Ipswich.
Ipswich had a federal Labor representative in federal parliament for the first time since the defeat of James Wilkinson who represented the seat of Moreton for two terms between 1901 and 1906.
The seats appeared to be falling to Labor like skittles as the election results came through on the evening of 9 December 1961. In the end, Labor’s net gain was a more modest fifteen seats. Parliament divided 62 to 60 in favour of the LNP although Labor’s overall vote was 50.5 per cent after preferences.
Commentators dwelt on the significance of the results in the seat of Moreton which was adjacent to Oxley. Here Liberal Minister James Killen survived a 10.2 per cent swing after preferences by 130 votes. Some preferences from Communist candidate Max Julius leaked to the LNP but the crucial blow to Labor came from QLP Preferences which amounted to 7.4 per cent of the primary vote in Moreton.
Labor’s national defeat in 1961 must be attributed to the weight of numbers from Arthur Calwell’s own state of Victoria. Labor had no net gains in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania in 1961. Its net gain in WA was confined to the seat of Stirling.
Victoria carried the weight of numbers because of its population levels. Highly winnable Labor seats like Ballarat, Bruce, Corio and La Trobe stayed with the LNP. The worst-case scenario was Maribyrnong which recorded no swing to Labor after an extraordinary local vote for the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). The results for every division are well summarised on Wikipedia where a search can be made of the results for specific electoral divisions as far back as the 1901 elections.
The current public health, financial, social and environmental crises in Australia provide opportunities for new directions for our country as in 1961.
Sally McManus is the inspirational national figure of these times.
Our ACTU leader will surely take up commitment to progressive structural changes to bring a middle-sized economy through the current crises.
This absence of commitment to inclusive structural change has created a dislike of formal politics across Australia. Lesser leaders talk up rhetorical alternatives which are unconvincing to ordinary Australians who fear that Labor will embroil them in higher taxes and meddlesome bureaucracy.
There is no return to normalcy as defined by the politics of the Howard era. Then and now, journalists can choose to unlock structures of power and influence in society from a critical structuralist perspective as an alternative to eyewitness news reporting. Both forms of news reporting of course have their place and should co-exist harmoniously.
Interested AIM Network readers will have no difficulty with the text from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana to explain the positive application of structuralism in literature. Hopefully, the Rust Belt States of the Mid-West in the USA will soon overcome their endorsement of Trump era populism in the best traditions of American modernism.
Sally McManus has shown us the way forward by negotiating with rusted on neoliberals and still gains accolades for her efforts. This is a good sign as John Curtin inspired by consensus-building and responsible risk-taking during the wartime emergency of the Post-Depression era.
Denis Bright is a financial member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to consensus-building in these difficult times. This introductory article offers a restatement of his commitment to citizens’ journalism. Do take up the invitation to add your comments to the issues raised in this article with feedback on your own situation relating to job security and access to JobSeeker, the Coronavirus Supplement or Special Stimulus Payments for self-funded retirees. Telling your story will relieve some of the psychological health risks associated with financial insecurity. Full names are not required if you wish to add comments.
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