By Denis Bright
The structural shadows of past challenges are always present for better or for worse even decades later.
Let’s take the Spanish flu virus of 1919. Along with HIV/AIDS Pandemic, Spanish flu was the worst public health disaster since the arrival of the Black death in the fourteenth century.
The Spanish flu Pandemic (SFP) (1918-20) was one of the deadliest public health crises in human history. This virus resurfaced in 2009 as the swine flu pandemic. The Spanish flu’s association with bacterial infections made precise diagnosis difficult.
About one third of humanity (or 500 million) people caught the Spanish flu. The death toll was probably in the 25-40 million range. There is no precise data and Spanish flu was often associated with other influenza and pneumonic conditions.
The pandemic came at an awkward time as millions of troops were returning home to their respective countries from the Great War (1914-18) in conditions which fostered the spread of diseases in crowded ships on wintery seas after the peace in late 1918.
Successful Medical Management of Spanish flu
Conservative governments in Australia, Britain and the US (after the election of Republican Calvin Coolidge in 1920) rushed to manage the return to Normalcy as a matter of urgency.
In the absence of a National Cabinet during the Spanish flu crisis of 1919, the Commonwealth Government under Billy Hughes was soon committed to a selective national quarantine that still had to allow Australian troops to return. The Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) produced three million free doses of vaccines according to the National Museum’s coverage of these events.
This source notes that Australia had to cope with 15,000 deaths from Spanish flu from a national infection rate of 40 per cent of the population. The mortality rate was 2.7 per 100,000. With its shorter involvement in the Great War, the US had an incidence rate of less than one third of the population and with between 500,000 and 850,000 deaths or between 0.5 to 0.8 per cent of the population.
Britain had a death toll of 250,000 in a population of over 40 million. Here Spanish flu was a much more serious challenge than in Australia. Even Prime Minister David Lloyd George contracted Spanish flu. He survived the virus but was deposed by his own Conservative Party in 1922 before yet another coup brought Stanley Baldwin to Downing Street for much of the interwar period until another successful coup by Winston Churchill in 1940.
A Focus on Return to Normalcy
In the conservative traditions, leaders of the four leading English-speaking democracies fostered a return to normalcy through corporate ideology in countries crippled by debt from commitments to the Great War. As Prime Minister of Canada (1911-20), Sir Robert Laird Borden developed a strong rapport with Britain and is shown strutting with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1912 (Image: French National Bibliotheque).
The lighter involvement of the US in the Great War gave the Coolidge Administration a head-start in the 1920s and a transition was not required in Republican Ranks until the emergence of Herbert Hoover (1929-33) at the onset of the Great Depression.
The 1920s brought great social changes in Australia as popular culture tuned into the US in lifestyle changes which would have made the top-hats of 1912 a source of larrikin humour just a decade later.
The Great War had been a war for the defence of the British Empire against its Continental Rivals.
Victory had liberating qualities as the Australian character interacted with Hollywood lifestyle models either directly or even through local cinema productions and popular songs.
Constitutionally, the four major English-speaking Colonies of Empire (NZ, Australia, Canada and Britain) were allowed to flourish in differing directions. In the New British Commonwealth, a new independence was offered to the former Dominions.
Australia did not take up the offer until 1942 and finally terminated appeals to the Privy Council from High Court in 1986.
Before the onset of the Great Depression (1929-32), the Australian spirit flourished with the growth of cities and the diversification of our trading economies which supplied distant Imperial and Asian markets, including Japan.
Changes in fashions were reflected in both dress and fashions and lifestyles which were of little challenge to the structures of power and influence. Politically harmless sporting events, movies, home construction and travel ventures were made possible by a veneer of prosperity.
Trade union membership fitted into the national character during the 1920s with about a half of the workforce unionized according to ACTU historical estimates. Unionism extended into white collar industries and militant varieties of unionism were popular in mining, ports and transport sectors. The presence of Communist leadership was not deemed to be a particular threat to society and even welcomed by Irish Australian Catholics in their confrontation with British elitism.
The gains made in the 1920s were of course challenged after the Great Depression, but trade union membership rates remained firm as factories and government services expanded. Slow recovery from the Great Depression definitely widened the wealth and class divides in society as smaller non-unionized family businesses were able to shed staff without any challenge. I shared some of my parents experiences in Ipswich in a previous article on 8 May 2020.
Adaptive Conservative Leadership
The Great War and the Cold War of the 1950s enabled conservative Australian leaders to become the normal party of government without much of a plan for the future beyond a commitment to market ideology and strategic support for Britain and then the USA.
Few countries would so willingly invite nuclear weapons to be tested here on behalf of Britain and both Britain and the US in Micronesia.
The tradition of cultivating great and powerful international friends has been an ongoing conservative agenda since the federation era. With the arrival of the Biden Administration, the return of professional diplomacy is back on the agenda on issues such as human rights and climate change but Scott Morrison is keen to maintain some tensions in relations with China for domestic political wedge politics:
China raised on call
The Prime Minister indicated that the two men also discussed China, although he did not provide any details.
“As you would expect, we discussed regional issues in the Indo-Pacific fully,” Mr Morrison said.
He played down the prospect of any significant shift in US policy towards China under Joe Biden, saying the differences were largely of “nuance” and expression.”
And he said Mr Biden had described the US-Australia alliance as the “anchor of peace and security in the region.”
Progressive Australians do not dare to interrupt this old narrative or seek alternative strategic agendas which strengthen Australian sovereignty.
One of the great defences of Australian social democracy was the high rates of trade union membership during the recovery years from the Great War and the Spanish flu of a century ago.
Trade union membership was almost a half of the workforce during the difficult years of the interwar period and increased during the post-war period as manufacturing thrived and the white-collar government workforce increased (Parliament of Australia 2018):
With the current density of trade union membership probably now less than the 14 per cent registered in the Parliamentary Paper (2018), employers in private firms outside the mining, transport and construction sectors are having a field day in discouraging trade union membership by security checks on potential employees.
Eligibility and Vetting Models developed by the federal Attorney-General’s Department for government employment or contractors performing government services are available for use by employers generally and for administration by private security assessment firms often with overseas expertise:
Eligibility and suitability of personnel
This policy details the pre-employment screening processes and standardised vetting practices to be undertaken when employing personnel and contractors. These processes provide a high-quality and consistent approach to managing personnel eligibility and suitability risk across government.
Each entity must ensure the eligibility and suitability of its personnel who have access to Australian Government resources (people, information and assets). Entities must use the Australian Government Security Vetting Agency (AGSVA) to conduct vetting, or where authorised, conduct security vetting in a manner consistent with the Personnel Security Vetting Standards.
Trade unions and human rights organizations should make a thorough investigation into this intrusion into private lives which cultivates a docile workforce that would have horrified Australians a century ago. No one wants to see crocked characters gain access to corporate and governmental promotion trails. However, such rigorous assessments of staff members and new recruits seem to allow blind spots which tolerate systematic tax avoidance and harassment of employees in the interests of corporate work goals. Some optimum balance must be achieved.
The post-1945 Australian reconstruction model seemed to offer a better balance with unemployment rates below 2 per cent for thirty years with the exception of sharp recessions in 1953 and 1961. Even then, the aberrant unemployment rate was still below 3 per cent (Reference from Anthony O’Donnell in Labour History May 2015). Weeding out of potential trade unionists even prior to recruitment was an unheard-of corporate tactic except perhaps in the most sensitive security areas.
Assessment of existing and potential employees stands in sharp contrast to procedures to control corporate tax avoidance which extends to the so-called pillars of corporate responsibility as raised in my previous article on the antics of the Old and New Media.
The Labor Movement collectively is on safe grounds if it questions the extent of legalized tax avoidance at the expense of those Mom and Dad Households. Questioning the excesses of corporate donations to political parties from the difficult to retrieve returns on the AEC site is a vital campaigning tool.
Amendments to federal disclosure enable political donations of below $14,300 to escape declaration in the current financial year to 30 June 2021.
Despite the saturation advertising of the United Australia Party or the Palmer United Party, there are no returns listed on the AEC site since 2015-16.
If potential job applicants are subjected to rigorous security and personal background checks, similar scrutiny should apply to political parties which survive increasingly on government funding for their campaign activities.
Expect security checks to be a growth industry in the return to normalcy in contrast to the tolerance of a century ago and hope that it can be applied equally to the bastions of power and influence.
The experiences of the interwar period show how responsible militancy had left its mark but in a workforce with high rates of trade union membership in key industries. With opinion polls tightening against the federal LNP during the current parliamentary session expect Scott Morrison to lift his game plan during the long pre-budget recess when there is no scrutiny from parliament and the mainstream news media has free reign in top-own communication.
Let’s hesitate before the green light is extended to Normalcy if the foundations of this Normalcy are not fully accountable in the traditions of Josh Frydenberg’s economic statement on 12 May 2020 with its $60 billion accounting error.
Denis Bright is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to citizen’s journalism from a critical structuralist perspective. Comments from insiders with a specialist knowledge of the topics covered are particularly welcome.
Like what we do at The AIMN?
You’ll like it even more knowing that your donation will help us to keep up the good fight.
Chuck in a few bucks and see just how far it goes!