Full-employment policy in post-war Australia – Brisbane bus network example from Seven News Flashback

Seven News Brisbane has prepared a Flashblack with an extraordinary example of full employment policy in action in Brisbane in the late sixties/early seventies, when Brisbane adopted diesel buses after the trams were retired by Clem Jones. A distinguished gentleman who must have been a Council official appears to say (in grainy audio) that, even though some of the ex-tram drivers/new bus drivers were crashing the new buses, because some of them had never driven an automobile before, that was fine in one sense because at least they still had jobs (check out the YouTube video from 1:35). That’s a good illustration of how values can influence policy. Very few of us would think like that anymore. I’m not necessarily saying it’s wrong to think that way. It just seems strange to many of us now, particularly to economists and accountants. The past is a foreign country, as they say.

In the seventies and eighties, Australia was forced to abandon what was widely viewed as an important policy goal, full employment, because the way we were going about it was highly inefficient and fiscally unsustainable. Governments could no longer absorb everyone who wanted to work in state-owned electricity boards or railways. Government would no longer be the employer of last resort. The unemployment rates of 1-2% seen in the fifties and sixties according to some measures could not be sustained. Another factor contributing to those low unemployment rates was the expectation men would hold down steady jobs for decades and that women would leave the workforce when they got married. All that has changed, too, but there is no doubt a policy goal of full employment contributed to the very low unemployment rates we saw until the oil shock, productivity slowdown, and stagflation of the seventies destroyed the post-war Keynesian model in western economies.

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7 Responses to Full-employment policy in post-war Australia – Brisbane bus network example from Seven News Flashback

  1. Katrina Drake says:

    Excellent quotation – the past is a foreign country.

    It is hard to appreciate the barriers to women’s employment prior to the 80’s, it was not only an expectation that women couldn’t work once married, it was the LAW.

    There were rigorously enforced women’s marriage bars to the public service, and most work places and professions. Women lost seniority and had to resign when they married, when these laws were relaxed a little, it was only until a woman became pregnant when they were forced to resign. This was in a time of no contraception and no child care and no superannuation.

    The barriers have still not disappeared completely with women still being penalised for working, by having to pay childcare to work.

    It is not surprising that women 60+ are facing a poor retirement, and increasing homelessness. The social contract that kept them out of the work force in their youth has not compensated them later in their lives.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Thanks Katrina. Yes, it was awful it was the law back then. In the early sixties I think it was, my great Aunt had to get a special dispensation from the Education Department to go back to work teaching when she needed to because of financial necessity.

  2. Paul says:

    In the 1950/60s I travelled to school in Brisbane every day on trams and trolley buses which were electrically powered from Qld coal fired power stations. They did not need imported oil.

    In a war cabinet meeting in Melbourne on 18 June 1940 the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies and the three chiefs of staff, Admiral Sir Ragnar Colvin, General Brudenell White and Essington Lewis considered a report suggesting that following the German conquest of France, Germany could allocate French Vietnam, Cambodia and New Caledonia to Japan. If Japan was allocated these French colonies, it would have jumping off base close to Australia.

    The discussion then turned to a possible invasion of Australia and whether Darwin and Port Moresby should be reinforced as a defensive measure. This meeting was 17 months before Pearl Harbour in December 1941. At the meeting the Chiefs of Staff gave the Prime Minister their pragmatic, but horrifying, assessment6:

    “The Chief of the Naval Staff stated that, if Japan should come in and USA should not, there would be no point in holding Darwin, and the naval oil supplies there should be drained in such a contingency. The whole position in regard to the defence of the northern part of Australia hinged on a battle fleet based at Singapore. If such was not possible, the situation became radically changed. The Chief of the General Staff was of the opinion that Japan’s attack would be against British naval forces and bases, and with their defeat and capture Japan could bring the Commonwealth to terms by the exercise of sea-power alone, without the need of invasion.”

    Australia’s military chiefs of staff stated loud and clear that if the Royal Navy’s battle fleet at Singapore went down Australia was done for. They were absolutely right, of course. But why?
    Australia had no oil. You can’t fight a modern war without oil. In the 1940s Australia had to import all of its oil.

    Electric trams and electric trolley buses were replaced by diesel buses when Bass Strait produced most of Australia’s oil in the 1970s. Now it doesn’t; 70% is imported. Australian sourced natural gas powered buses and electric vehicles are now a rational security option. The last war was not the ‘war to end all wars’.

    Free trade is no good if someone is sinking your ships. Free trade ideologues can do harm. Adam Smith was a rationalist, not an ideologue. He supported British goods in British ships, crewed by British sailors (Navigation Acts). Protectionism when it was in Great Britain’s interest.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. Yes, fuel security is an important concern. One more pro to consider in the expected electrification of the vehicle fleet.

  3. Paul says:

    Up to the late 1960s women in the Qld public service had to resign when they married. That created a vacancy in a research station which I filled as a young (male) graduate. The genesis of that legislation goes back to the disastrous unemployment levels in the Great Depression. The social aim was to have at least one breadwinner in the family. A Depression which scarred a generation.

    Women were not legally allowed in public bars in pubs either. The reason for that was to keep prostitutes out of pubs so that working men would go home to their wives (with their pay intact).
    Many occupations had higher pay rates for men than women, even doing the same job. Overall men clearly had a higher socio-economic role in society than women.

    It was not a society of sexual equality. By and large men worked and wives stayed home and looked after the children. The Depression/War generation were determined there would be a breadwinner in every family. So as well as economic opportunity preference for men, they also ensured that these jobs would be protected from foreign competition with tariff, embargoes and quotas. Everyone had their own horror story of the Depression; it drove social attitudes and government policy.

    The Depression/War generation were successful in their aims. Unemployment stayed around 1% from 1945 till the mid/late 1960’s. After the war marriage rates skyrocketed and in consequence so did birth rates (3.5 per woman in 1960) – the baby boom. During the Depression both marriage rates and birth rates had fallen to replacement (2.1 per female) and there were government inquiries into the reasons for the dramatic fall in the birth rate.

    Then came the cultural revolution of the baby boomers of the 1960s and second wave Feminism. Earlier restrictions on female employment, education, pay rates, social activities etc were abolished. Tariffs were abolished on a wide range of imported items and Australians benefited from cheap imports from low wage third world countries. Businesses dependent on tariff protection collapsed.

    But then in the 1970s unemployment rose, varying between 5-10%, with economic commentators now stating that 5% unemployment should be considered a full employment level. At the same time the birth rate fell. In 1976 it fell below replacement rate of average 2.1 children per female and has stayed below that ever since, varying between 1.7 and 1.9 for 45 years. So for the last half century or so Australia has not replaced itself and without immigration our population would go backwards.

    The Australian Bureau of Statistics now indicates that 25% of women now will have lifetime childlessness. This is due to the decline in the partnering rate and also the increased age when women partner, such that the first child is not born till they are in their 30s, leaving little time before the biological window closes. Women with a degree only have an average of 1 child (ABS).

    Women preferentially partner equal and up and men equal and down. These are hard wired genetically determined behaviours across all races and cultures. The feminist objective of sexual equality results in a society with a high proportion of high socio-economic status females and low socio-economic status males unable to find a suitable mate. As women generally only allow themselves to become pregnant when they have a suitable partner, this results in a low birth rate.

    So high levels of partnering and partnering early are critical to the birth rate. For Australia, increasing the population is critical to our national survival (the reason the War generation started the immigration program – a long term defence strategy).

    So what’s the answer! I don’t know, but feminism and sexual equality sure ain’t it. It’s about as useful as socialism in economics.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Hi Paul, again, thanks for the comment. I think we can have sexual equality along with a growing population and a prosperous economy. Immigration obviously bolsters the population and will come back once we’re out of this pandemic. Also, I’d note Peter Costello managed to temporarily boost Australia’s fertility rate with the Baby Bonus, so if you’re concerned about the fertility rate that’s a possible policy measure.

      By the way, re. the fertility rate for women with a degree, check out this paper (esp. Figure 3, p. 7):
      https://digitised-collections.unimelb.edu.au/bitstream/handle/11343/233578/42-40-179-1-10-20191117.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

      Certainly the fertility rate is lower for more highly-educated women, but it appears to be much higher than 1.

      • Paul says:

        Could not open your link but correct Gene.
        “University educated women have around 1.5 children per woman compared to around 2.0 for non University educated women.”
        (19) Birrell B., RapsonV., Hourigan C., 2004, Men and Women Apart; Partnering in Australia, The Australian Family Association, Centre for Population and Urban Research, Monash University.

        In 1986 more men in key reproductive age groups had degrees than women (19). By 2001 this had reversed dramatically with far more women with degrees than men. In 1986, as a percent of men with a degree, there were 17% more men with degrees than women in the 25-29 age group, 29% men than women in the 30-34 age groups and 43% men than women in the 35-39 age group.

        By 2001 this had reversed. By 2001, as a percent of men with degrees, there were 40% more women with degrees than men in the 25-29 age groups, 25% in the 30-34 age group and 13% in the 35-39 age group. The flow through effects are even more dramatic in younger age groups. In 1986 there were equal numbers with degrees in 20-24 age group but by 2001 there were 59% more women with degrees than men (19).

        This is hardly the way to increase partnering given that females preferentially partner equal and up.

        Such concepts of a sexual emotional trading gradient needed for a positive birth rate are not a new idea.
        “Luxury in the fair sex, whilst perhaps it inflames the passion for enjoyment, weakens if not altogether destroys, the powers of generation” observed the polymath and economist Adam Smith in his “Wealth of Nations” in 1776. It was based on his observation that “barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station”.

        For Australia the natural fertility rate determines the total population growth rate, as immigration cannot exceed the birth rate, otherwise the local population will feel swamped and shut down the immigration program, so immigration is managed on a 1:1 basis. The birth rate is the lead element. Australia is a democracy so what voters think of immigration matters, and this is limited by the birth rate. Population growth is a key economic input.

        The politically correct approach to feminism and sexual equality reduces the chances of young Australian men and women finding happiness in marriage and children and is bad public policy for the long term survival of the Australian nation.

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