Size and structure of the Qld economy: today vs 1939-40 using Colin Clark’s estimates

Back in the nineties, a history-conscious Queensland Treasury official saved a 1944 chart on “Post-war Employment Planning” from the rubbish bin during an office cleanout (Figure 1). On his retirement from the public service, that official gave me the chart. Notably, the chart includes Queensland state income estimates for 1939-40. These estimates were prepared by the late great Colin Clark, during his time as an economic adviser to the Queensland Government. 

Figure 1. Chart on Queensland Government post-war employment planning

Zooming in on Clark’s gross national (i.e. state) income estimates for Queensland, we see the greater importance of agriculture in the State’s economy in 1939-40 than today (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Close up of Colin Clark’s Queensland state income estimates for 1939-40

In 1939-40, at the outbreak of World War II, agriculture (i.e. agricultural production & pastoral production) accounted for over 20% of the Queensland economy (Table 1). As in other economies, economic development has been associated with greater on-farm efficiency and people moving from the country to cities, generally to higher productivity jobs. The services sector was much smaller than today, as was the government, represented by public works, public administration, and railways in the table. Mining would be lumped in with forestry and fishing in Clark’s “other primary production” category, which accounted for around 10% of the Queensland economy in 1939-40.  

Table 1. Composition of Queensland gross state income, 1939-40, Colin Clark’s estimates

Millions of Pounds% of total% (net of indirect taxes)
Indirect taxes15.69.5%
Domestic, professional & personal service10.76.5%7.2%
Rents – occupied housing12.17.4%8.2%
Private buildings3.11.9%2.1%
Public works6.33.9%4.3%
Public administration8.35.1%5.6%
Other transport & distribution29.818.2%20.1%
Other primary production15.59.5%10.5%
Pastoral production19.612.0%13.2%
Agricultural production13.68.3%9.2%

If we look at the composition of Queensland’s GSP in 2021-22, we see agriculture accounting for around 4% of the Queensland economy (Table 2). 

Table 2. Contributions to Queensland Gross State Product, 2021-22, current prices, ABS estimates 

$ million% of GSP% of total factor income (i.e. GSP excl. indirect taxes & stat. discrepancy)
Agriculture, forestry & fishing16,3783.7%4.0%
Electricity, gas, water & waste services10,1352.3%2.5%
Wholesale trade12,8982.9%3.2%
Retail trade17,1163.8%4.2%
Accommodation & food services8,9982.0%2.2%
Transport, postal & warehousing19,1524.3%4.7%
Info. media & telecommunications5,0851.1%1.2%
Financial & insurance services20,5504.6%5.0%
Rental, hiring & real estate services10,4322.3%2.6%
Prof., scientific & tech. services27,0186.0%6.6%
Admin. & support services12,6322.8%3.1%
Public admin. & safety21,8104.9%5.3%
Education & training20,4164.6%5.0%
Health care & social assistance35,3327.9%8.6%
Arts & recreation services2,9710.7%0.7%
Other services7,5921.7%1.9%
Ownership of dwellings31,3187.0%7.7%
Indirect taxes less subsidies39,5648.8%
Statistical discrepancy-890-0.2%

Mining is now much more significant as an income generator than agriculture, although I should note the 2021-22 share for mining is elevated because of high coal prices. That said, mining has been a bigger income generator than agriculture for several decades (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Contributions to Queensland’s Total Factor Income, agriculture vs mining, ABS estimates, 1989-90 to 2021-22

Clark estimated the Queensland economy generated 163.6 million pounds of income in 1939-40. In today’s dollars, that would be around $20 billion, using historical inflation data from Matt Butlin’s database. Given the Queensland population was approximately 1 million in 1939-40, that’s a Gross State Product of around $20,000 per capita in today’s dollars. Today, Queensland’s GSP is $400-450 billion and with 5.4 million people our GSP per capita is around $80,000.* That’s a big increase in living standards over eight decades, although part of that increase has been due to higher labour utilisation, with female labour force participation increasing substantially in the seventies and eighties. I’ll aim to do more analysis of these longer-term trends in the future.

*It’s hard to be more precise about what a good comparative figure would be today given recent data have been distorted by super-high coal prices.

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