Deakin still hovers over Australian economic policy

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The Canberra consensus says that prior to the Hawke-Keating era, Australia’s economic policy was a wasteland of protective tariffs, over-regulation and bloated public sector monopolies. There is some truth in this but it is a simplification.

Economic policy between WWII and Whitlam was generally sensible and delivered strong and stable economic growth. Sure the Menzies government committed sins of omission, they largely left in place the Deakin doctrine of high tariffs, high wages and a white Australia, but then, thanks to the 1949 election, they also avoided the insanity of large-scale nationalisation which swept Europe and, thanks to the horror budget of 1951, they delivered prudent fiscal policy and low inflation.

The era’s greatest achievement was the massive growth in Australia’s population mostly through large scale migration. As Labor MP, Andrew Leigh, summed up in his excellent speech on Australia’s economic history:

At its peak, in 1949, Australia accepted 185,000 migrants into a population of 7.9 million. On today’s population, that would be equivalent to a migrant inflow of more than half a million people.

This was an extraordinary program. Relative to population, Australia’s post-war migration program was the largest sustained migration in the world – bigger than the US peak immigration era at the turn of the twentieth century. Many were sent to work on the Snowy Mountains scheme, which employed 10,000 men at its peak.

Indeed, according to the Australian government, 70,000 of the 100,000 men who worked on the Snowy came from overseas. As far as I know, this mass migration had bipartisan support (although Arthur Calwell preferred migrants of Baltic stock). What a great achievement and legacy.

But today, 1,700 migrants, to work on a $7 billion iron ore project, is an outrage, and perhaps the basis for a Cabinet crisis(The Snowy cost about $8 billion in today’s dollars.)

Let’s not fool ourselves that we are better or nobler than our ancestors.


  1. You talk about the horror budget but do not mention why one was needed.

    It made Whitlam look respectable.

    The Vernon Report demolished the factoid that Liberals produced good economic management.

    If they had have then little reforms would have been needed in the 80s/90s.

    Yes the largescale immigration had bi-partisan support as it was started by Calwell and kept up by the Liberals.

    1. Rejecting the Vernon report was one of the best decisions Menzies made. It’s call for an activist Keynesian demand mgt strategy was discredited within the decade.

  2. activist Keynesian demand strategy?

    That needs a liquidity trap.

    Think before you type.

    Also given the high Court rejected nationalisation of the banks just how would a government nationalised any other industry even if they wanted to which they didn’t

    1. I find it strange that you are defending the Vernon report. I have never seen anyone say much good about it but if you can point me in the direction of credible analysis to the contrary I would be happy to be proven wrong.

  3. The Vernon Report was about microeconomic reform in particular reducing tariffs.
    Look at any history of the Industry Commission.

    R B Scotton wrote a bit about it .

    fiscal policy was Keynesian in that in boom times the Surplus was increased as Keynes advocated.

    I find it astounding you defend the Menzies record which was pretty poor

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