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