Liam Byrne
Tuesday, 6 July 2021

The Curtin Government and full employment

Seventy-six years ago, our 14th Prime Minister, John Curtin, died. Tragically, Curtin never saw the end of the World War he had been leading the nation through, but he left the foundations of a national reconstruction program that improved the economic well-being of all Australians for decades.

Speaking at the National Press Club recently, Federal Labor Leader, Anthony Albanese, noted Curtin ‘… had the courage to imagine greater opportunity for all in peace, the leadership to begin that work even in the midst of war …to transform the post-war environment, setting up a boom that spanned two decades during which Australia’s previously double-digit unemployment rate sat at around 2 per cent’.

As we confront another global challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Liam Byrne, ACTU historian and author of Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin, reflects on Curtin’s reconstruction legacy, founded in a vision for a fully employed Australia, and the lessons it offers.

The Curtin Government and full employment

During the darkest days of the Second World War, Prime Minister John Curtin had to ask great sacrifices of the Australian people. To endure, we would need to come together, work together, and rely upon each other. But Curtin’s Labor Government did not just pledge to win the war – it outlined a plan to win the peace as well. The fundamental basis of this vision for a better future was the policy of full employment.

Speaking at the National Press Club last week, Labor Leader Anthony Albanese pledged to follow in Curtin’s footsteps and commission a Full Employment White Paper in office. It is a bold and exciting promise – and one based on a detailed understanding of Australian history.

So what is the history of full employment in Australia, and why is it so important?

We find the answers in Curtin’s life story. Curtin was born in 1885, and his childhood was overshadowed by the Great Depression of the 1890s. When Curtin entered the workforce in his early teens (as was common at the time) the only jobs available were short-term, unsatisfying, and low-paid. Sound familiar?

Curtin argued that if government could intervene into the economy to wage war, then it could also do so to wage a war on poverty and disadvantage.

Curtin was a unionist and active Labor member from his earliest working days. In 1911 he became Secretary of the Timber Workers’ Union in Victoria. When the First World War broke out in 1914, he opposed the conflict which he believed served British imperial interests more than Australia’s. He identified that the war’s burdens were borne disproportionately by workers whose wages stagnated while the cost of living increased. At the same time, big business was maximising its profits (again – familiar at all?).

The government was intervening into the economy on an unprecedented scale. Curtin argued that if government could intervene into the economy to wage war, then it could also do so to wage a war on poverty and disadvantage. He wrote: “it is imperative, urgent and logical that [the government] organise factories, workshops, mines, farms, and forests to supply the materials requisite for the equipment of life”.

Curtin held to this idea through his political career. After leading the union campaign against conscription in 1916 he moved to Perth the following year to edit the labour movement newspaper, the Westralian Worker. He entered parliament in 1928. In 1929, the Great Depression began. The second Great Depression of his lifetime. It was devastating. At its peak, a third of the labour force was unemployed.

At a time when the economic orthodoxy argued for restrictions on state spending and a reduction in wages to resolve the economic devastation and revive employment, Curtin argued again that the government should proactively intervene to stimulate demand by creating jobs.

Curtin pledged to delivered ‘Victory in War — Victory for the Peace’

Standing in parliament (and against howls of opposition from the conservatives) Curtin explained his belief that government had a responsibility to “honour our obligation to every man and woman in this country, who by virtue of his or her citizenship is entitled to a reasonable subsistence.”

In October 1941, Curtin became Prime Minister, and had the chance to put his principles into effect. His government pledged to deliver ‘Victory in War – Victory for the Peace’ and promised there would be no return to the ‘horrors of starvation, unemployment, misery and hardship no less grievous than the devastation of war’ that had marred Australia after World War One. Full employment was at the core of this promise.

Curtin was inspired by a White Paper on employment undertaken in Britain, and commissioned a similar report here. This White Paper pledged the government to full employment as a ‘fundamental aim’, premised on the notion that ‘the people of Australia will demand and are entitled to expect employment’ after the sacrifices of the war.

This policy involved stimulating expenditure through government spending power to the extent necessary to achieve full employment. This did not mean government spending replacing private expenditure, but that the government would fill any funding gaps left by private enterprise to maximise productivity.

It would not create work for work’s sake, but drive increases in productivity to create meaningful jobs that made a social contribution. Work would be dignified – and socially recognised. The power of big business to use the threat of unemployment to discipline labour (as had taken place in the 1930s) would be curtailed. Labour would be treated as more than a mere commodity.

It was the basis of a new era of prosperity. In the 1950s and 1960s GDP grew annually by 2%, and then 3%, while unemployment remained beneath 3%.

This era saw previously unimaginable improvements in many people’s lives. Though it should always be remembered that the prevailing racism and sexism of this time meant that not all shared in this bounty equally. It would not be until the 1960s, for instance, that many Indigenous workers would win claims for pay equality with non-Indigenous workers.

And no policy for full employment today could rely on the presumptions of 1945 – the economy, the workforce, and our society have changed dramatically since then.

But Curtin understood something fundamental about full employment that retains its direct relevance today. Full employment means the government shaping conditions in which workers can craft meaningful and dignified working lives. It means recognising the social value of work – the essential nature of our collective toil.

It means recognising the economy as something broader than corporate profit rates – and economic management as more substantial than slogans printed on coffee mugs.

Prioritising full employment means prioritising the people who work – the everyday Australians whose labour allows our country to function. It is about backing them, and their dreams, and their aspirations – our collective need for greater certainty and security.

It is a policy that recognises the best of our past and moves us towards a better future. It is a true Labor policy because it is a policy for all of us.

About Liam Byrne:

Dr Liam Byrne is a Labor historian and author of Becoming John Curtin and James Scullin: The Making of the Modern Labor Party." He maintains an online newsletter for true believers: