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Background on John Curtin

John Joseph Ambrose Curtin was born in Creswick, Victoria, on 8 January 1885 and died in Canberra on 5 July 1945, having served as Prime Minister from 7 October 1941 until his death, a period of three years and nine months, marked by the gravest crisis Australia ever had to face.

Creswick, a small gold-mining town near Ballarat, was famous as the place where the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) was founded in 1886, as the birthplace of John Curtin, of General Sir John Northcott, the first Australian-born Governor of New South Wales, and of the Lindsay family-Norman, Lionel, Daryl and Ruby. Dr Lindsay, their father, was present at John Curtin's birth.

The future Prime Minister's father was a policeman who retired on a small pension in 1890 and left Creswick for Melbourne where he worked casually as a hotel manager. John Curtin had a sketchy education at Catholic schools in Melbourne and at the State school at Macedon, and his formal schooling ended at 13. He had only irregular work from the age of 13 to 18, spending many hours at the Melbourne Public Library, as it was then called. At 18 he secured his first permanent job, as an estimates clerk at the Titan Manufacturing Company in South Melbourne, working there from 1903 to 1911. He lived with his parents at 36 Barkly Street, Brunswick and was an active local footballer.

"As a youth," Manning Clark wrote, "under the influence of the rationalists and the socialists, Curtin abandoned his Catholic hopes in the resurrection of the dead and substituted instead the Utopian Socialist dream of the perfection of man on Earth."

It is not certain when John Curtin formally joined the Labor movement, but it was probably in 1900. He joined both the Political Labor League and its more radical rival, the Victorian Socialist Party (VSP). He was president of the Brunswick Branch of the Political Labor League in 1907, moved successfully for adoption of the name Australian Labor Party in 1908, but then, somewhat contradictorily, intensified his efforts for the VSP, becoming its honorary secretary and writing vehemently for its paper, Socialist. And, as he said, he gained his education on the Yarra Bank, the place where Melbourne's Sunday spruikers performed. The major personal influences on John Curtin were Frank Anstey (1865-1940), MLA for Brunswick 1902-10 and MHR for Bourke 1910-34, and Tom Mann (1856-1941), an English trade union organiser and orator who lived in Melbourne from 1903 to 1909, returning to London to become a syndicalist and, later, a co-founder (l920) of the British Communist Party. As secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union (February 1911 to November 1915), Curtin doubled up as editor of the Timber Worker, became its principal writer, and published much material by British and American socialists. The VSP disappeared by 1920 when the Australian Communist Party was established.

In the 1913 elections some of Curtin's editorials were used as ammunition against the Labor Party and he was some distance away from the official ALP campaign. However, by the election of September 1914 he had emerged as ALP Candidate for Balaclava, a strong anti-Labor seat in Melbourne's south east, losing to the sitting member, William Alexander Watt.

At this time, as his biographer Lloyd Ross wrote, Curtin was "intensely shy, potentially ambitious, uniquely serious towards his social responsibilities, highly sensitive to criticism" and a combination of factors led him to acute depression and alcoholism, which dogged him for many years.

He worked as an AWU organiser in Melbourne (1915-16) and in 1916 became secretary of the National Executive of the anti-conscription campaign. Curtin had attempted to enlist in the forces in 1914 but was rejected for his poor eyesight. However, he was a passionate opponent of militarism and conscription. He was sentenced to three months jail in 1917 for having failed to register for military service but the sentence was quashed by the Hughes Government after he had served three and a half days.

In February 1917, aged 32, he left Melbourne for Perth, on his appointment as editor of the Westralian Worker, something that Anstey had organised for him in the hope that it would mean a new life and a break from his heavy drinking. The Worker was the major radical paper in the west, closely identified with the AWU and Curtin remained its editor until 1928. He was also president of the Australian Journalists Association in WA, 1921-23.

In the 1920s he took a surprisingly conservative and equivocal line on a number of issues. He missed the 1921 Federal Conference of the ALP due to family illness when the Socialist Objective was adopted but would probably have opposed it. He opposed self-government for Ireland on the grounds that "Labor wanted fewer nations on earth, not more." He declined to support the 1925 seamen's strike. He defended the Collier Labor Government's execution of two men for murder in 1926.

In 1925 he stood first for Fremantle, without success, and continued his activity as lecturer and organiser for the Workers' Educational Association.

In 1927-28 he served as a member of the Royal Commission on Child Endowment set up by the Bruce-Page Government.

In April 1917 he had married Elsie Needham in Perth and they lived in Cottesloe. He met her first five years earlier and she passed through what must have been for her a profoundly unsatisfactory courtship, with long periods of separation, complicated by his depression, drinking and irregular life style. If I may insert a brief personal reminiscence: Mrs Curtin was a distant relation of my mother's family and I have a clear recollection of meeting her in Geelong nearly 40 years ago, as she had afternoon tea and scones with my great Aunt Edie. Although I avidly listened to John Curtin's wartime broadcasts, I never saw him. Mrs Curtin and his two children survived him.

The rest of his career is on the public record and need not be retold at length here. He was elected as MHR for Fremantle in 1928 and 1929, losing the seat in 1931. He was defeated for a place in Scullin's Cabinet because of his drinking and also because of E G Theodore's opposition. After 1931 he never drank again. Then followed three years of sporting and political journalism, public relations for the Perth Trades Hall, and work on the Commonwealth Grants Commission for the Collier Government until his re-election for Fremantle in 1934. Barely 12 months later he was elected Federal Leader of the ALP in October 1935 after Scullin retired, a rank outsider who beat the favourite, Deputy Leader Frank Forde, by a single vote. Then six years as Opposition Leader, healing deep splits in the Labor movement, until the non-Labor parties self-destructed, and the votes of Arthur Coles and Alex Wilson placed Curtin in the Prime Minister's chair exactly two months before Pearl Harbour. He died, broken in health, within six weeks of victory in the Pacific.

In his entire life, he left Australia only twice, first to attend an ILO Conference in Geneva in 1924, and in April-May 1944 to meet President Roosevelt in Washington and Churchill in London and to take part in a Prime Ministers' Conference. In that simpler era, all political negotiations had to be carried out by telegram, telephone, letter or through diplomats. Knowledge of the outside world was confined to reading and contacts with world leaders were either spasmodic or non-existent. In striking contrast, Malcolm Fraser has had 29 overseas journeys during his seven years as Prime Minister.

In his memoirs They Called Me Artie (1969), Sir Arthur Fadden, the man Curtin displaced as Prime Minister, wrote:

I do not care who knows it (he presumably was aiming this at R G Menzies) but, in my opinion, there was no greater figure in Australian public life in my lifetime than Curtin. I admired him both as a man and as a statesman. Curtin is entitled to be rated as one of the greatest Australians ever.

In the second part of this lecture I want to discuss some of the major concerns of Curtin's political life-unemployment and education-and then add something of my own.


Historical Perspective

In his 1971 Curtin lecture at the Australian National University Kim Beazley, Sr, wrote that:

Curtin was a distinctive figure in the succession of Australian prime ministers in that in the face of a situation of severe unemployment he single-mindedly pursued in his thinking and planning the objective of full employment. Much of his thought in the 1930s was devoted to this before he became leader. Like his defence policies, his economic policies were the fruit of prolonged thought and study.

Australia, like Britain, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the Scandinavian states enjoyed what has been described as the Golden Age of full employment in peacetime. A 30 year period running from 1945, at the end of World War II, to approximately 1974, when the long recession which is now deepening throughout the Western world was heralded by the dramatic OPEC oil price rises of 1973-74. Because we have all grown up in the era both of full employment and of increased participation rates, we have come to accept full employment as if it was the norm, and to regard high levels of unemployment as an anomaly.

Historically, in Australia's experience, sharp fluctuations in employment have been the norm. After analysing Britain's employment levels over 200 years, since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1780s, the longest period of reasonably reliable statistics in economic history, I found that there had been 30 years of full employment (1945-74), 40 years of war and 130 years of unstable employment, with sharp alternations between high and low levels.

During John Curtin's 60 year life-time the nearest approximation to full employment in Australia would have been during World War I and World War II, less than ten years in all.

In the years l920-40 inclusive, Australia's lowest unemployment rate was 5.5% in 1920 and the highest was 28.1% in 1932, an average over that 21 year period of 12.1%, with ten years registering 10% or more and three registering 20% or more.

In 1928 when John Curtin first won Fremantle, the figure was 10.0%. In 1929 this had barely risen to 10.2%-in that year he retained his seat and Scullin's Labor Government won office, 12 days after the Wall Street crash. By 1930 unemployment stood at 18.4%. In 1931 unemployment rose to 26.5%, the Labor Party split over ways of handling the depression, and in December was swept out of office, with Curtin losing Fremantle.

In 1932, under Lyons' United Australia Party (UAP) Government, the figures were even worse-28.1% unemployed, falling to 24.2% in 1933 and to 19.5% in 1934, the year in which Lyons was re-elected Prime Minister and Curtin regained Fremantle.

As late as 1940, the first full year of war, unemployment was 7.1%.

In the 1931 elections, the UAP concentrated on unemployment and a campaign leaflet, reprinted in Warren Denning's book Caucus Crisis (1937, republished 1982), blames Theodore, Lang and Scullin (in that order) for failing to "solve unemployment", with the slogan "when Labor goes in workers go out. 400,000 now out of employment", accompanied by a powerful cartoon.

A Labor advertisement, also reprinted in Caucus Crisis, makes only what can charitably be described as a fatuous response. Mr Scullin, shirt sleeves rolled up and bare-headed, but wearing a waist-coat, tie and butterfly collar, clasps a banner bearing the words "onward to prosperity". He is followed by a large crowd of men and one woman-all wearing hats-as they follow a sign-post marked Follow the Flag. The text reads:

Return the Scullin Government to power again and prosperity is assured.

It could not be otherwise. The known facts guarantee it. The Scullin Government took office at one of the darkest periods in Australia's history. But with fine courage it set to work and with such success that today there is A SPIRIT OF CONFIDENCE THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY and eager anticipations of a good time to be.

Seven years of Bruce-Page rule had well-nigh ruined us. Our unchecked flood of importations swept through the Commonwealth with the most disastrous effects upon our local industries.

The public finances were in a ghastly mess. The position seemed hopeless and bankruptcy our inescapable lot.

Yet in two years all that has been changed!

The Scullin Labor government has performed wonders. It has put a full stop to excessive foreign trading. Our industries are more effectually protected and a rapid expansion of enterprise is bound to ensue.

The Government calls to you. Follow the flag!

Oddly, unemployment was nowhere mentioned as an issue. In those pre-Keynesian days, only E G Theodore, the Treasurer who was temporarily forced out of Cabinet over the Mungana scandal, had any idea what to do. The majority of the Cabinet believed that high protection could, by itself, solve most of the problems.

As Warren Denning wrote in Caucus Crisis:

The election of a Labor Government on a high protection platform had been a God-send to Australian manufacturers, and particularly the inefficient and greedy ones who were unable to compete in their home market with imported goods under the protection which the Bruce-Page "scientific-tariff" offered.

Combined with the importance of correcting an adverse trade balance, and helped by the vociferous demands of Australian manufacturers, high protection flowered into an exotic plant which speedily overshadowed the whole commercial structure of Australia. For one or another of the reasons mentioned, protection became a riot. Tariff walls "as high as the Himalayas" shut out millions of pounds worth of imports; where these did not bring results, embargoes, surtaxes, and prohibitions were brought in wholesale. Intoxicated by the process, the Government handed out tariff increases with an ardent and liberal hand; asking for 200% protection, manufacturers were given 300, and so on, all with the best of intentions and in the firm belief that this "big medicine" was the best possible antidote to the Depression.

Heavy emphasis on protection as an isolated factor was of little assistance in generating or preserving manufacturing employment.

Australia had its own Industrial Revolution in the 1880s and by 1891 employment in manufacturing had reached 20.6%. In 1920-21 manufacturing employed 21.6% of our labour force, and it rose fractionally to 21.7% by 1926-27. By 1928-29 this had fallen to 21.4%, while during the Depression manufacturing declined to 16.6% in 1930-31, recovering slightly to 18.4% in 1931-32, and l9.1% in 1932-33. It did not return to the level of 1926-27 for a decade (22.7% in 1936-37).

These figures may be accepted as a general indication of the trends but there are two major cautionary notes:

1. The figures do not indicate the numbers of people actually in work in manufacturing but the numbers identifying themselves with a particular industry, both working and seeking work. The unemployed in each sector are generally included so the figures given above for 1930-31, 1931-32 and 1932-33 overstate actual employment.

2. The use of aggregated figures gives a misleading impression because the States had an unequal involvement in manufacturing, with Victoria in the lead, followed by New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia, virtually the same order as it is now, 50 years later.

In a remarkably forward-looking speech, Curtin addressed the House of Representatives on 24 June 1931 in opposition to the Premiers' Plan, emphasizing that:

... my objection to the plan is that it seeks to isolate Australia's problems from the world situation. It entirely overlooks the fact that the difficulty is essentially a monetary one...I am opposed to the plan in its entirety, because the variation of interest rates are contingent abandonment of the whole conception of the Labor movement in regard to the reconstruction of society. I believe that [Labor voters] can have no respect for a party, certainly not their own party, if in a time of great national crisis, it sees no alternative but to carry out the policy of its opponents.

Unaccountably, Lloyd Ross failed to mention this speech in his Curtin biography. Ben Chifley spoke in the same debate on the following day and declared himself a reluctant supporter of the Premiers' Plan, in the absence of a clear alternative. He predicted that: "within a decade there will be a revolutionary change in the world's monetary policy."

E G Theodore adopted a Keynesian policy of reflation, ahead of Keynes himself, but was in no position to overturn the Premiers' Plan. J T Lang adopted intuitively, not intellectually, a policy which also anticipated Franklin D Roosevelt and J M Keynes, and showed some affinity to the proposals of Sir Oswald Mosley in Britain, tinged with elements of xenophobia and anti-semitism.

In the 1931 elections Curtin, Chifley and Theodore were all defeated; Curtin wrote to Theodore in September 1932 asking him to initiate a national campaign for a new economic policy. Theodore replied in October urging that governments absorb excess labour in capital works and improvements and "an all-round reduction of working hours...the foregoing is such obvious commonsense that it is almost platitudinous, yet it is doubtful if it will ever become a politically practical proposal. The workers can be so easily doped and deluded by the megalomaniacal Langs and by the capitalist dealers in election hogwash."

The long era of Depression only ended with World War II. The Golden Age of peacetime full employment which followed 1945 was marked in most western countries by a rapidly rising population, an enormous expansion in demand for consumer goods and services, an explosive increase in education and health services, the development of a welfare state, a motorised society and the transformation of our cities. Nevertheless, during this boom period manufacturing reached its highest percentage of the labour force in all technologically advanced nations and began its long fall. This decline-the post industrial effect-began in the United States in 1950, in Great Britain in 1951, New Zealand in 1956, France and Canada in 1964, Sweden in 1965, West Germany in 1968 and Japan in 1970. These turning points took place years before the beginning of the current recession in 1973.

Australia was a special case-industrial employment reached a plateau at the 1947 census when it accounted for 25.05% of the paid labour force, staying there until it reached a high point of 27.6% in 1965. It then began a steady fall, except for a few months of upturn in 1973-74. This decline, typical of all western nations, relates to employment-the value and volume of production has continued to rise generally, although there have been contractions in some industries in some years.

Between 1965 and 1982, there were 2,060,000 new jobs created in Australia in a time of generally rising labour participation rates. What was the contribution of manufacturing to these new jobs? The answer, to the surprise of many, is none. There was a net loss of 150,000 (-7.3%).

Of course, some new enterprises were begun in the industrial sector but these were more than offset by the manufacturing enterprises which expired or transferred offshore.

Current Status

Australia's official unemployment rate-that is of registered unemployed-stands at 7.8% with predictions of 10.0% in 1983. These figures are aggregations which add together relatively low figures in affluent non-manufacturing areas and alarmingly high figures in some of our industrial areas. That sum is then divided by the number you first thought of to produce a statistic which seriously overstates the position in some areas and understates it in others. There are a number of disaster areas where unemployment is two or three times higher than the national average and where recovery will be slow, if indeed it ever occurs-Wollongong-Port Kembla, Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, Sydney's western suburbs, Melbourne's western suburbs, Geelong and some provincial towns, Whyalla and parts of Adelaide, Tasmania generally.

We have failed to emphasize the class, ethnic and regional nature of sectoral unemployment. The collapse in manufacturing is not causing great distress in Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove, in Toorak or Bellevue Hill. Pupils from Guildford Grammar and PLC feel no alarm at a reduction in jobs as process workers-whoever imagined they would do such work?

The current British unemployment figure is 14.3% and in the US 10.1%. Few Australians have understood the extent of the structural changes in US employment in the past decade. The 1980 census showed that a majority of Americans now live in the sunbelt-the states of the old south and the new south-west. People from the old industrial cities like Cleveland and Detroit have coped with unemployment by moving away-both cities lost 15% of their population in a decade but Detroit's jobless still amount to nearly 20%.

The print out is on the wall. Few of our political and industrial leaders have faced up to the virtual certainty that employment in Australian manufacturing will be cut by half in the next ten years.

This will force us to face the necessity of redistributing work.

If there are seven million people of labour force age offering for work, for a diversity of reasons, primarily for money but also for company, to feel wanted, to avoid boredom, for a sense of personal achievement; and only six million jobs available we have essentially three options open:

1. To create one million new jobs, most of a type which are not economically viable and lead nowhere; or
2. To reduce labour demand by persuading one million people that there are other worthwhile things in life than working, providing of course that proper income support is available (which at present it is not); or
3. To achieve a judicious mixture of job creation and reduced work demand, including job sharing.

If we keep pushing for impossible (ie: traditional) solutions, the employment situation can only worsen.

We need to recognise that employment levels are essentially culturally determined and that the traditional work ethic, while essential to many people, is increasingly anachronistic when the material needs of society could be met abundantly if only 10% of our present labour force was actually working.

There are dangers in assuming that there is an X figure which represents an optimum employment level and that the economy has failed to the extent that the number registered as employed falls short of X by some percentage points. Australia is in the paradoxical situation of having simultaneously:

1. The highest number of unemployed since the great Depression of the 1930s; and

2. Until June 1982 among the highest labour force participation rates in our history.

They seem contradictory but both statements are correct. The explanation is that large numbers of people (mostly male) who were traditionally in the work force are now excluded from it, while an almost equally large number of people (overwhelmingly female) who were traditionally not in the labour force are now in it-many of them part-time, many through choice.

In Australia for decades we regarded 65 as the normal retirement age for men and we still regard a 50 year stretch-15 to 65-as the norm for working class men. At the other end of the working life, we seem to take it for granted that Australian kids drop out of school at 15 and fall into work. In Japan the normal retirement age for men is 55 years. This is not an innovation-it dates from the 1920s at a time when expectation of life in Japan was 55 years and 6 months. Now Japan has the highest life expectancy of any nation-79 for women, 75 for men-but they have not significantly changed the retirement age, although in some firms it has gone up to 57 years.

Japan's current unemployment rate is the highest recorded for many years, 2.5%, but we have to recognise that the cultural criteria which determine who is unemployed and who is not are quite different from Australia's.

Australia undoubtedly has more people of the normal labour force age cohort (ie typical in OECD countries), than Japan has, yet they are perceived to have licked unemployment while we are perceived as having failed.

Until the last few months, Australia's labour participation rates-expressed as a percentage of people of labour force age-were actually higher than they were during most of the era of full employment, with a much higher incidence of two income families. The figures for 1945-66 were in the 57-58% range, for 1967-81 in the 60-62% range.

However, the appalling rapidity of employment collapse in our major industrial areas in 1982 suggests that we are entering a new era which will pose enormous challenges to social stability and our capacity to provide political leadership.

I hasten to point out that technological change must not be isolated as a unique cause of unemployment, nor should its role be minimised. Current unemployment results from a synergistic interaction of a number of factors:

1. The emergence of a global economy with its interlocking mechanisms (eg the paradoxical dependence of our textile industry on cheap imported yarns without which they cannot survive and protection against imported finished goods without which they cannot survive).

2. The development of excessive specialisation in particular regions (one crop economies like Ghana or Tasmania).

3. Changing patterns of demand (away from cars to travel, from aluminium to plastics, from tinned fruit to fresh fruit).

4. Contraction of venture capital/high interest rates/inflation (where investors play safe, and consumers cannot afford to buy).

5. Technological change (fewer people can produce far more goods).

The problem of over-specialisation

Employment in manufacturing, like employment in agriculture and mining, but unlike employment in services, tends to be heavily concentrated in particular regions. Consequently, significant rises or falls in aggregate employment in main manufacturing are not evenly spread throughout the nation but affect only the particular cities, suburbs or regions with high figures for manufacturing employment. This compounds the already serious problems that exist in all cities dominated by over-specialisation and dependence on a narrow employment base. This is a universal phenomenon-Manchester (textiles), Detroit (motor manufacturing), Seattle (aircraft manufacturing), Boston (footwear and textiles), Liege (coal), Sunshine (heavy engineering and chemicals), Wollongong (coal and steel), Geelong (motor vehicles).

A regional economy based on coal and steel-like Wollongong-is buoyant when demand is high, but when demand collapses, Wollongong collapses too because alternative employment options have never been contemplated. Wollongong's troops all fight in the front line-they have no fall back position. Without exception the Federal electorates with the highest unemployment rates are those with the heaviest proportion of workers in manufacturing (according to the 1976 and 1981 censuses).



NSW Cunningham 41.8% 39.3%
Reid 35.0% 31.0%
Prospect 33.6% 31.4%
Blaxland 32.0% 29.3%
Vic Gellibrand 41.0% 36.7%
Lalor 37.4% 33.5%
Corio 36.2% 33.3%
Wills 35.8% 32.4%
SA Port Adelaide 32.7% 30.2%

In Australia the States with the largest traditional manufacturing base (Victoria 22.2%, South Australia 19.0%, and New South Wales 18.5%) are in more serious employment difficulties than Queensland and Western Australia with less than 14% each in 1976 and 1981. Tasmania which tried for heavy industrialisation and failed now faces economic disaster.

Britain has the highest proportion of workers in manufacturing (31%) of any nation in Western Europe. Unemployment in the Midlands, where the great bulk of manufacturing is concentrated, is three or four times greater than in the services-based south east.

It is essential that we grasp that having very large numbers of people in a particular economic sector is not necessarily a sign of strength-indeed the contrary is true. The US has 3% of its labour force in agriculture and India has 65%-which has the stronger agriculture? Is it conceivable that anybody would argue that the US would have a stronger economy if 10% of its labour force were farmers?

One of the reasons that Britain's manufacturing industry is in such difficulty is its sheer size as an employer-far too high. New Zealand, believe it or not, has a higher proportion of its labour force in manufacturing than Australia. This is not a sign of strength.


Nissan, using robots, produces an average of 130 cars per worker per annum-in the motor industry in Australia (all firms) six cars are produced per worker per annum. Is it suggested that if we introduced robots on a large scale that we would maintain the same labour force and the same number of vehicles per worker? On the other hand if robots increased the productivity of the existing labour force 2166% (130/6), to the level of Japan, is it suggested that we could sell these additional vehicles?

If General Motors is shedding labour in Detroit, why would they adopt a different policy in Dandenong?

One of the issues which must be faced up to very quickly by the ALP (and the trade union movement) is-What attitude do we take to robotisation?

The publication this week of the report to the Prime Minister by ASTEC entitled Robots points up the need to examine the issues urgently.


In his 1967 Curtin lecture at the University of Western Australia, the late Sam Cohen QC, then Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, pointed out how the Curtin Government:

... established, in the middle of the war, not only the Universities Commission and the Reconstruction Training Scheme but also the Australian National University, so demonstrating for the first time the Commonwealth's concern with education as integral to Australia's future as a nation.

On 11 April 1945, Mr Curtin said:

There has been great interest in the establishment at Canberra of a national university. I see no reason why Canberra should not become a place such as Oxford or Cambridge. There are not many industries at those places, and it is unlikely that there will be any number of industries at Canberra.

John Curtin, who left school at 13, played a central role in starting an educational revolution which was to transform Australia. After a period of almost exponential growth the revolution-carried on effectively by the 1972-75 Minister for Education Kim Beazley, Curtin's successor in Fremantle-was aborted by Fraser's counter-revolutionaries. Australia is now slipping further behind its educational contemporaries.

In 1920, Australia's population was 5.3 million and there were 7,900 university students, 1.65% of the 17-22 age group.

University student numbers took 24 years to double (1944), doubled again in three years under Labor (1947), doubled again in 15 years under Menzies (1962), and doubled once more in ten years (1972), by which time there had been a 16 fold increase since 1920 (compared to a national population increase by a factor of 2.5 in that period to 13 million). That represents a rise of 640% over a 52 year period (1920-72) compared to Japan's rise of 3,900% in 30 years (1950-80). There was a short, sharp rise under Whitlam but then after 1975 participation rates began to fall and it is very difficult to estimate how long, if ever, it will be before we have our next doubling.

In 1954 only 18% of the 15-19 years age cohort in Australia were at school-this rose to 32% by 1964 and 38.5% by 1980. This last figure puts 61.5% of Australian 15-19 year olds on the labour market-a high figure where our only competitors are Great Britain, New Zealand, both non-coping economies; Portugal, Yugoslavia and Turkey. Japan has only 24% of 15-19 year olds in the labour force, the US has 28%, Canada 33%, Sweden 34%. Have they got it all wrong? Is our model the one that others should follow? Or have we got it wrong?

In 1956 only 8.4% of our 17 year olds were still being educated full-time. By 1964 this had risen to 17.9% and by 1980 to 31.7%. The participation rate of 17-19 year olds has fallen by 18% since 1976.

In Japan, 88.1% of 17 year olds are still full-time at school.

The recent report of the Australian Council for Adult Literacy concluded that about 10% of adults in Australia are functionally illiterate. This figure, like unemployment, will not be evenly spread-the illiterates will be bunched among the poor, migrants and unemployed. Communities with high proportions of illiteracy cannot make the transition to work requiring a high skill base-they become stuck in the Australia of the 1950s while most of us are in the 1980s.

In the US there are pro rata three times as many young people studying science as there are in Australia (14 x 3 = 42 times as many in absolute figures). Twenty-eight per cent of US Science students go on to their PhDs compared to 5% of ours. We constantly hear complaints that we have far too many graduates who cannot find appropriate work. This is true. We have many overqualified people because this is a significantly under qualified society. Nations with the highest proportions of tertiary students-like the US, Japan and Sweden-have far less difficulty in placing graduates than nations like Australia or India with relatively small numbers of graduates.

Our educational situation with its exclusion of the working class at higher levels is not just a matter of concern-it is part of a recipe for economic and social disaster.

Some of you will know the sardonic anecdote:

What do you call a person who speaks three languages?


What do you call a person who speaks two languages?


What do you call a person who speaks only one language?

An Australian.

Where are we Heading Now?

The ALP Science and Technology policy offers some radical alternatives to existing policies for the 1980s. If we fail to promote radical change in industry then Australia's economic base will contract rapidly, our skill levels (already trailing behind) will deteriorate further and we can expect a long term decline in living standards, further unemployment and a social chasm between rich and poor.

I want to expand the point above about the role of resources in new technological development.

Many of the new technologies are extremely parsimonious in their use of raw materials and energy, factors which overturn many conventional assumptions about the comparative advantages of resource rich countries.

1. Electronics has been dominated by miniaturised technology in which computer capacity has increased exponentially while comparative cost per unit of capacity has fallen, with significantly smaller inputs of energy. The thermionic valve was replaced by the transistor, then by semi-conductor chips. The silicon chip seems likely to be displaced by the gallium-arsenide chip, which is faster and uses even less power. Computers which once required 7000 kw input have now been replaced by microcomputers with equivalent capacity which are powered by a single torch battery.

2. Communications technology is increasingly dependent on sophisticated techniques which are low energy users. It requires the same amount of coal to produce 100 km of coaxial cable or 30,000 km of optical fibre with the same carrying capacity. Clearly it would be in the short term interest of a coal rich nation with copper mines like Australia to promote copper cables-but this would lead us into a technological cul-de-sac. In fibre optic technology no nation has a comparative advantage based on resources-the critical factors are the available human skills and the development of laser technology (currently we lack both).

3. Aluminium requires vast amounts of electricity for smelting and there is likely to be an oversupply for the foreseeable future. Epoxies, reinforced with kevlar, boron or carbon fibres, are lighter, stronger and more rigid than aluminium, will be much cheaper in large volume and will require only a fraction of the energy input to produce.

4. Metals may be replaced by ceramics in areas where rigorous performance standards are required under intense heat and stress, eg car and aircraft engines, cutting tools, grinders, artificial hip joints. CSIRO has pioneered a ceramic derived from mineral sands, called PSZ (partially stabilised Zirconia) which will be a major world commodity by the 1990s.

5. Industrial chemistry is a very heavy user of resources and a major polluter. Biotechnology offers a range of alternative products which would carry out similar functions through biological control mechanisms, eg herbicides and weedicides, which are cheaper to produce, smaller energy users and easier to dispose of than their chemical equivalents. Biotechnology will undermine the economic viability of the conventional chemical industry, a classic example of sunset industry being displaced by a sunrise one. However, biotechnology will employ fewer people than the old industry.


In the l980s, new techniques can decimate the labour force in the goods-producing sectors of the economy. This will either perpetuate massive unemployment or lead to the creation of large scale, low output servile work in the service sector. There will be a vast increase in transactions based on the collection, manipulation and dissemination of information by computerised technologies. This will bring about a fundamental change in the relationship of people and work. Lewis Mumford condensed this into a brief formula:

Manual work into machine work:
Machine work into paper work:
Paper work into electronic simulation or work, divorced progressively from any organic functions or human purposes, except those that further the power system.

This process may destroy the fragile consensus on which the democratic system depends. Technology is a political instrument and becomes an end in itself. Power will move towards the controllers of technology and away from a poorly informed and increasingly apathetic electorate. The democratic system, increasingly irrelevant in the 1970s, may become obsolete in the 1980s. Of the ten or 12 basic tasks carried out by Members of Parliament, every one could be carried out more cheaply and effectively by computer. Who needs us if utilitarianism, the ideology of the machine, is strictly applied? What impact will the loss of faculty have on the human species? If Homo sapiens is no longer Homo faber, if he ceases to be Homo laborans or even Homo sedentarius and is transformed to Homo ludens, what is the future of the race?

This problem transcends the political ideologies of left and right-the issues are as applicable in the USSR as in the USA or in China and Mexico.

Recent research on the operation of the human brain suggests a profound dichotomy between the left and right hemispheres. The left hemisphere, it is argued, dictates behaviour that is analytical, reductionist, rule following, verbal, aggressive, competitive and linear, conforming to the masculine stereotype. The right hemisphere, more closely conforming to the feminine stereotype, is related to perceptions which are holistic, transcendental, impressionistic, visual, cooperative and lateral-with strong emphasis on seeing things in a broad context and linking them together.

Temperamentally, I am an optimist. I believe that new approaches such as the application of lateral thinking to social and economic problems can make the 1980s a creative era in which Mozartian man (and woman), as Dennis Gabor wrote, can evolve. If we remain imprisoned in the linear thinking so congenial to bureaucrats, capitalists, commissars and aspiring gauleiters, the 1980s will be a period of unemployment, alienation and unprecedented social crises.

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