Curtin, Chifley and Northern Australia 1944-1949

11 January 2014
Kerriann Lock
The idea of developing the North is not new – on the contrary, it has been a focus of various federal governments over the decades. This article series aims to trace the history of policy development and implementation in the region, beginning with the 1940’s Labor governments of John Curtin and Ben Chifley.
John Curtin & WWII
During World War II, Australia’s national security was threatened by Japanese invasion. Air raids on Darwin and Broome underlined the vulnerability of northern Australia to such an invasion, so Prime Minister John Curtin began to look for ways to better protect the region.
It was generally felt that the North’s exposure to attack was the result of underdevelopment and a sparse population. The solution, then, would be to boost the number of inhabitants. With this in mind, the Curtin government embraced a policy of decentralisation intended to encourage greater regional settlement.
A secondary, but related, motive for developing the North was a public belief in the “Brisbane line” – a plan supposedly devised by the previous Menzies government whereby, in the event of an invasion, only south-eastern Australia would be defended by the military. Understandably, voters outside this boundary were not pleased at the possibility of being surrendered to the Japanese.
Although Curtin later carried out a Royal Commission into the “Brisbane line”, there was no evidence the Menzies government had ever considered such a policy. It appears to have been a rumour spread by Labor minister Eddie Ward to stir up support for his own party. Nevertheless, many Australians believed the plan was real and voted for Labor in the 1943 election.
It was therefore in the interests of John Curtin and the Labor party to promote northern development as an important goal, both for Australia’s national security and to relieve voter concerns about being relinquished to foreign invaders.
Unfortunately, Curtin died in office before the war’s end, and was unable to further develop and implement policies concerning northern Australia. However, his strategy of boosting population growth through decentralisation was unlikely to succeed long-term without the involvement of private enterprise and its ability to create jobs and inject wealth into the region.
Ben Chifley & the NADC
In late 1945, after becoming the new Labor leader and Prime Minister, Ben Chifley picked up the baton of northern development and established the Commonwealth of the Northern Australia Development Committee (NADC).
The NADC’s role was to investigate and advise the government on the future development of the North. It included representatives from Western Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory. During the course of its existence, the NADC substantially increased knowledge of the North and its resources – knowledge that had been fairly limited until then.
The committee also initiated various major surveys of the area (often using aerial photography), leading to later projects such as the Mareeba-Dimbulah irrigation scheme of the early 1950’s.
In 1947, the NADC presented a report on northern development to the Chifley government. The report suggested ways to make living in the North more attractive so that people would be encouraged to move there, resulting in a population boost. Clearly they were still operating on the same belief as Curtin – that government intervention alone was needed for regional development to occur.
Nevertheless, the report contained helpful recommendations concerning improvements to health, education, water conservation, transport and infrastructure. The annual cost of these improvements would be 1,235,000 pounds sterling (just over 21 million dollars in today’s currency), to be born mostly by the Chifley government on the grounds of national interest.
Ben Chifley, who was serving as both Prime Minister and Treasurer at the time, did not respond to the NADC’s report with enthusiasm. Both he and the Treasury disagreed with the NADC’s costings, as well as the assumption that most of the proposed improvements were federal (rather than state) responsibilities.
Furthermore, Chifley questioned the inclusion of the more populated areas along the North Queensland coast in the report, either from a genuine conviction that these areas did not warrant expenditure on additional growth, or simply to cut costs.
In addition to financial concerns, the Chifley government had lost the wartime urgency that had first prompted a focus on northern development. With the Japanese defeat, invention of the atomic bomb, and unfolding Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, global conflict appeared to have moved elsewhere. The North no longer seemed as vulnerable as it had under Curtin. There were even suggestions that its undeveloped state had deterred invasion.
The idea that northern development could promote economic growth for Australia as a whole was also undermined by Chifley himself, who said in a 1949 radio broadcast that the region “isn’t a land offering productive abundance…There are substantial mineral deposits, although I don’t think the country is an El Dorado.”
Following the lack of government support for its recommendations, the NADC was gradually phased out. By the end of the Chifley era, it was no longer active.
1940’s Legacy
Although both the Curtin and Chifley governments promoted northern development at times, this was motivated by national security issues rather than a belief in the economic potential of the region. Neither government wished to include private enterprise in the expansion of the North.
As prime minister, Ben Chifley gradually lost interest in northern development due to waning security threats, a reluctance to commit funds to the area, and a failure to see its economic value. While subsequent Labor leaders such as Gough Whitlam have claimed that the return of the Menzies government thwarted Chifley’s plans for the North, it is clear that by the end of Chifley’s reign he did not support further action in the region.
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