The “Long Boom” Begins: Northern Development in 1950’s Australia

21 February 2014
Kerriann Lock
The 1949 election of Robert Menzies as Prime Minister ushered in the “long boom” – over two decades of development, economic growth, low unemployment rates, and rising standards of living. All Australians, including those working and residing in the North, were able to benefit from the newly-created Department of Trade, which negotiated several key agreements with export partners that boosted overseas market earnings, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Agricultural Advances
In keeping with Menzies’ pre-election promise to “pay much-needed attention to more remote and undeveloped areas such as North Queensland, the Northern Territory and North-West Australia”, the government funded research into the development of farming in the region. This led to the discovery of rice varieties suited to northern soils (which typically possess inherent iron and manganese toxicities). Unfortunately, however, plans to grow rice in the North were later abandoned due to an inability to control destructive pests.
The Menzies government also funded CSIRO research into the reduction of Australia’s rabbit population, which had reached gargantuan proportions and threatened to ruin the agricultural sector through soil erosion and crop damage. The subsequent discovery and release of the myxoma virus dramatically reduced rabbit numbers, and within two years the wool and meat industries experienced a $68 million recovery.
In addition to the federally-funded activities of the CSIRO, northern Australia benefited from projects enacted at a state government level. One of these was the construction of Queensland’s Tinaroo Dam under the auspices of Labor premier Vince Gair. The dam, approved in 1952 and completed in 1958, was built on the Barron River to support local tobacco farming. Although tobacco is no longer grown in the region, Tinaroo Dam continues to supply over 200,000 megalitres of water to surrounding farmland annually for the cultivation of fruit, vegetables, sugar and coffee. It also provides hydro power and water for domestic use in local towns. The lake can be fished for a variety of species, including barramundi and crayfish.
Mining Matters
In 1952, the Menzies government established the Rum Jungle uranium mine and treatment plant south of Darwin. At the time, Rum Jungle was the largest construction in the Northern Territory, with a purpose-built town at Batchelor to accommodate mining personnel. Managed by a subsidiary of the Rio Tinto Group, the mine supplied uranium oxide concentrate to the UK and USA for use in their weapons development programmes throughout the 1950’s.
At its peak, the Rum Jungle mine was considered a great success – proof that Australian enterprise could meet the challenges posed by climate and conditions in the North. In 1963, W.H. Spooner wrote:
“The Rum Jungle Project is the biggest single industrial enterprise in the Northern Territory and is estimated to be responsible, directly and indirectly, for somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the total economic activity of the northern part of the Territory. It has thus been a most important factor in the development of this area.”
It is easy to see how the economic potential of Rum Jungle, together with the desire to support the British and American military in conflicts like the Cold War and Korean War, may have led to the Menzies government’s involvement in uranium mining. Six decades on, however, the prosperity and security brought to the North by Rum Jungle have been eclipsed (or, indeed, forgotten) amidst environmental concerns, and many Australians now consider the project a “disaster”.
A second major mining operation of the 1950’s was at Queensland’s Mount Isa mine, which expanded considerably over the decade. The privately-owned enterprise began 1952 producing 36,860 tonnes of lead bullion and no copper. Due to the exploration and discovery of more deposits, by 1960 Mount Isa Mines (MIM) was producing 60,000 tonnes of copper and almost double the quantity of lead bullion.
In order to facilitate the increasing transport needs of MIM, the Menzies government funded the reconstruction of the Townsville to Mount Isa railway. Improvements to the rail line also benefited residents elsewhere, particularly in Townsville which had relied on the terminus for economic growth since its completion in 1913.
Labor in Opposition
Despite the Menzies government’s involvement in the projects outlined above, and the fact that northern Australians were now earning the highest median wages in the country, there was a perception that the government had neglected the region. Feelings of vulnerability to attack by Asian neighbours persisted, just as they had during WWII, but the Liberal politicians in Canberra seemed unconcerned.
The Labor party, therefore, saw electoral advantages in championing northern development in the context of national security. It wished to exploit the fears of resource-rich northerners who saw themselves as a desirable and easy target of communist countries like China, North Vietnam and Indonesia. Menzies’ own campaign against the dangers of communism did not help matters.
Yet, in spite of Opposition Leader H.V. Evatt’s impassioned plea that “the development and peopling of the Northern areas of Australia…is vital to national welfare and defence”, and the promise to create a Minister for the Northern Territory and North Australian Affairs if elected, Australians continued to vote for the Menzies government.
1950’s Legacy
Although it is sometimes claimed that Robert Menzies did nothing to develop northern Australia during the 1950’s, his government was involved in a number of projects that enhanced agricultural and mining activities in the region. By supporting private enterprise such as MIM, and enabling successful trade with overseas markets, the Menzies government ushered in a “long boom” – a period of economic growth and financial gain that benefited Australians everywhere.
It is worth noting, however, that 1950’s government policy was not constrained by environmental concerns as it is today. If it had been, perhaps there would be no rabbit culling, Mount Isa mining expansion, or Tinaroo Dam – and Australia would be noticeably poorer.
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Foots, J.W. (1961) “Review of operations, Mount Isa Mines Limited, 1952–1960”, Proceedings of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, No. 197, 1–15.
Martin, A.W. (2000), “Menzies, Sir Robert Gordon (Bob) (1894 – 1978)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, Melbourne University Press, (Melbourne), pp 354–361.
Megarrity, Lyndon (2011). “’Necessary and urgent’? The politics of Northern Australia, 1945-75”. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society.
Spooner, W.H. (1963) Rum Jungle Project: A report on the uranium mining and treatment industry established by the Commonwealth Government at Rum  Jungle, and its contribution to the development of the  Northern Territory of Australia, (Australian Atomic Energy Commission).