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Is Rudd another Scullin?

By James Cumes - posted Friday, 23 November 2007

There are intriguing similarities between the forthcoming federal election and those of 1929.

In 1929 the Scullin Labor Government won a landslide victory and took office just two days before the New York Stock-Exchange (NYSE) crash of Black Thursday, 24 October, which ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce, after more than six years in office, lost not only government but his own seat in the House of Representatives.


Now we have a similar situation in that a centre-right Prime Minister, John Howard, after eleven years in office, looks like being swept away in a landslide by centre-left Labor led by Kevin Rudd. Though perhaps unlikely, it may be that he could even lose his seat in the House of Representatives.

However, what comes after is the most intriguing aspect. In 1929, no one, least of all James Scullin and his ministers, had any idea that the world was about to crash into the greatest economic depression the world had known. They had even less idea of how they should react to any such crisis. Intriguingly, two of the key issues which confronted them were irresponsible debt and industrial relations.

The same seems to be true of the prospective Rudd Government. He has proclaimed himself to be a "conservative economist". He has spoken during the campaign, mainly about interest rates and housing costs in conventional terms. He will amend industrial legislation to be more acceptable to workers. He says it all in the obvious expectation that the next few years - the next ten years perhaps - will be much the same as the last ten years under Howard.

There is not the slightest possibility that they will be.

We are about to go through the most tumultuous years - in economic, social, political and strategic terms - that we have ever known. The financial, banking and credit "system" will need to be reconstructed almost from scratch, globally as well as nationally. We will have to revise fundamentally our thinking about the means to maintain economic stability and growth, non-discriminatory international trade, stable exchange rates and international capital flows; indeed, the whole gamut of issues with which we were concerned in reconstructing the world economy after the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Can a Rudd Government survive attempts to achieve a re-modelling of so much? Does it have any idea how it will contribute to thinking about such a re-modelling - and how to do so with the vital interests of Australia, both short and long term, in mind?


The Scullin Government was an abject failure. Despite Mungana, it was not corrupt or dishonest. It was well-intentioned; and it was in no sense extremist or revolutionary. On the contrary, its economic and financial policies were conservative. Though some of its members wanted more expansionist policies, it accepted a "Premiers' Plan" so devastatingly conservative that it did more to create misery for the people of Australia than the Great Crash of the NYSE ever did.

Confused, defeated and despised by its left constituency as well as the right, it lasted until January 1932. The Labor Party split three ways. A Labor defector, Joe Lyons, formed the United Australia Party, became Prime Minister and staggered on until his death in 1939 - some months before the outbreak of war.

Labor did begin to show some signs of revival in the mid-thirties. Most conspicuously, Ben Chifley made some useful contributions to the Royal Commission on Money and Banking in 1936. By the time Labor regained office just weeks before Pearl Harbour in 1941, ideas that would remedy the ills of the 1930s were being drafted into policies by Labor and formed the basis of the domestic and international economic policies that the Curtin and Chifley Governments would implement with such success between 1945 and 1949.

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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