Political developments of the 1920s

Australia Between The Wars

The Country Party

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Earle Christmas Grafton Page

The 1920s saw the emergence of a new political party. Farmers felt that the interests of rural Australia were not being heard in government and that they needed a voice in the nation’s affairs. In the elections of December 1919, representatives of the Farmers’ Associations won seats in the House of Representatives and a month later they formed themselves into the Country Party. Their leader from 1921 was Earle Christmas Grafton Page, a doctor turned politician from Grafton in New South Wales. The Country Party was conservative, representing the farmers and graziers and pledging to promote and protect the interests of rural Australia.

The fall of Billy Hughes

Prime Minister Billy Hughes had a particular dislike of the Country Party. He called the members ‘hayseeds’ and dismissed them and the country people they represented as irrelevant to the government of the nation. He had a particular dislike for their leader, Dr Earle Page, and the feeling appeared to be mutual.

In the federal elections of 1922 Hughes’ Nationalist Party lost its majority in the Parliament and Earle Page made it clear that the Country Party was not prepared to form a coalition as long as the Nationalists kept Hughes as their leader. Pressure from within his own party forced Hughes to resign as prime minister in February 1923.
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Stanley Melbourne Bruce

The Bruce–Page government, 1923–29

Hughes’ successor as leader of the Nationalist Party was Stanley Melbourne Bruce. The new prime minister was able to form a coalition with the Country Party, and Earle Page became deputy prime minister. This was a new development in Australian politics, a coalition of non-Labor parties to keep the Labor Party out of office. After the 1922 election, the Country Party gained the balance of power in Parliament. Since that time, these two conservative parties (now called the Liberal Party and the National Party) have continued in coalition.

The Bruce–Page government, as it preferred to be called, stayed in power for most of the 1920s, until the start of the Great Depression in 1929. This conservative government gave Australia steady if unimaginative government. It had no great program for social reform. Its major focus was in building up Australia’s economy.

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Men, money and markets

The Bruce–Page government believed that to generate economic growth and prosperity three essentials were needed:
● Australia needed to increase the size of its workforce both in the cities and on the land.
● Australia needed to borrow money (capital) from overseas to finance development, industry and public works.
● Australia needed good markets overseas to sell the produce the nation produced.
In a speech in 1925, Prime Minister Stanley Bruce summed up the nation’s need in a simple yet effective line: Australia needed ‘men, money and markets’. If the nation was to enjoy the promised prosperity, there was a real need to increase the size of the Australian workforce. In 1920 Australia had a population of only 5.5 million and the government began a vigorous policy to attract immigrants to the country. However, the government was equally determined to keep Australia white, and so it was to Britain that Australia looked for her immigrants in the 1920s.

Britain, suffering from social and economic problems after World War I, supported the resettlement of those who wished to start a new life in distant Australia. The British government joined with the Australian governments to provide money to assist the immigration program, and, between 1921 and 1929, 260 000 British immigrants arrived in Australia and over two-thirds of them were assisted.

The growth of the Australian economy in the 1920s also depended on our ability to borrow money. Australia was an attractive place for foreign investment, and between 1919 and 1929 the Commonwealth and the states borrowed over $550 million, most of it from Britain. This money was put into long-term development projects—railways, roads, irrigation schemes, and even the construction of the new national capital in Canberra.

Loans, however, had to be repaid and the increasing debt that Australia ran up in the 1920s had long-term consequences in the years to come. Australia’s ability to find export markets was another important factor, for the sale of our produce on the world markets was needed in order to meet our loan and interest repayments. Britain remained the major export market for our primary produce (wool, wheat, sugar and meat) and the prices for Australian produce on the world market had been good. However, from the mid-1920s prices began to fall and it became increasingly difficult for Australia to sell its goods overseas. As a result, the Country Party demanded that subsidies be paid to Australian primary producers.

Primary producers were allowed to charge higher prices for their products on the Australian market in order to make up for the lower prices they received on the world market. With higher prices for commodities like sugar and butter, the cost of living for the average Australian increased.