Effect Of Great Depression On Australia

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Life in Australia during the Great Depression changed dramatically. The struggling economy’s effects on Australian families after the Wall Street crash were accelerated due to poor economic decisions made by the Australian Government at the time. The Great Depression affected the majority of the population of Australia, including working-class families living in inner cities, as well as Aboriginal Australians, who were all forced to leave their homes to find new jobs where ever they could. For independent Aboriginal Australians, they were forced to live in missions and reserves. The hardships endured by Australians also changed popular culture and core values, projected through new music genres and dances, reflecting their experiences at the time.

On Tuesday 29 October 1929, the Wall Street stock market in New York collapsed. Twenty-six billion dollars was wiped off the market, and this decline of economic troubles continued for the next 3 years. The economic markets around the world were destroyed as Wall Street had and still has the largest role in the international financial system. The inability of the State and Federal Government of Australia at the time tried and failed to make policies to aid the suffering economy and suffering Australians. When work was found, it was often only for the short term, as the rarity of work on offer caused low wage rates and poor working conditions to become the norm. The situation was worsened when in 1931, the Government made 20% cuts to wages, Government expenditure, and increased taxation. Government aid employment was rare and those relying on Government help to find work, found themselves relying on sustenance payments or rations to survive. There were so many desperate people seeking help that “The weekly dole queues were the most forlorn sight. Some of them were literally miles long…”- Patrick quotes in the Wendy Lowenstein, Weevils in the Flour (1979).

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The Great Depression’s impact in Australia was not on the whole population. Some people were affected heavily, and others may not have been affected at all, and for those affected, there is strong evidence to suggest that many were able to stay resilient when times got tough. The working class was by far the most affected group during the Great Depression and made up the majority of those who were unemployed. According to the Museum of Sydney website, by 1933 one in three Australian breadwinners was unemployed. Those who couldn’t find work in the big cities were given no option by to leave their homes and seek work in the country. ‘Swagmen’ as they were called, were entitled to a food-ration card given to them at police stations, provided they could prove they had traveled at least 80 kilometers that week. Others were given Government relief work. Those who received the dole were assigned council work where they were isolated from their families to help build roads and pathways. The most memorable public work was the building of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, which helped immensely, to pull Australia out of the Great Depression, by creating hundreds of jobs, higher wages, and fewer working hours, but with equally dangerous conditions. Men were also forced to walk around the city streets in search of a day’s work, with employers in search of the fittest men to hire for the day in often dangerous working conditions. For women, they too tried to find jobs, while also upholding the traditional women’s duty of looking after the household. Children were also an easy employment option for cheap labor which meant many children had to leave school to look for work to help support their families. Single parents found it difficult to support their children, so there was an increased demand for places in orphanages. For those barely unaffected by the Great Depression, usually wealthy families, they were able to live their lives as normal.

Aboriginal Australians were among the groups of people in Australia who received little aid during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, Aboriginal people were still not counted as citizens, and their voice and voting power were very much suppressed. Not being counted as part of the Australian population, they were denied citizenship rights to government pensions and food rations that were accessible to white Australians. Independently living Aboriginal Australians that became unemployed during the Great Depression were forced to move onto Government-run reserves, with the terrifying risk that their children would be removed from their care, as the Assimilation policy was still in place. Anyone who refused to move onto these reserves joined unemployment camps, which were self-sufficient and represented freedom, and paved the way for future political activism. Throughout the Great Depression, Aboriginal spokes-people advocated for basic work and human rights, and the First Day of Mourning protest was held a few years after the Great Depression ended in Australia. Despite serving in World War 1, Jack Patten was denied the rights given to other white ex-servicemen during the Great Depression, and on the first-ever Day of Mourning asked for “…. full citizen status” (Jack Patten, 1938) during a speech he gave during the protest.

Popular culture in the 1930s was certainly shaped by the experiences of the Great Depression not just by people in Australia but by people around the world because of the influence that America and Britain still had on Australia. The horror of war fresh in peoples’ minds, was also a huge influence on the genres of music and film that was created in the 1930s and onwards. Popular songs in Australia had lyrics that talked about survival and the attitude of ‘how did I get here and why is this happening to me?’. The theme of survival is also seen in the genre of Blues music, which was popular in America, and carried on into Australian popular culture. For the unaffected upper-class, the lowered cost of living meant an increase in theatre attendance, and great numbers flocked to enjoy the atmosphere at the cricket or the Melbourne Cup, two things that have become a very large part of Australian culture today.

The lack of useful help by the government from unsupportive policies to white Australians and the absence of any help for Indigenous Australians during the Great Depression has certainly shaped living in Australia and particularly its cities, in the 1930s and the following decades, as well as its culture and core values.  

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