Dreaming of a new world

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The war was nearing its end in 1918 when the Australian war correspondent, CEW Bean, took a break from the carnage to rest, to write and to think. 1 Bean had been at Gallipoli from beginning to end. He had followed the Australian infantry through the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium. After four years of horror, sixty thousand young Australians dead, Bean began to wonder what good might come of it. ‘What were they fighting for?’, he asked. To keep the world free, of course, to make Australia safe, yet more than this, Bean argued, the men of the AIF wanted to make Australia ‘a great and good country—yes, the greatest and best country in the world’. 2

But the dead had left the task unfinished, they ‘will not return to help make up the country which they loved and longed for’, Bean reflected sadly. The future had now passed into the hands of Australia’s young people. ‘Unless the results of this war are to be thrown away, you have to take up the work which was only begun at Anzac and Pozières’, he told them, ‘You have to fight it’. The brains, the courage, the character of young Australians would make the nation ‘clean, great and strong’: ‘even if you have to build up between you a great big broom and bundle all of us poor, musty old cobwebs of the previous generation into the sea’. Emerging from the darkness of war, Australia brimmed with youth, vigour and promise—‘a country still to make’. 3

The contrast between ‘old world wrecks’ and young Australia was intensified by war. While Europe gravely pondered an end to progress, Australians revelled in a newfound sense of nationhood. In 1914, RR Garran imagined a flood of immigrants from Europe, ‘weary of the ravages and desolation of war’, seeking out ‘new scenes, new skies’. 4 HS Gullett, who served as a war correspondent in Palestine, proudly proclaimed that Australia’s fighting men were the most persuasive advertisement for any intending immigrant. ‘Think of his qualities as a fighter, of his exceptional physique, …of his sheer happiness’, he implored the people of Great Britain, ‘ask yourselves whether the land which has bred this happy, highly paid, well-educated young manhood is likely to be a good land or a bad land for you’. Would they prefer to stay in ‘old, crowded country’, or seek a new life in a ‘great, young land’. 5

But Australia was not untouched. ‘We ourselves have changed’, noted Garran in 1919, ‘the mighty upheaval has shaken us all out of our old grooves and upset all our comfortable formulas’. Garran, who as the nation’s first public servant had contributed much to the nation building dreams of early governments, pondered ‘Australia’s new outlook’. ‘We are asking ourselves what can be done to bring good out of this great evil’, he continued, ‘we are talking and dreaming of a new world, but the world we see around us is a world laid in ruins’. Garran surveyed Australia’s resources and responsibilties, and looked to the League of Nations to forestall future conflict. But ‘the most urgent task for Australia’, he argued, was ‘to secure peace within’, for ‘the deadliest and wickedest of all wars is the class war’. 6

Like many other liberal intellectuals, Garran was alarmed by increasing union militancy in the latter years of the war. Industrial unrest added to bitterness awakened by the conscription debate to leave the nation divided and uneasy. For idealists such as Garran and the ‘secular evangelists’ of the Workers’ Educational Association, the solution lay in the development of a new consensus. 7 Any ‘new world’, Garran argued, had to be founded upon ‘mutual goodwill and good understanding’ between all classes. 8 HW Gepp, General Manager of the Electrolytic Zinc Company, agreed, arguing that the best memorial to Australia’s war dead would be an ‘industrial system… based upon and guided by the laws of humanity and mutual esteem and understanding’. 9 ‘The old order must be changed for a new’, Gepp asserted. 10

Australia faced a challenging task, but it was one that could be approached with confidence. ‘Our hope lies in the remarkable increase of the tendencies to unity and peace long at work in society’, Meredith Atkinson, President of the WEA, offered reassuringly in his book The new social order. 11 The ‘new order’ promised a dramatic shift in social and political life, and yet the overall trend was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. ‘It has been the programme of civilisation from the outset’, Garran noted. 12 It was the path of progress.

The outlines of the new world reflected the lingering preoccupations of Australian liberals, but the disruptions of war added a sense of urgency and relevance. War brought opportunities to reformers, recognised WEA stalwart GV Portus, for the ‘rank and file’ became ‘willing to listen to new evangels’. 13 Indeed, the dream of something better appeared to play a crucial role in maintaining a country’s morale. 14 As the nations of the world entered into battle once more, political leaders sought to bolster public support by focusing on aims and ideals. Returning from the UK in 1941, Prime Minister Menzies rallied the nation behind an ‘unlimited war effort’, proclaiming that victory would enable ‘humane men in every country to set about the building of a new way of life’. ‘I am not looking for a restoration of old privileges and old possessions’, he continued, ‘there must be no looking back to what was in many ways an unjust state of society’. 15 Even as the war continued to escalate, talk turned to the possibilities of reconstruction.

The idea of social transformation was pursued with vigor by the incoming Labor government. Memories of the Great Depression were strong, fuelling resolve to avoid past mistakes, to ensure that promises of a better life did not evaporate in an atmosphere of postwar inertia. 16 A Ministry of Post-War Reconstruction was established early in 1943, and plans were drawn for a ‘new social order’ built around the guarantee of full employment. The failures and disappointments of ages gone were no excuse for cynicism or inaction, Lloyd Ross, the Ministry’s Director of Public Relations, argued against those who ‘think Spirit of Progress is only the name of a railway train’. Change was coming, must come: ‘The New Order is not a substitute for a calendar-date’; not another name for another post-war period’. 17

Reconstruction also appealed to a growing cadre of experts and planners committed to the reforming power of rational thought and the importance of intellectual leadership. Like their forbears in the WEA, the planners imagined a ‘new order’ sustained by cooperation and consensus. 18 HC Coombs, the Director-General of Postwar Reconstruction, noted that while the nation faced ‘enormously difficult problems of transition’, the people remained ‘anxious for change and willing to be inspired into social unity for a common purpose’. 19 The ‘confusion and flexibility’ engendered by war provided ‘an opportunity to promote economic and social development’. ‘Opportunities for dramatic steps forward occur but rarely in the lives of men’, Coombs added. 20

What kind of world was coming? What did it mean to talk of a ‘new social order’? ‘One hears these questions everywhere in the Army’, noted Padre Watts of the AIF, ‘in Education Service lectures, in religious gatherings, in conversations in tents and around camp fires’. 21 The future was not the sole preserve of politicians and bureaucrats. Even as the government pursued its plans for reconstruction, ‘new orders’ of every size and make were forged from hope and longing. For some the ‘new order’ could only be realised by communist upheaval, others sought a return to Christian values. The ‘Our New Order Association’ was founded in Sydney to safeguard democracy and press for social security, while Stanley F Allen, chartered accountant, found the basis of the ‘new order’ in the principles of the Social Credit Movement. 22 Poets, too, began to ponder the shape of the coming world. JL Gordon issued a series of poems under the title ‘Towards a New Order’: ‘The old world hurtles down to doom’, he wrote, but ‘into a new world, of their own making’ the people would arise. 23 As demands for reform proliferated, Rosen and Goldfinch of the Domain Intellectual and Debating Society posted their own unique set of demands. Two-up would be legalised under their ‘New Social Order’, the working day would be four hours long, and beer would be free. 24

‘Who will build a New Order?’ asked John Murphy on behalf of ‘Middle Class electors’. The greatest obstacle to ‘progressive social and industrial legislation’, Murphy argued, was the ‘Junta controlled Party politician’ who put class before nation. Fortunately though, ‘the spirit of the real Australia was awakening’, a spirit which was not interested in the extremes of the political spectrum, but in cooperation and understanding. The ‘New Order’, Murphy insisted, could only be achieved by cultivating this ‘new political outlook’. 25 His ‘Middle Class Party’ was one of a large number of new parties and independent candidates that contested the 1943 election, indicating both an upsurge in idealism and a dissatisfaction with the divisiveness of the party system. 26 Common among many would-be reformers was a desire for the continuation of the wartime sense of unity and purpose.

CEW Bean was amongst them. Bean had achieved much in the intervening years. His twelve volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 was complete. The memorial of which he dreamed, a record of Australia’s spirit and sacrifice, had been built in Canberra. But the years had also brought disillusion and disappointment. What had become of the ‘fine aspirations’, the commitments given on behalf of Australia’s war dead? 27 Instead of making a nation, ‘we kept our ideals to ourselves and left our country and its future to the political machines’, he noted bitterly. 28 But now, after depression and disunity, in the midst of another war, there was a new chance for this ‘still-young land’. ‘Last time, also, we were fighting for a new world, and we are going to get it this time, at all costs’, Bean affirmed. 29

The new world that arrived on 6 August 1945 was not quite what anyone expected. But neither was it wholly unprecedented. The disjunction between the old world and the new, the feeling of dramatic change, the challenge to respond to the demands of the future, were all familiar and well-rehearsed. Dreams of a new age, a new order, a new world, were resilient features of modern thought. Calls for unity and cooperation were recycled into demands for world government, or into desperate hopes for a new spirit of peace. The prospect of regeneration echoed in visions of an atomic utopia. The church, politicians, intellectuals and ideologues continued to clamour for public attention, pushing their solutions, jostling as always for allegiance and authority.

In 1942, a government advisory committee met to consider the problem of national morale. The committee, which included CEW Bean, was concerned by the ‘de-idealisation’ of the war and urged greater emphasis on war aims and ideals rather than on immediate threats to personal security. But there was also a danger, the committee noted, that ‘recent catastrophic events’ might lead people to believe that they were ‘in the presence of the unfolding of some… historic process before which they are helpless’. The public had to be reassured that the war effort was itself ‘in the nature of a historic mission’, that the processes at work were ‘operating for the fulfillment of their own civilisation and not for its destruction’. 30 Dreams of a new order could help reconcile the realities of war with the assumption of progress. Just as the atomic crossroads seemed to offer the chance to change direction, so the blueprints of a new age encouraged confidence in the malleability of history, in the mastery of progress. ‘We have an opportunity’, HC Coombs confidently proclaimed, ‘to bring within the field of human decision changes which up to now have been brought about by the blind forces of history’. 31


  1. KS Inglis, CEW Bean, Australian historian, John Murtagh Macrossan Lecture, 1969, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1970, p. 19.
  2. Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, In your hands, Australians, Cassell and Company, London, 1919, pp. 8-9.
  3. ibid., pp. 10-18.
  4. Robert Randolph Garran, ‘Australia after the war’, Australia To-Day, no. 10, 1915, p. 47.
  5. HS Gullett, ‘The Empire’s capacious continent’, Australia To-Day, no. 15, 1920, p. 37.
  6. Robert Randolph Garran, ‘Australia’s new outlook’, Australia To-Day, no. 15, 1920, pp. 131-137.
  7. Tim Rowse, Australian liberalism and national character, Kibble Books, Malmsbury, Victoria, 1978, pp. 43-76.
  8. Garran, ‘Australia’s new outlook’, p. 137.
  9. HW Gepp, ‘Australia self-contained’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 4, August 1919, p. 225.
  10. HW Gepp, ‘Australia self-contained’, Science and Industry, vol. 1, no. 3, July 1919, p. 147.
  11. Meredith Atkinson, The new social order – a study of post-war reconstruction, Workers’ Educational Association of Australia, Melbourne, 1919, p. 4.
  12. Garran, ‘Australia’s new outlook’, p. 137.
  13. GV Portus, Happy highways, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1953, p. 172.
  14. SJ Butlin, and CB Schedvin, War Economy, 1942-1945, vol. 4, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, series 4 (civil), Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1977, p. 625; Stephen Alomes, ‘The 1930’s background to Post-war reconstruction’, paper presented at the Post-war reconstruction seminar, Australian National University, 31 August – 4 September 1981, pp. 29-31; Herbert Cole Coombs, Trial balance: issues of my working life, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1983, p. 22-4.
  15. Quoted in Paul Hasluck, The government and the people, 1939-1941, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, series 4 (civil), vol. 1, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952, p. 364.
  16. Andrew Spaull, John Dedman: a most unexpected Labor man, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1998, ch. 5.
  17. Lloyd Ross, ‘A new social order’, in DAS Campbell (ed.), Post-war reconstruction in Australia, Australasian Publishing Company, Sydney, 1944, pp. 192-3.
  18. Rowse, Australian liberalism and national character, ch. 4.
  19. Herbert Cole Coombs, ‘The economic aftermath of war’, in DAS Campbell (ed.), Post-war reconstruction in Australia, Sydney, Australasian Publishing Company, 1944, p. 78.
  20. ibid., p. 98.
  21. Padre G Stuart Watts, The digger, the Church and the New Social Order, FH Johnston, Sydney, 1945, p. 9.
  22. IR Stenning, Postwar reconstruction for our new order, Our New Order Association, Sydney, 1942; Stanley F Allen, The new order – Why? What? How?, Sydney, 1941.
  23. JL Gordon, ‘The present situation’, in Towards a New Order: Ten poems 1938-1940, Sydney, 1941.
  24. Rosen, and Goldfinch, Time marches on, Sydney, 1942.
  25. John G Murphy, Who will build a new order?, Sydney, 1943.
  26. Paul Hasluck, The government and the people, 1942-1945, Australia in the war of 1939-1945, series 4 (civil), Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1970, p. 366.
  27. Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, War aims of a plain Australian, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1943, p.2.
  28. ibid., p. 3.
  29. ibid., p. 1.
  30. ‘Report of Committee on Civilian Morale made under direction of the Prime Minister’, April 1942, NAA: A1608/1, AK 29/1/2. See also Tim Rowse, ‘The people and their experts: a war-inspired civics for HC Coombs’, Labour History, no. 74, May 1998, pp. 72-3.
  31. Coombs, ‘The economic aftermath of war’, p. 99.

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