|Country Politics 1943-1963
War, Wool, Socialism and Swinging Seats
From 1943-1961 the Federal seats of Riverina, Hume and Farrer had representatives from several different political parties. In studying the candidates for these seats it appears that despite differences in parties and some ideologies, they had very similar backgrounds, characteristics and policies that appealed to country voters. This study takes a ‘slices of time’ approach, using key elections in electorates that are both stable and marginal to try to identify the main elements that influenced voters’ choices and changes in electorate representation. To do this I have utilized several primary sources including Newspapers: The Daily Advertiser, The Tumut and Adelong Times, The Land, The Cootamundra Daily Herald, collections at the CSU Regional Archives; The Arthur Nieberding Fuller papers, The Joseph Ignatius Langtry papers, Minute books from early Country Party branches, namely Harden, Wagga Wagga and Harefield Yathella and the Federal Parliament Hansards. This paper will look at three case studies; 1943, 1949 and the swinging Hume seat from 1951 to 1963. These case studies reveal five factors that are often responsible for changes in representation: electoral makeup and boundary changes, national issues, local issues, personality and Country-mindedness. Although, not all of these factors apply all of the time. The first factor, electorate makeup, involves the demography of the electorate and any changes to it, which are particularly prevalent when there are changes to electoral boundaries or major changes in the economy of the electorate, such as the creation of Farrer in 1949. National issues are those, which affect the nation as a whole, for example the economy, war and the “threat of communism.” Local issues refer to things that only concern certain areas, examples of this include local economy, weather, and, as I will explore, the 1951 Wool Tax. When I discuss personality, I refer to the individual candidates, their ideologies, profile, traits, history and policies. In exploring the nature of candidates in country seats, I have found that there are many similarities between them and the similarities can often be explained or encompassed, by Country mindedness. This was a theory identified by Don Aitkin, in his writings about the Australian Country Party, later the Nationals. The traits of Country-mindedness included seeing primary production and agriculture as the backbone of Australia, the economy and national character. Believing country people have had to struggle against nature so that Australia can have its prosperity, their suffering and work has been for the nation, therefore all that is possible should be done to support primary producers and the country because it is in the best interest of Australia. It also involved the creation of an ‘us and them’ mentality, where the us is the virtuous, family focused, moral, loyal country people and the them is the competitive, corrupt and morally bankrupt city. Because of this, the city has always tried to suppress the country and stop it from developing the way it could have.1 What I have discovered in this study is that traits of country-mindedness can be seen in the campaigns and personalities of all the candidates, regardless of political party, and some of the more successful candidates were those able to best relate to the country mindedness traits.
The demography and history
The Hume electorate in 1943 stretched from Albury to Boorowa and Yass, encompassing Wagga, Young, Holbrook, Harden, Tumut, Lockhart, Culcairn, Adelong, The Rock, Gundagai and Cootamundra and had an enrolment of 54, 700.2 The Hume electorate was still primarily an agricultural area with almost 50 percent of its people working directly in primary production and many more employed in allied industries.3 However, the growing mechanisation of agriculture was already reducing the numbers of people required to work in the industry. At the beginning of World War II Wagga became a major military centre with Kapooka, an army base, and two RAAF bases.4 This brought government employees and defence personnel to the city, adding to the population and changing the demographic make-up. Demand for food and wool from the allied armies, provided guaranteed markets for some of the Hume electorate’s main products.5 As a result, the fruit growing areas of Tumut and Young and the wool districts of Yass and Boorowa were all prospering. Furthermore, with many of the traditional workforce in the AIF, labour shortages meant that up to 80 percent of their populations were employed in the production of these commodities.6 In particular, by 1943 a total war7 mentality had been enacted, and women, children and retirees were being used to help with the harvest, fruit picking and shearing because so many men were away at the war. These high employment levels were such a contrast from the Depression of just a few years before and Hume people were revelling in their newfound prosperity. The Hume district had almost full employment and its main commodities were in strong demand, economically the electorate fared well during the war years.
The Federal seat of Hume had been held by Tom Collins for the Country Party for twelve and a half years until 1943.8 In the previous election, 1940, the Curtin Labor government had narrowly beaten the conservative Menzies/ Fadden coalition to hold government, it was just the third time they had done so since 1918.9 Riverina was already held by a Labor member and Hume had probably only been won by the Country Party because three Labor candidates had run for the seat in 1940 and split the Labor vote. There were five candidates in 1943, the favourite being the sitting Country Party member, Mr Tom Collins.10 His opponents were: Major G.V. Lawrence, an Independent, home from New Guinea to contest the seat; J.B. Neeld for the Liberal Democrats; J.R. McLeod, a Communist who was a loyal supporter of the Labor government, his catch cry being “strengthen Curtin elect a Communist”; and the successful candidate Arthur Nieberding Fuller for the Australian Labor Party.11
On a national level in 1943, the Curtin government was returned with a huge majority.12 The Hume seat swung from Country Party to Australian Labor Party, following the national trend. It would be possible to surmise that national issues, particularly the war, were at the heart of this election. People appeared happy with the war effort and the governing of the Curtin government. Curtin had, during his term brought the Australian troops home from Europe to fight the Japanese. Much was said about the Menzies government’s support of the British, to the detriment of Australian security. Labor claimed that Menzies and Fadden had not enacted total war and were unprepared for war close to Australia.13 In the Labour campaign, emphasis was placed on the continuity of government during the war so as to provide stability for the troops. Shown by lines such as “Support your man at the Front, let Curtin finish the job, so he can finish his.”14 In Riverina, the Labor candidate Langtry was often quoted as saying “good leadership means success or failure”15 and Curtin was the implied good leadership that would mean success in the war for Australia. The ALP promoted the Labor vote as a vote of confidence in Curtin’s war effort and it appears the nation agreed. However, in the local papers much is also made of the social services that the Labor government brought in and Fuller in particular makes much of the increase of the pension.16 He is often quoted at rallies expounding the importance of increasing the pension and the living standards of the Australian people. Social Services were evidently an issue that Fuller and the people of Hume thought important.
Fuller was a Tumut local, having been born in 1893 at Gundagai and following his father through the goldfields as a child.17 He settled in Cobar and managed a Mercer store until establishing his own store on his return to Tumut. He married Vera Hoad from Cootamundra in 1921 and they had two daughters.18 In 1919 when Fuller first returned to Tumut, he established a Labor Party branch and was the secretary until just before his death in 1971.19 In his initial election campaigns in 1940 and 1943, he was promoted as “a man who deeply loves the Australian Labor Party and has brought up his children to also love the movement”, who, with his wife actively helped him with his campaigns.20 It is often mentioned in newspapers that Fuller was a man of incredible bravery and he “regularly removed his stock from his windows and displayed Labor signs.”21 Fuller was evidently a devout Labor Party man, yet he also likes to appear as a reluctant but genuine country parliamentarian. Fuller was a man very in touch with country people, and he was aware of their traditional cynicism of politicians, particularly those people who wanted to be politicians. Fuller quite fancied himself as the man of the people, forced into government due to overwhelming support. Because of this, in numerous speeches Fuller often emphasises that “it had never been my desire to enter Parliament but I was pressured from the rank and file, then from the Federal Executive and the party leaders until I finally succumbed.”22 Despite his apparent lack of interest in becoming a Parliamentarian, Fuller had some very definite political views, which he gladly shared in Parliament. In his maiden speech in 1943, Fuller set out his socialist views for Australia which included “the Commonwealth Parliament should assume supreme control of land and all other national resources, including money.”23 Fuller was an avid supporter of the nationalisation of airlines and banks.24 Yet just a few months later in April 1944 Fuller stood in parliament and accused his government of not allowing enough war industry out of the capital cities.25 He espoused the devoutly Country Party ideology that Sydney and Melbourne had stifled the economic development of many country areas when he stated that the Riverina and Hume areas “have languished for decades under the financial domination of vested interests in Sydney. The Eastern Riverina is under the economic and political domination of Melbourne.”26 These ideas were not new ones in the country and not specific to the United Country Party, but the party had included them as their policy, and Fuller whole-heartedly adopted them. He also explored the idea of closer settlement and the need that many country people saw for a greater population in country areas. “Riverina is capable of supporting several million people, but it is comparatively sparsely populated because the area has not been allowed or encouraged to grow. That must change.”27 More long held ideologies and policies of the Country Party. Arthur Fuller, although an unquestionable Labor man was not beyond criticising the party if he believed it was not doing what was best for his constituents. This characteristic may help to explain why, in the anti-communist years to come, the conservative Hume electorate continued to support a socialist Labor man.
In 1943 the Riverina electorate contained 50,400 electors in the area encompassing North Wagga and stretching to Griffith, Cargelligo, Deniliquin, across to Corowa and out to West Wyalong, including Junee, Berrigan, Jerilderie, Leeton, Narrandera, Temora, Ardlethan and Carrathool.28 The economy and main occupations of the electorate were varied, although it was still very much an agriculture based area. In the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, the Letona cannery had contracts as a major supplier of the allied armies, providing mainly vegetables to feed the army.29 During harvest periods, the cannery employed well over 300 men and women in the factory.30 There was a strong AWU presence in the MIA with those who helped build and maintain the canals and work as labourers on the irrigation farms.31 The idea was that the MIA would be a market garden area; this was aided by the presence of 1800 Italians even before the immigration after WWII, making up almost 20 percent of the population of Leeton and Griffith.32 The MIA was the only area in Riverina and Hume to have a growth in the number of people engaged in primary production after 1921.33 Junee was one of the other unique economies in the Riverina. Being a railway depot town Junee initially flourished, at times being almost half the size of Wagga Wagga. By 1943, the railway employed just over a third of the Junee population.34 These people came in very close contact with unions and made Junee a traditional Labor Party stronghold.35 There was at times, some mining around Temora, Tumut and West Wyalong providing another Labor friendly workforce.36 However, the majority of the Riverina electorate was involved in growing wool and wheat.37 This was certainly the case in the west of the electorate around Deniliquin, Carrathool and Jerilderie. Vast properties existed in these areas that ran huge quantities of sheep and housed the traditional squatter and his family in a grand homestead. These people were the stalwarts of the United Country Party and the United Australian Party, the forerunner to the Liberals.38 Yet it is interesting that Hay, which is just kilometres from Carrathool, but not in the Riverina electorate in 1943, was at this time a traditional Labor-voting town, due to its high levels of agricultural labourers.39
J. I. Langtry was the sitting member for Riverina having been elected three years before at the 1940 election defeating six other candidates on preferences, including the then current member, the United Country Party’s H. R. Nock and the future member, another Country Party candidate Hugh Roberton.40 In 1943, Langtry had another six opponents, once again two new Country Party nominees: M’ivor and Scilley, three independents: Rieck, McKenzie and Ballantyne, and a Liberal Democrat who fielded just 385 votes.41 Unlike the election before, in 1943 Langtry won with more primary votes than all his opponents combined.42 Meaning either his electorate were very pleased with his work, were very pleased with the work of Labor or there was a pressing local or national issue that they felt Langtry and Labor could best deal with.
The main issues discussed by the candidates during the election campaign were a mixture of both national and local issues. The Country Party candidates, particularly Scilley, were as usual, warning of the Communists who were in the Labor Party, and that the Labor Party was run by Trade Unions, which were also run by Communists.43 The other main issue that the Labor candidate Langtry and his supporting speakers focused on was the brilliant leadership of Curtin, and the excellent job the government had done in enacting total war and saving Australia from invasion by the Japanese.44 They regularly claim that the Conservative government before them “had not done enough to prepare Australia” and had been ready to “allow the Japanese to invade some of Australia,” referring to the famous Brisbane line.45 This is much more a national issue and may have played a large role in the election. People were happy with the way the Curtin government was handling the war, the increasing success of the Allies and the now foreseeable defeat of Nazi Germany probably helped this.
The main issues focused on by both Country Party members and by Langtry were the main concerns of the Riverina: wheat and wool. These were the two major commodities of the Riverina electorate, and so the prices, marketing and buying structures in place for these commodities appeared to be the main concern of the electorate. The Labor government had introduced the Scully Plan for wheat by 1943.46 This was a stabilization plan to shield the producer from the fluctuations of the market, as was in place for most other primary industries by that time. Stabilization plans mean that producers are paid a set price despite the true market value of the commodity. In good years, this means surplus money is invested so that when the market drops there is money to continue to pay the same price.47 However, the Country Party candidates claimed that farmers were not being paid enough for their wheat.48 Mr E H Graham, known as Eddie, the state member for Wagga Wagga, spoke in support of Langtry at a meeting in the town and claimed that Labor had ensured the British purchase price of wool had been increased for the remaining term of the war, ensuring £9 000 000 more went to Australian wool producers.49 The Country Party candidates, proving that politics are in some ways unchanging, claimed that the wool price had been raised by the British government, had nothing to do with the Labor party and all to do with the ground work done by their own party when in power.50 These issues although not specific to the Riverina electorate were of primary concern to many of the people in the area.
The successful Riverina candidate in 1943, Joseph Ignatius Langtry, was born in Kyabram Victoria in 1880, married Catherine in October of 1910, and by the time he ran for parliament in 1940, was a wheat farmer and hotelkeeper at Barellan, with three sons and two daughters.51 Langtry had been a teamster, was a member of the AWU, the Australian Workers Union, and had received a state education.52 Langtry appears to be very much a man of the Riverina, with working class country roots and an involvement in both wheat and beer. In fact, when viewing Langtry’s official papers, held in both the CSURA and National Archives of Australia, the topic of all his papers, aside from some general correspondence, relate to obtaining more beer for pubs in his electorate during the rationing of World War II and after.53 Langtry was very much a country Labor man, although he did not have the socialist views of Fuller, he did have some strong union connections. In his maiden speech in 1940, Langtry addressed several issues all relating to his country electorate of Riverina and primary industry. Langtry, like most country MP’s adhered to the old argument that the interests of the Riverina have been “long neglected,” due mostly to the selfish interests of the city.54 Langtry discussed the need for closer settlement and suggests a plan, which is obviously a forerunner to the Soldier Settler scheme implemented after the war.55 He discussed the need for irrigation systems that have been planned but not built, he reminded the House of the effects of the drought on himself and his constituents and he stressed the need for greater wheat stabilization plans, suggesting a plan, which sounded very similar to the Scully Plan he was promoting three years later at the 1943 election.56 Langtry rightly stated that most of the businesses in his electorate relied on the spending of farmers and their workers, so it was in the best interests of his entire electorate to ensure the continuation of primary industry.57
Langtry appeared to be very in touch with the thoughts and feelings of the small farmer in his electorate, and although his views were not new to politics, having been used by the Country Party for many years, Langtry tried to devise plans that would help fix the situations. He marks a period where the ALP became very good at identifying country candidates who would appeal to country people. Langtry himself could have been a Country Party man. He was a farmer and businessman, well known in the community and he held many of the common rural ideologies that the Country Party espoused, most notably the need for decentralisation and closer settlement and the belief that country areas were being held back by the cities. In short, Labor had men, like Fuller and Langtry, who had personal groundings in their electorates and who were speaking the language of country Australia. The fact that these types of men were consistently elected by country voters would suggest that Aitkin’s “Country mindedness” has a role to play when explaining their success. Langtry’s approach, character and personal experience should have held him in good stead in politics. However, by 1949, the political environment had changed significantly and character was not enough to ensure the vote.
1949, was a significant year politically for both Australia and the Riverina area. 1949 marked a change in the ruling political party that would last almost twenty-five years. In 1949, the Liberal Country Party coalition under Menzies and Fadden swept to power on the fear of communism. In a condolence letter to member for Riverina Joe Langtry, Ben Chifley, then the Opposition leader, stated, “I think it can safely be said that the fear complex instilled into a small percentage of the people by a press and radio barrage linking Communism up with Socialism, and Socialism up with us, brought about our defeat.”58 However, there were other issues at play in 1949. After World War I there had been the greatest economic depression of Australia’s history with huge unemployment, and many people starved. In the aftermath of WWII the Labor government, terrified of a repeat, kept the rationing and economic control of the war in place. This had worn thin on the Australian public, particularly the rationing of petrol and fresh food. Despite Labor’s honourable intentions, the coalition, in one of Australia’s most successful election campaigns, claimed that it was just another example of the Socialist and therefore Communist tendencies of the Labor party. This was a consistency throughout all electorates, where in the face of the fear of Communism, local issues and even the strength of political personalities failed.
The New Electorate
The population of the Riverina had grown enough to warrant a new electorate, which was created from what was Hume and Riverina. This meant Riverina was pushed slightly further West and the new electorate, Farrer took the two main towns from the Hume electorate Albury and Wagga Wagga along with Corowa and Coolamon.59 Hume now contained Cootamundra, Young, Temora, Yass and Tumut. The newly formed electorate had an enrolment of 39,600 and encompassed the two biggest and fastest growing cities of the Riverina area, aside from Griffith, Wagga and Albury.60 In the Wagga Wagga area, the number of people employed in agriculture had decreased to fewer than 33 percent, but as it decreased, other industries grew.61 Anther 10 percent of the population was involved in manufacturing.62 However, the bulk of the population was now employed in white-collar government positions.63 The defence force bases, which had been established during WWII, stayed in Wagga post war and established themselves as significant training bases.64 Many government departments established their regional offices in Wagga and in 1947, two years before the election the Wagga Teachers College had been established.65 Albury was following a very similar path to Wagga. The government agencies that did not put their offices in Wagga often chose Albury instead. There was also a large immigrant training camp being established near Albury to deal with the large numbers of people being brought to Australia from Europe in the wake of WWII.
There were four candidates in the 1949 election for Farrer: John Mackay for the United Country Party, T.M. McGrath for the Australian Labor Party, W.E. Gollan a Communist who received just 267 votes and the successful candidate David Fairbairn.66 It was a very decisive win for Fairbairn; in the entire Farrer electorate at no division did Labor receive more primary votes than the Liberal and Country Party candidates did.67