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~ The Commonwealth ~


Central to the history of Australia in the 20th century has been the development of both a national government and a national culture. Commonwealth governments, led by such architects of federation as Alfred Deakin (1856-1919), quickly established a protective tariff to foster internal development, designed procedures for setting minimum wages in industry, and preserved the white immigration policy.

World War I (1914-18), much more than federation itself, began the transformation of Australian identity from that of six colonies to a united nation. Responding to the allied call for troops, Australia sent more than 330,000 volunteers, who took part in some of the bloodiest battles. Suffering a casualty rate higher than that of many other participants, Australia became increasingly conscious of its contribution to the war effort.

At Gallipoli, an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps tried in vain to launch a drive on the Turkish forces in the Dardanelles. The date of the fateful landing, April 25, 1915, became equated with Australia's coming of age, and it has remained the country's most significant day of public homage.

In 1915 William M.("Billy") Hughes (1864-1952) became Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party. Representing Australia at councils in London, Hughes personified Australian energies. When he failed to carry the electorate in two attempts to supplement volunteers with conscripted men, Hughes remained in power by forming the Nationalist Party, much to the annoyance of his Labor colleagues. He attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, acquiring German New Guinea as a mandated territory and establishing Australia's right to enter the League of Nations.

In the meantime, the war effort had brought the country to a new level of prosperity, having encouraged development of manufacturing industries and more exports of foodstuffs, minerals, and wool. The powers designated to the federal government in the constitution proved sufficient to allow a strong central government.

After an internal backlash within the Nationalist Party forced the retirement of Hughes in 1923, Stanley M. Bruce became Prime Minister. The Country Party, founded in 1919 as a patriotic, conservative movement to protect the interests of farmers and graziers, joined the Nationalist coalition, although it kept its own identity. The chief opponent of the coalition was Labor, which had to redefine its social policies.

To maintain wartime levels of production and expansion the government sought to build up the basic industries, but the depression of 1929 cut deeply into the health of the Australian economy, increasing public and private debts at a time of massive unemployment.

Recovery from the depression, led from 1929 to 1931 by James H. Scullin (1876-1953) and the Labor Party, was extremely uneven. Disagreement on government policy broke Labor again in 1931, and for the rest of the 1930s, the United Australia Party, composed of former Nationalists and disenchanted Laborites, held the reins of power. It was led by Joseph A. Lyons (1879-1939).

From its first assumption of responsibility in foreign affairs, Australia had been guided by its cultural and political ties with Britain. Emphasis was placed on following Britain's leadership in solving the problems of the depression. Chief among these was an attempt to redirect more trade between Britain and the dominions. As early as the 1920s, however, Japan and the U.S. were among Australia's best customers for its wool.

When war came again in Europe in 1939, Australia dispatched its small armed forces to assist in Britain's defence. After the Pacific war between Japan and the U.S. broke out in 1941 and Britain was unable to provide sufficient support for Australia's defence, the new Labor government of John Curtin (1885-1945) sought alliance with the U.S.

Until the liberation of the Philippines, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff used Australia as a base for their operations. Although casualties were lighter than in World War I, Australians were more psychologically affected by the Second World War because of their fears of a Japanese invasion. Both Darwin and Broome were bombed by the Japanese and many Australian soldiers fought in the Pacific arena.

Again Australian industry was transformed by the needs of war. The economy was redirected toward manufacturing, and heavy industries ringed the capital cities. Postwar development built further on the foundations established during the war.

Prime Minister Curtin died in 1945, but the new Labor government under Joseph B. Chifley (1885-1951) strengthened Australia's relationship with the U.S. in the ANZUS pact for mutual assistance (with New Zealand as a third partner). As a charter member of the UN, Australia also agreed to the decolonisation of the islands in the Pacific, including the preparation of Papua-New Guinea for independence (achieved in 1975).

In 1949 Robert Menzies became Prime Minister, ushering in a long era of political stability. During the war, the old United Australian Party had disintegrated. In its stead arose the Liberal Party, which attracted those who opposed Labor's internal policies. Like its predecessor, it formed a Coalition with the Country Party (now the National Party). Menzies, prime minister until 1966, gave Australia centralised and personal leadership. He stressed the sentimental linkage with the British crown but took more active interest than his predecessors in Pacific and South Asian affairs. Under the Colombo Plan, Asians began to study in Australian institutions. By 1966 the White Australia policy was discarded, and the entry of immigrants has since been based on criteria other than race.

Australia fulfilled its commitment to the Western alliance by fighting in the Korean War (1950-53), participating in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) from 1954 until its dissolution in 1977, and fighting in the Vietnam War as an ally of the U.S. Meanwhile, Australia adjusted its domestic and foreign policies to recognise its growing trade ties with Japan.

From 1966 to 1972, the Liberal Party provided several prime ministers who sought to extend the Menzies era. In 1972, the Labor Party led by Gough Whitlam (1916- ) again came to power. Whitlam's plans for increased social services, however, were in conflict with both the traditional rights of the states and declining economic prosperity; the Liberal-Country coalition was returned to power under Malcolm Fraser in 1975. He reinstated the policies followed by the earlier Liberal Party governments. Fraser's Coalition survived the 1980 election with a much reduced majority. Shaken by defections from Liberal Party ranks and by foreign trade scandals, Fraser suffered a sharp defeat in the elections of March 1983. His Labor successor, Bob Hawke, sought to promote labour-management cooperation and stimulate the economy. Labor retained its majorities in the elections of December 1984, July 1987, and March 1990.

In December 1991, with Australia mired in recession and Hawke's popularity waning, Labor chose his former treasury minister, Paul Keating, as party leader and prime minister. Pledging to change Australia to a federal republic, Keating led Labor to victory in the March 1993 election but was resoundingly defeated by the Liberal/National Coalition under the leadership of John Howard in the March 1996 election.


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