Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Book Review - The economic development of Australia by AGL Shaw

The economic development of Australia by A.G.L. Shaw

London : Longmans, 1960 (4th edition)

We don't seem to get books like this anymore. The short broad-sweep history, written for the mythical "intelligent general reader" seems to be something that is being produced less and less these days. This book, if allowances are made for the date it was published (1st edition in 1944), is a useful introduction into how European Australia managed to create wealth.

I write European Australia as there is no mention of Aboriginal Australians in this text, apart from short asides mentioning their depredation of early settler's stock (Shaw writes that escaped convicts and feral animals were more of a problem than native Australians). I guess this is to be expected in a work initially written before the end of World War II, but an investigation into the economics, in a broad sense, of Aboriginal Australia would make for fascinating reading - if such a book exists I'm not aware of it.

Given it's short (approx. 200 pages) length, this book of necessity deals with the broad outlines of Australia's development since the landing of the white man. With chapter headings such as "Beginnings, Development, Transition, Squatting, Gold, Land Capital, Labour, Crisis, etc. etc. you can get the idea that each major theme in the development of Australia is covered.

Shaw seems remarkably even-handed in his descriptions of the big battles in Australia's development, between Selector and Squatter, Miner and Capitalist, Factory Owner and Union Member. And his history is the story of these battles, and the efforts of the Colonial Administrations and later Parliaments to develop the country into something more than a prison at the bottom of the world.

What comes through in this book is not only the pioneering efforts of the early settlers, but the fact that economically almost the whole country relied on government expenditure to survive, and the failure of governments to manage expenditure in a sustainable way, which led to the many booms and busts that occurred across the country. In fact it was only after WWII that governments got a hold on their borrowings to any substantial degree. The other major factor in development was the weather, with prolonged drought causing catastrophe, and good seasons bringing joy, but also over-exuberance that brought it's own dangers of bubbles, which burst later on.

As always with these types of books, their most valuable gift to the reader is to guide them to further reading, and this one is no different - Shaw skims over the ground, and the reader can decide where he might stop to dig deeper - Shaw helps by providing at the end of each chapter a list of further reading, although given the age of this book, some of these suggestions may now be superseded by later works.

There are also in such books interesting and pithy bits of information that stay with you, and statements about the past that ring true about today's events - I'll leave you, dear reader, with two - first some interesting information -

"If Australia received help from the U.S.A. under the 'lend-lease' agreements [in WWII], to the value of over 300,000,000stg., in return it provided 'reciprocal supplies' worth even more, including food, transport, equipment, stores, maintenance services and construction works, and was the one allied country to show a credit balance on the deal. (My emphasis).

And something about the Depression, that makes sobering reading in today's environment -

"Why had the depression occurred? Fundamentally, as forty years earlier [in the 1890s], because of the catastrophic fall in the prices of Australia's products, particularly of wool and wheat. This burden was increased by over-borrowing in the past and by the cessation of borrowing at the moment. Australia needed loans for her development; it was true that borrowing was necessary. But much of the borrowed money was spent foolishly and wasted; so that interest became a burden, where the loan money had not been spent on reproductive assets."

If you are after a quick over-view of the development of agriculture, mining and industry in Australia, this book is virtually given away second-hand, is a quick, easy read, and leads you to further study if you require it.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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