Warning: This resource may contain references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may have passed away.

Australia in the 1930s

The Great Depression

In 1930, international commodity prices collapsed, triggering a fall in export earnings and increasing overseas debt. The Bank of England insisted the Australian state, territory and federal governments balance their budgets, cut all overseas borrowing and lower all award wages by 10 per cent. Infrastructure projects, which had begun in the 1920s under the previous 'men, money and markets' policy, were stopped immediately.

During 1931, protest marches and demonstrations by the unemployed in all states and territories demanded increased sustenance pay and rent subsidies.

Public expenditure was cut at the same time that private businesses were putting thousands of people out of work. For the majority of people, there was little government assistance, especially at the beginning of the crisis. Private charities were often the only source of support outside of families and neighbourhood communities. Eventually, the states started providing 'sustenance' or 'susso' for the unemployed in the form of ration vouchers, but this was worth only a tiny amount of the basic wage.

In May 1932, the Loan (Unemployment Relief Works) Act 1932 (Cth) authorised the Australian Government to give financial assistance to the states and territories on condition that employment councils would be established. The government expenditure on relief works for the financial year 1935–36 provided full-time employment for approximately 55,000 from a total of 300,000 jobless. The amount spent on dole payments was twice that spent on the provision of relief work for the unemployed.


A snapshot of 1938

  • January
    • The first national conference of Indigenous Australians was held at the Australian Hall, Sydney, to mark a 'Day of Mourning' and protest during the 150th Australia Day anniversary of colonial settlement. The conference was initiated by William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aborigines League (AAL), and The Aborigines Progressive Association (APA), led by William Ferguson, and Jack Patten. Participants called for Aboriginal land and citizenship rights.

  • March
    • Xavier Herbert won the Commonwealth sesquicentennial (150 years) literary prize for his novel Capricornia.
    • Daisy Bates (1863-1951), a social worker in Aboriginal communities and an anthropologist, published her book The Passing of the Aborigines.
    • Many of Bates's views and stories were sensationalist and incorrect, and many Aboriginal people indicated ambivalence about her and her work.

  • July
    • All exports of iron ore from Australia to Japan were suspended as Japan was seen as militaristic.

  • December
    • The federal government announced that refugees from (Nazi) Germany were to be relocated in Australia.
    • A direct radio–telephone link was set up between Canberra and Washington as a sign of closer US–Australian government cooperation.
    • Albert Namatjira, an Indigenous artist, held his first exhibition of paintings in Melbourne. All 41 pieces sold within three days of the opening.


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