The Puzzle of the 1944 Referendum on Reconstruction

Faced with an unprecedented threat to national security during the Second World War, the Commonwealth government assumed extraordinary powers. These extended beyond the military effort to the measures required to equip and sustain it: there were unprecedented controls over capital and labour, investment and consumption. In return for the discipline and denial demanded of civilians, the government embarked on an ambitious scheme of economic and social reconstruction.

Department of Post-War Reconstruction publication, 1943

Post-war reconstruction is commonly judged to have been a singularly imaginative and creative endeavour. Its planning and preparation was directed by H.C. Coombs as director-general of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, and gave particular attention to the mobilisation of popular interest and support. In the federal election of 1943, which the Labor government fought on reconstruction, it was returned with an unprecedented majority. Yet in 1944, when the government sought to obtain additional constitutional powers for the purposes of reconstruction, it was rebuffed. This paper explores the reasons for this puzzling reversal of fortunes.

Stuart Macintyre is Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. In 2015 he published a history of Post-War Reconstruction, Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s. He is currently writing a history of the Unified National System of higher education created by John Dawkins, and is working with Frank Bongiorno, Nicholas Brown and David Lee on a biographical study of J.G. Crawford. He was lead writer for history between 2008 and 2013 in the preparation of the national school curriculum, and is currently chair of the Heritage Council of Victoria.




Following the seminar, the ANU History Learning Community will host a reception in the Forrest Room at University House between 5.30–6.30 pm. Light refreshments will be served and people will have an opportunity to chat with the seminar speaker. All are welcome to attend.


Date & time

Wed 31 Aug 2016, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Event series


School of History


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