What Australia was Doing.
That day I had a letter from Australia. Here
“Dear Jefson, Your
cheery letter from the front was full of the powder
and shot of action and riotous optimism. I’m
afraid mine will be a contrast.
“Our Australia isn’t faring
well. Our vigorous assertion of the strength
of our young nationhood has been manifested only in
a military and naval sense commercially,
we are nearly down and out.
“We are outrageously pessimistic.
There was an excuse at the beginning of the war, when
we dropped behind a rock, stunned at the very thought
of an Armageddon; then we clapped our hands on our
pockets, tightened up our purse strings, and, with
white faces, waited for the worst and we’re
still waiting. There was an excuse for us to be
absolutely flabbergasted when the Kaiser’s crowd
rushed on to Paris. There may have been reason
then for more than ordinary caution, but since the
’great check,’ there has been no valid
reason for people to still sit tight and wait.
People with money to invest are holding up most of
the former avenues of activity. ‘Till the
war is over’ is the only excuse they can mumble.
“Take building investments in
Sydney alone. A friend showed me a list of ninety-one
plans held up, totalling over L4,000,000; held up ’till
the war is over,’ held up till the accumulated
business will rush like an avalanche, running prices
that are now low to such a high figure that the fools
who waited will find they will have lost thousands.
Building prices are now fifteen per cent. cheaper
than before the war and twenty-five per cent. cheaper
than they will be when the war has broken. Twenty-five
per cent. means a distinct loss of L1,000,000 in one
avenue of investment alone, not counting the tying
up of the many hundreds other lines depending upon
building construction and when you consider,
Jefson, that such inactivity is almost everywhere,
you can guess we’re in for a bad time if people
don’t buck up. To make matters worse, some
firms are stopping advertising, forgetting that advertising
is the life-blood of their business, and by stopping
advertising they’re stopping circulation of
money. The firm that thinks it can save money
by stopping advertising is in the same street as the
man who thinks he can save time by stopping the clock.
“These are no ordinary firms,
but what the local Labor League is so fond of describing
as ‘capitalistic institutions.’ They
hold many thousands in reserve and their annual dividends
have been at least 10 per cent. for years and years
and years. Moreover their businesses have not
materially suffered. In some cases, indeed, there
has been improvement. But ‘profits’
evidently supersede humanity; the interests of gold
are greater than the welfare of human flesh and blood
and even the call of country. It seems hard,
Jefson, that you should be risking your life and other
brave fellows shedding their blood, for such men who
have neither commercial instinct nor human feeling.
I fully expected some of those firms to start their
jobs as an incentive to others. We only want
someone to start and do something big to galvanise
the smaller investors into action. It’s
not capital they lack, but confidence.
“I often wonder why the men
who have had the acumen to amass money have not the
common sense to realise that unemployed capital is
a rapidly-accruing debt. Sovereigns by themselves
are not wealth. It is their purchasing capacity
and their equivalent in the requirements of life that
represent fortunes. Investment, not idle capital,
“Australia is being held back
a great deal by the operation of State Enterprise.
It has always been extravagant, inefficient and slow;
but the effects are being more keenly felt at this
time. At Cockatoo Island, the Federal Shipbuilding
Yard, a cruiser was built that could not be launched.
(I don’t want you to mention this because we
feel mighty humiliated.) Someone blundered. Who
that someone was I do not suppose we shall ever know.
That is the worst of being an employer of politicians.
They run your business when they like, how they like,
and with whom they like. You only come in on
the pay day. However, the difficulty is being
got over by the construction of a coffer-dam at
a cost of L30,000. We have been confidently assured
by the men running our business that everything will
be all right in the long run. Perhaps that assurance
is intended as a guarantee that we shall get a long
run for our money. Anyhow, at time of writing
the coffer-dam is being constructed.
“In N.S.W. the position of the
Public Works Department must be much the same as the
Sultan of Turkey’s no money, no friends.
And no wonder! It drained the State of all spare
cash for the edification of its day-labor joss, and
is about to pawn the State to foreign money lenders
for more. Being now on its absolute uppers, the
Public Works Department is handing over work to a
private syndicate to be carried out on a percentage
basis. The longer the work takes and the more
it costs, the better for the private company.
Here again the public pays.
“State Enterprise has wrecked
the people’s self-reliance and initiative.
As soon as a man gets out of work now his first aim
is to demand that the State make him a billet.
This, of course, the State cannot do, and the rejected
job-seekers, who are growing in numbers daily, are
like a lot of hornets round the ears of Ministers.
“There is one way out of the
difficulty, and that is, the abandonment of the whole
system of State Socialism and the re-establishment
of private enterprise. If that policy were to
be endorsed to-morrow, plenty of capital would be
found for many schemes that are held up at present,
and Ministers would be relieved of all worry and responsibilities.
But they’re not game, they’re just hanging
on hanging on, and, I tell you, something
is going to snap somewhere, sometime.
“From a military point of view
there is no reason to worry. We have a big army
in Egypt on the road to back you up, with more to follow.
I must not say much on that matter. The censor
will chop it out, but we’re coming to the point
that every man who doesn’t go to the front must
learn how to shoot straight. Let’s hope
he’ll also learn that he can do a good deal
to help fellows like yourself that are keeping the
flag flying abroad, by keeping up confidence and the
flag flying at home.”
I read the letter to Nap.
“There are two points in that
letter,” he said. “The funk at home
and the readiness to enlist. We’ve also
got that funk-bee, sure. Why, when I left U.S.A.
a ten million dollar war tax was launched, unemployed
were swarming into the cities, factories were closing
down because of the falling-off of exports, and the
situation was getting so desperate that the Wilson-Bryan
crowd were talking of forcing the British blockade
of Germany with ships of contraband stuff. But
there’s no readiness to enlist, Jefson, not
on your life. I’m sorry to say the physically
worst are offering themselves for their country’s
service, and only ten per cent. of those offering
are accepted; and though they advertise ’bowling
alleys,’ ‘free trips round the world,’
and other stunts as inducements, the response is so
flat that when I passed through Chicago last August
to come here, the recruiting stations had a notice
up ’colored men wanted for infantry!’
You know there’s a sure prejudice against the
nigger, we grudge giving him a vote, but when it comes
to fighting for the country, well, he’s as welcome
as the ’flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la.’
I guess you Australians lick us right there.”