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Social Reform

Melbourne's social-reform tradition distinguishes it among Australian cities. Numerous entries in this volume illustrate the range and influence of the city's reform network and the complex interconnections between universities, bureaucracies, commerce, philanthropy, the labour movement, religion and the arts. The foundation of this reform tradition was the wealth and energy of the gold-rush era, reflected especially in the social and moral earnestness of Melbourne's professional and commercial middle class, a skilled and articulate workforce, and the city's established educational and cultural institutions.

The ideas and activities of Melbourne's well-educated professional and intellectual elite found expression in the Age, which until the 1970s could claim to be the most liberal metropolitan newspaper in Australia. The city's leading public intellectuals published in a plethora of influential Melbourne-based literary and political magazines and journals, which in the postwar period included Dissent, Australian Society, Arena and Eureka Street. Such publications offered opportunities to engage in and influence national and international debates. Even early social-reform movements, engaging with issues such as women's suffrage, labour legislation, child welfare, and country and city planning, made connections to international debates and organisations.

Melbourne women were especially important to the city's reform culture and networks. In the early 20th century there was consensus around a social agenda to be achieved through women's suffrage. Vida Goldstein of the feminist Women's Political Association, Lady Janet Clarke of the Australian Women's National League, and Lillian Locke, secretary of the Political Labour League, supported a similar social program of protective legislation for women and children. Professional and suburban women were the backbone of government and non-government welfare organisations, and although criticised by the historian Manning Clark as the patronising do-gooders of Yarraside, these women were influential in developing an inclusive civic culture.

While Melbourne's reform movements have encompassed agendas ranging from ameliorative to radical social change, they are given cohesion by a common belief in a positive role for the State and the ability of active citizens to achieve change. In the social-laboratory period that gathered momentum after the depression and strikes of the 1890s, Melbourne developed reform alliances around a program of protective legislation to limit the harsh impacts of unregulated speculative capitalism, evident in the land boom period of Marvellous Melbourne and the subsequent crash. British Fabians, such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and American progressives exchanged ideas with Melbourne reformers on the impact of wages boards and women's suffrage. Melbourne's leading churches were central to these reform alliances. The Rev. Charles Strong of the Australian Church, the Rev. Alexander Edgar, superintendent of Wesley Central Mission, and the Rev. Pierce Carey at Collins Street Baptist Church led clergy in urging the need for class co-operation and for new initiatives to respond to poverty in the city. Anti-sweating campaigns brought together churches, the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the newly formed Australian Labor Party (ALP). As Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow have shown in Radical Melbourne, these reform alliances were influenced by numerous radical movements and by dissidents 'who offered alternative remedies and frequently found a responsive audience'.

This cautious but progressive model of Victorian social reform was taken into the new federal parliament, initially based in Melbourne. Former Victorian Liberal parliamentarian Alfred Deakin worked hard to forge a Lib-Lab coalition along Victorian lines at the federal level, while H.B. Higgins, appointed to head the federal Conciliation and Arbitration Court in 1905, introduced a national minimum wage through the Harvester Judgment.

Melbourne's reform tradition adapted to the more complex modern city that emerged after World War I. Housing became a major issue as the jerry-built inner-city housing of the colonial period deteriorated. Housing reformers moved from an emphasis on child rescue to slum reclamation after the depression of the 1930s. Support for the campaign, led by Oswald Barnett and Melbourne's new afternoon newspaper, the Herald, drew on a broad support base of women's groups, churches, architects and town planners. The resultant Slum Abolition Board Report (1935) was one of the first comprehensive surveys of poverty in an Australian city and resulted in the establishment of the Housing Commission of Victoria to provide affordable family housing.

Melbourne reformers were also important in developing a program for postwar reconstruction. Richard Downing and Professor Douglas Copland of the Commerce Faculty at the University of Melbourne were among those seconded by the Commonwealth Government to work on a postwar strategy. The Keynesian white paper on full employment (1945) set out the roles of the federal and State governments in ensuring full employment and family stability in the postwar period.

This early postwar period is regarded as the high point of Melbourne's liberal reform tradition. Historian Nicholas Brown sees it as a creative counterpoint to the city's support for the conservative political agenda of the Menzies era and the blandness of Melbourne's suburban life. Janet McCalman explored this seeming contradiction in a study of Melbourne's eastern suburbs, location of the city's independent schools and middle-class residents. She found a range of progressive views in Melbourne's conservative heartland, fostered by the experiences of depression and war, and by the city's liberal educational institutions and organisations.

This support base was important to the development in postwar Melbourne of a more professional approach to social reform. The Brotherhood of St Laurence, founded by Fr Tucker during the depression of the 1930s, developed into a professional social-welfare agency with strong research interests in the 1950s and 1960s. Melbourne's social-research capacity was also strengthened by the establishment of the Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne under Professor Ronald Henderson, who was later appointed to chair the 1975 Royal Commission into Poverty in Australia and the innovative Centre for Urban Research and Action in Fitzroy.

Melbourne has also been a centre of philanthropy, much of it financed by family dynasties that were integral to Melbourne's position as the industrial and financial centre of Australia until the 1970s. The Sidney Myer Trust was an initiative of Melbourne's major retailer and, under the direction of Muriel Wright, pioneered a new approach to philanthropy, encouraging fresh ideas and initiatives in social development. Melbourne has more philanthropic foundations than any other Australian city. The Menzies Foundation and the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust are among those funding experimental work in welfare, community, the arts and sciences.

The change in the structure of the city in the 1960s and 1970s, evident in a more diverse, ethnic population and decline in the city's economic base, was a challenge to Melbourne's social-reform tradition. Also, the more radical, political movements after the Vietnam War were critical of the liberal reformism of the earlier generation. However, the revolt in the 1970s against the urban policies of Melbourne's public-sector authorities drew on the city's reform tradition, while the social policies of the Whitlam federal agenda owed much to the ALP's Melbourne-based policy committees and the city's research centres. Melbourne's 'realist democratic socialism' influenced policies in health, social welfare, cities, industrial relations and wages policy.

Melbourne's social-reform tradition, like all urban traditions, is a complex mixture of factors and one that is always evolving. Although the social and economic environment that encouraged social-reform movements may have changed since the 1970s, most of Australia's largest welfare, overseas-aid and environment-protection organisations still have their headquarters in the city.

Renate Howe

Brown, Nicholas, Richard Downing: economics, advocacy and social reform in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details
McCalman, Janet, Journeyings: The biography of a middle-class generation 1920-1990, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993. Details
Sparrow, Jeff, and Jill Sparrow, Radical Melbourne: a secret history, Vulgar Press, Melbourne, 2001. Details