Home » Treasurer tips hat to Australian public servants who built the global economy

Treasurer tips hat to Australian public servants who built the global economy

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has used a pre-Budget address to salute the role of Australian public servants in setting up the Bretton Woods System.

Driven by one of history’s most influential economists, John Maynard Keynes, the Bretton Woods conference reforged the global economy in the wake of World War II through the creation of the Global Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT), the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Chalmers said the outsized role Australian public servants played in creating the current economic order demonstrated we could be a major player in forming the next.

He said John Curtin’s strong support of Ben Chifley as treasurer ensured Australia had a seat at the table.

“His determination was evident in how he directed and instructed some outstanding public servants. As early as 1942, Chifley had [Department of Labour and National Service secretary] Roland Wilson in London for discussions with Keynes about a global central bank,” he said.

“In 1943, [Director-General of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction] Nugget Coombs was in Washington for talks about the dollar. Two months later he was in London to talk with Keynes about trade, and the Australian idea there should be a global commitment to full employment, which could support demand for our exports abroad.

“Leslie Melville, an outstanding public servant, was our representative at Bretton Woods and a widely respected one. Because of his contribution there, Australia was said to be more Keynesian than Keynes.

Chalmers’ comments came two weeks before the federal Budget, and months short of the 80th anniversary of the Bretton Woods Conference; it’s clear Australia’s place in the global economic order is on his mind.

His references to Australia’s role in shaping Bretton Woods hints at an intention to set Australia up for future stability in the face of a more unstable geo-political sphere. He said in this context, economic and national security will be increasingly tethered.

He said the idea behind the government’s Made in Australia plan was to create a growth model that would be able to benefit from the global economy when things are good, but remain self-reliant and stable enough to avoid collapse when things are bad.

“I think that too often contemporary Australian policymakers have assumed an artificial distinction between our prosperity and our security … We recognise that in facing the most challenging strategic environment since World War II, economic resilience is an essential component of assuring our national security,” he said.

“The Budget will be key in this regard … a greater emphasis on national security and economic security in churn and change, not just security from churn and change.”

Chalmers said the global economy was at a turning point — one that has been approaching since the 2008 global financial crisis. He said the Budget will lay out how Australia prepares for this new economic order.


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