Petrol rationing in Australia during the Second World War
Lorna Froude

{1} At the start of the Second World War Australia was lamentably unprepared for conflict, especially with regard to supplies of petrol. The First World War provided no guidelines, as although petrol rationing had been considered early in 1918, restrictions would have meant that fewer ships would have made deliveries to Australia. This would have restricted opportunities to export Australian products as back-loading,1 and in the interests of the domestic economy, rationing was delayed. When the Armistice halted conflict in November of that year, plans for petrol rationing were abandoned.2 The very fact that shortages had occurred, and restrictions had been considered, should have alerted Australian planners to the possibility that petrol rationing was certain to become a factor during any future war, and that suitable schemes should be prepared.

{2} The realities of war started to bite when Britain applied pressure on the Australian Government to reduce petrol consumption in order to assist with Britain's foreign exchange problems. For a country that was entirely dependent on imported petrol, Australia did not have sufficient petrol storage to carry it through any long-term disruption to supply.3 Attempts had been made during the 1930s to increase storage, but motoring was such a growing industry that no real progress was made towards keeping storage ahead of usage. As a result, at the start of the war Australia had sufficient petrol for only three months' normal consumption.4 The limited storage alone should have alerted planners of the need to be prepared for disruptions to supply, but the War Book5 simply noted that "on the threat of war" the Department of Supply should prepare a plan for the rationing of petrol. The Commonwealth Oil Board duly prepared a scheme when war appeared imminent, and presented it to state road transport authorities at a meeting that was in progress when war was declared on 3 September 1939.6 Speaking on behalf of authorities connected with the supply of petrol, the chairman stated that it was not considered necessary to restrict the use of petrol and oil immediately, and that rationing may not be necessary.7 Despite this sanguine outlook, the meeting agreed that some action had to be taken to make the public conscious that Australia was at war, and it proposed that consumers should be swamped with propaganda designed to promote voluntary economy in the use of petrol, in the hope that they would respond with such enthusiasm that rationing would not be necessary.8 What actually happened was that as soon as rationing was mentioned massive hoarding took place.9

{3} Grasping at ways to reduce consumption and hoarding without imposing rationing, the government decided an alternative would be to encourage motorists to use gas producers. The government hoped that if domestic users switched to gas producers all available petrol could be preserved for the armed forces and essential domestic use. Propaganda exhorting motorists to seriously consider fitting these gas producers as a "patriotic act" was duly prepared and widely distributed. To convince motorists that the government believed in the efficiency and practicability of gas producers, the government undertook to equip "at least" 20 per cent of Commonwealth vehicles with these units.10

{4} The problem with getting motorists to switch to gas producers was that they were still a relatively new and largely unknown device. In fact, they were not even in general production, and in order to get production underway quickly the government had to sponsor development and manufacture of the units. That still left the problem of securing supplies of charcoal (the energy source for gas producers) which was not, at the time, commercially produced. To overcome this the government instructed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to research urgently the production of charcoal, and to draw up production specifications.11 Everything had to be done in great haste and that set the scene for the muddling which followed.

AWM 002044
Staff at CSIR experiment with charcoal gas for fuel, June 1940.
AWM 002044

{5} Looking for other ways to reduce petrol usage, Cabinet considered increasing the duty on petrol, conjecturing that a higher price for petrol would automatically reduce demand. The Comptroller-General believed that a higher price for petrol would "save a great deal of unpleasantness as far as the government was concerned and would probably lead to a position where petrol rationing could be avoided".12 Another plan that petrol should be merchandised in two colours, blue for commercial vehicles, and red for private cars, with red petrol being substantially more expensive than blue. To differentiate between private and commercial vehicles, all commercial vehicles, including cars, would have the windows blacked out on the passenger side, and a wide strip would be blacked out in front of the passenger's seat. The plan further proposed that inspectors should be given the power to hold up cars at any time to check the colour of the petrol, and that very heavy fines should be imposed for improper use.13

 

 

{6} Commercial firms were willing to go along with the idea that pleasure-seeking private motorists should pay more than businesses for petrol, on the premise that industry should not be called on to make sacrifices. Electrical Maintenance Pty Ltd, a Sydney firm, agreed with this concept and telegrammed the Prime Minister, saying:

At the outbreak of war you summed up the position in a few words "Carry on ... Business as Usual". If petrol price is increased further we will be crippled entirely. We suggest vehicles registered as commercial be permitted to purchase petrol at the present already increased price while pleasure cars pay the [proposed further] increase. If a man wants his pleasure, he is quite willing to pay for it.14

{7} There was another consideration, however, as the Comptroller-General acknowledged when he stated in his report that a higher price for petrol "would be unfair to the man of smaller means ... [and may] be far more drastic than would be the case under petrol rationing. On the other hand the man with means would not be restricted."15 The men of smaller means did not hesitate to complain. It was quickly pointed out that:

It means very little to the wealthy whether petrol is 1/9d or 3/- per gallon as at the most they may have to cut out an odd pleasure trip but the small farmer must do away with his car altogether. We fully realise the difficulties that will arise from rationing, but are of the opinion that it would be more democratic to place the use of petrol on some basis so that it would be obtainable to those whose need is the greatest.16

{8} All sections of the motor industry lobbied concertedly against any form of petrol rationing, claiming that rationing would lead to wholesale dismissals and economic instability in the motor industry. The Prime Minister's office was swamped with telegrams expressing disapproval. Parliament was divided, as Labor Party members supported objections to any form of restrictions that would affect the motor trade.17 Newspapers campaigned against petrol rationing. The Open Road headlined, "Petrol Rationing in England brings disaster to the Motor Trade", forecasting that petrol rationing would have the same effect in Australia.18

{9} The sheer vehemence of the outcry against petrol rationing left the government floundering. The Federal Treasurer, Percy Spender, announced that the government still believed that rationing should only be introduced "as a last resort".19 The government continued to devise complicated schemes that would have involved different types of users paying different prices for petrol.20 The Director of Economic Planning, Sir Ernest Fisk, announced that he would soon introduce a scheme to conserve petrol, which in his opinion, would "make a man ashamed to use his car unnecessarily".21 No details ever surfaced, and the proposal disappeared without trace.

{10} A commonly expressed belief was that "the government needed to be stirred up" and made to be more decisive.22 The government position was that the people were "still mentally unprepared for war", and that burdens, such as petrol rationing, would have to be introduced with "exceptional care".23 As an election was due towards the end of 1940, the Opposition believed:

Political expediency came into the picture [and so] the introduction of the scheme [for petrol rationing] was postponed until after the election. Obviously, when the Government had to choose between securing the return to Parliament of its candidates, and the immediate introduction of a scheme which it deemed necessary to save Australia, morality was thrown overboard, and political expediency prevailed.24

{11} The Commonwealth Oil Board attempted to push the government into implementing petrol rationing when supplies dwindled, as tankers were increasingly diverted from Australia.25 By May 1940 the Board estimated that the oil companies held only 67 per cent of their total capacity of about 140 million gallons. Resellers were estimated to have a storage capacity of about 28 million gallons, which was only about half full.26 When France collapsed, the Minister for Supply stressed to Cabinet that continuity of the already erratic deliveries was under threat, and on 6 June 1940 Cabinet finally made the decision that rationing should be introduced to reduce consumption by 50 per cent.27

{12} Estimating that it would take at least eight weeks to formulate a scheme and set up the necessary infrastructure, 1 September was nominated as the starting date.28 The Minister for Supply made the announcement, stating that private motorists would be allowed sufficient petrol to travel 2,000 miles per year, and commercial vehicles would be given an allowance according to previous usage. The very next day, however, he indicated that Cabinet still had to approve the plan, and the reduction target could be changed.29 Following deliberations, Cabinet decided to soften the impact of rationing and decreased the target figure to a 33 per cent reduction.30 The lack of decisiveness shown by the government was commented upon by the Sydney Morning Herald, which observed in an editorial that:

This attitude is quite in keeping with the government's irresolute and equivocal policy on petrol conservation for some months past. For the adverse reaction to the rationing scheme the government is largely to blame ... if the scheme published on Friday lacked the Government imprimatur, the Minister should not have announced it so categorically. If [the announcement] implemented a definite Cabinet decision, then for the Government to retrace its steps once again in the face of sectional pressure would seriously undermine its own prestige, further injure the public and motor trade by continuing uncertainty, and, above all, defeat the vital purpose of the rationing plan.31

{13} Nevertheless, the decision to ration had been taken. The immediate problem was how rationing was to be achieved. No Commonwealth-wide organisation existed that was capable of handling it. Nor were accurate statistics held regarding consumption that could be used to devise a ration scale that would reduce usage. No precise figures concerning the exact quantities of petrol stocks were available. It was proposed to take a census of petrol supplies within Australia, but commonsense dictated that hoarders were unlikely to disclose details of what they held and the idea was dropped. No up-to-date vehicle registration figures for the whole of the Australia were available, and they had to be urgently compiled. Industrial and farm petrol use had to be taken into account and rations provided for these purposes.32 All users were to be divided into classes, for example, private cars, delivery vehicles, buses, taxis, trucks, industrial applications and farm implements, and priorities determined for each classification. Ration scales would take into account the horsepower of vehicles so that miles-per-gallon could be calculated before allowances were allocated. Finally - and this proved the most vexing and constant issue of all - the various groups had to be divided into essential, preferred or ordinary user status.33 The task was daunting.

{14} In order to get rationing implemented in the shortest possible time any suitable existing organisations had to be used. Establishing a Commonwealth-wide infrastructure to handle petrol rationing involved the co-operation of all state premiers, who had been put on notice in September 1939 that the states would need to be closely involved if rationing was introduced.34 On 21 June 1940 the premiers were officially notified that the introduction of petrol rationing was imminent, although the commencement date was still not absolutely final. Each state was instructed to set up a State Liquid Fuel Control Board, comprising at least three persons: one from the Department of Supply and Development, one from the Department of Motor Transport, and the third from the Road Transport Authority. The premiers were given copies of all the application forms that would be required, and told to arrange for printing and distribution of the forms through post offices.35 All premiers agreed to co-operate, but most were concerned about costs. The Treasury Department devised a formula that proposed that the Commonwealth pay the States l/- for each license issued, plus one-half of any cost in excess of that amount. This arrangement was to apply until 31 December l 940, at which time it was proposed that the whole question of rationing would be reviewed.36 Tasmania accepted the formula.37 Victoria agreed with the "broad principles suggested" but insisted that "as this work is being carried out [on behalf of the Commonwealth] it is considered reasonable that any expenditure involved should be borne by the Commonwealth".38 South Australia did not feel obliged to accept "any arbitrary limit ... [imposed] in a manner and to an extent that might involve this State in loss".39 New South Wales discarded the proposed reimbursement proposal entirely, stating that the Commonwealth Government should "accept responsibility for actual expenditure by the State", which New South Wales undertook to administer with the utmost economy, "consistent with efficiency".40 Only Queensland accepted without qualification.41 Western Australia did not reply.42 Treasury subsequently reviewed the proposed method of reimbursement, deciding that because the original proposal could possibly result in "inequities and anomalies", the Commonwealth should "accept full financial responsibility, without the limitation suggested ... for all direct expenditure necessarily incurred by the States in administering the petrol rationing scheme".43 It was impossible that any scheme cobbled together in haste, without any precedent to follow, could be effectively formulated initially, and tinkering with the various schemes became a familiar process.

{15} The scheme finally devised for petrol rationing was complicated, and the paperwork was profuse. New South Wales was the only State to have a Department of Motor Transport and it organised motor vehicle registrations through local police stations. This worked effectively and efficiently, so it was decided that all other States should set up a similar motor vehicle registration system. Where police stations were particularly distant from one another local committees that had already been organised to arrange transport for emergency wartime services were seconded to do the work. These local committees usually comprised town clerks or local government officers. A degree of decentralisation was necessary for the convenience of distant rural consumers. It was believed, although not entirely correctly, that applicants for licences would be less likely to attempt to mislead a local officer than they would some unknown distant authority.44 A total of 1,050,000 persons applied for petrol licences and these had to be processed, and licences returned to the applicants, before rationing could commence.45

{16} To obtain ration tickets applicants had to complete and present an "Application for Ration Tickets" every time tickets were required. The form required information which included the name and address of the licensee, the state of issue of the licence, the denominations of the tickets required, the fuel licence number, the type of vehicle or engine, and if a motor vehicle, the registration number. The petrol licence and the motor vehicle registration (if applicable) had to be produced as well. Ration tickets were issued at post offices every business day (which in those days included Saturday), except in metropolitan areas where tickets were issued only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The Note Printing Branch of the Commonwealth Bank produced the tickets, which were initially printed in a single colour on white paper in the denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, 44 and 100 gallons. They were overprinted with the instruction that consumers must endorse the back of each ticket with their signature and licence number.46 The tickets were porous on the reverse so that removal of the endorsement was difficult, if not impossible. Without this precaution stolen tickets could have easily had endorsements removed and thereafter been illegally re-used.47

{17} The first issue of ration tickets had a currency of six months. After that, issues were made every two months, with the currency period also being two months. Bi-monthly issues facilitated frequent design and colour changes in order to frustrate counterfeiters.48 New tickets were issued on the last Monday of the preceding period, but confusingly, authorities deemed that when the last day of the month fell on a Saturday or Sunday, the issue would not be made until the following Monday. Even more confusingly, when the last day of the month fell on a Saturday this meant that no legal tickets were available on the Sunday. However, as retailers were licensed to trade on Sunday, authorities took no action when retailers accepted tickets for the previous period.49

Fuel rationing coupons
Fuel rationing coupons

 

 

{18} A weakness of the issuing system was that there were no appropriate safeguards to stop an issuing officer falsifying forms, as the forms were not returned to State Liquid Control Boards. The very volume of forms made the task too formidable, and the storage of used forms impracticable. The system was frequently criticised by the Commonwealth Auditor-General, but the government deemed that the installation of a completely watertight system would be too costly, as without large increases in staff, complex records could not be kept, in spite of the opportunities for fraud that such loopholes provided.50 Rationing was not confined to the end consumer. Resellers had to use the tickets they collected when they sold petrol to obtain replacement stocks from oil companies. In turn, the oil companies had to account to the government for the quantity of petrol imported.51

{19} Misleading information given on applications in order to obtain greater allocations created problems in setting a ration that would reduce consumption. However, greater problems arose from figures provided by motor trade organisations, who claimed that actual mileage was considerably greater than the estimates held by the government.52 Private motorists' organisations submitted figures that purported to prove that the average motorist covered 5,000 miles per year.53 Based on this information, the Advisory Council recommended that the 2,000 miles travel allowance originally proposed for private motorists should be doubled, even though a confidential report prepared for the Council stated that "a substantial part of petrol consumption is a conspicuous form of non-essential or luxury consumption".54

{20} Because statistics were hastily cobbled together, the Commonwealth Oil Board knew it was unlikely that the required reduction in consumption would be obtained without trial and error. What the board termed "discrepancies" became apparent even before rationing was introduced and "considerable freedom was allowed the State Boards administering the scheme as a temporary measure".55 The Oil Board openly stated that the initial ration scale was an experiment to give it a basis on which to establish meaningful rationing, and that a review would take place after rationing had been in action for three months.56 Within six months it was found that private motorists were not using all of their rations, and were giving unused tickets to other users. Further research revealed that actual normal travel was more likely to be in the region of 2,500-3,000 miles per year.57

{21} The organisation of petrol rationing took longer than anticipated and the start was delayed until 1 October 1940. A bungle in publishing the Rationing Regulations contributed to the delay. The original plan had been to issue tickets in book form. It was later decided that the use of tickets in perforated sheets would be more suitable, but the change was overlooked in the preparation of the Regulations, and they had to be republished.58 Before petrol rationing started, a revised ration scale was announced which doubled private rations.59 The definite date for the start of petrol rationing was the signal for petrol hoarding to start in earnest. The day before rationing started Melbourne motorists indulged in a buying spree from early morning to late evening. According to the Sun News-Pictorial, "motorists who had their tanks filled in the morning returned ... [at] night to have them topped up".60 All sorts of containers were filled with petrol, even empty paint tins.61 Reporting instances of excessive hoarding, the Motor Traders Association claimed that one man had "laid down" two hundred 44-gallon drums of petrol.62

Ration stamps
Ration stamps

{22} As this was Australia's first experience of wartime rationing it was inevitable that it would have a rugged inauguration. Within days, the premiers of New South Wales and South Australia demanded a ration revision because of complaints directed at their governments when essential services were disrupted while private motorists seemed to have petrol to spare.63 No doubt the early appearance of plentiful supplies of petrol for private motoring stemmed from the hoarding that took place prior to the introduction of rationing, but irate civilians waiting for overcrowded transport, and for deliveries that did not arrive, blamed the various governments for the problems.

{23} The furore over rationing overflowed into the 1940 election campaign, as the government had feared would happen, and Prime Minister Robert Menzies was forced repeatedly to defend the government's decisions on rationing.64 The result of the election, which was held on 21 September, confirmed the government's worst fears. The Coalition and Labor ended up with an equal number of seats in the House of Representatives, although the Coalition obtained the support of two independents and was able to continue in office.65 Such a precarious hold on power boded ill for stable government in perilous times.

{24} When parliament resumed after the election the Opposition used the general discontent about rationing to berate the government. On 22 November Sydney Falstein, the Labor member for Watson in New South Wales, claimed:

The system of petrol rationing introduced by the Government has dealt a terrible blow to the very vitals of this country's industrial organisation. I cannot believe there was ever any need for petrol rationing ... as one result of petrol rationing business conditions have become chaotic ... petrol rationing has deprived many of the means of earning a living.66

{25} This statement mirrored advertisements used in motor industry lobbying during the election campaign that proclaimed "An all in war is impossible on rationed petrol" and "Death to Industry. Facts about the proposed petrol rationing".67 A few days later, on 6 December, Reginald Pollard, the Labor member for Ballarat, declared:

The present scheme should be abandoned. It is obvious that a more just and equitable scheme should be introduced to curtail in some drastic way the use of petrol for pleasure and non-essential transport services ... as things are going from bad to worse.68

Such open opposition to petrol rationing by politicians did nothing for public unity and cooperation. If the government had hoped that once the election was behind it petrol rationing would cease to be a contentious topic, it was doomed to disappointment.

{26} The petrol position deteriorated. Not only did the government have to cope with disgruntled consumers, but also tanker deliveries became more and more disrupted and supplies lessened alarmingly.69 During the first two years of the war all British, and most Allied, tankers were controlled by the Empire Oil Board, which was a department under the control of the British Ministry of Shipping, and the distribution of shipping services was negotiated between the British Ministry and Australian officials.70 Australian authorities suspected that the British Ministry was manipulating tankers in order to force Australia to impose harsher rationing. Then, in December 1940, Britain - in order to divert tankers to the United Kingdom - officially terminated the scheme to build up Australian stocks.71 Shortly after that the C.O.R. and Texas companies heard unofficially that no further tankers would be allocated to them until their stocks fell to a level which equalled two months' supply. Following protests to London,72 Australian authorities were told in no uncertain terms that the United Kingdom's need was greatest and that, as the petrol ration was soon to be further reduced in Britain, Australia should urgently consider doing likewise. To force Australia to achieve a one-third reduction without delay Australian officials were told that Britain intended to let Australian stocks run down to three months' supply, based on early 1941 consumption levels.73

{27} This information created consternation among Australian officials. The High Commissioner was asked whether the United Kingdom realised that at least half of the stocks within Australia were required as an Army reserve. Further, as the Acting Prime Minister informed the High Commissioner, the balance left for civilian use was:

A very small reserve in relation to the particular circumstances of the Commonwealth [where] the need for motor transport is much greater in proportion to the population than it is in the United Kingdom ... We were not informed of alterations in tanker programmes, and in view of the diversions without warning early this year, and of apparent cancellations at the moment, we can feel no confidence in the future position.74

The High Commissioner was also told that if the expected tankers did not arrive, and even with additional rationing, Australia would only have one month's stock in reserve for civilian use.75

{28} To aggravate matters even further, there was, for some unknown reason, an uneven allocation of tankers between the various petrol companies. When the UK High Commissioner was told that some companies were being forced into a position where they could be driven out of business, he virtually took Australia to task, stating that it was important that:

As long as the war lasts the relative share of each market held by the various oil companies should as far as possible remain stabilised ... [as] constant variations tend to promote disagreement rather than co-operation between companies. This in turn reacts upon the support for our war effort ... it is important that British companies should retain their earning capacity in relation to markets ... [and] it would politically be most unwise if American companies were deprived of their legitimate business.76

As if the Australian Government did not have enough petrol worries, now it was virtually being told by Britain not to upset American interests in order to retain US support for the war effort.

{29} The whole petrol supply position was not helped by the fact that rationing was "working out very badly".77 The government chose to delay revising the scheme until rationing had been operative for three months, and by the time the revision took place, in January 1941, it was quite apparent that considerable adjustment was needed. While it was difficult to establish the actual reduction in consumption (because hoarding had increased sales abnormally for months prior to rationing being introduced), it was obvious that usage had not decreased by the desired one-third. The Oil Board recommended that the initial ration tickets, which were issued with a currency of six months, should be cancelled immediately, and new tickets with a currency of only two months issued. Cabinet dismissed this proposal. Consequently, March sales were about 12,000,000 gallons above the January-February average.78 Rations were reduced from 1 April 1941.79

{30} When sales figures became available for the first six months of rationing in mid-April, they showed that rationing had only reduced consumption by 16 per cent instead of the targeted one-third.80 During rationing reserve stocks of petrol had dwindled alarmingly. On 30 September 1940, immediately before rationing started and after extensive hoarding had taken place, 87,725,000 gallons were on hand. By 30 April 1941 only 62,213,000 gallons were held.81

{31} The petrol outlook became even bleaker during May 1941 as tanker movements became more uncertain and it was estimated that by 31 July 1941 stocks would have fallen to 50,573,000 gallons. The Australian Government was unable to get specific information about forthcoming tanker allocations and the Minister for Supply was forced to conclude that another cut would have to be made to petrol rations on 1 June. The Liquid Fuel Control Board estimated that the reduction would have to be at least a further 12 per cent in order to hold supplies at a reasonable level, and Cabinet was asked to approve the reductions.82 The losers were private motorists, with their rations to be reduced to allow only 2,000 miles travel per year. Vehicles licensed for the delivery of general goods were to be cut by 10 per cent, and taxis, tourist vehicles and "drive yourself" cars were to have rations reduced by 9 per cent. Farm vehicles and bus rations were not to be altered, and the problem category of "essential users", which included government cars, were to be "asked to use less". A further saving of about 3 per cent of current consumption was expected when about 140,000 licences, which had been granted on the basis of "wrong statements by many users" (mentioned earlier) were reassessed, which was expected to be completed by August.83

{32} As usual, Cabinet took time deliberating, and in the meantime things rapidly got worse. Before Cabinet had reached a decision, the Minister for Supply was told by the Oil Fuel Control Board that even harsher cuts should be made, as priority would have to be given to the importation of aviation fuel during June. As well, the Board advised that the civilian consumption figure must be reduced to 12,000,000 gallons per month. The position was so critical by 11 June 1941 that the Minister told Cabinet that it was now "open to question" whether petrol rationing should be placed under Army control. Cabinet rejected this drastic solution and the Prime Minister announced on 17 June 1941 that private motorists' rations would be cut to 1,000 miles per year.84

{33} These cuts commenced from the ticket issue on 1 August 1941. As economic historian S. J. Butlin commented, "the shoe was beginning to pinch",85 but it could have been worse as consideration had also been given to cutting supplies completely for pleasure motoring.86 The August reduction took Australian allowances below those of other Commonwealth countries. Private motorists in Great Britain received sufficient petrol to allow 1,500 miles travel per year and in New Zealand the ration allowed 1,600 miles motoring per year. Petrol rationing had not been imposed in Canada, South Africa or India.87

{34} The new rations were not accepted without complaints. It seemed the general belief was that the war could be fought without any sacrifices. People inundated the Prime Minister with letters complaining about rationing. They complained about the apparent wastefulness of public authorities, about not having enough petrol to go to church, about not being able to go fishing, and about not being able to visit relatives.88 Racism surfaced with a complaint that "dagos" could get all the petrol they wanted to go to social functions while "loyal British women, wives of returned servicemen, mothers of present soldiers, remain at home to help save petrol".89 There were endless reasons why extra petrol was needed, and why petrol restrictions were causing deprivations.90

Fuel rationing caused Australians to change their methods of transport.

AWM 138698
A dairy farmer at Bendigo resorted to horse-drawn sledge to transport his milk to the pick-up point on the main road.
AWM 138698

AWM 140511
A housewife in Elwood, Victoria, did her shopping by bicycle.
AWM 140511

{35} When the proposal to cut taxi allowances from 100 gallons to 22 gallons per week91 became public knowledge in September 1941 the rigors of petrol rationing really hit home. Criticisms became bitter, and government departments attempted to shift the blame from one authority to another.92 Attempting to placate taxi drivers who complained about reduced incomes, fares were increased in both Victoria and New South Wales.93 The Taxi Drivers' Union requested three months' delay on the introduction of the reduced petrol ration to enable gas producers to be fitted, but this was refused.94 There had been ample time to have the devices fitted, but they had become the last resort for most users.

{36} The reasons for the unpopularity of gas producers were obvious. They were inconvenient, they were cumbersome, they were not particularly efficient, and their weight increased wear on tyres (which were in short supply). As well, refuelling with charcoal was a dirty process. No amount of attractive propaganda could overcome these intrinsic shortcomings. Refuting claims made in press propaganda regarding the efficacy of gas producers, G. H. Terrill, who described himself as "Secretary-Manager and Accountant" of one of the largest transport companies in Sydney, asserted that such information was misleading and "cast grave doubts" on the authenticity of government information and the knowledge of government advisors. In practice, Terrill stated, it had been found that vehicles powered by gas producers could carry only half the load of petrol driven vehicles, so that when a job had to be done within a given time, such as clearing cargo from the wharves, twice as many vehicles were needed. As well, he added that "if charcoal had been a reasonable substitute for petrol Carrying Companies would have been using it years ago without any coercion from the Government".95 Terrill suggested that the government seek the advice of a person who was actively engaged in cartage as invariably boards and committees comprised personnel whose experience and knowledge at the actual working level were often largely theoretical. This led to time being wasted in speculative and conjectural planning, which later had to be revised. For example, when the government was exhorting people to convert petrol driven vehicles to gas producer propulsion it announced that it would convert 10 per cent of Commonwealth vehicles. By June 1941 there was little evidence that the government was moving towards fulfilling this undertaking. Indeed, it was stated in Parliament that "one gets a shock if he sees a gas producer unit on any Commonwealth car".96

AWM 027267
Refuelling a gas producer attached to a car in Melbourne, October 1942
AWM 027267

{37} Attempting better management of petrol supplies the government proposed the "pooling" of petrol under its control as pooling would enable more efficient use of the storage owned by the various oil companies. Under pooling the use of brand names were to be abolished. The petrol companies opposed this move, claiming they would lose the goodwill that brand names created.97 To avoid a government take-over the companies agreed to form a Cartel Committee, which came into operation on 1 July 1941. This brought about a degree of rationalisation in the industry as the cartel pooled all seaboard storage,98 which overcame both the uneven tanker allocation between companies and the goodwill problems as each company drew supplies in proportion to the amount sold in the base year.99 By forming a cartel the petrol companies bought time in putting off pooling, but eventually the government introduced pooling and took control of all supplies.100

{38} Victory over Japan raised expectations that rationing would be promptly abolished, but such hopes were in vain. Fundamental problems remained. Australia still obtained the bulk of petrol supplies from dollar areas and Britain still expected Australia to limit petrol usage to save dollars to help reduce Britain's outstanding dollar debt. At the same time the cessation of Lend Lease brought new dollar and sterling exchange problems.101 Because of traditional and economic ties with Britain there was no questioning that Australia would save every dollar possible to help Britain pay its debts to the United States. This closed the door to unlimited purchases of petrol from American sources, even though theoretically Australia could obtain petrol from the United States as American petroleum products and tanker allocations had been freed post-war from governmental controls. By complying with British demands and relying on UK allocations of petrol from sterling sources Australia was virtually forced to comply with UK stipulations about rationing. Australian authorities were unable to relax restrictions while petrol rationing was still in force in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, as they feared that the Overseas Control Committee might respond by reducing the Australian allocation.102

{39} The British Government continued to urge Australian authorities to save petrol even though the Australian motorists' ration was 50 per cent less than private motorists received in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. The Minister for Supply and Shipping reasoned that the British Government could not retaliate if Australian motorists were given the same ration and arranged for the Treasury to make sufficient dollars available to obtain enough petrol to permit an increase to 180 miles per month in February 1946. Industries received no relief.103 Petrol rationing was maintained at that level until rationing ended. But industry wanted to move on, and petrol rationing stifled many of the emerging enterprises.

{40} While the Australian Government was prepared to go along with the United Kingdom regarding petrol restrictions, entrepreneurs were not, and the government's authority to extend the Defence (Transitional Provisions) Act, which provided the power to keep rationing in force, was challenged in the High Court in Wagner v Gall. The judgement handed down in June 1949 in this matter was that the Act was invalid "insofar as it purported to extend the operation of the National Security (Liquid Fuel) Regulations".104 According to the departmental history of rationing, the judgement of the High Court stated:

The effects of the past war will continue for centuries. If it were held that the defence power would justify any legislation at any time that dealt with any matter the character of which had been changed by war, or with any problem which had been created or aggravated by the war, then the Commonwealth Parliament would have a general power of making laws for the peace, order and good government of Australia with respect to almost every subject. Nearly all the limitations imposed on a Commonwealth by a carefully framed Constitution would disappear.105

The effect of this judgement was that petrol rationing was abandoned.

{41} Chaos followed. People hoarded, and petrol supplies became so scarce that primary production was seriously hindered; businesses were at a standstill, and industries were disrupted.106 The government blamed the oil companies, and the oil companies blamed the government, claiming that the government's demand that 50,000,000 gallons be held in reserve for defence purposes was unreasonable. Hubert Anthony, the Country Party member for Richmond in New South Wales asked, "against what have we to defend ourselves in the next two or three months? Is there an enemy or any war in sight within that period?"107 He wanted the government to ameliorate the shortage by releasing part of the stock required to be held for defence. The government made much of the fact that its hands were tied because of the High Court decision. John Dedman, the Minister for Post-War Reconstruction, pointed out that rationing could be reintroduced if State Governments would co-operate by passing enabling legislation.108 Eventually this was done, and rationing resumed in November 1949. A Federal election took place in December 1949 and the Labor Party was defeated. The Liberal-Country Party Coalition, under Prime Minister Menzies, keeping a pre-election undertaking to abolish petrol rationing,109 finally declared petrol rationing at an end on 8 February 1950, even though "sharp differences of opinion ... [between] London and Canberra" occurred before rationing ended.110 The old Empire ties of tradition and trade, which allowed the United Kingdom to dictate Australia's actions in several spheres of rationing, were a very real factor in authorities' decision-making both during the war and well afterwards. In the end it took determined action in the courts, and a new government, which had campaigned on a platform of abolishing rationing, to bring petrol rationing to an unlamented end.

© Lorna Froude

The author

Mrs Lorna Froude completed a MA degree at the University of New England on coupon rationing in Australia during the Second World War. She lives at Batesman Bay, New South Wales.

References

  1. Acting Prime Minister W. A. Watt cablegram to Prime Minister W. M. Hughes in London, 10 September 1918, National Archives of Australia (hereafter NAA), A2/1, item 18/3285.
  2. Department of Trade and Shipping to Prime Minister's Department, 12 December 1918, NAA, A2/1, item 18/3285.
  3. D. P. Mellor, The role of science and industry (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958), p.212.
  4. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.10-11.
  5. The War Book was prepared under the auspices of the Defence Department and arose from a proposal made at the Imperial Conference of 1930 whereby all Dominion members co-operated in the planning of a manual which integrated Empire strategy and efforts. This manual was supposed to incorporate lessons learned during the First World War and include British planning for any future war, adapted where appropriate.
  6. Commonwealth Oil Board, "Report of Conference with State Road Transport Authorities" on 2-3 September 1939, NAA, CP11713/1, item 49.
  7. Commonwealth Oil Board, "Report of Conference with State Road Transport Authorities" on 2-3 September 1939, NAA, CP11713/1, item 49.
  8. Commonwealth Oil Board, "Report of Conference with State Road Transport Authorities" on 2-3 September 1939, NAA, CP11713/1, item 49. It was also suggested that prohibiting the sale of petrol on Sundays and public holidays would reduce consumption.
  9. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.285.
  10. D. P. Mellor, The role of science and industry (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958), p.214.
  11. D. P. Mellor, The role of science and industry (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1958), p.214.
  12. Notes headed "Duty on Petrol" prepared by the Comptroller-General, dated 23 November 1939, NAA, CP117/3/1, item 49.
  13. Notes headed "Duty on Petrol" prepared by the Comptroller-General, dated 23 November 1939, NAA, CP117/3/1, item 49.
  14. Telegram, Electrical Maintenance Pty Ltd to Prime Minister, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.1.
  15. Notes headed "Duty on Petrol" prepared by the Comptroller-General, dated 23 November 1939, NAA, CP117/3/1, item 49.
  16. Telegram, Wedderburn Fruitgrowers' Rural Co-operative to H. P. Lazzarini, Labor member for Merriwa, 14 March 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.1.
  17. Letters from Labor politicians to the Prime Minister's Department forwarding telegrams from constituents which expressed opposition to rationing, all endorsed by members and supporting the opposition to petrol rationing, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.1.
  18. The Open Road, 25 January 1940, cited in Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.165, p.177.
  19. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1940.
  20. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1940.
  21. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1940.
  22. Paul Hasluck, The government and the people 1939-1941 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952), p.237.
  23. Paul Hasluck, The government and the people 1939-1941 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952), p.237
  24. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.165, p.137.
  25. Editorial comment, F. K. Crowley (ed.), Modern Australia in documents 1939-1970 (Melbourne: Wren Publishing, 1973), p.28.
  26. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.286.
  27. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.138.
  28. Rationing took considerably longer to implement and did not commence until October 1940.
  29. F. K. Crowley (ed.), Modern Australia in documents 1939-1970 (Melbourne: Wren Publishing, 1973), pp.28-9.
  30. Full Cabinet agendum no.322, 6 June 1940, quoted in S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.138.
  31. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1940, cited in Crowley, p.29.
  32. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.284-5.
  33. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.281.
  34. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.281.
  35. Prime Minister to all State Premiers, 21 June 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  36. Treasury Department to Prime Minister's Department, 7 August 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  37. Premier of Tasmania to Prime Minister, 20 August 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  38. Premier of Victoria to Prime Minister, 20 August 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  39. Premier of South Australia to Prime Minister, 28 August 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  40. Premier of New South Wales to Prime Minister, 1 October 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  41. Premier of Queensland to Prime Minister, 3 September 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  42. Treasury Department to Prime Minister, 9 October 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  43. Draft letter prepared by Treasury Department for Prime Minister to be sent to all State Premiers, 9 October 1940, NAA, A461/8, item AM376/1/10.
  44. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, pp.1-3, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  45. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.284.
  46. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, pp.45-6, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  47. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, pp.49-55, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  48. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, p.50, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  49. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, pp.56-9, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  50. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, pp.44 and 57, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  51. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, p.64, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  52. Confidential report prepared for the Advisory War Council by the Commonwealth Oil Board, dated 13 November 1940, NAA, A5954/1, item 630.
  53. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, p.4, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  54. Commonwealth Oil Board report, 13 November 1940, NAA, A5954/1, item 630.
  55. Commonwealth Oil Board report, 13 November 1940, NAA, A5954/1, item 630.
  56. Commonwealth Oil Board report, 13 November 1940, NAA, A5954/1, item 630.
  57. History of Rationing of Liquid Fuel, p.4, Butlin Papers, AWM 70, item 170.
  58. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.283-4.
  59. Argus, 17 August 1940, cited in Andrew Bolt (ed.), Our home front 1939-45, (Melbourne: Wilkinson Press, 1994), p.58.
  60. Sun News-Pictorial, cited in Andrew Bolt (ed.), Our home front 1939-45, (Melbourne: Wilkinson Press, 1994), pp.62-4.
  61. Sun News-Pictorial, cited in Andrew Bolt (ed.), Our home front 1939-45, (Melbourne: Wilkinson Press, 1994), pp.62-4.
  62. Michael McKernan, All in!, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995), p.88.
  63. Telegram, Premier of South Australia to Prime Minister, 8 October 1940, and telegram, Premier of New South Wales to Prime Minister, 30 October 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item A5211/4 Pt.3.
  64. Sun News-Pictorial, 25 July 1940, cited in Andrew Bolt (ed.), Our home front 1939-45, (Melbourne: Wilkinson Press, 1994), pp.54 and 56.
  65. Paul Hasluck, The government and the people 1939-1941 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952), p.258.
  66. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.165, p.131.
  67. See Paul Hasluck, The government and the people 1939-1941 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952), pp.110 and 257.
  68. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.165, p.565.
  69. High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra to Prime Minister, 24 December 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  70. High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra to Prime Minister, 24 December 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  71. High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra to Prime Minister, 24 December 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  72. Minister for Supply to Prime Minister, 9 January 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  73. High Commissioner for the United Kingdom to the Acting Prime Minister, 2 May 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3. (Prime Minister Menzies was in London at the time.)
  74. Acting Prime Minister to High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra, 8 May 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  75. Acting Prime Minister to High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra, 8 May 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  76. High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canberra to Prime Minister, 26 May 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  77. Telegram, Premier of South Australia to Prime Minister, 8 October 1940, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  78. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.288-9.
  79. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.288.
  80. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.288.
  81. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.288-9.
  82. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.288-9.
  83. Memorandum, Minister for Supply to Cabinet, dated 2 May 1941, marked "Approved", NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  84. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.285, 288-90. Calculated on a horse-power scale, vehicles of up to 8 hp received 7 gallons per month, 8-10 hp 8, 10-12 hp 10, 12-14 hp 11, 14-20 hp 12, 20-30 hp 14, and over 30 hp 17.
  85. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), p.290.
  86. Sun News-Pictorial, 18 June 1941, cited in Andrew Bolt (ed.), Our home front 1939-45, (Melbourne: Wilkinson Press, 1994), p.95.
  87. Prime Minister's Department to Australian High Commissioner in London, 2 July 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item A52/1/4, Pt.3.
  88. See Prime Minister's correspondence files, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.3 and A1608/1, item B42/1/4, Pt.4.
  89. William Gallogly to Prime Minister, 18 June 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.3.
  90. Prime Minister's correspondence files, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.3, and A1608/1, item B42/1/4, Pt.4.
  91. Secretary of the Department of Defence Co-ordination to Minister for Supply and Development, 11 September 1941, NAA, A5954/1, item 456/38.
  92. Secretary of the Department of Defence Co-ordination to Minister for Supply and Development, 11 September 1941, NAA, A5954/1, item 456/38.
  93. Minister for Supply and Development to Department of Defence Co-ordination, 15 September 1941, NAA, A5954/1, item 456/38.
  94. Argus, 30 July 1941.
  95. G. H. Terrill to Prime Minister, 1 July 1941, NAA, A1608/1, item B52/1/4 Pt.3.
  96. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.167, pp.546-7.
  97. Advisory War Council agendum 5/1940, 3 February 1941, NAA, A5954/1, item 710/1.
  98. S. J. Butlin, War economy 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1955), pp.286-7.
  99. Advisory War Council minute, supplement No.2 to agendum 5/1940, NAA, A5954/1, item 710/1.
  100. Pooling of petrol continued until petrol rationing was abolished in 1950.
  101. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.184, p.4964.
  102. Memorandum marked "Petrol rationing" prepared for Cabinet by Minister for Shipping and Supply, 11 January 1946, NAA, A5954, item 710/1.
  103. Memorandum marked "Petrol rationing" prepared for Cabinet by Minister for Shipping and Supply, 11 January 1946, NAA, A5954, item 710/1.
  104. Departmental History of Rationing of Clothing and Food, p.146, NAA, M448/1, item 178. The government assumed the power to continue rationing under a series of Defence (Transitional Provisions) Acts, the first of which was legislated in 1946. Similar Acts were passed in 1947, 1948 and 1949. The Wagner v Call matter challenged the Defence (Transitional Provisions) Act of 1948.
  105. Departmental History of Rationing of Clothing and Food, p.146, NAA, M448/1, item 178.
  106. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.205, p.1455.
  107. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.205, p.1455.
  108. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, vol.205, p.1457.
  109. Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 1950.
  110. Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1950.