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Prices and the People (1948)

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clip Who gets the profits? education content clip 1, 2, 3

This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

An elderly pensioner is another victim of inflated prices. While his ‘hands helped to build this country’, he lives in a run-down house and has to save his cigarette butts because tobacco is too expensive.

In the wealthier suburbs live the ‘dividend men’ – the people who draw on the profits. One such man – a portly fellow who smokes a pipe – says that workers are too lazy, and that price control would kill initiative and decrease incentive for private enterprise.

Curator’s notes

As in clip one, two contrasting points of view – the old age pensioner and the ‘dividend man’ – further progress the argument for price control and cheaper rents.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip uses actuality and dramatised footage accompanied by narration to argue that rising prices are lowering living standards for ordinary Australians and widening the gap between the socioeconomic classes. Footage of an elderly pensioner subsisting on a meagre pension is contrasted with dramatised footage of a wealthy ‘dividend man’ claiming that company profits are falling owing to price controls and a ‘flabby’ workforce who ‘don’t work hard enough’. The man is shown reading a newspaper and the clip cuts to a report about increased company profits that undercuts his comments.

Educational value points

  • This clip comes from a film made to persuade viewers to support the 1948 referendum to give the federal government, rather than the individual states, the power to control rents and prices. The Curtin Labor government temporarily assumed this power during the Second World War in order to reduce inflation and profiteering from goods that were in short supply. But making it permanent required an alteration to the section of the Constitution that defines the legislative powers of the Federal Parliament.
  • The clip argues for a centralised system of price control through the example of a pensioner whose pension is insufficient to meet the basic cost of living. The Chifley Labor government argued that federal control of prices was a means of safeguarding people, particularly those on a minimum wage or pension, from unjust and disproportionate rent and price increases. Prices would only be increased if costs increased. However, from 1946 the federal government did have the power to increase pensions.
  • Like the ‘dividend man’ (shareholder) in this clip, the federal Opposition, which consisted of the Liberal and Country (later renamed National) parties argued that federal government control of rents and prices would undermine the private sector and free enterprise. The referendum was soundly defeated in all states. Australians have traditionally voted ‘no’ in referendums and, of the 21 referendums held between 1906 and 1999, only six were carried.
  • In 1946 the minimum weekly wage was £5 5s while the old-age pensioner shown in this clip received £2 2s 6d each week. Wage increases won by trade unions after the Second World War did not keep pace with price rises, particularly in the housing sector. Prices were pushed up by shortages that continued after the War and by high demand as both the economy and population expanded.
  • The Realist Film Unit, a group associated with the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), made Prices and the People, which would also have been seen as a propaganda vehicle to disseminate Party doctrine. The CPA advocated the overthrow of capitalism and the socialisation of industry, on the basis that capitalism exploited workers to make profit. The film contends that low wages and high prices not only make record profits possible but that they erode working people’s standard of living.
  • Prices and the People was made for a working-class audience, and this clip deliberately sets up an ‘us and them’ scenario. While the pensioner is described in empathetic terms as a ‘helpless victim’ and his contribution to the nation is emphasised, the ‘dividend man’ is a caricature whose affluent surroundings and corpulent appearance belie his assertion that profits are down and workers are ‘flabby’.
  • A series of comparisons are used in this clip to highlight social injustice and the gap between socioeconomic groups. For example, the pensioner scrapes by in a derelict house while the ‘dividend man’ lives in a two-storey residence, the pensioner saves his cigarette stubs while the ‘dividend man’ puffs on a fat cigar, and while the pensioner ‘helped to build this country’, the clip infers that the ‘dividend man’ makes no such contribution, but grows fat through his shareholdings and the labour of working people.
  • The Realist Film Unit made films like Prices and the People in the tradition of socialist realism that focused on social justice issues such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment. It was established in 1945 by Ken Coldicutt and Bob Mathews, with the support of the CPA, which at the time was quite active, particularly in the more militant unions. The films were shown at trade union and other community gatherings. The film unit was the subject of John Hughes’s documentary The Archive Project (2006).

An elderly man rolls tobacco using a cigarette butt and then enters his house – a shack with a roof of corrugated iron.
Narrator Here’s one of the most helpless victims of inflated prices – the old-age pensioner. Those hands helped to build this country – its roads, its home, its towns, its vital industries. And after a lifetime of hard work, he gets 42s 6d a week to live on. Old age needs leisure, warmth, the right kinds of food and at least a few comforts. No warmth here – uncomfortable and nasty but it’s cheap – that’s what counts when you’re living on 42s 6d a week.

Two eggs – at threepence each – must be pension day. Save that butt, old-timer. Tobacco is 1s 6d an ounce. That’s what the price people think necessary to yield a fair profit to the tobacco monopoly.

A newspaper displays the headline, ‘Tobacco Co’s Profit Rises To £127, 282’.

Working-class people walk the street, some boarding a tram.
Narrator Who are the people who draw these profits? No good looking for them here. You won’t find them on the streets or marketplaces.

A woman gets into a car and another well-dressed woman browses the window at an antiques shop.
Narrator A-ha! This seems more likely … Just fancy. Avocado pears have gone up – must be the 40-hour week.

Footage shows very large, nice houses.
Narrator These are no 25 bob-a-week shanties. The dividend men must live around here somewhere. The very place.

A man inside one of the houses is smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper in his dressing gown.
Narrator On his way to a cartload, isn’t he? Excuse me, what’s your opinion of high prices?
Man Oh, high prices? High costs. Lack of production. The people are too flabby. They don’t work hard enough. I’m not making much. Business is bad. Price control is killing initiative – no incentive for private enterprise.
The newspaper the man is reading displays news about profits surging.
Man I’m getting poorer and poorer.

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  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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