Australia History: The 1970s and Beyond

The civil unrest aroused by conscription was one factor that contributed to the rise to power, in 1972, of the Australian Labor Party, under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, for the first time in more than 25 years. The Whitlam government withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished national service and higher-education fees, instituted a system of free and universally available health care, and supported land rights for Aboriginal people.

The government, however, was hampered by a hostile Senate and talk of mismanagement. On 11 November 1975, the governor-general (the British monarch's representative in Australia) dismissed the Parliament and installed a caretaker government led by the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser.

Labor supporters were appalled. Such action was unprecedented in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia and the powers that the governor-general had been able to invoke had long been regarded by many as an anachronistic vestige of Australia's now remote British past. Nevertheless, it was a conservative coalition of the Liberal and National Country parties that won the ensuing election.

A Labor government was not returned until 1983, when a former trade union leader, Bob Hawke, led the party to victory. In 1990 Hawke won a third consecutive term in office (a record for a Labor prime minister), thanks in no small part to the lack of better alternatives offered by the Liberals. He was replaced as prime minister by Paul Keating, his long-time Treasurer, in late 1991.

By 1991 Australia was in recession, mainly as a result of domestic economic policy but also because Australia is particularly hard hit when demand (and prices) for primary produce and minerals falls on the world markets. Unemployment was the highest it had been since the early 1930s, hundreds of farmers were forced off the land because they couldn't keep afloat financially. There was a four-million-bale wool stockpile that no-one seemed to know how to shift, and the building and manufacturing areas faced a huge slump amid a general air of doom and gloom.

The federal election in 1993 was won by Paul Keating, against all expectations. The economy took a slight turn for the better, but not enough for the electorate to maintain its faith in the Labor government. With unemployment remaining high at around 9%, in early 1996 Keating was defeated in a landslide victory to the Coalition, led by John Howard.

Despite the economic problems, however, most non-Aboriginal Australians have a standard of living which is extremely high; it's a disgrace that the same can't be said for most of their Aboriginal counterparts. Many Aboriginal people still live in deplorable conditions, with outbreaks of preventable diseases and infant mortality running at a rate higher even than in many Third World countries.

While definite progress has been made with the Federal government's Native Title legislation (see the Government section for details), there's still a long way to go before Aboriginal people can enjoy an improved standard of living.

Socially and economically, Australia is still coming to terms with its strategic location in Asia. While it has accepted large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants during the past two decades, it has never really considered itself a part of Asia, nor has it exploited the area's economic potential. With the boom in the economies of South-East Asia, regionalism is fast becoming the focus for the Australian economy.

Another issue dominating Australian thinking in the 1990s is that of republicanism, as increasing numbers of people feel that constitutional ties with Britain are no longer relevant.