Events and issues that made the news in 1972

The following paper has been prepared by Ian Hancock, BA (Melb), BPhil (Oxon), Visiting Fellow, Dictionary of Biography, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University and the National Archives historical consultant.

Graham Freudenberg, Gough Whitlam’s one-time speech writer, wrote of the year 1972 producing ‘a brilliant balance between hope for better things and satisfaction with the present; between expectation and experience; between a desire for change and enjoyment of the present. It was a time of general good humour and general goodwill such as Australians have not shared since.’ Whether Freudenberg was wholly correct about the mood and condition of Australia in 1972, his comments about Australian history since 1972 probably apply well beyond the year (1977) when he wrote them.

Abroad, there were also grounds for optimism. President Nixon’s visit to China and the Soviet Union appeared to herald a new era in the Cold War, the new state of Bangladesh emerged out of East Pakistan, and Britain was preparing to enter the European Economic Community. The down side included Idi Amin’s decision to expel most of the Asian community from Uganda, the massacre of 25 civilians at Lod airport by three Japanese terrorists, the IRA’s launch of ‘Bloody Friday’ in Belfast after the British government had imposed direct rule in Northern Ireland, and Black September’s killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. Australia had its own experience of what the Liberal Attorney-General called a ‘world-wide problem’ when two bombs exploded in Sydney in September and letter bombs were intercepted by the authorities on their way to Israeli destinations within Australia. Acknowledging that the ‘Yugoslav migrant community’ was responsible for the growing number of incidents over the previous three years, the government decided (in Prime Minister McMahon’s case, very reluctantly) not to set up a Royal Commission.

The McMahon government

The reverberations of the leadership change from Gorton to McMahon in March 1971 continued to affect the government’s stability and unity throughout 1972. In February, Labor headed the combined vote of the Coalition and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in the polls for the first time since the Labor split of 1954–55, and McMahon’s personal popularity stood at just 28 per cent. There were four obvious problems:

  • McMahon did not look or sound like a Prime Minister
  • there were strains in the Coalition hanging over from the devaluation crisis of late 1971
  • the DLP was proving to be a fractious ally
  • the Liberal Party was disunited and unhappy

At the same time, the Labor bandwagon, rolling along to the theme of ‘It’s Time’, and supported by some of the proprietors and most of the journalists of the fourth estate, looked to be unstoppable. McMahon was ridiculed mercilessly – the visiting British psephologist, David Butler, said he had never seen an incumbent leader ‘so comprehensively panned’ by the press – and the Prime Minister was effectively deserted by some of his Liberal ministers during the election campaign. Yet the overall swing to Labor on 2 December was just 2.5 per cent. Labor lost four seats while gaining twelve, and its majority of nine was only two more than Gorton obtained in 1969. Clearly, even after 23 years of non-Labor rule, a large slice of a conservative electorate was still not prepared to change direction.

McMahon did, however, head a government that took a progressive stance on environmental protection, migrant welfare and self-government for the Territory of Papua New Guinea and, somewhat belatedly, addressed the ‘problem’ of foreign takeovers. Moreover, as Freudenberg argued, ‘it is not the worst thing to be said of a Prime Minister that he presided over one of the happiest years of his country’s history’.

Foreign policy

Given President Nixon’s moves towards better relations with China and the Soviet Union, and the continued winding back of the American commitment in South Vietnam, the McMahon government could not sustain the rhetoric and commitments of earlier years. Except for the continued deployment of the small advisory team, it completed Australia’s military withdrawal from South Vietnam. In November, when North Vietnam and the United States were approaching an agreement during the protracted peace talks, Canberra was awkwardly placed in having to support Saigon’s objections to the terms while being unable to criticise the United States for formulating them. Refusing formal recognition and rebuffed in its attempts to establish a dialogue with China, the government remained ‘naturally and quite properly reluctant and indeed, unwilling, to submit to Peking’s stipulation that it should abandon its friend (Taiwan).’ The government also defended its refusal to recognise China on the basis that other countries in the region were loath to do so. This argument started to lose force when the new Japanese Prime Minister announced in September that he wanted to establish normal diplomatic relations. But at least the Chinese agreed to resume wheat sales and they did send a table tennis team to Australia mid year.

While the government appeared – at best – too cautious over its China policy, it made significant moves towards establishing closer relations with Japan and Indonesia, thus further belying claims by later Labor Prime Ministers that their governments ‘discovered’ another side of Asia. The Australian government was regarding Asia as less of a threat and more as an opportunity for economic development. The major breakthroughs concerned Japan, and climaxed in mid-October with the inaugural Australia-Japan Ministerial Committee meeting in Canberra. Even so, the government, perhaps concerned about numbers of Japanese wanting to work in Australia, continued to resist Japan’s longstanding request for a treaty of friendship, commerce and navigation.

Although the McMahon government could boast that Australia was elected to a seat on the UN Security Council (to be taken up in January 1973), it had to overcome the embarrassment of not supporting a New Zealand–Peru resolution at a meeting in Stockholm opposing French nuclear tests in the Pacific. A public outcry at home forced it to take a stronger stand. Not that it mattered. The French, as they always do, ignored the protests.

The economy

In January it was revealed that the previous December quarter had seen the highest quarterly rise in the CPI since 1956 (2.3 per cent). The Treasurer, Billy Snedden, considered that the major economic problems in 1972 were ‘intolerably’ high inflation (the annual rate was around 7 per cent) and subdued consumer spending (despite a rise in average weekly earnings of 9 per cent). Unemployment was on the rise. In February, Snedden thought a rate of 1.6 per cent was ‘not insupportable’; by the end of the year it had extended beyond 2 per cent. The government tried three times during 1972, culminating in a ‘pork barrel’ August budget (when an additional $740m was released into the economy), to promote growth and consumer spending by providing funds for the States and for rural relief, increasing social service benefits, and reducing personal income tax. The tax deductions accorded with a philosophy that Snedden outlined in his submissions to the Budget Review and Expenditure Committee: to limit handouts to those he called the ‘genteel rich’, supporting instead ‘the backbone of our society ... the family man’. He saw this emphasis as ‘a matter of equity and economics’ and the one opportunity in the budget for political gain. Roy Morgan of the Gallup Poll appeared to agree: the budget meant the government was ‘home and hosed’ in the coming election.

Aboriginal issues

Aboriginal matters gained more attention during 1972, partly because of the appearance of the tent embassy and the government’s attempts to close it, and partly because of the general issue of land rights. According to McMahon’s Australia Day statement, the government fully understood ‘the desire of the Aboriginal people to have their affinity with the land with which they have been associated recognised by law’. But it refused to embrace a concept that smacked of ‘separate development’. Instead, it proposed a new form of lease for land on Aboriginal reserves in the Northern Territory. Individuals, groups or communities could apply for such leases in order to realise economic and social purposes, which might include those arising from educational, recreational, cultural and religious activities. Throughout the year an embattled Peter Howson, the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts, had to contend with ‘Nugget’ Coombs and Aboriginal activists and their white supporters on one side, a prevaricating McMahon in the middle and, on the other side, Ralph Hunt, the Country Party Minister for the Interior, who insisted upon meeting legal and administrative requirements and drew attention to the implications of abandoning assimilationist precepts.

The first Whitlam government

On 5 December, Whitlam and his deputy, Lance Barnard, were sworn in as a two-man ministry and announced 40 decisions in advance of the Caucus elections for the ministry (though after consultations with shadow ministers). These decisions ranged from freeing draft resisters, ordering the return home of the advisory team from South Vietnam and the exclusion of racially selected sporting teams to the appointment of Elizabeth Evatt to the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and of a judicial inquiry as the first move towards the legal recognition of Aboriginal land rights; from ordering negotiations to open diplomatic relations with China to re-opening the equal pay case; from replacing Wilfred Burchett’s passport to abolishing the excise on wine and the sales tax on contraceptives.

The hectic pace of those two weeks further overshadowed the record of the McMahon government while adding to the excitement of those who had wanted Labor’s victory. A punctilious Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet made a note on 19 December that the first Whitlam government held no Cabinet meetings but ‘nevertheless made and promulgated certain decisions’. As Cabinet Secretary ‘(i)t would be useful to get from the press or the Prime Minister’s office the daily statement of decisions or actions’.

It was also the year when

Sir Henry Bolte retired and Billy McMahon attacked the bias in the ABC’s current affairs programs. John Gorton told McMahon he could ‘go to buggery’ when the Prime Minister asked him to sit with him during a division. Gorton also objected to McMahon putting his arm around him. ‘I don’t like anyone putting their arm around me. And some are worse than others.’ Gorton also announced that if he ever said anything in line with government policy ‘it would be purely coincidental’.

Carlton won the VFL premiership, Manly took the Rugby League title, and Piping Lane won the Melbourne Cup. Shane Gould secured three gold medals, one silver and a bronze at the Munich Olympics; three other Australian swimmers each won individual gold medals; and Raelene Boyle was beaten into second place in two events by a drug cheat.

Bobo Faulkner declared that Germaine Greer ‘always looks as if she has been dragged through a current affair backwards’, and a DLP senator said Australians could not have his kind of family life ‘if you go to bed with all the Germaine Greer supporters you meet up with’.

Joe Cocker was deported for drug possession, Helen Reddy recorded ‘I am Woman’, Don’s Party was produced in Sydney, and Alvin Purple became Australia’s most popular film since On Our Selection in 1932.

Miss Australia for 1972 pronounced Italian men to be ‘very romantic. They come up to you in the street and flatter you and pinch your bottom’. Another young woman, reflecting on the R and R visits of American ex-servicemen, said she was not a good-time girl’, just a girl who had ‘a good time’. Maggie Tabberer revealed how she placed each elbow in a half lemon while reading her Sunday newspaper.

The Rev. Ian Herring declared that ordaining women would be analogous to consecrating a meat pie on God’s altar, and the Rev. Donald Howard said that ‘a woman’s highest calling was to be a helpmate for her husband’.

Billy McMahon, a regular supplicant, said that it was legitimate to pray for an election victory. Harry M Miller thought it would be ‘wonderful’ if the Saviour of Mankind ‘sat on the edge of the moon’ to watch the production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane wanted to canonise Don Chipp after the Minister for Customs gave one of his better agony performances when denouncing the Little Red School Book.

A Sydney actress said that in advertising terms ‘an intellectual is anybody who reads a morning newspaper’. After Qantas sacked staff in April–May, and the government praised Qantas staff morale and loyalty, a management consultant commented: ‘unfortunately, human beings tend to respond to negative incentives, such as dismissal’.

The NSW Minister for Cultural Activities thought that the Opera House should be ‘a popular venue for lovers, a Mecca for businessmen and a source of wonder for children’. Whereas Sydney’s Lord Mayor-elect said that Australia was built on ‘meat pies, sausages and galvanised iron’, David Frost, the British television personality, thought it was a place where ‘McMahon is prime minister, Her Majesty is queen and Dennis Lillee is king’.

The publicity manager of the makers of Concorde said that there was nothing in the Australian desert ‘except a couple of Abos and plenty of kangaroos’. Arthur Calwell declared that ‘no red-blooded Australian wants to see a chocolate-colored Australia’. The then Mayor of Port Lincoln said he had nothing against Aborigines but asked: ‘How would you like them to live next door?’ Charles Court, the Leader of the WA Opposition, said that if he ‘were a Bantu or negro or whatever you call the Black people in the African continent, I would make a beeline for South Africa. There you have peace and someone to look after you.’

When McMahon set 2 December, the anniversary of the battle of Austerlitz, as the date for the federal election, Whitlam noted that, while not wanting himself to assume ‘the mantle of Napoleon’, the victor on that day in 1805 inflicted a crushing defeat upon ‘a ramshackle reactionary coalition’.

Quotations included in this paper are historical and reflect attitudes of the time. They are not endorsed nor intended to cause offence.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019