Stagnation and revolution 1

By July 10, 2022Australian Politics

The history of life on this planet is one in which there are intervals of time where not much happens. These are punctuated by events which completely change the trajectory of that life. It seems that a similar thing happens in our political system. While the title of this piece may in some cases be an overstatement, the alternative of ‘stasis and change’ is an understatement.

In December 1949, Robert Menzies was leader of the relatively new Liberal Party, which was created out of the ashes of the United Australia Party (no relation to Clive Palmer’s vanity project). Menzies led the Liberal Party to a victory in that year’s federal election with a 5% swing against the Labor government. The House of Representatives had been enlarged from 74 to 121 members and the Senate from 36 to 60. A new method of electing Senators was introduced for the 1949 election which resulted in a more equitable distribution of seats1.

The result gave the Menzies coalition government 74 seats and the Labor Party 47 seats in the House of representatives. Menzies remained as Prime Minister until he retired in 1966, winning the 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, and 1963 elections in the interim. After Menzies retired, Harold Holt was elected leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party (and hence prime minister). The Coalition, with Holt as leader of the Liberal Party, won the 1966 election, but Holt promptly disappeared the following year while snorkelling in Victoria. John Gorton replaced Holt as leader and won the 1969 election2

In early 1971, Gorton was subject to a no confidence motion within his party, and the vote was tied, so he resigned. He was replaced by William McMahon as leader of the parliamentary Liberal Party3, under whom the coalition lost government at the 1972 election, this time to the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam. The Labor Party obtained 67 seats to 58 for the Coalition in the House of Representatives. 

At the time, the Coalition government was seen as tired and bereft of any vision and lacking a legislative program. Under them, the nation was stagnating.

The Whitlam government was in office for a shade over three years, but was one of the most reformist governments Australia has had. It achieved a huge amount in that short time. It did the following:

  • Extricated Australia from the Vietnam war and abolished conscription
  • Created the Department of Defence from separate departments of the Army Navy and Air Force
  • Recognised China after the Coalition refused any contact with China for 24 years
  • Established Medibank (the precursor to Medicare)
  • Introduced the supporting mother’s benefit and welfare for homeless people
  • Mandated that Australian women doing work similar to that done by men should be paid an equal wage.
  • Divided the Postmaster-General’s department into Australia Post and Telecom
  • Set up the Australian Legal Aid Office and the Australian Law Reform Commission
  • Abolished legal appeals to the Privy Council in England
  • Abolished the death penalty for Commonwealth offences
  • Set up the Family Court and introduced simplified non-punitive divorce laws
  • Introduced legislation creating the Administrative Appeals Tribunal
  • Established needs-based funding for schools
  • Made university education free (I benefited from this. In my first year, my parents forked out over $600, but the following year it was mostly free)
  • Cut tariffs across the board by 25%
  • Established a precursor to the Productivity Commission
  • Passed the Trade Practices Act
  • A predecessor of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission was established
  • Introduced a National Sewerage Program to connect suburban homes to the sewer system (My Aunt’s place in Sydney used to have an outside dunny, the can from which the ‘shit cart’ would pick up once a week)
  • Reduced the voting age from 21 to 18.
  • Gave the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory representation in the Senate
  • Replaced ‘God Save the Queen’ with ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the national anthem
  • Replaced the British Honours system, with the Order of Australia system
  • Passed the Racial Discrimination Act 1975
  • Established the Department of Aboriginal Affairs
  • Drafted legislation to grant Land Rights to Indigenous people (subsequently passed by the Fraser government)
  • Handed Land title deeds to some Gurindji traditional owners in the Northern Territory in 1975
  • Established the National Gallery
  • Established the Australia Council for the Arts
  • Established the Australian Heritage Commission
  • Introduced FM radio
  • Established the Australian Film and Television School (a John Gorton idea)
  • Granted independence to Papua New Guinea4,5

The Labor Party also won the 1974 election, but the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser blocked the government’s budget bills in the Senate, such that the Governor-General John Kerr dismissed the government and installed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until an election could be held. The Coalition under Fraser won the 1975 election6. This was with the help of the Murdoch media. The latter was so biased that the journalists at The Australian went on strike7.

In many areas, particularly regarding national security, Fraser consolidated and extended the reforms of the Whitlam government8. However, there were a few reforms of the Whitlam government which Fraser tried to reverse. Despite promises to preserve Medibank, Fraser’s government undermined it. Medibank was abolished in 1981, but the Fraser government’s attempt to build an alternative based on private health funds degenerated into chaos, with four major changes to Medibank in five years. Again, large sections of the population were denied access to affordable health care9.

Part of the problem with conservative parties such as the Liberal Party is by their very nature, now that their ‘trickle-down’ economic model is in place, they want to keep the status quo. They do not want anything to change. When they come into power, they tend to want to change things back to the way they used to be. This, by its very nature, leads to stagnation.




  • Mark Dougall says:

    I am grateful to Gough Whitlam and his government for many things. One of the most important for me being that if he had not won in 1972 I may very well have been conscripted to fight in a war that even then I thought was disgusting. He possibly saved my life, and certainly saved many lives.

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