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The 1970s in context - Overview

The social upheaval and political drama of the 1960s continued throughout the 1970s. In many cases, these protests were part of wider social and political movements taking place in other Western countries.

Australian perspectives on immigration, war, sexual morality, the role of women and the environment were undergoing radical change. In 1974, the White Australia Policy was scrapped. Throughout the decade, women won the right to equal pay and maternity leave and Indigenous peoples made progress on land rights. In 1972, Australian troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and in 1975, the nation was rocked by the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

1972 - Withdrawal from Vietnam

War had been raging between communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam since 1959. Australian troops had been sent to serve alongside American forces in 1965, in an effort to help stop the spread of communism. Many of these troops were conscripted, which meant their military service was compulsory.

Opposition to the Vietnam War was high in the early 1970s. Many Australians began to doubt that the war would ever be won and strongly opposed the government's policy of conscription, or compulsory military service. On 8 May 1970, over 200 000 people around Australia gathered in cities to demonstrate against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Australian soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1972. In total, around 50 000 Australians had served in the conflict. Around 3000 were wounded and almost 500 were killed.

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1972 - 1975: The Whitlam era

In 1972, Gough Whitlam's Labor government came to power. His range of radical reforms appealed to the millions of baby boomers who had grown tired of 23 years of conservative Liberal rule.

Gough Whitlam installed major changes across the fields of health, education, immigration, Indigenous rights, foreign affairs and industrial relations. He withdrew all Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished the White Australia Policy and increased funding for the arts. Whitlam also introduced free university education and lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18, giving Australia's youth a greater influence on the way their country was governed.

Despite his successful reforms, Gough Whitlam faced increasing opposition. Many people believed that he had mishandled the economy and was responsible for high levels of inflation and unemployment. The Whitlam government was also involved in a series of damaging scandals, including the Overseas Loans affair, in which the government was accused of attempts to fund its plans by illegally borrowing money from Middle Eastern countries.

In 1975, Prime Gough Minister Whitlam was dismissed by John Kerr, the Governor-General. The Governor-General is the Queen's representative in Australia. Many Australians had not realised that a British Head of State had the power to dismiss an Australian Prime Minister. The dismissal sparked widespread public outrage and became one of the most controversial events in Australian political history.

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Malcolm Fraser comes to power

Following Whitlam's dismissal, an election saw Malcolm Fraser's Liberal National Party coalition sweep into power. Fraser served as Prime Minister until 1983. He campaigned to abolish apartheid in South Africa and was a strong supporter of Indigenous rights. Fraser also allowed more refugees and people from Asia to migrate to Australia and supported multiculturalism.

Indigenous rights in the 1970s

large proportion of Indigenous people lived in poor conditions throughout the 1970s. Indigenous rights campaigners did, however, make some major gains in their land rights struggle. In 1976, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established. It was a law which recognised that in some circumstances, Aboriginal people had a right to claim control of land.

In 1971, Indigenous people were counted in the national population for the first time. The census found that there were 115 953 Indigenous people living in Australia. In 1976, this number had risen to 160 915.

Several Aboriginal people reached political prominence in the 1970s. Neville Bonner, for example, became the first Aboriginal Australian to be elected to federal parliament.

Multiculturalism and immigration in the 1970s

Since 1901, the White Australia Policy had prevented non-white people from migrating to Australia. In 1974, the policy was abolished. As a result, tens of thousands of people from Asia and the Middle East were admitted into Australia throughout the latter half of the 1970s. Many of the new Asian immigrants were refugees from the Vietnam War. At around the same time, the number of people migrating to Australia from Britain and Europe declined.

The 1970s was the era of multiculturalism. This meant that Australian society embraced various cultural groups, with their distinct languages, religions and traditions and granted them equal status. This was in contrast to the previous policy of 'assimilation', which stipulated that migrants should abandon their cultures and languages and 'blend in' to the existing population.

Australia's new multicultural policy challenged traditional ideas about what it meant to be an 'Australian'. A small number of people opposed multiculturalism. They believed that allowing cultural groups to retain their own identity would create divisions in society. Most people, however, believed that multiculturalism would have a positive effect on Australian life - enabling people to share cultural traditions like music, food and religion, and enriching the Australian experience.

Women's rights and working conditions in the 1970s

Women's rights and wages were high on the public agenda throughout the 1970s. Women continued to challenge traditional gender roles that confined them to work as child bearers and housewives, or kept them in routine, low-status positions.

In the early 1970s, women constituted one-third of the workforce, but were still paid less than men. In 1972, the Whitlam Government ruled that women doing the same job as men should be paid the same wage. In 1979 women also won the right to paid maternity leave. Few women, however, were employed in managerial or high-status roles.

Environmentalism in the 1970s

The alternative 'hippie' movement of the 1960s had been calling for a greater concern for nature for many years. During the 1970s, however, a number of factors saw environmentalism move from the fringes of society into the mainstream. The environmental movement was built around concern for various issues, including the following.

The 1973 / 74 world oil crisis

During the early 1970s, Australia, like the rest of the Western world, enjoyed cheap, freely-available petrol. Australia was particularly dependent on petrol, as the construction of sprawling suburbs since the 1950s meant that many Australians were dependent on their cars for transport.

In 1973, however, several oil-producing Arab countries announced that they would stop exporting petroleum to some Western countries. The Arab countries were protesting the support that the United States and its allies had provided to Israel in its war with Syria and Egypt.

Suddenly, oil became a scarce resource in Australia and petrol prices skyrocketed. Many Australians were shocked to realise that their everyday lives would virtually grind to a halt without oil. Concern about the exhaustion of the planet's natural resources increased and people began to make an effort to reduce their energy consumption.

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Environmental destruction

Several high-profile debates over the destruction of natural ecosystems brought environmental issues to the forefront of public debate throughout the 1970s.

Early in the decade, the Tasmanian Lake Pedder campaign hit the national headlines. The State's Hydro-Electric Commission wanted to flood the picturesque Lake Pedder in order to create employment and provide energy to the region. Although this campaign was eventually lost, it garnered much public support and saw the establishment of the environmental group The Wilderness Society.

The anti-nuclear and anti-uranium movements also gained momentum during the 1970s after France began conducting a series of controversial nuclear tests on islands in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, other interests were seeking to mine uranium from places like Kakadu in the Northern Territory, to supply nuclear power to Europe, America and Asia. Together, these factors prompted widespread protests throughout Australia and led to the formation of prominent environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, the Movement against Uranium and the Campaign against Nuclear Energy.

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Politics and the environment

Throughout the 1970s, public anxiety about the state of the environment was, in some cases, followed by political reform. Restrictions were placed on businesses to limit pollution levels and the logging of old-growth forests was curbed. Many areas, like Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef, were proclaimed National Parks, protecting them from mining and other forms of environmental destruction.


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