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1980s - The 'me decade'

The 1980s was a decade of contrasts. The Australian economy was booming - property values skyrocketed and many businesses made large profits. Many people became pre-occupied with making money and of course, spending it. Fashion, music and television from the decade was glitzy, showy and glamorous. For this reason, the 1980s is sometimes called the 'me decade'- a reference to the prevailing climate of economic greed and consumption.

In October 1987, however, everything changed. All over the world, stock markets crashed and Australia went into economic recession. Businesses were forced to close, and many people lost their livelihoods.

Inflation skyrocketed in the 1980s, resulting in higher prices and an increased cost of living. Unemployment was also high - early in the decade, it was estimated that one in ten jobseekers could not find work. Various factors contributed to the high rate of unemployment. Leaps in technology had meant that many jobs had been replaced by computers, particularly in the manufacturing industry. Wage increases also meant that some employers could not afford to keep as many staff.

The environment in the 1980s

Amid the glamour and indulgence of the 1980s, many environmental causes came to the forefront of public debate.

In the early 1980s, the Franklin River campaign helped gather support for the conservation movement in Australia. The Tasmanian Government proposed to build a dam to produce cheap hydroelectricity, which would have involved flooding the picturesque Franklin River. A fiercely-fought campaign ensued, as thousands of people from all over Australia objected to the plans. In 1983, the newly elected Labor Government stepped in to prevent the dam from being built.

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Throughout the 1980s, more Australians began to realise that the environment was suffering under the weight of ever-increasing industrialisation and consumerism. Air pollution levels were high and decades of deforestation had led to major land erosion and salinity. Initiatives, like mass tree-planting and Clean Up Australia Day, were established in an attempt to address these issues.

Immigration in the 1980s

By the 1980s, migrants from all over the world had settled in Australia. Immigration rates peaked in 1988, when 254 000 people arrived in Australia. The nation's approach to new migrants since the 1970s had been one 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.

Multiculturalism challenged traditional ideas about what it meant to be an Australian. Large numbers of migrants from places like Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America and Africa filtered into Australia. Most people found that migrants enriched the Australian experience, enabling people to share cultural traditions like music, food and religion. Racial tolerance improved in Australia throughout the decade.

Interest in foods from other cultures increased in the 1980s and more people began eating out at restaurants. Foreign foods, such as rice and pasta, soon became staples of the Australian diet.

Land rights in the 1980s

The Aboriginal Land Rights movement gained momentum throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, Indigenous peoples began to make some gains in their land rights struggle.

In 1981, Indigenous people in South Australia were handed back ownership of more than 10 percent of the State's land and had the right to claim royalties from mining companies operating on their land. Other States like Queensland and NSW soon followed suit. On 26 October 1985, the Commonwealth Government granted land rights over Uluru, or Ayers Rock, back to its Aboriginal owners, under the condition that it would be leased back to the National Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years.

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Despite these gains, however, the living conditions of Indigenous people remained poor. The life expectancy of Aboriginal people was 20 years less than the Australian average and many suffered major health problems. A high number of Aboriginal people were unemployed and lived in sub-standard housing.

Bicentenary celebrations - 1988

The Bicentenary of Australia was celebrated in 1988, marking 200 years of European settlement. Throughout the year, many Australians participated in events that celebrated the nation's European heritage and culture.

In 1988, the World Expo trade show was held in Brisbane. Exploring the theme 'Leisure in the age of technology', the show was attended by around 14 million local and international visitors. Other Bicentenary celebrations throughout the year included an Australia Day re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Harbour and the opening of the new Federal Parliament House in Canberra.

Indigenous peoples, however, considered the Bicentenary as a time for mourning, not celebration. Many Indigenous people had suffered enormously throughout the two hundred years of European settlement. For them, the Bicentenary marked two centuries of misery and degradation.

Federal politics in the 1980s

Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser served as Prime Minister until 1983, when he was defeated by Bob Hawke's Labor Party. A former trade union leader, Bob Hawke was a popular, charismatic Prime Minister. Among his most notable achievements while in office, Hawke created a consensus between trade unions, businesses and the government in order to keep wage growth in check and promote economic growth. He would remain in power until 1991.

Ash Wednesday - 1983

On Wednesday 16 February 1983, following a period of extreme drought, Australia suffered its worst ever bushfire disaster. The day is now known as Ash Wednesday. High wind gusts and very hot temperatures fuelled the fires, which destroyed 520 000 hectares of land in Victoria and South Australia and burnt over two thousand homes to the ground. Seventy-two people were killed.

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Major international events in the 1980s

The Chernobyl disaster - 1986

On 26 April 1986, the world's worst nuclear power accident occurred at Chernobyl, in the former USSR. A nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station exploded, releasing a cloud of toxic radiation into the atmosphere. Many people died or suffered from radiation-related illnesses and toxic radioactive material was dispersed over a vast area. Suddenly, nuclear power and the impact of human activity on the environment became a pressing international issue.

The fall of the Berlin Wall - 1989

The year 1989 saw the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which had created a barrier between East and West Germany since 1961. The wall was 155 kilometres long, built of concrete and barbed wire and watched over by gunmen. It had been constructed at the height of the Cold War, in order to stop the defection of people from communist East Germany into democratic West Germany.

In 1989, sweeping democratisation of much of Eastern Europe saw the wall dismantled. This was one of the events that marked the end of the Cold War.


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