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1990s in context

As the new century approached, Australians living in the 1990s began to ask questions about the kind of nation they wanted to create. Change swept across all areas of Australian social and cultural life - multiculturalism was challenged, Indigenous land rights forged ahead and the republican debate questioned whether our ties to Britain had become outdated. Decades of industrialisation were beginning to be felt, but as the environment showed signs of distress, environmental groups gained strength.

After the excess of the 1980s, the Australian economy fell into recession. Unemployment and inflation rates increased and for several years, many Australians struggled to make ends meet. The economy recovered, however. John Howard's coalition government, which came to power in 1996, slashed government spending and implemented a wide range of reforms.

By the close of the decade, the advent of the internet meant that Australians had truly become global citizens. Many daily activities could be carried out via the home computer and Australians could instantaneously receive and share information with the rest of the world. The geographical isolation that had affected Australia since its settlement had all but dissolved.

Economic recession in the 1990s

Australia suffered under the weight of an economic recession in the early 1990s, sparked by the 1987 stock market crash. Inflation rates increased and unemployment hit record highs of 10 percent. Australians were forced to curb their spending, in stark contrast to the frivolous, free-spending society of the 1980s.

Watch the video on Australia's recession
 
The recession had a severe impact on the lives of everyday Australians. Many people lost their jobs as businesses fell on hard times. High interest rates caused mortgage repayments to soar and many people were forced to sell their homes. Some Australians lost their life savings as banks collapsed. Infrastructure projects ground to a halt, as the government could no longer afford to pay for facilities like roads, bridges or public buildings.

Federal politics in the 1990s

In December 1991, Paul Keating successfully challenged Bob Hawke to become Australia's 24th Prime Minister. Keating was a tough politician and an ambitious leader who was known for his colourful parliamentary speeches - once famously referring to the Opposition party as `scumbags'.

Throughout his term in power, Keating introduced Aboriginal Land Rights legislation and instigated national debate on the Republic issue. After four years, however, Australians had grown tired of economic hardship and record-high unemployment levels. In March 1996, Keating's Labor Party was defeated by John Howard's Liberal National coalition.

The coalition reduced government spending across many sectors, including training, education and infrastructure. Howard also introduced a wide range of reforms, such as restructuring Australia's telecommunications industry and implementing a goods and services tax (GST). The GST meant that tax was paid on almost all goods and services, which increased the cost of living. The personal income tax of most Australians, however, was reduced.

Indigenous issues in the 1990s

In 1992, the High Court granted land rights to some Aboriginal people. Known as the Mabo decision, the ruling marked a new direction in Australian land laws and a great leap forward in Aboriginal land rights.

The Mabo decision ruled Australia was not a terra nullius (empty land) at the time of European settlement and that land had illegally been taken away from Indigenous peoples. The ruling stipulated that if Indigenous groups could prove that they had been living continuously on their land, then they were entitled to claim ownership of it.

The poor conditions in which many Indigenous people lived, however, remained a problem in throughout the decade. Indigenous life expectancy in the 1990s was 20 years less than that of the average Australian.

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Immigration in the 1990s

By the 1990s, Australian society was a diverse mix of cultures from all over the world. By the end of the decade, it was estimated that over five million people living in Australia were born overseas. The numbers of people immigrating from Britain and Ireland had been overtaken by the rate of migrants from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

During the 1990s, around 100 000 immigrants settled in Australia each year. This included, on average, 7500 New Zealanders per year.

The large numbers of migrants living in Australia challenged traditional ideas about what defined an 'Australian'. Migrants introduced new cultures, traditions and stories to Australian culture. It became clear throughout the decade that the idea of Australia as a predominantly white British colony was long outdated.

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Multiculturalism was challenged when in 1997 a new political party called 'One Nation' emerged. One Nation, fronted by Pauline Hanson, criticised the increasing numbers of Asian migrants arriving in Australia and opposed multiculturalism and Aboriginal activism. The party enjoyed a brief period of popularity, but by the end of the 1990s, internal divisions led to the party's demise.

The republic debate

The republic debate was a hotly contested political issue in the late 1990s. Republicans believed that many of our traditional ties to Britain were no longer relevant and that an Australian president should replace the Queen as Australia's Head of State. Monarchists, on the other hand, believed in retaining the current system.

In 1999, a referendum was held to allow people to vote on the republic issue. Australians were asked whether they wished to establish the nation as a republic, with a Head of State appointed by Parliament. The referendum did not pass. While the majority of Australians supported a republic, they did not agree that Members of Parliament should be given the power to choose the President (refer Topic 6, Chapter 5).

The Port Arthur massacre

Australia was marred by tragedy on 28 April 1996, when a lone gunman shot and killed 35 people at the historic tourist site of Port Arthur, Tasmania. Australians were shocked by the scale and brutality of the killing spree. The Commonwealth Government acted quickly, implementing sweeping gun control legislation. Approximately 600 000 firearms were purchased back by the government and laws were changed to restrict gun ownership.

The environment in the 1990s

Environmental issues were high on the public agenda in Australia during the 1990s. Decades of industrialisation had led to high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and many scientists feared that global warming would soon cause severe climate change and rising sea levels. Landfills were becoming overloaded with waste and many people were concerned about air pollution, litter and the ozone layer.

In 1992, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 75 percent of Australians were concerned about the environment. Membership of environmental advocacy groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Wilderness Society was boosted to record numbers and political parties like the Greens increased in popularity. In the 1990s, thousands of people also participated in the annual Clean Up Australia Day, a community event that removes litter from streets, parks and waterways.

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The internet in the 1990s

As the 1990s progressed, communications technology like the internet delivered the world to Australia's fingertips, dissolving the geographical divide that had isolated the country since its settlement.

The personal computer became a common fixture in Australian homes and computer skills were considered a necessity when applying for many types of jobs. By the end of the decade, Australians could work, shop, entertain themselves, chat to friends and learn about the world from the comfort and convenience of their computer.


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