Events and issues that made the news in 1967

by Ian Hancock, BA (Melb), BPhil (Oxon), Reader in History, Australian National University, and Australian Archives Historical Consultant


Politically, 1967 was a calamitous year for the Coalition. After its massive electoral victory in December 1966, and a few quiet months, everything seemed to go wrong.

Harold Holt, the Prime Minister, was at his best when abroad in Asia. At home, he just seemed to flounder for a large part of 1967. Tensions within the Coalition over tariff policies did not help. Nor did further embarrassing news about the escalating cost of the F-111s and a politically ill-timed attempt to raise postal charges. The swollen backbench became increasingly restless, forcing a reluctant government to re-visit the Voyager disaster and to appoint a second Royal Commission.

The VIP aircraft affair was especially damaging. After questioning the cost of the fleet, and alleging private abuse of the privilege, a hostile Senate in October demanded a full disclosure of passenger manifests. Peter Howson, the Minister for Air, and Holt, had insisted that manifests were not kept beyond a few weeks. John Gorton, the government leader in the Senate, then tabled the full information. Had Howson and Holt lied to Parliament? Returning from a conference in Uganda, Howson confessed to negligence but Holt protected his friend, and himself, by keeping him in the ministry.

Worse still, for the Coalition, it was becoming increasingly apparent during 1967 that Australia was deeply mired in the Vietnam war. Protest was escalating and becoming more violent, dissident university students were planning to send funds to the enemy, and the vote-winning war of 1966 was threatening to be a political and financial liability.

Not that Labor had become a happy band of pilgrims. The Victorians and the Western Australians could still be relied upon to maintain their losing touch and to resist much-needed structural reforms. Yet, Labor had regrouped federally under Gough Whitlam who quickly became a formidable opponent. Even the Government conceded that his campaigning style was decisive in Labor's victories in two by-elections during July-August, and especially in Corio where Labor regained the seat with an 11 per cent swing.

Finally, the Government suffered a stunning reverse in the Senate election of November when it managed just 43.3 per cent of the vote against Labor's 47 per cent. At the time, the chief government whip was reportedly taking soundings about the support for the Prime Minister's leadership.

Holt himself disappeared into the surf at Portsea on 17 December. Every summer, Australians of all ages do foolish things in the water, and drown. Holt was not a strong swimmer, he had a sore shoulder, possibly wanted to 'show off' in front of two women, and had entered a dangerous sea displaying his customary fearlessness. He may have been stunned or dragged down by debris. He almost certainly miscalculated.

Yet the obvious explanations were not sufficiently momentous to match the gravity of the event. The conspiracy theorists explained that Holt was distracted by his political troubles, by rumours about the marriages of his three sons, and by the death of his brother Cliff. Perhaps he wanted to fulfil his premonition of not living beyond sixty, perhaps he committed suicide.

Yet those best placed in December 1967 to judge his state of mind remain adamant that Harold, the life affirmer, was in good spirits. In all probability the Prime Minister was just another statistic of an Australian summer.

External affairs

The Vietnam war, and related issues, dominated the foreign news during 1967 starting in January when Air Vice Marshal Ky, the Prime Minister of South Vietnam, visited Australia. Cabinet's worst fears, which Ky shared by offering not to come, proved groundless. Calwell and demonstrators (in diminishing numbers) sought to depict the visitor as a fascist butcher but the visit proved to be a public relations success. A relieved Government owed much to the acute, smiling and dignified Ky, and to his photogenic wife.

The bad news in fact came from London where the Labour government had decided during March-April to renege on earlier promises to maintain forces east of Suez. There would be an immediate reduction in its commitment, a 50 per cent reduction by 1970 and a complete withdrawal by 1975. Given that Australian forward defence strategy was based on an American presence in Indo-China and on the British remaining in Malaysia-Singapore, this decision caused a flurry in a Canberra which should not have been surprised.

All sorts of counter-arguments were tried: Britain's presence was essential to security and stability; contrary to London's opinion, 'white faces' would continue to be acceptable in Asia; withdrawal would be a blow to the progressive Asian nations and harm SEATO's credibility; Hanoi would take succour from the proposal; and American opinion would be affected. While claiming to understand Britain's economic predicament and the renewed desire to enter the Common Market, the Government even resorted to anachronistic appeals for Britain to retain her world power status.

Harold Wilson held firm. So Australia hit back: the British were told not to assume that bases were available to them on Australian soil, and McEwen said that Australia had written off Britain as an ally. Yet, by the end of the year, the Government was itself hedging over Malaysia-Singapore: it wanted its own forces to remain there but would not be pinned down on numbers.

For Australia was already stretched. Throughout 1967 the Government had hoped to contain the size of its Vietnam commitment. 'All the Way with LBJ' did not translate as large-scale human and material support. Yet the US envoys – Clark Clifford and Maxwell Taylor – who met senior ministers and officials on 30 July made it very clear that Australia should send another battalion. The Government dithered. It knew that an additional battalion would make no difference militarily, that Treasury was insisting on holding down defence costs, that there would be repercussions for economic development and the balance of payments, and that public support was no longer guaranteed. Basically, however, Australia's 'first and lasting consideration' was its position as an American ally, a position which 'must be hardened up at each opportunity'. And Cabinet agreed that sending ground forces was the best way to achieve that.

Even so, it wanted to stress that Australia had reached 'the practical sheer limit of contribution'. Holt would tell Johnson in October that to go further would be 'publicly unacceptable in the existing climate of opinion'. Significantly, he would also give more space in communicating with Johnson to Malayasia-Singapore than he did to South Vietnam, noting that the Americans intended to maintain their interest in the security and stability of South-East Asia generally.

One thing was clear by December 1967. With the British leaving South-East Asia and the war in Vietnam dragging on, the confident predictions and the certainties of 1966 sounded hollow.

The 1967 referendum

In May one of two proposals put to referendum – the attempt to break the nexus between the size of the Senate and the House of Representatives – was defeated. The other – to count Aboriginal people in the census and to enable the Commonwealth (outside of federal territory) to legislate on Aboriginal affairs – was overwhelmingly passed.

The Government was much more interested in the nexus issue. In August 1965 it had rejected the Aboriginal proposal but its hand had been forced by growing public interest and by Bill Wentworth's private member's bill. There were two key elements in the Government's attitude. First, officially, Australia did not have the race problems of other countries: there were 'occasional and unrelated acts of discrimination' which – when publicised – disappeared. Any discrimination which did exist was social rather than racial, and would dissolve when 'the habits, manners and education of the race more nearly approach general community standards'. So, a constitutional guarantee against racial discrimination – as Wentworth planned – would acknowledge something which did not exist.

Secondly, there was no great enthusiasm for Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal policy. It was generally agreed that, because the conditions of the Aboriginal people varied so much between and within states, it was sensible to leave Aboriginal affairs to the separate State administrations which were closer to the problem. Cec Barnes, the Minister for the Territories, went further: there were 'practical and political disadvantages' in the Commonwealth entering the Aboriginal field: if it took full responsibility it could be criticised for what it did not do; and if it remained aloof it would be criticised for doing so.

Not surprisingly, the Commonwealth had no major post-referendum plans. The Government intended to co-ordinate and consult and, in Holt's words, not to 'magnify the Aborigine problem out of its true reality'.

Domestic issues

Australia continued to enjoy the long economic boom and the mining boom was under way. The drought which had continued to affect the economy during 1966 was now a memory. An expansionary budget had helped to lift consumer spending in 1966–7 by 7 per cent. Dwelling construction had risen, the GNP was up – in real terms – by nearly six per cent and, for the first time in many years, there had been a simultaneous increase in consumer spending, public authority outlays and private capital expenditure. Unemployment had reached 68,000 but the government in mid 1967 looked forward to a three per cent improvement in employment growth, as well as increased productivity. The minimum wage had risen by seven per cent, inflation was around two percent (but suddenly rose during the latter part of 1967).

Although this was the third year in four when Australia had a balance of payments deficit, and although overseas reserves had fallen from £1,672m to £1,200m, Treasury and the government were confident about the country's economic future.

A measure of confidence was the November decision not to devalue the dollar in line with the devaluation of sterling. That decision also belies claims that Holt was already a beaten and weak leader. Coincidentally, McEwen was out of the country when it was taken but, on his return, the Country Party leader made his unhappiness very public. Holt told McEwen that the Liberals would govern alone if necessary, and McEwen had to be satisfied with promises to aid any seriously affected rural industries.

Minor steps taken during 1967 pointed to further breaches in the British connection. It was agreed in May that future appeals from the High Court to the Privy Council in matters of federal jurisdiction should be abolished, a decision held over from 1966 when Cabinet feared upsetting the British government. In August Cabinet agreed to drop 'British' from the cover of Australian passports, while recognising that it would have to amend the Nationality and Citizenship Act to change the designation 'British subject' on the inside.

Other domestic issues

Ronald Joseph Ryan, the last person legally executed in Australia, was hanged in February. In the same month the Hobart bush fires claimed some 62 lives, while the summer of 1966–7 was adjudged the worst cyclone season in Eastern Australia.

In 1967 Qantas dropped the word 'Empire' from its official title. 'Open-line' radio began in the same year, as did the 4-digit postcode system; STD calls were now possible in large parts of eastern Australia, and the ABC launched 'This Day Tonight' (its unhappy start being partly overcome when Holt declared that the program was 'not objective and impartial').

The Government considered extending the American R&R scheme to include Australia, while expressing concern about venereal disease and noting that 'a good proportion ... would be negroes'. Meanwhile, the Minister for Immigration was determined to maintain Australia's homogeneity and to 'retain our characteristic Australian identity'. He reported that the changes introduced in 1966 had not had any significant effect on the population mix.

The 'Swinging Sixties' were now making their mark in fashions and language and behaviour; Normie Rowe won the inaugural King of Pop award, and Johnny Farnham released his 'Sadie the Cleaning Lady'.

Bill Hayden feared that the cost of the contraceptive Pill was eroding the living standards of poorer Australians; Andrew Jones discovered that MPs were 'half drunk half the time', and then apologised for the insight; Don Dunstan became Premier of South Australia; and Henry Bolte, who had refused to relent on the Ryan hanging, won a handsome majority in the Victorian elections in April. A referendum to create a new northern State out of NSW received a 54 per cent 'No' vote.

Red Handed won the Melbourne Cup; St George did not win, or even play in, a Grand Final; Richmond started a new era by winning the VFL flag.

The Film Industry was not quite ready for revival. An Australian-American co-production – entitled 'Journey Out of Darkness' – was set in the outback. It was American-produced and directed, the main star was American, and it featured Kamahl and a blacked-up Ed Devereaux as Aborigines.

Australia was becoming a different country from the Age of Menzies but some very traditional assumptions and habits still held sway.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019