Events and issues that made the news in 1968

by Ian Hancock

The year 1968 was a tumultuous one in the world beyond Australia. Student riots in Paris almost pulled down President de Gaulle; demonstrations in Britain, Italy, Japan and Mexico also threatened the established order; and protests contributed to Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from the Presidential race and destroyed any chance of his Democratic successor entering the White House.

Political events

Not that Gorton himself was dull. Elected by the Liberals in January to replace Harold Holt, after John McEwen, the Leader of the Country Party, had ruled out serving under William McMahon, he defeated the more experienced, more qualified but dour Paul Hasluck, the preferred candidate of the Party establishment. From that moment Gorton defied every prediction and most conventions.

He split the Cabinet Office from the Prime Minister’s Department, promoting Lennox Hewitt to head the latter, and shifted John Bunting to the new position of Cabinet Secretary. He changed the Ministry by elevating supporters (including Malcolm Fraser and the requisite Catholic in Phillip Lynch), and dumping two apparent ‘failures’ (Don Chipp, a later ally, and Peter Howson, a permanent critic).

Within months he was quarrelling with the two powerful Liberal Premiers – Askin of NSW and Bolte in Victoria – and was making it plain that this self-proclaimed nationalist, centralist and populist was bent on defying the Liberal Party’s federalist traditions.

At best, Gorton was an enigma: loquacious when silence was advisable, silent and invisible when both words and action were needed. His undoubted down-to-earth appeal as the larrikin, assisted initially by television and his own convoluted sentences, enabled him to carry the Party and public opinion with him for most of 1968.

Close observers, a number of Cabinet colleagues and backbench dissidents saw a different Gorton – sometimes indiscreet, often indecisive, occasionally incompetent – but his unsuitability for the highest political office remained a secret to most Australians.

His government, and especially Lynch as Army Minister, looked accident-prone. The ‘water torture’ case – when the government at first denied and then tried to play down allegations of a breach in the Geneva Convention in the interrogation of a female Viet Cong suspect – produced just one of several rash statements during 1968 which had to be withdrawn, revised or talked down. And it hardly helped that cost blow-outs and delays kept the F-111 fiasco on the front pages, or that the second Voyager enquiry further exposed the Navy to criticism while exonerating the hapless Captain Robertson, or that the DLP kept forcing embarrassing backdowns.

Fortunately, for the government, Labor had its familiar problems. Having chosen their best Leader since Chifley, it was very important to contain him. Gough Whitlam’s determination to reform the Party was frustrated by the Left’s control of the Federal Executive which, in turn, protected its unreformed and neanderthal Victorian State counterpart.

On 17 April the Executive refused to accept the credentials of a Whitlam supporter, Brian Harradine of the Tasmanian branch, who had compounded the felony of a suspected DLP background by claiming that ‘the friends of the communists’ wanted to silence him.

Whitlam promptly resigned as Leader and re-contested the position at a special Caucus meeting on 30 April. Jim Cairns, who stood against him, denounced Whitlam’s ‘intellectual arrogance and dangerous folly’, and asked the question ‘Whose party is this – his or ours?’. Caucus narrowly re-elected Whitlam by 38 votes to 32, effectively becalming him for most of the year.

The economy

Officially, the economy was ‘buoyant’, with an 8 per cent growth in GDP in 1967-8. Private spending rose sharply (especially for cars and consumer durables), average weekly earnings continued to rise by 6 per cent, and private fixed investment leapt by 11 per cent in 1967-8. The drought had ended, so a sharp rise in rural income and production was expected.

The only real worries were the increasing pressures on cost and price inflation, a tightening of the labour market, and industrial unrest in the Commonwealth Public Service and the Post Office. Cabinet also noted that there had been no review of tax scales since 1954-5; politically and economically there were grounds for reducing the burdens on lower and middle income groups.

The long boom looked to be everlasting. The share market flourished (BHP reached $25.75), but faltered in September, then leapt ahead. Overall, the All Ordinaries Index rose 20 per cent over 1968. Shares in a company called Poseidon, listed on the Adelaide Exchange, could be bought in December for 48 cents each.

The Treasurer wanted a ‘compassionate’ budget, so single aged and invalid pensioners received an extra dollar to get $14.00 a week. Meanwhile, some 700,000 people in Sydney lived in unsewered homes, 17 per cent of Australians had no health cover, and a quarter of the total population lived on less than $58 a week.

South-East Asia

It was apparent in 1968 that significant changes were taking place in South-East Asia. Prosperity and stability were critical, and leading Americans – both Democrat and Republican – were talking freely of an honourable withdrawal from Vietnam and of a post-Vietnam Asia.

On 12 January George Thomson [British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs] confirmed in private session with senior ministers that the British government would withdraw all its forces east of Suez by 31 March 1971.

The British later extended the date but Cabinet now had to consider its own level of commitment to the defence of Malaysia-Singapore and, while keeping its options open, to extract some form of American promise of military involvement in the event of a further crisis.

This situation was complicated by the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam at the end of January which undermined optimism about a military victory. President Johnson’s eventual response was to announce a halt to the bombing of much of North Vietnam, and his own withdrawal from the Presidential race. An embarrassed Australian government – a strong supporter of the bombing – heard of the first decision just the day before it was announced, and Gorton heard of the second on the radio.

The Australian government was now boxed into supporting the peace talks in Paris. It also wanted to support the United States militarily in South Vietnam while avoiding – for budgetary, political, economic and defence capability reasons – increasing the Australian involvement.

The major consideration in 1968 was not South Vietnam, where Australians were dying in increasing numbers (19 of them in May), but – as always – to ensure that the Americans maintained their commitment in South-East Asia. So, Gorton could tell Cabinet on 4 June, following his visit to Washington, that the Americans would stay in South-East Asia after the Vietnam War, provided that Australia kept at least a token force of ground troops in Malaysia/Singapore.

Yet Australian support for such forward defence, supported in Cabinet by Fairhall and Hasluck, was apparently opposed by Gorton’s fortress Australia policy (though, in the case of the latter, it was hard to tell what he thought because of an inability to enunciate and follow clear objectives). By year’s end, however, defence policy appeared to favour defending the outer perimeter.

Aboriginal land rights

One, apparently minor, issue in 1968 had long-term implications. In 1966 some Gurindji people had walked off the Wave Hill Station leased to Vesteys in the Northern Territory. Complaining, ostensibly, about rates of pay, they occupied land at Wattie Creek which they now claimed as of right. The Governor-General had rejected an appeal in 1967 to return 500 of the 6,000 square mile Vesteys’ lease to the Gurindji. On 7 May 1968 Cabinet considered a proposal to excise Wattie Creek from the lease.

An ad hoc committee [of Cabinet] recognised that a major issue of policy was involved: would acceptance of claims to ancestral lands make Aboriginal groups independent and self-supporting, or would encouragement of such enclaves lead to segregation and the erosion of the established policy of assimilation?

Cabinet thought that the Wattie Creek proposal would be seen as a departure and as a new principle and that, ‘no matter how it was hedged’, the concession would constitute a precedent for other Aboriginal groups which could be seized upon by the Communists (that is, Frank Hardy).

Returning to the matter on 2 July, Cabinet heard oral submissions from Bill Wentworth, the Minister in charge of Aboriginal Affairs under the Prime Minister, and Peter Nixon, the Minister for the Interior. It resolved to develop the Wave Hill Commonage, not Wattie Creek, as a residential centre and eventually as a township.

In the event, the Gurindji refused to move. In 1975, when Gough Whitlam formally handed over 3,000 square kilometres to the Gurindji in perpetuity, south-eastern Australia acknowledged something which, in 1968, was inconceivable.

Cabinet also determined on 2 July 1968 the broad principles of Aboriginal policy. The ultimate objective remained that of assimilation, of a single Australian community. While it might take generations to achieve this objective, Cabinet agreed to avoid any proposals which, by identifying Aboriginal people as a group and separating them permanently apart from other Australians, were likely ‘to have the effect of acknowledging and establishing a policy of continuing separate development leading to an eventual racial problem’.

Instead, the Commonwealth would assist the States with unspecified sums for education, health and housing to help Aborigines to overcome the handicaps on the road to full assimilation.

It was also the year when...

Carlton won its first VFL flag in 21 years, South Sydney created false hopes of a ruling dynasty to replace St George, Rain Lover won the first of consecutive Melbourne Cups, Australia came ninth with 17 medals at the fraught Mexico Olympics, and Lionel Rose – described by the Melbourne Sun as ‘a likeable Aboriginal’ – won the world bantam weight title.

Twice daily suburban postal deliveries were abolished; Ansett-ANA became Ansett Airlines of Australia and a Viscount crashed in December near Port Headland, killing 26 passengers and crew; the standard gauge line from Perth to Kalgoolie was completed; the first section of the Tullamarine freeway was opened; a referendum in Tasmania approved the proposed Wrest Point Casino; Joh Bjelke-Petersen became Premier of Queensland and Steele Hall Premier of South Australia.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 came to Australia, and so did Elivra Madigan, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, To Sir with Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the ABC began screening The Forsyte Saga.

The Pope declared that Catholics should not use the Pill, the Australian Methodist Church agreed that women could be trained for its Ministry, and the Mayor of Brisbane, Clem Jones, announced that theatres, theatre restaurants, cinemas and drive-in cinemas could open on Sundays.

Arguments continued about the siting of the new Parliament House but John Gorton persuaded Cabinet to construct a water fountain in Canberra as a memorial to Harold Holt. Zara pronounced the scheme to be ‘wet’, and asked instead for national parks in each State to be named after the late Prime Minister.

At Sydney University 14.5 per cent of students voted informal on the question ‘Are You a Virgin?’. A narrow majority said ‘Yes’. Another survey found that 66 per cent of young people believed in God, and the Daily Mirror said it was proud of them. Meanwhile, a Gallup Poll found that 40 per cent of respondents favoured Australia becoming a republic, up from 28 per cent in 1966.

John Laws announced that he was making more money than Graham Kennedy, Don Lane was still king of TV vaudeville, Robert Hughes told Australians why he had left the country in 1964 and had stayed away, Margaret Whitlam said that Jim Cairns was ‘a very nice bloke’, Courage beer joined the market, a Customs official in Sydney asked Marlene Dietrich if she was carrying marijuana, and Americans on R&R began arriving in Australia.

Old Australia was unrepentant. Billy Snedden, the Minister for Immigration, said that Australians, and certainly the government, did not want a multiracial society. Sir Horace Petty, the Victorian Agent-General in London, explained that ‘the trouble comes when a black man marries a white woman. No one worries if a white man is silly enough to marry a black woman’.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019