Events and issues that made the news in 1969
by Ian Hancock
It was a year of remarkable contrasts. While Poseidon shares hit $200, and the material lifestyle of most Australians continued to improve, a government which presided over the mining boom was nearly defeated, a majority wanted the troops home from Vietnam and a minority committed acts of violent lawlessness. The important news from America – competing with Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, and moon walking – was that Richard Nixon was determined to extricate the United States from the Vietnam conflict. The Australian government, supposedly given to knee-jerk reactions, took a year to begin organising its own withdrawal.
The Liberal Party and the Coalition faced a number of internal problems in 1969. Principal among them were continuing questions over John Gorton’s fitness to lead the government. Edward St John took the high moral ground, and accused his leader of conduct unbecoming of a Prime Minister. Although the charges of impropriety were unfounded, and St John resigned from a generally unsympathetic Parliamentary Liberal Party, criticism persisted within the Party. Gorton was accused of making decisions without consulting Cabinet, or of not being sufficiently clear and decisive. His defenders, on the other hand, admired his charisma, warmth, and support for change, and saw him as a genuine nationalist in touch with ordinary Australians.
Gorton’s ‘centralism’ continued to upset many Party members who remained committed to the federal principle. In September a north Sydney branch published a resolution declaring that, if the Prime Minister ‘wants the loyalty and confidence of the Liberal Party, he should give his loyalty and confidence to the Party Platform’. The two senior State Premiers – Askin in New South Wales and Bolte in Victoria – openly quarrelled with Gorton over Commonwealth–State financial relations, forcing the Liberals’ Federal Council to set up a special committee to attempt a reconciliation.
Labor, under Gough Whitlam, was looking stronger though, by the end of the year, it was in Opposition in all States as well as in Canberra. Even so, Labor had entered the federal election in October with a raft of attractive policies on education, health and welfare, along with a promise to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam by the following June. By then, its major internal problem was the Victorian branch and its predilection for self-inflicted injuries.
The government was badly mauled in the October election, losing 16 seats (15 of them Liberal) and saw its majority slashed from 39 to just 7. The Coalition vote had fallen by some 6.6 per cent since 1966. Internal Liberal analyses blamed poor strategies and a highly personal press campaign against Gorton, while rejecting Gorton’s own estimate of his voter appeal. Andrew Jones offered the Prime Minister some consolation: not even Jesus Christ, he said, could have held his Adelaide seat.
Gorton lost three senior ministers in 1969 – Hasluck to Yarralumla, Fairhall to premature retirement, and Freeth, who had upset the DLP by playing down the Soviet naval threat in the Indian Ocean, to electoral oblivion. Two other ministers (McMahon and Fairbairn), the one habitually ambitious and devious, and the other critical of Gorton’s style, challenged for the leadership after the election. The Prime Minister secured just over half the votes in the first ballot. He then moved McMahon to External Affairs, elevated Fraser to Defence, and returned Chipp and introduced Cotton, Hughes, Killen, and Peacock to the outer ministry. He also removed the estimable ‘Bert’ Kelly and two of his (Gorton’s) 1967 allies in his bid for the leadership – Dudley Erwin and Malcolm Scott – both of whom were plainly out of their depth.
Some issues of the past carried over into 1969. There was the ongoing saga of the F-111s. Wearied of rising costs and repeated technical problems, the Government hesitated, and then decided not to cancel the order. Wilfred Burchett kept another long-running story alive with his further application to be given an Australian passport. Cabinet was in a quandary, eventually resolving that it would not either grant him a passport or document of identity or visa, and would not in any way facilitate his return to Australia.
Health insurance became a major issue in March with the publication of the Nimmo Report. The findings were disturbing: 17 per cent of Australians had no form of medical cover, 15 per cent had no hospital cover, many low income families insured themselves at the lowest possible rate, and the health insurance companies spent one quarter of their income from contributions on advertising and related matters.
Nimmo’s terms of reference did not allow recommendations for a universal health scheme – as sought by Labor – but the Committee did propose special assistance for lower income families. It called for a much closer relationship between hospital and medical fees and contributors’ benefit entitlements (the gap extended to 75 per cent in some cases where the insured was on the highest table).
To reduce costs wasted on competition, the Committee suggested that the funds should be zoned by regions, giving one organisation exclusive access to its designated region. Nimmo also recommended that doctors be required to inform patients of the cost of a course of treatment prior to them taking it, and to tell them whether the charge conformed to an agreed common fee which itself should allow a gap of just $1.00 between cost and benefit.
Not surprisingly, Cabinet prevaricated, and Dr Forbes, the Health Minister, spent the ensuing months placating the doctors. He accepted the AMA’s rejection of Nimmo’s proposed National Health Insurance Commission. In return, Forbes received a written assurance that the AMA would make every effort to advise and request doctors to observe a common fee on some 1200 medical services.
During 1969 the Government expanded existing social services and adopted new measures, driven by Gorton’s concern for social welfare issues, by the Welfare Committee of Cabinet, and by the flood of schemes emanating from Bill Wentworth.
A major decision in 1969 was to support the construction of a nuclear power station on Commonwealth territory at Jervis Bay. Cabinet’s principal reservation was not civilian safety but that the Commonwealth should not appear to be undermining the States’ role as suppliers of electricity. Treasury believed that the project would be too expensive, arguing that Australia had abundant and relatively cheap coal supplies. Gorton himself saw an opportunity for self-sufficiency as well as national development, provided that the Atomic Energy Commission relied upon Australia’s resources of natural uranium.
The boom conditions evident in 1968 persisted throughout most of 1969. There was a modest surplus in the balance of trade ($25m) against a trade deficit in 1967–68 of $218m and, assisted by a capital inflow of some $1115m, the balance of payments yielded a surplus of $155m against $78m in 1967–68. The Treasurer believed that the balance of payments situation could be maintained, provided inflationary pressures were controlled and there was no great demand for imports.
In June McMahon informed Cabinet that the Gross Domestic Product had risen by 8 per cent in 1968–69, compared with a 5 per cent rise in the previous financial year. Employment was rising, assisted by the migrant intake and an increasing number of females coming into the labour market, in the latter case encouraged by the equal pay decision of the Arbitration Commission which was strongly supported by Gorton.
Disposable income had increased by 11 per cent, so there was a real concern about a ‘big surge in excess spending’ which the Government tried to contain by holding down Commonwealth expenditure and reducing excessive liquidity through brakes on bank lending. But the Government was determined not to increase taxes or to reduce tax concessions and, above all, wanted to reduce the budget deficit.
The twin assumptions underlying Australian policy – the domino theory and the need to pay insurance premiums to the United States – were losing their significance. The friendly Asian states were now capable of standing on their own, and Indonesia no longer seemed to be a threat.
By mid-December, after Nixon announced yet another troop withdrawal, the Government announced an in-principle decision to bring troops home from Vietnam. Meanwhile the protests continued. Well-known moderates and radicals signed a Statement of Defiance encouraging non-compliance with the National Service Act. Believing that they had breached the Crimes Act, the signatories were disappointed when the Government failed to prosecute them, or to impose penalties on those found guilty when fellow signatories prosecuted their colleagues.
Cabinet wanted to act against violent protests. Nigel Bowen, the Attorney-General, acknowledged that existing Commonwealth and State laws were inadequate. He proposed a Public Order Bill to protect ministers, federal MPs, the representatives of other countries and Commonwealth and diplomatic premises.
Bowen planned to create new Commonwealth offences covering such matters as unlawful assembly, riotous behaviour, assault, threats, intimidation, trespass (other than trespass on prohibited Commonwealth land), and moving on of loiterers. It would remain legitimate to show in good faith that the government (including overseas governments) and individuals were mistaken. But the penalties for acts of violence were to be severe, including a year’s gaol for being part of an assembly with the intention of disturbing the peace. In the event, Cabinet wisely shelved the proposal, deciding merely to say during the 1969 election that it would deal firmly with violence.
Cabinet also looked into the possibility of giving men convicted of failure to obey a call-up notice, or to render service, the choice of undertaking approved civilian work for the same period as for national service. This measure would immediately apply to the two men currently imprisoned and the 25 who were liable for imprisonment. In the end, it decided that the matter was too confused and controversial.
The Government agreed not to withdraw the Australian police contingent from Cyprus, thus maintaining what one official described as Australia’s record of consistent participation in, and support of, UN peacekeeping operations and UN objectives. Gorton could also announce in March that Australia was increasing its aid level to Indonesia from $12.7m to $15m and was providing an extra $4m to assist development projects, a move reflecting ‘the great importance the Government attaches to helping its closest and largest neighbour to achieve a proper and adequate rate of economic growth’.
Other events - great and small
It was also the year when Balmain won what proved to be its last Rugby League premiership, Richmond won the VFL Grand Final, and Rain Lover the Melbourne Cup for the second successive year.
Johnny (later, John) Farnham was declared ‘King of Pop’; Lionel Rose was made Australian of the Year; Zara Holt married Jeff Bate; Ronnie Burns’ song, ‘Smiley’, brought the Vietnam war into popular music; Clarrie O’Shea of the Victorian Tramways Union was gaoled for five days after his union refused to pay fines for contravention of no-strike orders; and Ray Crooke won the Archibald with a portrait of George Johnston who, himself, won the Miles Franklin Award for Clean Straw for Nothing.
Rolf Harris promised that he was ‘trying to get off this Australian kick’, Jim Killen told the House of Representatives that he had swum ‘bare-arsed in the Condamine with Aborigines’, the ABC – fearful of further political criticism – reined in the young reporters on ‘This Day Tonight’; and Gerry Walsh publicly exposed ‘bastardisation’ at Duntroon.
In January, 23 people died in bush fires in Victoria, including 19 at Lara; the Southern Aurora crashed head-on with a goods train at Violet Town and nine people died; 21 crew members were presumed drowned after a cargo ship foundered off Smokey Cape, NSW; and 74 crew members of the USS Frank E Evans died after their ship collided with the re-commissioned HMAS Melbourne in the South China Sea.
The government refused to announce when colour television would be introduced. It did, however, decide that an Australian would be an ‘Australian Citizen’ rather than an ‘Australian Citizen and British Subject’.
A Glenrowan publican said that bringing Mick Jagger to Australia to play Ned Kelly was like sending Normie Rowe to England to play Robin Hood, except that Normie was a decent bloke. Not that local opinion really mattered. The British film director thought that Glenrowan ‘does not approximate Kelly country’, and shot the film near Canberra.
The ‘Swinging Sixties’ made the moral guardians more alert. Senator Scott confirmed the censoring of that part of the Swedish film I Love, You Love where it depicted a couple lying side-by-side with the husband stroking his wife’s face and her pregnant belly. The Senator found that these actions were of ‘a distinctly sexual nature’. An outcry greeted Portnoy’s Complaint even before it was released in Australia, Boys in the Band offended especially those who had no intention of seeing the show, and the on-stage nudity of the rock musical Hair provoked Russ Hinze, the Queensland Minister for Local Government, to claim that it was a play ‘for the sexually depraved ... homosexuals, lesbians, wife swappers and spivs’.
A number of leading Australians offered insights which perplexed their audiences, stretched their credulity or left them pondering profundity. Allen Fairhall said that the Vietnam War was ‘inevitably moving towards an unpredictable end at an indefinite date’; Lang Hancock announced that colour television produced far more dangerous radiation than any nuclear device; Clive Evatt QC surprised the Supreme Court of NSW when he said that Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been written by ‘the great Lawrence of Arabia’; Arthur Calwell declared that the Victorian State Executive was the Labor Party’s leading state executive; and Senator Scott informed the Senate that the only reason Tasmania had to rely on sea transport was that it was an island off the Australian mainland.