Events and issues that made the news in 1970

The following paper has been prepared by Ian Hancock, BA (Melb), BPhil (Oxon), Reader in History, The Australian National University and an historical consultant to the National Archives.

Abroad, and at home, the world was a restless place in 1970. The young in the West were embracing even more causes, Biafra died, Rhodesia became a republic, China was about to come into the fold, Egypt and Israel accepted American peace proposals, and the Vietnam peace talks in Paris stuttered and stalled. President Nixon withdrew more American troops from South Vietnam, but then ordered ground forces into Cambodia in late April – a decision which provoked more protest, including one at Kent State University, Ohio, where four students were senselessly killed by National Guardsmen. Australians, meanwhile, were earning and spending more, and a growing number were demanding that their country get out of South Vietnam.


John Gorton, in his third year of office, was confronted by a formidable body of political opponents and enemies. Aside from the Labor Party and the members of the Canberra Press Gallery, they included unusual adversaries for a Liberal Prime Minister: members of the Melbourne Club, the Packer press, several mandarins of the Public Service, the State Liberal Premiers, many State Liberal parliamentarians, key figures in the State Divisions of the Liberal Party, the DLP, and many leading businessmen.

Gorton was seen as an aggressive centralist in a party which claimed to respect State rights. He was also accused of making decisions without proper consultation. His supporters, however, admired his visionary nationalism, his commitment to development and to greater economic independence, and his belief that the Commonwealth should control national assets. Two particular initiatives in 1970 focused attention on Gorton’s reputation. First, the Prime Minister supported John McEwen’s proposal for an Industry Development Corporation. The objective was to raise overseas capital to boost Australian export industries, and to retain or regain control of Australian resources in Australian hands. The banks saw the Corporation as unfair competition, Treasury viewed it as an intrusion upon their bailiwick, and Liberal backbenchers thought it would become a socialist monster in Labor’s hands. Second, Gorton sought to assert Commonwealth control over off-shore, non-petroleum minerals. The States regarded the proposed legislation as a fundamental attack on their authority, revenues, and sense of self-importance. Liberal backbenchers, acting on behalf of the States, successfully delayed the Gorton strategy. By the end of the year, when the government won just 38 per cent of the primary vote in the Senate election, the vultures were circling around the Prime Minister.

Federal Labor ended 1970 in a better condition than at any time since 1946. Whitlam’s standing had been enhanced by the gains in the 1969 election and he managed to avoid self-destructive behaviour during 1970. The Labor Party’s Federal Executive took a significant step by disbanding the Victorian State Division and shunning the suicidal Left, while Don Dunstan returned to power in South Australia. Even so, the non-Labor parties held government in five of the six States, with Henry Bolte winning yet another election in Victoria. A relatively new Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, survived a leadership challenge within his own party by producing a dubious proxy vote.

Defence and foreign affairs

The government agreed not to replace the battalion due to return from South Vietnam in November. Generally peaceful moratorium marches drew large crowds in the capital cities in May and September, especially in Melbourne, and greatly enhanced the reputation of Jim Cairns. To Canberra’s delight, the new Tory government in Britain decided to keep a British presence east of Suez and a five-power agreement was negotiated for the defence of Singapore-Malaysia. The F-111 saga continued into 1970 with Malcolm Fraser, the Defence Minister, managing to re-negotiate a non-negotiable agreement to protect some of Australia’s financial investment should the aircraft prove unsuitable. While awaiting the completion of the F-111 contract, Fraser, who had previously advised the government to accept a flawed aircraft, arranged the lease of Phantom jets.

The government continued to wrestle with two issues thrown up by the Vietnam conflict. First, it tried – and failed – to find a workable civilian alternative to national service, thereby avoiding sending draft resisters to jail. Second, it sought to formulate legislation to deal with violent demonstrations, believing – probably correctly – that most Australians disapproved of political actions which were physically disruptive or destructive. The Attorney-General, Tom Hughes, laid down three principles which improved the proposals of his predecessor: namely, that any new offences in the legislation would have to be carefully defined; any legislation must safeguard the peaceful expression of opposition to legislation and government policy; and any legislation must be ‘reasonably necessary’. Although Hughes was determined that his ‘Demonstrations Act’ should not be open to criticism as ‘reactionary or retrogressive’, the Cabinet Office still questioned whether the Bill would infringe civil liberties. For its part, Cabinet liked neither the Bill’s title nor its timing, and further consideration was postponed until early 1971.

The economy

Treasury feared growing inflationary pressures because of increased public sector spending and continuing high private demand during 1970 (except in housing and motor vehicles), although higher interest rates had helped to reduce liquidity. The good news was the modest balance of payments surplus in 1969–70, assisted by strong export growth and a very high rate of capital inflow. The 1970–71 budget planned an increase in expenditure by 10.5 per cent ($742m) and a revenue improvement of 11.8 per cent ($836m). Wages continued to rise (by 8 per cent in 1969–70) and the CPI was rising by four per cent per annum.

Poseidon shares peaked at around $280 on 10 February and speculation continued in mining shares, but there were signs that the economy was over-heating, that the wool industry was in difficulty and that the long economic boom was tapering off. Nevertheless, the government felt confident enough, and sufficiently Christian, to remove the excise tax on communion wine at a cost of $41,000 in a full year, and sufficiently charitable to increase the old age pension by 50 cents a week.

Other domestic matters

The government argued with the doctors over fees, with Queensland over the protection of the Barrier Reef, and with the States over their desire to levy an income tax or some other form of growth tax. Gorton pressed ahead with political advancement for Papua New Guinea, despite problems within the Territory itself. Cabinet decided to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty but, fearing that the treaty might be ineffective in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and too effective in restricting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, agreed to withhold ratification. The planned nuclear power station at Jervis Bay was placed on hold while New South Wales and the Commonwealth bickered over operational control which Gorton saw as essential to ensure the full development of nuclear technology. Costs were rising, there were public concerns about the secrecy surrounding the project, and the head of the Atomic Energy Commission said that the power station could produce enough plutonium to build nuclear bombs and that Australia should keep its options open. The government considered creating a tourist facility and a national park alongside the power station to allay public fears about environmental damage.

It was the year when

Carlton came from nowhere at half time to snatch the VFL (Victorian Football League) premiership from Collingwood, John Sattler played most of the rugby league grand final with a broken jaw to help South Sydney defeat Manly, Greg Chappell made his test debut with a century in Perth, and the Boxing Day test against England was washed out without a ball being bowled. Baghdad Note won the Melbourne Cup, Great Britain defeated Australia in rugby league by two tests to one, and Margaret Court became only the second woman to win all four tennis majors in the same year. The swimmers were among the successful Australians at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Australia achieved its peak post war migrant intake of over 185 000; double-deck, air-conditioned electric trains came into service on the Gosford and Blue Mountains lines into Sydney; the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) went into partnership with the Melbourne store, Bourke’s; seat belts became compulsory in Victoria; padded post bags went on sale; Western Australia was linked to the national telephone network and nationwide TV relays were now possible; the first woodchips left Eden, NSW for Japan; and the NSW government decided to introduce motor vehicle emission controls in 1985.

The Beatles song ‘Let it Be’ topped the charts, Normie Rowe was declared the local ‘King of Pop’; and the Adelaide Festival featured Rudolph Nureyev and Robert Helpmann.

A Western Australian farmer re-named his property ‘Hutt River Province’ in a unilateral declaration of independence; the new international terminal at Sydney and the Tullamarine airport in Melbourne were both opened; the Metric Conversion Board was established; Bass Strait oil and gas fields came into operation and Australian crude oil prices were fixed for five years.

Nine Australians were killed in one incident in Vietnam on 28 February (‘Black Saturday’); thirty-five workers died when a section of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne collapsed; thirteen people died when Cyclone Ada damaged the Great Barrier Reef; and a train accident killed three people at Heathcote, NSW.

Leith Ratten was convicted of murdering his wife in northern Victoria; the secretary of the Rural Bank was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for fraudulently acquiring $5m; and an armed gang robbed a Mayne Nickless van in Sydney of nearly $588 000.

The Head of Newington College, Sydney, was forced to resign after calling on youth to defy the National Service Act; Humphrey McQueen published A New Britannia ; Eric Smith won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of Neville Gruzman, the architect; and Sir William Dobell and George Johnston died.

Paul VI made the first papal visit to Australia: Vice-President Spiro Agnew, Sir Keith Holyoake and Pierre Trudeau came to Canberra; Wilfred Burchett returned home; and Dick Gregory, the African American comedian and anti-war activist, was, on ASIO’s advice, denied an entry visa.

It was yet another year for wise words and sharp insights

Henry Bolte named Jim Cairns and Bob Hawke as two causes of the permissive society, and said he was as opposed to legalising homosexuality as he was to introducing poker machines. Robert Askin declared that, ‘of course’, a few police ‘don’t do the right thing’. Prince Charles likened the water off Elwood Beach in Melbourne to ‘diluted sewage’, prompting a local Mayor to say he needed ‘a good thump under the ear’.

When the Queen arrived in Australia in May for the Captain Cook celebrations a Sydney Morning Herald columnist announced that the question on everyone’s lips was whether she had brought enough warm clothing. After seeing the film which featured Mick Jagger in the lead role, a Glenrowan woman said she’d prefer a son to turn out like Ned Kelly rather than the Rolling Stone.

Billy Snedden described the organisers of the Moratorium as ‘political bikies pack-raping democracy’. A NSW State Liberal MP declared that the film ‘Easy Rider’ served the cause of Communist subversion. An American manager of a Northern Territory cattle station declared that Aborigines knew they would be dead men if they ‘bothered’ one of his girls, adding that he could get away with doing it ‘here’. The female Deputy Secretary of the University of Sydney Appointments Board said, in the year when Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch, that women graduates in economics ‘make very good assistants to male economists’.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016