Events and issues that made the news in 1971

The following paper has been prepared by Ian Hancock, BA (Melb), BPhil (Oxon), Visiting Fellow, Dictionary of Biography, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University and the National Archives historical consultant.

During 1971 new attitudes demanded new policies, and old arguments defending restraint were being jettisoned or seriously questioned.

To their supporters, Gough Whitlam and Labor seemed to capture and express the new public mood more effectively than the government. Yet, whether it was Don Chipp, as Minister for Customs, allowing the import of sex aids, or Cabinet discussing the recognition of Communist China and changes to Aboriginal policy, the Coalition government either moved with, or followed (somewhat hesitantly) behind, the considerable changes taking place in majority public opinion.

Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution 'as it appeared to Enthusiasts': 'Bliss was it to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!'  Remarkably, however, what Donald Horne once called The Time of Hope, was experienced across the generations.


The excitement took a different form in the upper levels of the Liberal Party. On 10 March, following the resignation of Malcolm Fraser as Minister for Defence, the Liberals voted 33-33 on a confidence motion in John Gorton's leadership. Gorton gave a casting vote (to which he was not entitled under Party rules) against himself, and the party elected William McMahon, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to replace him.

Defeated by the more conservative elements of the party, Gorton surprisingly nominated for, and won, the deputy leadership. His relationship with McMahon smouldered until, in August, it blew up when Gorton began publishing articles under the title of 'I did it my way'. Having already sacked Les Bury, his Minister for Foreign Affairs (and, typically, lied by claiming that the Minister had actually resigned), McMahon now screwed up the courage to demand Gorton's resignation from Cabinet as Minister for Defence. Gorton had referred in two short paragraphs to the problems he had of Ministers leaking information from Cabinet. McMahon, the government's serial leaker, decided that Gorton had to go because he had breached Cabinet solidarity by suggesting that ministers had breached Cabinet solidarity.

Gorton's departure did nothing to dilute the poisonous atmosphere within the Liberal Party, especially as Gorton and his dwindling band of open supporters were now convinced McMahon wanted to 'de-Gortonise' government policy. Two of Gorton's pet projects – the establishment of a film and television school, and Commonwealth control over Australia's territorial sea and continental shelf – were placed on the backburner. By the end of 1971 the Liberals were not a happy band of pilgrims.

Labor, on the other hand, was confident of winning power in the election to be held in the following year.  Whitlam had successfully overcome internal opposition to his leadership and isolated the leftist ideologues in State Labor organisations (notably in Victoria). With much of the media in adoring support, and McMahon becoming an object of ridicule (including on his own side of politics), 'the coming of Gough' seemed inevitable.

The economy

It was evident during 1971 that the economy was heading into serious difficulty. The collapse of the Minsec conglomerate early in the year signalled the end of the mining boom, the annual rate of inflation rose to nearly 7 per cent, the 9 per cent wage increase allowed under the Metal Trades Award looked ominous, and unemployment was rising towards what was then considered to be the politically intolerable level of 2 per cent.

By the end of the year, BHP and General Motors Holden were cutting production, business confidence had hit a new low, and the government seemed unable to decide whether to apply or release the brakes. On the same day in November, Billy Snedden, the Treasurer, appeared to advocate the introduction of a prices and incomes policy, while saying that the failure of such a policy could worsen the situation.

Currency exchange issues almost broke the McMahon government in December when the Country Party threatened to leave the Coalition if its demands to peg back any revaluation of the Australian dollar against the devalued American dollar were not met. For a government which prided itself on its capacity for economic management, and which kept denouncing the irresponsibility of Labor, its gyrations in the last quarter of 1971 were mind-boggling.

Aboriginal land rights

Although the Gorton government had increased Commonwealth involvement in Aboriginal affairs – to the extent of providing more funds for education, health and housing – it had resisted pressure to alter the long-standing policy of assimilation or to entertain the principle of land rights. Yet, influenced by 'Nugget' Coombs of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs (CAA), McMahon committed the government on 23 April to assist Aboriginal people, either as individuals or as groups, to preserve and develop their culture. He also agreed to set up a ministerial committee to oversee Aboriginal affairs.

Four days later, Justice Blackburn decided that the Yirrkala people of the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory, who were in dispute with the Nabalco Company, had no legal rights to the land to which they were traditionally associated. There was a clear implication for other Aboriginal claims.

Under some public pressure, ministerial and interdepartmental committees in 1971 considered the issue of land rights. A clear difference now emerged between the CAA and Ralph Hunt of the Country Party, the Minister for the Interior. Whereas the former clearly wanted to abandon assimilation and to support land claims, Hunt insisted that any concession to the principle of land rights amounted to a policy of separatism based on race rather than need.

The issue became even more complicated after McMahon appointed one of his Liberal Party supporters, Peter Howson, to the new portfolio of Environment, Aborigines and the Arts.  Howson's task was not an easy one. A conservative, he was suspicious of Coombs as a leftist, felt frustrated by McMahon's curious dependence on Coombs (his 'kind of guiding philosopher'), wanted to please the Country Party and yet sensed a change in public opinion and of opinion within the Liberal Party.

By the end of the year, the mountain of paper, and the word-twisting arguments about leasing land and establishing special funds, did not disguise the crucial fact: Australia and its government, without consulting the Anglo-Celt majority, was moving towards the recognition of land rights for Indigenous people.

Foreign affairs

After nearly two decades of pursuing hard-line policies in the Cold War, the Coalition had to re-think its approaches. It was now committed to the gradual but total withdrawal from Vietnam, thus following American policy and domestic public opinion.

John Gorton, as Minister for Defence, kept questioning the conventional wisdom of forward defence planning, including the maintenance of expensive bases in Malaysia and Singapore. The crucial emerging issues in 1971 were the formal recognition of China, its possible admission to the United Nations and the future of Taiwan. The Nixon administration had taken the lead in making diplomatic contact with China's Premier, Chou En-lai and opening the way for trade between the two countries. Australia, after years of trading with the Chinese, now had to consider how and when to abandon its policy of non-recognition. With wheat sales in jeopardy, Doug Anthony said on 2 February that he hoped ways would be found to recognise Communist China.

Labor, however, seized the initiative, announcing in April that a Labor government would recognise China. In July, Whitlam led a much-publicised delegation to the People's Republic.  McMahon accused Whitlam of making irresponsible statements while in China, but had to pull back when it was revealed that the Labor leader's China visit coincided with Henry Kissinger's secret trip to Peking. More embarrassingly, it was then announced that President Nixon would be going there as well.

The Australian government now had to find a formula for recognition and admission of China to the UN, without abandoning Taiwan, and while maintaining the pretence of now doing what it had long wanted to do.  It was judged within Australia as being overtaken by events and by Labor Party ingenuity. Worse still for its image, the government became so attached to the US policy of protecting Taiwan it sponsored American proposals for recognising 'Two Chinas'. A humiliating rebuff by the UN meant the government ended 1971 without having made any real progress in its own diplomatic relationship with China. Nevertheless, the Coalition had advanced towards a much more realistic policy than most of its members had favoured at the beginning of the year.

The year 1971 was also the one when...

Silver Knight won the Melbourne Cup, Hawthorn the VFL Grand Final, and South Sydney its consecutive Rugby League premiership.  Shane Gould, the swimmer, was declared the Australian Sportswoman of the Year.

The Springboks toured Australia. Although they won the series 3–0 on the field, opinion was divided over whether the police or the demonstrators emerged victorious on the other side of the fence.

Qantas flew its first 747B jumbo jet and an extortionist tried to collect $500,000 by offering information about a bomb on one of its planes; Ralph Sarich developed a two-stroke orbital engine; three weekly papers – the National Times, the Sunday Australian, and the Sunday Observer (Melbourne) – made their first appearance; and Jack Mundey's 'green bans' saved Kelly's Bush in Hunters Hill.

Neville Bonner, who became the first Aboriginal person to sit in an Australian Parliament, announced that he was no 'Uncle Tom'; and the Turkish Ambassador reassured Australians by underlining a point he said everyone knew: 'the Turkish people are white'.

Sir Henry Bolte notched up his 6,000th day as Premier of Victoria.  'Chips' Rafferty died, and so did Robin Boyd, Frank Clune and Kenneth Slessor. Clifton Pugh won the Archibald prize with his portrait of Sir John McEwen.

Sonia McMahon wore a figure-hugging dress split to the thigh to a White House dinner; Bob Dyer announced his retirement from Australian television; 'My Sweet Lord' became the most popular hit; and Johnny Young launched 'Young Talent Time'.

The maker of artificial Christmas trees said that his product was designed to fit into the back seat of a Holden car: 'What', he asked, 'could be more Australian than that?'

Words of wit and wisdom

Billy McMahon wrote the following in the Reader's Digest: 'The world has suddenly grown small as it spins furiously down the ringing grooves of change.'  Malcolm Fraser said 'Life is not meant to be easy'. Lang Hancock explained how 'the greed of capitalism' was 'the only driving force there is', and predicted that conservation would become a dirty word just like mining was in 1971.

The Federal President of the ALP proposed the introduction of the half cent coin as a means of curbing inflation. The head of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission said it 'is more important to limit the world's population than to limit nuclear explosives'. Alan Fraser from the Labor Party said if inaccuracy were to be made an offence amounting to contempt of Parliament, 'then we will have the whole Press Gallery at the bar of the House at least once every week'.

In the year when the 'R' certificate for films was introduced, a Queensland Labor MP clearly wanted something similar applied to universities. He wondered 'how much longer must students have to put up with filthy tutors who seem to believe they are being paid by the taxpayer to embarrass and distress the morals of decent young girls'. The guardians of morality even wondered about the propriety of allowing Michelangelo's 'David' to tour Australia.  On the other hand, during a debate on caning, a Sydney University psychology lecturer said he regarded such sexual perversions as reasonable between consenting adults in private, but an unnecessary vice to employ on children.

Gough Whitlam provided the quote of the year: McMahon 'sat there on the Isle of Capri plotting (Gorton's) destruction – Tiberius with a telephone'. Margaret Whitlam almost made a surprising revelation when she declared that 'even Gough is getting rather gay in the daytime' (she was, however, referring to her husband's sartorial habits).

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019