Events and issues that made the news in 1973

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


Every year is in some way turbulent, but not every turbulent year produces continuing aftershocks. The hike in oil prices, which followed the Arab–Israeli or Yom Kippur war of October 1973, had such a profound effect, not only on the world economy, but on practically everything from international stability to individual expectations, that 1973 can be considered a pivotal year in modern world history. Yet the oil crisis was just one event among many to occupy media attention that year.

The Nixon Administration continued to implode with each revelation about Watergate. Of lesser importance, and arising out of an unrelated matter, Spiro Agnew was forced to resign as American Vice-President, to be replaced by Gerald Ford. Arab terrorists blew up a Japan Airlines jumbo jet at Benghazi airport, the CIA backed a coup in Chile which led to the death of President Allende, there was another coup in Greece, and Idi Amin continued to slaughter real and imagined opponents in Uganda.

Britain formally joined the EEC on 1 January, the Vietnam Ceasefire Agreement was signed on 27 January, and Papua New Guinea obtained internal self-government with the promise of full independence in 1975. Sir Noel Coward, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Pablo Picasso, Betty Grable, Edward G Robinson, Arthur Calwell, Sir Arthur Fadden, and Ben Gurion were prominent among those who ‘shuffled off this mortal coil'. Of some future interest, Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips, and two Tory ministers in Britain were forced to resign because of sex scandals.

Whatever was happening abroad, however, and whatever the ramifications for Australians, the seemingly larger-than-life Whitlam government dominated the news stories at home.

Government and politics

Never before in Australian history, and never since, has a government been so prepared for comprehensive and fundamental reform, so determined to implement it, and so bent on doing it without delay. As Whitlam pointed out at the end of 1973, nothing that was attempted or achieved was ‘unexpected or unpredictable': the policies had been formulated and publicised well before Labor took office in December 1972. The objective was ‘to achieve basic changes in the administration and structure of Australian society'. As Whitlam himself defined them, the two ‘basic principles' common to all the reform programs were ‘the promotion of equal opportunity' and ‘the promotion of Australian ownership and control of our industries and resources'. The scope of these principles was extraordinarily wide, encompassing programs for, among other things, the cities and local government, racial and gender discrimination, health, education, social security, minerals and energy, migrants, human rights, rural industries, the environment, the national estate, and electoral law reform.

In furthering its objectives, the government in 1973 surpassed all its predecessors in terms of the number of Cabinet decisions reached in any one year, and the volume of legislation introduced and approved. At one level, the approach was measured and thoroughly Fabian: enquiries were established to identify and investigate problems, they reported, and the government acted on their recommendations by enacting legislation. At another level, the pace seemed frenetic as the whole process from investigation to implementation was foreshortened to months not years. Attempts were made to streamline and coordinate procedures – for example, appointing Cabinet committees to vet ministerial submissions – but the build-up of business was such that the government was constantly reconsidering its priorities, and in the process, sometimes upsetting individual ministers whose pet projects had to be temporarily shelved.

There was bound to be drama where a government was engaged in extensive and intensive social engineering, especially one which brought together men who had chafed in Opposition and had their own missions to accomplish. Some of them were old Labor battlers and solid toilers but the inexperience, wilfulness and impatience of others certainly enlivened politics and kept the Press Gallery in a state of excitement. There were occasions when ministers very publicly clashed with each other; for example, over the competing demands of developers and environmentalists and over approaches to inflation. On occasions, too, Caucus and the Labor's Federal Executive challenged Cabinet, while Bob Hawke – when President of the ACTU and of the ALP – openly opposed the government's attempt by referendum to control incomes as well as prices. Gough Whitlam was left to explain: ‘We both get on very well together when we are together'.

Over-the-top words and actions contributed to the theatrics. In January three ministers, who had no responsibility for foreign affairs, fiercely denounced President Nixon's resumption of the bombing of the area around Hanoi (Tom Uren spoke of ‘a mentality of thuggery'). Less obviously, except when he was lashing out at the ‘fat cats' in the public service, Clyde Cameron, the Minister for Labour and in many ways the government's stormy petrel, was apt to take swings at his colleagues and officials in upholding his version of Labor principles. In March, Senator Murphy, the Attorney-General, concerned about ASIO's inaction in relation to Croatian terrorist training camps within Australia and the state of security for the forthcoming visit of the Yugoslav Prime Minister, led a ‘raid' on ASIO's headquarters in Melbourne in search of particular files. Murphy's inadequate responses to questions in the Senate led to widespread criticism, boosted Opposition morale, and effectively ended the government's smooth ride with the press. In August 1973, Gough Whitlam admitted that the Murphy ‘raid' was ‘the greatest mistake' of his government's nine months in office.

If, at times, the government was not its own best friend, it was also thwarted by factors beyond its control. The States – both Labor and non-Labor – which had once objected to John Gorton's centralism, now turned on the Whitlam government in defence of ‘states rights'. Powerful and disaffected interests such as the medical profession, the defence forces, elements in the public service, the business community and the rural lobby looked in part to the Opposition to protect them from what they saw as an assault upon their livelihood, their capacity to function, their working traditions, or their standing within the community. Yet, after 23 years in government, the Liberal and Country parties had trouble adjusting to life without public service support, and failed to confront Labor's program with a comprehensive or coherent alternative. Moreover, Billy Snedden, who had been elected to succeed the hapless McMahon as Leader of the Liberal Party, lacked the stature for effective leadership or for uniting his often-fractious colleagues. He also had a habit of taking self-parody to a higher level. After visiting China, he announced that ‘our ambassador was keen to learn and he was on the edge of his seat when I stated to the Chinese my views and asked them theirs.'

Following the Country Party's decision to break the coalition, an unseemly stand-off ensued when Phillip Lynch, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, and Doug Anthony, the Leader of the Country Party, jostled for recognition and status. Anthony was certainly better than Snedden in taking on the government, though it took him six months to acknowledge the folly of going it alone. In any case, the Opposition had one great advantage. With DLP support it could obstruct the government's program in the Senate. By the end of 1973, the Senate had rejected 13 bills, deferred 10 and amended 2, leading the government to make frequent threats to call a double dissolution. The Parramatta by-election of 22 September – where an anti-government swing of 7 per cent converted a very marginal Liberal seat into a fairly safe one – probably sealed any prospect of an early poll. Significantly, in view of the future, one of the issues in the by-election was the government's insistence on pursuing a feasibility study for a second Sydney airport at Galston where the flight path might affect Parramatta.

The economy

Yet, even when it functioned well, and scored minor victories, the Opposition was less of a threat to the reform program than the state of the economy and Treasury's determination to combat inflation.

The Australian economy was coming out of a recession in 1973, assisted by revaluations of the Australian dollar and a decision on 18 July to institute a 25 per cent across-the-board tariff cut (the latter was described by the Australian Financial Review as ‘undeniably one of the most forthright and courageous economic decisions taken by any Australian government'). But a central question, which surfaced repeatedly in Cabinet in different guises, was how to balance Labor's reform program with Treasury's concern about inflation, the rate of which rose by 3.3 per cent in the June quarter. Frank Crean, Treasury's instrument in Cabinet, had warned as early as February that attempts to fulfil Labor's programs would threaten the government's capacity to present itself as a responsible economic manager.

One solution was to pare back some of the previous government's handouts and, to this end, the government set up a task force under ‘Nugget' Coombs, three of whose members – John Stone, Jim Spigelman and Paddy McGuiness – had interesting careers ahead of them. The task force eventually identified 141 areas where savings could be made, many of them involving the rural sector. During the pre-budget discussions Crean and Treasury presented inflation as the ‘daunting problem', arguing that a 15 per cent ($1.5bn) increase in outlays was all the government could afford. To meet the current bids before Cabinet, which amounted to a 23 per cent increase in expenditure, would require, Treasury insisted, an increase in taxation, but Treasury's own preference for a rise in income tax had been ruled out in the 1972 Policy Speech. In any case, some of Crean's colleagues challenged the assumption that inflation represented the main danger. Jim Cairns, the Minister for Overseas Trade and Secondary Industry, believed that the government should be aiming for the highest attainable rate of economic growth, and greater public sector spending, to generate the extra resources needed to implement its social and economic policies.

While the oil crisis and a wages blow-out in 1974 were largely responsible for the galloping inflation thereafter, the annual rate of inflation had reached 10 per cent by September 1973, that is, before the Yom Kippur war. Bill Hayden as Acting Treasurer – prompted, it seems, by the Prime Minister – submitted a hard-hitting Treasury paper designed to give Cabinet a ‘pretty fair jolt' about the deleterious effects of inflation. Declaring the current inflation rate to be ‘untenable', the paper argued that the source of the problem was domestic not foreign, that the main victims were members of Labor's own constituency, and that the solution lay in part in restraining government expenditure. Either the government must prune now or risk even greater cuts in its programs in the future. This proposition understandably caused considerable anguish, especially after interest rates had been lifted. So, at the end of 1973, ministers were torn between their commitment to change, the political need to establish credibility as economic managers and the simple fact that, whatever they did, Australians would be hurt. It did not assist their equilibrium to be confronted by Treasury officials who claimed that they were merely technicians asking for political direction, while resolutely rejecting every proposed alternative to expenditure cuts and tax rises.

Foreign relations

The Labor government's approach to foreign relations differed sharply both in rhetoric and in substance from that of its predecessor. Whitlam, who was also Minister for Foreign Affairs, made the departure plain on 24 May, when he said that the new approach was ‘towards a more independent stance' in international affairs'; Australia would be ‘less militarily oriented and not open to suggestions of racism' and would ‘enjoy a growing standing as a distinctive, tolerant, co-operative and well regarded nation'.

Having recognised Communist China soon after coming to office, the new government set about playing down the importance of SEATO (which did not altogether please Thailand and Singapore). The Prime Minister visited a number of east and south-east Asian capitals during 1973, as well as attending the Commonwealth Conference in Ottawa. The government canvassed the notion of a regional forum to include China and Japan, and it advanced the coalition's stand of neutrality on Middle East issues to the point of ‘even handedness' by supporting resolutions condemning the excesses of both sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The government was keen to promote a revised trade treaty with Japan, broader than the one signed in 1957, while the Japanese wanted the detailed treaty covering friendship, commerce and navigation which it had failed to obtain from the Coalition. In October the Prime Ministers of Australia and Japan agreed, in Japan, to establish a new arrangement but the Japanese remained anxious about Australia's ‘resources diplomacy' which lay stress on protecting Aboriginal rights in areas to be mined, Australian equity in ownership and development, a fair price for resources and more processing of minerals within Australia.

Inevitably, with the attempt to establish a ‘more independent stance', the nature and future of the Australian–American relationship occupied considerable attention throughout the year. Tensions in Australia's relationship with the United States had risen in January when the three ministers had fiercely denounced President Nixon's resumption of bombing around Hanoi. They subsided following Whitlam's visit to Washington in July where he showed that Australia's position was not anti-American, just pro-Australian (he told the National Press Club that Australia was ‘not a satellite of any country'); and the arrival of Marshall Green as American Ambassador. But in October, Labor Party unease about Australian access to, and control of, US bases in Australia escalated when President Nixon ordered a world-wide precautionary alert of American forces during the Arab–Israeli war – a decision which included the North-West Cape base – without officially informing the Australian government.

It was also the year when ...

The Whitlam government might have dominated news stories in 1973 but it was also the year when:

Manly won the Winfield Cup, Richmond the VFL Grand Final, and Gala Supreme the Melbourne Cup.

Fifteen people died on 8 March in a deliberately-lit fire at Brisbane's Whisky Au Go Go nightclub and, on 4 November, some 60 homes were damaged when a tornado hit Brisbane's south-western suburbs.

The Sydney Opera House and the Wrest Point casino were officially opened; Michael Edgley brought the Leningrad Kirov Ballet to Sydney; Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature (a Latin American writer announced, somewhat enigmatically, that next time they would probably give it to an African, an Arab or a Malay); Janet Dawson won the Archibald for her portrait of Michael Boddy; and the magazine Cosmopolitan was launched.

The postal service first used metric weights and measures, the F-111Cs finally arrived, 18-year-olds were given the vote, university fees were abolished, and the Rolling Stones toured Australia.

‘Dick' Hamer won his first election as Victorian State Premier and ‘Bob' Askin won his fourth and last in NSW, after which Neville Wran became Leader of the Labor Opposition. The irrepressible Francis James was released from four years' detention in China, possibly because he had exhausted the Chinese.

Abigail of No. 96 fame confirmed what some critics had long suspected when she declared that the casting couch was ‘not a myth'. A former Miss Australia, who had been appointed to conduct public relations on behalf of the Australian Medical Association, explained that women would listen to her views on the government's proposed health scheme ‘because people have a respect for Miss Australia'. The gold medal swimmer Shane Gould showed why so many respected her when she declared that, while ‘absolutely thrilled' to be named Australian of the Year, it was also ‘great' to have done well in her exams.

The art critics had a field day. A King's Hall attendant said of Clifton Pugh's official portrait of Whitlam: ‘It's an abortion.' A Country Party backbencher described ‘Blue Poles', purchased in 1973 for $1.3m, as ‘this foreign painting of accidental value', adding that the Prime Minister was one of only a few people who thought it would appreciate over time. Senator Murphy claimed that everyone would be a millionaire ‘if all that was needed to make a great painting was to be drunk'. Clearly, he had forgotten about the teetotallers.

A spokesman for the Community Standards Organisation said that, while the Police had not given permission for four letter words, frontal nudity and simulated masturbation in public performances, these things ‘are going on'. The Queensland Minister for Police described David Williamson's play Don's Party as ‘partly filth, partly rubbish and of little or no literary merit as a whole'. Meanwhile, the Queensland Police Commissioner said that the force ‘does not seem to attract intelligent people in times of full employment'.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019