Out of the Cabinet

By Ian Warden

Get a different take on Cabinet records! This year, Canberra journalist Ian Warden has immersed himself in the policy decisions made by the 1980–81 Fraser government. In this Out of the Cabinet series, Ian highlights particular documents that captured his imagination and provides insightful comments.

Whales swim into Australian hearts

Scene from the whaling industry, Cheynes Beach Whaling Station at Frenchman Bay, Western Australia, 1970
Tens of thousands killed (A1500, K26479)

Whaling was Australia's first primary industry and tens of thousands of whales were harpooned up until 1978. Today, though, the hunting and killing of whales and the cruelty that involves is as abhorrent to most Australians as cruelty to dogs and cats. Australians were glad when in February this year the Japanese suspended their Antarctic whaling half-way through the season, hinting that Japan may be considering ending its much-deplored 23-year program of scientific whaling.

Cabinet records from 1980, made public by the National Archives of Australia, show Malcolm Fraser's government poised to act on a dramatic national change of heart about whales by banning all whaling in Australian waters.

A January 1980 Submission to Cabinet (Submission No. 3759) contained a draft Bill for a whaling-banning, whale-treasuring Whale Protection Act. The Submission was from the Minister for Primary Industry Peter Nixon and the Minister for Science and the Environment David Thomson. Cabinet accepted the Submission on 29 January 1980, agreeing to act quickly on this matter of top priority.

Phoebe pipes up

One whale-loving Australian whose feelings this proposed legislation enshrined was Fraser's own daughter, Phoebe. In his 2010 Political Memoirs, Fraser recalled that one day in 1977, Phoebe, 11, came home from boarding school deploring whaling's barbarity and demanding to know his opinion. Didn't he think whaling was cruel and should be stopped?

Portion of text from 1980 Cabinet Submission No. 3759: Proposed legislation for the protection of whales
Objects deserving our awe and respect (A12909, 3759)

A little later in 1977 and with that year's election looming, the evangelically pro-whale organisation Project Jonah presented Fraser with an anti-whaling petition signed by 100,000 souls. Fraser said in his Political Memoirs that by this time, Phoebe and Project Jonah were preaching to the converted because he already found whaling abhorrent. In a 20 March 1978 speech, in which he announced Sir Sydney Frost's Inquiry into Whales and Whaling, Fraser said 'I abhor any activity [that might threaten the extinction of any animal species] particularly when it is directed against a species as special and intelligent as the whale'.

The last harpooning

By the time of Phoebe's heartfelt intervention, commercial whaling had become almost totally unviable in Australia. A female sperm whale harpooned off Albany in Western Australia on 20 November 1978 was the last whale legally taken in Australian waters. In December 1978, Sir Sydney Frost reported his inquiry's finding that 'Australian whaling should end…and, internationally, Australia should pursue a policy of opposition to whaling'. Fraser was quick to accept this finding.

Exploding grenades

The inquiry's widely reported hearings had further entrenched the case against whaling. People were appalled to learn that a harpoon was fired from a 90-millimetre cannon and the harpoon itself carried a 20-pound grenade that exploded inside the whale. The inquiry had heard passionate testimony about whales' specialness and high intelligence – expert testimony was given about the amazing size and weight of whales' brains – somehow making their harpooning seem especially obscene.

Portion of text from 1980 Cabinet Submission No. 3759: Proposed legislation for the protection of whales
Providing for the protection of cetaceans (A12909, 3759)

Thar she blows…but don't interfere!

Submission 3759's draft Bill for a Whale Protection Act – which was followed very closely by the Act that became law in June 1980 – contained a provision for the repeal of the Whaling Act 1960. The contrast between the 1960 Act and its 1980 successor is an extreme chalk-and-cheese contrast, illustrating how very quickly Australians had come to appreciate whales' uniqueness and mystique.

In the 1960 Act facilitating (though regulating) whaling, whales are discussed as an unfeeling commodity, like coal. But in the 1980 draft Bill submitted to Cabinet the great, warm-blooded, singing, thinking, special and perhaps-as-intelligent-as-us leviathans swim majestically between the lines of formal legalese. In the draft Bill it has become a crime, attracting huge fines of up to $100,000, not only to do something so unspeakable as to kill whales but also to commit any kind of 'interference' with them. Interference was defined as including 'harassing, chasing, herding, tagging, marking or branding or attempting the above or similar activities that may reasonably be regarded as having an adverse effect on cetaceans'.

So whales had gone, quickly, from being hunted, maltreated things (about 600 were harpooned in Australian waters between 1976 and 1978) to being protected objects deserving our awe and reverence. Now, in the wake of Cabinet Submission 3759 of January 1980, we go whale-watching, required by law to keep our respectful distance from the whales and armed only with cameras.

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019