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The Commonwealth, Times of Change

Australian president, republican movement, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, multicultural Australia

After Menzies the Liberals’ fortunes began to wane. Beginning in the late 1960s, Australia experienced the waves of cultural change that swept through many of the Western democracies: the coming of political age of the postwar baby boomers, movements for women’s liberation and indigenous rights, and a growing awareness of environmental issues. A succession of lackluster prime ministers, public disenchantment with the Vietnam War (and Australia’s official support of U.S. policies in the war), and political exhaustion sapped the Liberals’ support. In 1972, uniting after years of internal disputes, the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam again came to power. “It’s Time,” the party’s campaign slogan, caught the mood of change. Whitlam immediately announced the return of Australian troops from Vietnam. In 1973 the government established an inquiry into Aboriginal land rights, the first step in a process that later led to commonwealth legislation on the subject. Whitlam’s ambitious program of social reforms, however, encountered strong opposition from Liberal state governments. In November 1975 the conservative majority in the Senate, alarmed by the government’s financial imprudence, precipitated a constitutional crisis that culminated in the dismissal of the Whitlam government by governor-general Sir John Kerr. In the ensuing election the Liberal-Country coalition was returned to power under Malcolm Fraser. He reinstated the domestic and foreign policies followed by the earlier Liberal Party governments but maintained Labor’s new emphases on multiculturalism and the environment. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia began to arrive on Australia’s northern shores. In the 1980s and 1990s the flow of immigrants from other parts of Asia, including Hong Kong and mainland China, increased.

Fraser’s coalition survived the 1980 election with a much-reduced majority. Further shaken by defections from Liberal Party ranks and by foreign trade scandals, Fraser suffered a sharp defeat in the elections of March 1983. His Labor successor, the charismatic former trade union leader Bob Hawke, sought to promote cooperation between workers and management and took the first steps toward the deregulation of the economy by floating the Australian dollar. He maintained a staunchly pro-American foreign policy, sending a small military contingent in support of the United States in the Persian Gulf War. Labor retained its majorities in the elections of 1984, 1987, and 1990. In December 1991, with Australia mired in recession and Hawke’s popularity waning, Labor chose Hawke’s former treasury minister, Paul Keating, as party leader and prime minister. Pledging to change Australia to a federal republic and underlining the need for a reorientation toward Asia, Keating led Labor to victory in the March 1993 election.

Among the larger cultural issues with which Australia grappled in the 1980s and early 1990s was the question of Aboriginal land rights. Like other colonial countries such as Canada, Australia was challenged to address the land claims of the indigenous inhabitants of the country, who had been largely ignored for centuries. In 1992, in the historic Mabo v. Queensland case, the High Court of Australia ruled that the people of the Murray Islands, in the Torres Strait, held title to their land, thereby acknowledging that Australia was occupied at the time of European settlement. In 1993 the government passed an act allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to file land claims.

By the early 1990s public opinion polls showed that most Australians favored the establishment of a federal republic, with an Australian president replacing the British monarch as head of state. Prime Minister Keating had placed himself at the head of the republican movement, but by 1996 many electors perceived him as arrogant and his government as out of touch with the electorate. Campaigning on a platform of economic reform, and directing its appeal to the “battlers”—disenchanted working class electors of the bush and outer suburbs—the Liberal-National coalition won solid majorities in both houses of parliament.

The new prime minister, John Howard, a veteran of the Fraser government, was a longtime advocate of labor-market and taxation reform. On social and moral questions, however, he was considered to be the most conservative prime minister since Menzies. His government’s repeated attempts to curb the rights to native title of land won by Aboriginal people under the Mabo judgment drew international criticism. His attempt in 1998 to break the union power of dockworkers encountered bitter opposition by unionists. Also that year, a constitutional convention voted to change Australia’s government to a republic. Howard, a monarchist, advocated the status quo in the popular referendum required to change the constitution. While opinion polls continued to indicate that most Australians favored a republic, the referendum failed to secure a majority, largely because many voters wanted the president to be popularly elected, instead of appointed by parliament as the convention had recommended.

Howard narrowly retained power in 1998. In 1999, when the authoritarian Suharto regime crumbled in Indonesia, he reversed 20 years of Australian complicity in Indonesian rule over the former Portuguese colony of East Timor by sending Australian troops under United Nations auspices to secure the independence of the territory. In 2000 Howard carried through his long-held ambition to reform the Australian taxation system by the introduction of a goods and services tax. The reforms were widely unpopular and, as the 2001 election approached, his government seemed likely to be defeated.

Two months before the election, however, Howard’s government won a surge of popular support for its stand against illegal immigration. The government refused a plea by the captain of a Norwegian cargo vessel, the Tampa, to land 450 asylum seekers from the Middle East, mostly from Iraq. In a process that drew international attention and criticism, but was soon repeated with other boatloads of would-be illegal entrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan, the refugees were transported to camps on remote Pacific islands to have their asylum claims processed. (Illegal entrants had previously been sent to detention centers in remote parts of the Australian continent.) The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States further rallied support to the Howard government. Australia offered strong support to the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan. In the November election the Liberal-National coalition won resounding majorities in both houses of parliament, giving Howard a third term as prime minister.

In September 2000, meanwhile, Australia hosted the Summer Olympic Games at Sydney. In the opening ceremony Australia’s Olympic heroine, Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman, became a central figure in a pageant celebrating a proudly multicultural Australia, reconciling with its indigenous people and welcoming the world. The government’s refusal to allow refugees and asylum seekers ashore a year later, however, sent the opposite message to the outside world. Also in 2001, Australia celebrated its centenary of federation.

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