a multicultural History of Australia

Making multicultural Australia

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Commentary on: A time of social change »

Prof Andrew Jakubowicz.

Text Commentary

Power to the people?

1972 - Gough Whitlam and Labor win power promising sweeping reforms

The Australian Labor Party swept to power in 1972 after 23 years of conservative rule, with an irresistible slogan: "It's Time". Under the leadership of Gough Whitlam, the ALP tapped the community's desire for change which had been building during the social and philosophical ferment of the '60s. As Whitlam put it in his election speech: "It's time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunity. It's time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and for the region in which we live."

The Whitlam government, according to Peter Wilenski, at first Whitlam's senior adviser and later head of the Immigration and Labor Department, "was firmly reformist. Its major concern was with the inequalities it saw in Australian society - inequalities in access to education and to health care, inequalities in urban environment, inequalities in housing, inequalities in other basic amenities - and it set out to correct those inequalities whether they were based on income, sex or ethnic origin."

The reforms instituted by the Whitlam government, which began with an immediate repudiation of the White Australia Policy and the introduction of a completely non-discriminatory immigration policy, had a profound impact on ethnic communities; but it did not emerge from a vacuum. Change had begun in the policies of the preceding Liberal Government and a number of other factors had converged to support the ideologically-based changes instituted by the Federal ALP. For example, a Labor Government had already been in power in South Australia for five years and, as Don Dunstan - later SA ALP Premier - says, "was setting the pace in social reform". This included removing from the entire body of SA law any provision which permitted discrimination on the grounds of race or country of origin.

Ethnic communities themselves were beginning to flex their political muscle, articulating anger at deficiencies in the government system, particularly in the delivery of social welfare services. The rapid increase of migration from countries of Southern Europe, like Italy and Greece, and the concentration of these migrants in the inner cities, had led to the recognition in many circles that these were disadvantaged groups. The mainstream press began to focus on the plight of many migrant groups at a time of rising unemployment and to speculate on the potential of the "ethnic vote" to affect the 1972 election results.

The advent of a governing party with a strong focus on social justice was not universally welcomed. Many senior bureaucrats and leaders of business, industry and society were concerned about the threat to their oligarchy - their ruling group of archetypal "British" Australians. For some ethnic groups, too, particularly those who had fled from Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, there was a fear that an ALP government would be "soft" on Communism. But ethnic leader Pino Bosi probably spoke for the majority of immigrants when he said that after 1972 for the first time immigrants could believe they were "not guests, not outsiders, but part of the country."

Further reference:
Whitlam, Gough The Whitlam Government, 1972-1975, Melbourne, Penguin Books Australia, 1985.

Wilenski, Peter "Labor and the Bureaucracy" in Duncan G (ed) Critical Essays in Australian Politics, Melbourne, Edward Arnold, 1978.