History of Australia since 1945

History of Australia since 1945

The history of Australia since 1945 has seen a move away from Britain in political, social and cultural terms to engagement with the United States and Asia.

Postwar Australia

After World War II, Australia launched a massive immigration program, believing that having narrowly avoided a Japanese invasion, Australia must "populate or perish." As Prime Minister Ben Chifley would later declare, "a powerful enemy looked hungrily toward Australia. In tomorrow's gun flash that threat could come again. We must populate Australia as rapidly as we can before someone else decides to populate it for us." Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans, including for the first time large numbers of Jews, migrated to Australia. More than two million people immigrated to Australia from Europe during the 20 years after the end of the war.

From the outset, it was intended that the bulk of these immigrants should be mainly from the British Isles, and that the post-war immigration scheme would preserve the British character of Australian society. Although Great Britain remained the predominant source of immigrants, the pool of source countries was expanded to include Continental European countries in order to meet Australia's ambitious immigration targets. From the late 1940s onwards, Australia received significant waves of people from countries such as Greece, Italy, Malta, Germany, Yugoslavia and the Netherlands. Australia actively sought these immigrants, with the government assisting many of them and they found work due to an expanding economy and major infrastructure projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This wave of immigration greatly changed the character of Australian society, which before the war had been monoculturally Anglo-Celtic, inward-looking and conservative. Immigration was still restricted to Europeans in most circumstances, although the White Australia policy was gradually eased from the 1950s inwards.

In 1949 the wartime Labor government (led by Ben Chifley after Curtin's death in 1945) was defeated by a Liberal government headed by Menzies, who became Australia's longest-serving prime minister and the dominant figure in Australian politics until the 1960s. Menzies exploited Cold War fears to retain office, and in 1951 he narrowly failed to win a referendum to allow him to ban the Communist Party. Menzies poured money into higher education and industrial development.

Menzies also maintained the alliance with the United States, sending Australian troops to the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Australia's participation in Vietnam, and particularly the use of conscription, became politically contentious and saw massive protests, though they were for the most part peaceful. The Liberal Party maintained power through Menzies' successors, Harold Holt (who disappeared in 1967, while swimming in the sea), John Gorton and William McMahon, though each PM in succession was generally considered to be less able and less politically skilled than his predecessor.

Melbourne hosted the 1956 Summer Olympics. The late 1960s and early 1970s are also often associated, at least in the mind of many Australians who were young adults at that time, with a flowering of Australian culture. Indigenous Australians achieved greater rights, immigration restrictions and censorship laws were swept aside, theatre and opera companies were established across the country, and Australian rock music began to mention explicitly Australian games. The 1971 Springbok rugby tour was influential in raising awareness of Aboriginal injustice in Australia and also led Australia to become the first Western nation to cut sporting ties with South Africa.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam became the first Labor PM in 23 years, and carried out sweeping reforms such as introduction of universal health insurance and reform of divorce and family law. Whitlam's radical and imperious style eventually alienated many voters, and — after a series of ministerial scandals in 1975 — the Senate for the first time used its constitutional powers to block the government's budget. When Whitlam refused to back down, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed him on 11 November. Despite the condemnation of a large section of the Australian public (and legal opinion) that these actions caused, the conservative leader Malcolm Fraser won the subsequent elections and retained power until 1983, though the social reforms of Whitlam were retained and in some ways continued under Fraser. In 1983, Labor returned to power under the former trade union leader Bob Hawke, a much less confrontationist figure than Whitlam.

The 1980s saw severe concerns about Australia's future economic health take hold, with severe current account deficits and high unemployment at times. Hawke's government introduced many economic reforms, including tariff cuts, a floating exchange rate, the privatisation of many government services, and most prominently an agreement with trade unions to moderate wage demands and accept more flexible working condition arrangements by accepting tax cuts in return. Ultimately, many of the reforms, continued by successive governments, appear to have been successful in pushing the economy along.

In 1983 Australia won the America's Cup yacht race, ending the Americans 132-year winning streak. The new Parliament House was finally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 9 May 1988.

Partly because of divisions on the conservative side of politics, Hawke held office until 1991, when he was deposed by his former deputy, Paul Keating, who kept Labor in office until 1996. Economic growth continued through the 1990s at rates higher than most of Australia's trading partners, and even through to 2003 despite recessions elsewhere.

In February 1999 the fourth Constitutional Convention met in Canberra.

Indigenous rights

From the 1950s onwards, Australians began to rethink their attitudes towards racial issues. An Aboriginal rights movement, supported by many liberal white Australians, was founded, and a campaign against the White Australia policy was also launched. The 1967 referendum was held and overwhelmingly approved to amend the Constitution, removing discriminatory references and giving the national parliament the power to legislate specifically for Indigenous Australians. Contrary to frequently repeated mythology, this referendum did not cover citizenship on Aboriginal people, nor did it give them the vote: they already had both. However, transferring this power away from the State parliaments did bring an end to the system of Indigenous Australian reserves which existed in each state, which allowed Indigenous people to move more freely, and exercise many of their citizenship rights for the first time. From the late 1960s a movement for Indigenous land rights also developed. In 1971 Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person elected to the Australian Parliament.

During much of the twentieth century, Australian governments had removed many aboriginal children from their families. This practice, while beneficial to some individuals, did great damage to the Aboriginal people, culturally and emotionally, giving rise to the term stolen generation to describe these families. Since the publication in 1997 of a federal government report, "Bringing Them Home" all state governments have followed the recommendation of the report in issuing formal apologies for their past practices to the Aboriginal people, as have many local governments. The Howard government refused to make such an apology on behalf of the federal government, despite pleas from the Aboriginal people and from many sections of the wider community, claiming it would constitute a legal admission of guilt and give rise to widespread claims for compensation. However, the new government under Kevin Rudd made a formal apology on the 13th of February 2008.


Australian republicanism which had been a feature of the 1890s faded away during the First World War. Monarchist sentiment in Australia peaked during the Menzies years with the wildly successful 1954 tour by Queen Elizabeth II. The issue of a republic did not arise again until the 1970s. In the 1990s it was bought to the forefront of national debate by Prime Minister Paul Keating, who promised in 1993 to introduce an "Australian federal republic" by the centenary of Federation in 2001. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Australian support an Australian republic, but a referendum on the issue failed on November 6, 1999.

Some republicans blamed the conservative and monarchist Prime Minister John Howard (elected in 1996), whose leadership certainly did not aid the republican cause. But there were other significant factors, including a split between "minimalist" republicans who wanted an Australian president to be chosen by the federal Parliament (as happens in, for example, Germany), and more "radical" republicans who wanted a directly elected President, as in the Irish Republic. Public opinion suggested that a republic would only be acceptable if a president was directly elected. Since the referendum proposal was for an indirectly elected president, many radicals opposed it. The debate since 1999 has died down, though now Howard has left office it may become a topic of national importance again.

Military engagements in the late twentieth century

After the Vietnam experience, Australian military forces were largely kept at home through the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, and were restricted to the low-risk and largely symbolic deployment of two warships to the Gulf War in 1991. However, the last decade has seen a number of high-profile military deployments. The first occurred in East Timor in 1999, with the majority of forces in the INTERFET peacekeeping force made up by ADF personnel, particularly in its early stages. SAS troops formed the most high-profile part of Operation Slipper, Australia's contribution to the invading force in the 2001 United States war in Afghanistan. These military deployments had high public support. The Australian contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Australia's continued presence there, are highly controversial. There have been a number of other peacekeeping and stablization operations, notably in the Solomon Islands and, again, in East Timor in 2006. As of early December 2007 four Australian soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan.

Turn of the century

After being elected in 1996, the Howard government attempted to reduce Australia's government deficit and to reduce the influence of labour unions, placing more emphasis on workplace-based collective bargaining for wages.Fact|date=May 2008 The government also accelerated the pace of privatisation, beginning with the government-owned telecommunications corporation, Telstra. Howard's government continued some elements of the foreign policy of its predecessors, based on relations with four key countries: the United States, Japan, China, and Indonesia. The Howard administration strongly supported US engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.Fact|date=May 2008 However some observersWho|date=May 2008 noted a greater push towards engagement with Western nations than the previous Keating government which emphasised that Australia was part of Asia. These observers point to various controversies such as the Tampa affair in which the "MV Tampa", a Norwegian cargo ship was at the center of a diplomatic dispute between Australia, Norway and Indonesia off the coast of Christmas Island as indicating a shift back towards the more conservative policies of the mid-20th century.Fact|date=May 2008

Economically, the 1990s and 2000s have proved prosperous for Australia as a whole. Its economy has not suffered a recession since the early 1990s [http://www.economist.com/finance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8931798] , and gross domestic product growth has been well above the OECD average. Unemployment rates have trended down to levels below 5%.Fact|date=May 2008 Questions remain as to how widely the economic growth have been distributed, however, with evidence suggesting that economic gains are going disproportionately to the already wealthy [http://econrsss.anu.edu.au/~aleigh/pdf/Australian_inequality.pdf] . The economy, particularly in the 2000s, has been assisted by the "commodities boom", a result in large part of China's rapid economic growth and demand for raw materials.Fact|date=May 2008

Southern Australia was affected by a very severe drought, with some areas suffering below-average rainfalls since the late 1990s. By late 2006 water storages throughout southern Australia were at record low levels. Severe restrictions on urban water usage were put in place in every state capital city (except Hobart and Darwin) in 2005-06, and irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin was heavily curtailed.Fact|date=May 2008 Consequently, issues relating to fresh water supply became an important topic for political discussion, though the economic impact of the drought was felt most keenly only in Australia's sparsely populated agricultural areas.Fact|date=May 2008

Howard was defeated in the 2007 federal election by Kevin Rudd, and the Prime Minister lost his seat of Bennelong to Maxine McKew. Howard's party's federal director Brian Loughnane acknowledged that Howard's controversial WorkChoices reforms were a major reason for the Coalition's defeat. [ [http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/business/items/200712/s2123286.htm PM - Voters thought Howard govt out of touch: Liberal director] ]


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