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Background To The Whitlam Era

The Menzies Era

Robert MenziesAustralia had been governed since 1949 by the Liberal/Country Party coalition. Led by Robert Menzies, the coalition won seven consecutive elections (1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 & 1963). Menzies became the longest-serving Prime Minister in Australia’s federal history and retired in January 1966.

The Vietnam War was by then becoming the dominant issue of the decade. Menzies had taken Australia into the war in 1965. Following his retirement, the United States President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, visited Australia and was confronted by rowdy protests wherever he went. Now led by Harold Holt, the coalition had a landslide victory at the elections that year.

The 1966 election saw the end of the leadership of the ALP’s Arthur Calwell. In February 1967, Edward Gough Whitlam, who had served as Deputy Leader since 1961, became the Leader of the Opposition.

But the focus was on the coalition government which had started a steady decline. Amidst leadership speculation, Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared at Cheviot Beach in Portsea in 1967 and was succeeded by John Gorton.

John Gorton – the larrikin PM

John GortonGorton’s accession to the prime ministership was marked by acrimony. The Country Party leader, John McEwen, vetoed the election of William McMahon, threatening to walk out of the coalition and thus bring down the government if the Liberals elected his longtime economic policy opponent.

Amidst this turmoil, John Gorton moved from the Senate to take Holt’s vacant seat of Higgins and the nation’s top political office.

In 1969, Gorton was returned to office in the general elections, but lost 17 seats to the Australian Labor Party opposition led by Whitlam.

Whitlam had established himself as a formidable campaigner, winning a number of by-elections and taking a stand for internal reform of the ALP. The 1969 election resulted in the ALP winning a majority of the two-party-preferred vote, but failing to win enough seats.

Gorton’s leadership was challenged after the election by Paul Hasluck, later to be appointed Governor-General, and others.

Gorton’s demise came in 1971, when the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned from Cabinet, claiming that Gorton had a “manic determination to get his own way” and alleging disloyalty in Gorton’s treatment of Fraser. A challenge to Gorton’s leadership was mounted resulting in a tied vote. Gorton used his own casting vote to give the leadership to William McMahon.

Gorton was subsequently elected deputy leader of the party, but was sacked by McMahon a few months later, following the publication of a series of newspaper articles by Gorton, entitled “I did it my way”.

Gough Whitlam: The Party, The Policies and The People

It's TimeIn this climate of political decay, Whitlam had embarked on a three-year program to reform his Party, develop new Policies, and persuade the People that it was time for a change of government.

The Vietnam war continued to divide Australians. Protests over conscription were widespread. In 1970, Dr. Jim Cairns led a massive Moratorium march against the was in the streets of Melbourne.

Whitlam visisted China in 1971, promising to establish diplomatic relations if elected to government. The attacks on Whitlam by the coalition were severely blunted during the visit by the announcement that US President Richard Nixon was working towards his own rapprochement with China.

Throughout 1972, Whitlam’s accession to the prime ministership seemed increasingly inevitable, although the eventual margin of victory was comparatively narrow, the major gains having been made in 1969.

In the elections of December 2, 1972, against the onslaught of the ALP’s “It’s Time” campaign, McMahon’s Government lost office to Whitlam, the first change of Federal Government in Australia for 23 years.

In a whirlwind of activity, Whitlam was appointed Prime Minister on December 5, governing in tandem with his deputy, Lance Barnard, until December 19.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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