On 1 January 2011, the National Archives of Australia released the 30-year-old documents of the 1980 Fraser Cabinet. Archives historian Dr Jim Stokes discusses some of the key issues of that year.
Internationally, 1980 was a year of tension and foreboding about the future. The previous year had seen the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea, the Iranian revolution, the taking of US hostages in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Some feared that this invasion was the first stage of a major Soviet push into the Middle East that could end in a third world war. In September 1980 Iraq invaded Iran. In addition, the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States in November 1980 emphasised the transition from the post-Vietnam détente of the late 1970s to confrontation with what Reagan branded ‘the evil empire’.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser took a strong anti-Soviet position and urged the Australian Olympic Federation to support the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. While the hockey, shooting, yachting and equestrian teams withdrew from the Games, the Federation did send a smaller team to Moscow to compete in 17 sports. The Australians brought home two gold, two silver and five bronze medals.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted a review of Australia’s defence strategy. Cabinet decided that Australia’s main objective was the capability to independently defend its own territory. Fraser offered the United States home-port facilities for warships in Perth and landing facilities for B52 bombers in Darwin. In June 1980, a US evaluation team visited Perth to see if it could house a carrier task force and accommodate up to 10,000 US personnel. Negotiations concerning B52 landing rights continued throughout 1980; Australia wanted the planes to fly Indian Ocean surveillance missions rather than use Australia as a staging point to a Middle East war. Australia was also concerned that US demands for international trade sanctions against the Soviet Union and Iran would damage its large wheat export markets.
The economy and industrial relations
During 1980, the government predicted a $29 billion boom in resource projects. However Treasury warned that if the boom was not managed carefully, there would be dangerous pressures on wages and inflation. Frequent industrial disputes – particularly in the transport, energy and construction sectors – were also a concern. Oil supplies from the Middle East were threatened by price rises and political instability, and the government consequently encouraged the development of alternative energy sources, notably coal-fired power stations.
The battle between the economists and the big spenders continued. Economists argued that the government’s top priorities must remain the fight against inflation and reduction of the Budget deficit. Treasury also urged restraint in the growth of wages and money supply, a reduction in tariffs, and an end to the policy of holding down interest rates for political reasons. Treasurer John Howard encouraged Cabinet to consider introducing a broad-based indirect tax, but his colleagues feared the political consequences of rising prices.
Agent Orange became a significant political issue in Australia during the 1980s. Concern had been growing that the massive use of the defoliants 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D in the Vietnam War had considerably damaged the health of veterans and their children. In Australia this issue had been taken up by the media and the newly formed Vietnam Veterans Association. The government announced plans for an independent epidemiological study of Australian veterans and their children. However the veterans demanded a judicial inquiry instead. The political difficulties increased during the year as it became apparent that a workable epidemiological study would be slower and more expensive than originally envisaged.
In May 1980, Cabinet endorsed a migration target to achieve a population gain of 250,000 over three years. A total of 23,500 places were allocated to refugee and special humanitarian cases for the year 1980–81. There were still 250,000 Vietnamese refugees in South-East Asia and as many as one million Kampucheans in Thailand or along the border. The government also grappled with the estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants already in Australia, most of them overstayed visitors or illegal arrivals. ‘Illegals’ were estimated to be increasing by 7000 each year. The government did not have the resources to find all the illegal arrivals, who could, in any case, access a range of processes to delay or avoid deportation. Cabinet agreed to restrict post-arrival permanent residence applications to close relatives of Australians, refugees and people who already held work permits; illegal arrivals who had arrived before the end of 1979 could also apply. Rigorous action would be taken to deport new illegal arrivals.
In Western Australia there was a major conflict over the Noonkanbah Aboriginal reserve in the Kimberley. The Noonkanbah community, backed by the trade unions, strongly opposed the Western Australian Government’s plan to drill for oil on the reserve. The drill rig was forced to withdraw in April 1980, but in August a convoy of non-union drillers, funded by the Western Australian Government, returned with a large police escort. There was a major confrontation and around 50 people, including five clergymen, were arrested. The well was eventually drilled, but proved dry.
The Fraser government faced the electorate for a third time on 18 October 1980. While there was an initial assumption that Fraser would be returned, a lacklustre campaign and a better than expected performance by opposition leader Bill Hayden closed the gap and three of the four national polls predicted an Australian Labor Party victory. However, the government survived a 4.2 per cent swing and won a 23-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Five Australian Democrats and Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine held the balance of power in the Senate. Optimists in the Labor Party felt that the election result positioned the party well for the 1983 election; pessimists believed the Coalition could hardly be relied on to produce such a dreadful campaign twice running. Fraser retained the Liberal Party leadership unchallenged, but some felt that his absolute authority was starting to weaken. One sign of things to come was that Andrew Peacock, who had clashed with Fraser on a range of issues, unsuccessfully challenged Phillip Lynch for the deputy leadership.
Dr Jim Stokes is a historian and archivist.
Watch a video of key events from 1980
Listen to Dr Jim Stokes’ lecture ‘Background to the 1980 Cabinet records: the historical context and issues of interest’
In May 2010, reforms to the Archives Act 1983 reduced the open access period for most records from 30 to 20 years, and from 50 to 30 years for Cabinet notebooks. These earlier open access periods are to be phased in over 10 years, commencing in January 2011.
The Archives’ Fact sheet 10 – Access to records under the Archives Act explains this change in more detail.