Australia reacted very strongly to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A major element of our foreign policy during 1980 consisted of looking for ways to express our extreme displeasure without unduly hurting our trade or strategic interests.
Australia strongly supported US calls for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and the holding of an alternative free world games shared between several cities. However it gradually became apparent that most countries would go to Moscow.
Of all the measures that are open to independent nations, a boycott or the movement of the Olympic Games would have the most effect in the Soviet Union. It cannot be hidden, it will be visible to the Soviet people, and that will expose the emptiness of the Soviet Union’s claim that the Olympic Games represents worldwide approval of their foreign policy.
In the end the hockey, equestrian, shooting and yachting teams decided to withdraw, but the Australian Olympic Federation decided to send a team to Moscow. One hundred and twenty athletes competed in 17 sports. Despite The Bulletin predicting that they would be lucky to win 30 pieces of silver, in fact they won five medals, two of them gold.
Kampuchea remained a problem. The Vietnamese invasion drove out the Khmer Rouge regime and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under Heng Samrin. Soviet bloc countries recognised the new regime, but China and the ASEAN states continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge in the hope that a more acceptable anti-Vietnamese regime might emerge in Kampuchea.
Australia was well aware of public outrage over Khmer Rouge atrocities, but felt that it could not break ranks with ASEAN. However just before the October 1980 election, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock announced that Australia would withdraw recognition of the Pol Pot regime.
Industrial disputes were an almost constant feature of 1980. There was a long dispute over fuel deliveries in Sydney, when tanker drivers employed by oil companies tried to stop deliveries by drivers employed by independent distributor Leon Laidely.
Other disputes included a campaign by Queensland power workers for a 37½ hour week and by journalists for a pay loading for working with computers. Storemen and packers closed the wool stores for 18 weeks, Victorian meat workers campaigned against live sheep exports, Commonwealth public servants held a series of stoppages in support of a 20 per cent wage claim, and Queensland coal miners struck for 10 weeks to fight off a Tax Office assault on subsidised housing.
One of the more bizarre disputes stopped the construction of the Omega navigation tower in Gippsland. The Builders Labourers Federation refused to build the tower because Omega had been developed for US military aviation and was thus anti-Soviet. The work was therefore given to the Federated Ironworkers Association. However the BLF supported the Beijing-aligned faction of the Communist Party, and when the Sino–Soviet split intensified, the BLF decided that it did want to build the tower and picketed the site to force the iron workers off. The site was closed for nearly a year before the picket was finally broken.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted a substantial increase in Australian defence spending, including home-porting Australian ships in Perth, and building the first stage of the Curtin air base in Derby. Fraser offered the US base facilities for ships in Perth and landing facilities for B52 bombers in Darwin. In June an American evaluation team visited Perth to see if it could house a carrier taskforce and up to 10,000 US personnel. Negotiations over B52 landing rights continued at the end of the year. Australia was concerned that the planes should fly Indian Ocean surveillance missions rather than use Australia as a staging point on route to a Middle East war.
The strengthening of operational ties with US forces prompted public concern that Western Australia might become a nuclear target, however Defence Minister Jim Killen told Parliament that as a US ally, Australia was a potential nuclear target regardless of what facilities it was hosting. Killen also warned Cabinet that Australia might become involved in US operations not to its liking, and that Perth might conceivably become a nuclear target.
The government grappled with the problem of 60,000 illegal immigrants, most of them overstayed visitors. Illegal immigrants were estimated to be increasing at the rate of 7000 each year. The government had offered an amnesty in 1976 but this had been frustrated by the Opposition, which told people not to trust the government. The government did not have the resources to hunt down and deport all the ‘illegals’. It was under pressure from the media and ethnic groups to offer another amnesty.
Cabinet agreed to restrict post-arrival permanent resident applications to close relatives of Australians, refugees or people who already held work permits. However, illegals who had arrived before the end of 1979 could also apply. Rigorous action would be taken to deport new illegal arrivals.
1980 was a year of drama and inquiry in organised crime. On 27 January Frank Nugent, one of the founders of the Nugent Hand Merchant Bank, was found shot dead at Lithgow. His business partner, Michael Hand, subsequently gave evidence that the bank was insolvent with massive debts. Subsequent inquiries linked the bank to large-scale money laundering and drug trafficking. In September, Cabinet agreed to consider establishing a Commonwealth–state inquiry on drug-related organisations. Issues of immediate concern included the findings of the two Woodward inquiries in New South Wales, and the murders of drug couriers David and Isabelle Wilson in Victoria. The inquiry was eventually established in 1981, with Donald Stewart as Commissioner, and its terms of reference were extended in 1982 to include an investigation of Nugent Hand.
In early 1980, The Bulletin ran a series of articles alleging corrupt practices by the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union on the waterfront and at the Williamstown naval dockyard. The union had a formidable reputation for intimidation, violence and dubious work practices. Its ethos was summed up by its Federal Secretary who said, ‘We catch and kill our own’.
The government was not happy that the navy and the Australian national shipping line were among the organisations allegedly being fleeced by the union, and Cabinet decided that a royal commission was necessary. Frank Costigan QC was appointed joint Commonwealth–Victorian Royal Commissioner in September.