National Archives of Australia

Issue 6 April 2012

Out of the Cabinet: a sweatier Australia

In this ‘Out of the Cabinet’ series, Canberra writer Ian Warden immerses himself in the Cabinet records of the 1982 Fraser government, and highlights particular policy decisions that captured his imagination. Here, Ian looks at a submission imploring Cabinet to consider air-conditioning the Commonwealth fleet of cars.

Australians love a sunburnt country, but today they love too an air-conditioned country where we can be comfortable in our homes and cars when the sun blazes in the ‘pitiless blue sky’ of Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem. Today we’re likely to think of air-conditioning as a necessity and a right, and to marvel at how earlier, heat-oppressed Australians coped without it, even in the 19th century importing shiploads of expensive ice cut from North American ponds.

But in fact the boon of air-conditioning is a relatively recent arrival in Australia, and in some 1982 Fraser Cabinet records recently released by the Archives we discover a far sweatier Australia than today’s universally air-conditioned one.

Submission 5804 ‘Air-conditioning criteria for Commonwealth motor vehicles’ (Cabinet discussed the submission on 26 October 1982) saw an anxious Kevin Newman, Minister for Administrative Affairs, asking for the approval of ‘new criteria for the air-conditioning of Commonwealth departmental motor vehicles’.

A government vehicle makes its way along a dry hot road in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia, 1945. Photographer: Cliff Bottomley. NAA: A1200, L2930


A summer of discontent

Minister Newman was anxious because with less than 1300 of the Commonwealth’s ‘departmental fleet’ of 16,400 vehicles air-conditioned, and with there having already been some union-led refusals to drive Commonwealth vehicles without it, ‘by next summer there may be increasing stoppages or refusals to drive vehicles’. His submission implored Cabinet to meet the ‘urgent’ need to drastically relax the stiff and unrealistic ‘criteria’ in operation since 1979 for the purchase, deployment and use of air-conditioned Commonwealth vehicles.

Today those 1979 ‘criteria’ seem quaintly rigid, mean-spirited and progress-resisting, as if air-conditioning was just a new-fangled fad (like feminism or the hula hoop) that would come and go.

For the purposes of the 1979 criteria, a map of Australia had been drawn dividing the country arbitrarily into three zones. The lovely long wavy lines that divided Australia up owed more to the map-maker’s artistry than to any sense of the nuances of climate and population. Zones 1 and 2 embraced most of northern and central Australia, places often broilingly hot. Zone 3 was, generally, a narrowish coastal strip (but wide enough in parts to, for example, include New South Wales’ far inland Broken Hill), beginning at Brisbane and taking in Australia’s most eastern, southern and western portions. Every Australian capital city, save Darwin, fell within zone 3.

The 1979 criteria map for the use of air-conditioned Commonwealth vehicles. NAA: A12909, 5804

Grudging, Dickensian criteria

The criteria allowed, grudgingly, for the very occasional use of air-conditioned vehicles in zones 1 and 2 as long as they were vehicles that travelled great distances in the course of a year (18,000 kilometres in zone 1 and 24,000 kilometres in zone 2). Other than that, ‘proposals for fitting of air-conditioning units may be approved only in special circumstances and after stringent examination on a case by case basis’.

In zone 3 and under these criteria, the use of air-conditioned vehicles was considered virtually unnecessary and so virtually unimaginable. Today’s Brisbane, Sydney, Broken Hill, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth motorists, knowing how oven-hot their cities can occasionally be, will find all this mind-boggling.

In his submission the Minister commended to Cabinet a new 1981 report by an inter-departmental committee. The committee report was attached to the submission. It reported widespread crankiness with the criteria among public servants. The committee noticed all sorts of nuances not dreamt of in the philosophy of the 1979 guidelines. For example, what of the plight of someone in zone 3 on a hot day and slowed down to such a crawl by dense city traffic that even with the windows wound down there was no breeze?

Here comes the future

The inter-departmental committee found the incoming tide of air-conditioning was irresistible. More Australians were opting for air-conditioned cars. The proportion of air-conditioned Ford Falcons and Fairmonts had increased from 18 per cent in 1977 to 60 per cent in 1981. The air-conditioned vehicle was the future. Yes, it cost money, but it was the way the world was going, and anyway comfortable, less sweaty officers were far more productive and less likely to go on strike.

The Ford LTD Cartier, one of the first Fords with air-conditioning, 1979. NAA: A6180, 2/11/79/25

Sweat and envy

The inter-departmental committee recommended and Minister Newman commended to Cabinet that the criteria be loosened and humanised. The Minister recommended that Cabinet ‘permit air conditioning in a majority of vehicles in Zones 1 and 2, and air-conditioning of sedan-type vehicles in Zone 3…[and whenever] vehicles have specific functional/operational needs or in special cases’.

Almost all departments canvassed had said they were in favour of the change but the Department of the Capital Territory was opposed. It foresaw that when Canberra’s sweating bus drivers found their inspectors driving to and fro in air-conditioned ‘sedan-type vehicles’ they, the drivers, would throb with resentment and would demand that their buses be air-conditioned too. This would cost the Department a breathtaking $20,000 per bus.

But with Cabinet Decision 19221 of 26 October 1982, the Cabinet’s General Administrative Committee agreed to most of the recommended reforms. Thus for Commonwealth officers a less sweaty Australia was ushered in, and for Australia as a whole the days when we’d had to fight our sweatiness by importing expensive ice from frozen foreign ponds were pushed further and further back into the quaint and primitive past.

A dusty road near Nyngan, New South Wales, 1982. Under the 1979 criteria, cars travelling along this road were allowed ‘very occasional’ use of air-conditioning. NAA: A6135, K27/9/82/34

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