Times are changing

by Val Polley
10th May 2016

‘There’s never been a more exciting time….’ is an oft-repeated quote by the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. With a double dissolution election looming and a very long election campaign ahead, perhaps not many would agree with him.

While much can be put down to hindsight and history, for me the most exciting time of change was back in the 1970s. The ‘60s had seen major shifts in attitudes overseas and it seemed by 1970 that Australia too, with its increased prosperity and changes in migration, was on the cusp of a transformation.

Think 1970. Warrandyte was a small rural township out on the north eastern edge of Melbourne. The suburbs had not yet reached out to encircle our village and it was surrounded by orchards and open space. The Warrandyte Diary had commenced with a four page black and white edition, Potters Cottage had opened its new restaurant to complement its pottery gallery, a State Park was proposed but not formalised, the Warrandyte Environment League was active, and the post office still operated from the old post office in Yarra Street.

Some proposed subdivisions were proving controversial but more houses were being built and young families were moving into the town. Think Australia still involved in the Vietnam War with large demonstrations held in opposition to the war and conscription. The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer was published in 1970. The emergence of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Women’s Electoral Lobby meant the role and treatment of women in Australia was coming under increasing debate. For many women this was heady stuff.

At that time Australia had been governed by a Liberal Government for 23 years, firstly with Sir Robert Menzies for 16 years from 1944-1966, then with Harold Holt, John Gorton and Billy McMahon in quick succession. Meanwhile, Victoria had been ruled by Sir Henry Bolte’s Liberals for 15 years. However, views were shifting in Australia and there was a mood afoot for political, economic and social change in both areas of government.

Forward to 1972 and the It’s Time Labor campaign. Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam put forward a socially progressive program of measures. The campaign was borne along with Gough’s much vaunted oratory as well as the advertisements and It’s Time jingle. Celebrities of the day singing in the advert included Bert Newton, Graham Kennedy, Bobby Limb, Jackie Weaver and Little Pattie. It proved to be a winner; it didn’t mention Labor or Gough Whitlam but suited the mood of the moment.

There was a real fizz and buzz around the campaign.

Warrandyte was, at that time, included in the Federal seat of Casey held by the Liberals. It was the most marginal in the country so received a great deal of attention being considered a real litmus test for the election. Unlike today’s broad-based media political campaigns and social media, then it was local meetings and face-to-face contact to ensure voters met the candidates.

Warrandyte had an active branch of the Labor Party with Fred Davis (who later stood (unsuccessfully) as a Labour candidate in the state election of 1976) encouraging locals to attend some meetings.

Gough Whitlam received a rock star welcome at a Ringwood meeting and it was an exhilarating experience. Artist Clifton Pugh was an active Labor supporter and held a meeting in his house at Cottlesbridge where his pet wombat provided an entertaining diversion rubbing his back against one of the pew seats.

At the election in December 1972, the Whitlam Labor Government was swept into power with its reformist agenda. The pace of change was amazing and its many achievements included ending conscription, supporting a wide range of women’s issues, introducing universal health care and free university education and many more.

It has often been said it tried to do too much too quickly. It ran foul of a hostile Senate and eventually in 1974 called a double dissolution election, which it won. But it was plagued by a number of scandals and a deteriorating economy and following further hostile Senate action was dismissed by the Governor-General in November 1975 and then subsequently defeated at the next election.

There can, however, be little doubt that it changed the face of Australia at the time.

Meantime, also in 1972 in Victoria, the long Liberal government of Sir Henry Bolte drew to a close with his retirement. He was replaced by Rupert Hamer (later Sir) who won the state election in 1973 with the slogan ‘Hamer Makes it Happen’ and a socially progressive agenda to modernise and liberalise government in Victoria. It was another rewarding and productive time. He was the first premier to establish an Arts ministry.

His commitment to the environment led to the declaration of Warrandyte State Park, protection of the Yarra River and the Green Wedge concept. His government strengthened environmental protection laws, abolished the death penalty, decriminalised abortion and homosexuality, and introduced anti-discrimination laws amongst many others. He was personally both environmentally aware and supportive of the arts and remained in power until 1981. His legacy remains today through many of his environmental and art initiatives.

It is hard to encapsulate the profound transformation these two governments, one Labor and one Liberal, achieved, and the effect they had on Warrandyte as well as on individuals. For me at the time, the protection of the environment and the changes to women’s roles were the most important personally. Since then, though, it has become apparent just how transformative the changes were, and how following governments and the community generally have continued to benefit from those achievements. Of course everyone will have a different take on ‘there’s never been a more exciting time…..’ However, Australia does appear once again to be standing on the brink of change with a looming Federal double dis- solution election and two ‘newbies’ who have not yet faced an election as leaders.

They face enormous challenges such as climate change, increasing refugee numbers and greater globalization, and in an ever-changing world. It is to be hoped that perhaps someone in 40 years time will look back at this election as one of those that became a transforming force for good. But then history and hindsight can be a wonderful thing …