As a journalist-bureaucrat 42 years ago, for me nothing illustrated more the bewildering speed of Gough Whitlam’s rollercoaster reforms than the removal of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy.
I was publications editor for the Australian Information Service in Canberra, then Australia’s apolitical, overseas information agency. Part of my job was to produce the Australia Handbook which, with a print run of multiple thousands, was sent to our high commissions and embassies around the world for distribution.
It was traditionally a dull, military-style manual, printed in black and white, updated each year by government departments and sought to give a comprehensive, factual account of Australia from its beginnings to its current economic, social and cultural achievements.
Fresh from Fleet Street, I introduced full-colour, including a wraparound cover showing the yet-to- be opened Sydney Opera House, and revamped the layout and text. Inevitably, there were delays, but with the election of the Whitlam government in December 1972, we were confident, with the book complete in those early weeks of 1973, there would be mostly minor changes for that year’s edition.
But extensive changes were ordered. The revision was a nightmare; the book was on film and the amendments had to be laboriously stripped in.
Poring over the revised text, I worried especially about the section on immigration which noted that following the 1966 policy review, it had been possible for non-Europeans ”to be considered for entry as migrants: Applications are considered individually on their merits, and approval is subject to their capacity to integrate…
“Most approved applicants have been people eligible to practise in the professions in Australia. The application and approval rates have been increasing gradually though the numbers remain relatively limited. Non-Europeans are admitted as visitors, for business or as tourists…”
Then – startlingly – Australia’s objective to maintaining a “homogeneous” society. I knew enough from Whitlam’s pronouncements that the White Australia policy was on the way out and took the text to a senior journalist colleague in the Immigration Department.
The next few minutes, as he phoned a superior, were straight out of Yes, Minister, my colleague echoing, “Leave it in…take it out… leave it in…take it…” We took it out.
We didn’t catch up in that edition with significant steps which, as the Immigration Department now notes in a fact sheet, the Whitlam government was to take later in 1973: legislating that all migrants of whatever origin be eligible for citizenship after three years’ permanent residence; issuing policy instructions to overseas posts to totally disregard race as a factor in the selection of migrants; and ratifying all international agreements relating to immigration and race.
We did manage to squeeze in the announcement that from the 1974 academic year fees would be abolished at universities, college of advanced education and technical colleges, and that the government planned to discuss with the states assuming full responsibility for financing tertiary education.
Medicare, still some time off, didn’t make the book, but we told how patients could insure themselves for hospital treatment through voluntary membership of non-profit health insurance organisations, contributions ranging from 70c to $1.90 a week for families.
We reported the maximum weekly rate for unemployment benefits was $17 “with lesser rates for unmarried younger people,” but noted it was proposed to increase the rate for a married couple to $37.50 and single people to $21.50.
We highlighted the mineral boom, pointing out the resources accounted for about a quarter of all our exports with manufacturing growing “spectacularly”, contributing more than a quarter of GDP (that’s now halved). And we said the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme, begun in 1949, was nearing completion.
On the Arts, we quoted Prime Minister Whitlam that a new Australia Council for the Arts would be created with seven boards, ranging from Theatre to Aboriginal Arts. We pictured Professor A.D. Hope as one of the nation’s distinguished poets and told how movies like Wake in Fright were creating interest overseas.
On international affairs, we complemented Australia’s increasing focus on participation in regional associations and relations with Asian and Pacific nations with a full-page picture of Indonesia’s President Sukarno. On Defence, we said Australia’s strike aircraft included Canberra bombers and Mirage fighters. Among sporting stars, we named Olympic gold medallist Shane Gould and tennis champions Evonne Goolagong and Margaret Court.
The book had prolific statistics; among them, Australia’s population was estimated at 13 million, Aborigines at 140,000 and expected to double by the end of the 20th century.
John Coleman is a freelance journalist and travel writer.