Events and issues that made the news in 1966

by Ian Hancock, BA (Melb), BPhil (Oxf.), Reader in History, Australian National University, National Archives of Australia Historical Consultant


Sir Robert Menzies retired in January 1966 and was replaced by Harold Holt, the unanimous choice of the parliamentary Liberal Party and proud that he did not have to step over dead bodies to get there. William McMahon, newly married and a father by year's end, defeated Paul Hasluck for the deputy leadership.

Although Holt was then 57 he represented a sharp contrast to Menzies: apparently 'with it', relaxed, informal, easy to meet, friendly to the press, consultative in style. Even so, he retained most of the Menzies ministry, with only Annabelle Rankin and Malcolm Fraser supplying 'fresh blood' while the average age of the inner Cabinet was nearly 59.

The Liberals, alone or in coalition, governed federally and in all States except South Australia and Tasmania. Early in 1966, however, their rule in Canberra appeared threatened. In February the Country Party lost the by-election for Dawson in Queensland (which it had held since the 1949 redistribution); in April Andrew Peacock won Kooyong but the Menzies 1963 vote had fallen by seven per cent; the drought was hurting a rural constituency which was complaining about a lack of federal assistance; divisions within the Coalition forced Holt to defer a proposed constitutional referendum until after the next election; and noisy anti-Vietnam demonstrations began to un-nerve some backbenchers.

Confidence rallied after a convincing win in the Queensland state election in May, and the Coalition continued to draw comfort from Labor's internecine wars.

In February Gough Whitlam, the Deputy Leader, attacked the 'twelve witless men' of the Federal Executive for insisting that the politicians oppose state aid to independent schools. Whitlam, in turn, was censured, almost expelled, and required to give an undertaking that he would support party policy. It took several months and some tortuous resolutions on state aid for Labor to agree to something which, in fact, could be interpreted in several ways. In April Whitlam unsuccessfully challenged Calwell for the leadership and, following a July decision by the Federal Executive to proscribe the Defend Australia Committee, one of his supporters sat as an Independent.

Political debate was enlivened by the growing protests over conscription and Australian participation in the Vietnam war. Arthur Calwell's personal crusade against conscription, momentarily halted when he was shot and wounded in June, gathered support from trade unionists, students, churchmen and the Save Our Sons movement.

Although the government accepted minor amendments to the call-up it held firm, with a Gallup Poll in May recording a 2:1 majority in favour of conscription though a slight majority of the 'decideds' opposed service by conscripts in Vietnam. Holt fought the November election on the issue of Australian participation in the Vietnam war. Labor focussed on conscription, Gordon Barton's Liberal Reform Group tried to woo Liberals to the anti-conscription cause, and the Coalition won nearly 50 per cent of the vote (its best return since 1951), and a majority of 40 in the House of Representatives (its largest ever, to that point).

Immediately following the election, Holt exercised characteristic restraint by forming another lacklustre ministry; Doug Anthony emerged as a potential leader in defeating Ian Sinclair to become deputy to John McEwen in the Country Party; and Gough Whitlam survived another threat of expulsion - this time for not fully supporting his leader on Vietnam - after Calwell reportedly denounced him, union leaders and Catholics before the Federal Executive.

External affairs

Vietnam, and not the security of Malaysia, was the pressing issue in 1966. Several factors explain the change. The coup in Indonesia in 1965 had reduced tension in the immediate north. The government in March 1966 announced the formation of a Task Force (including conscripts) thus increasing the commitment in Vietnam to 4,500 personnel. In December it agreed to send an additional 1,700. Acrimonious demonstrations, the death in May of the first national serviceman in Vietnam, draft card burning, the arrest of the conscientious objector, William White, all helped to escalate opposition to Australian involvement.

Holt's personal plunge into the Vietnam war was in part fired by what his wife, Zara, called 'Harry's most spectacular friendship' with the American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. His off-the-cuff remark at the White House in July 1966 - assuring Johnson that a staunch friend would go 'all the way with LBJ' - caused him embarrassment back home. Yet, for Holt, an expression of loyalty did not denote servility but the genuine, unsparing relationship between two men who shared many characteristics, and who fortified each other in the face of growing domestic criticism of the war. This hostility distressed Holt personally without affecting his resolve.

Several leaders came to Canberra during 1966 to reinforce that resolve. Hubert Humphrey, the US Vice-President, visited in February to assure Cabinet that the war was being directed by Hanoi and Peking, and represented but one of China's offensives in Asia.

President Johnson arrived in October on a barnstorming, folksy, 'goodwill visit'. Wanting Australian support at the forthcoming Manila Conference, he reminded Holt's ministers that the Communists would get to Australia long before they reached San Francisco. If, as Holt claimed, the visit illustrated 'the President's regard for Australia', it also repaid Holt's loyalty, coming as it did just one month before the federal election, causing Labor to complain of 'a cheap political gimmick'.

For all the emphasis on Vietnam, the Australian government kept up its vigil on the security of the Malaysian Peninsula and New Guinea. In February Denis Healey, the British Defence Minister, conveyed the Labour government's anxiety to reduce commitments east of Suez so a major concern throughout 1966 was to persuade British ministers to maintain its military strength in the Peninsula. Hence, Canberra supported Britain's position over Rhodesia against radical proposals coming from African Commonwealth countries, worried about the consequences of ending appeals to the Privy Council, and hesitated over moving Australian personnel and equipment to Vietnam from Malaysia.

Security was not the only connection with Asia. The government backed the Asian Development Bank, while Holt's periodic visits to Asian capitals in 1966-7 later prompted Gough Whitlam's obituary tribute that '(h)e made Australia better known in Asia and he made Australians more aware of Asia than ever before'.

Domestic issues

Australia continued to enjoy the long economic boom although growth appeared to lag during 1966 because of the drought, and because sluggish consumer demand (affected by the tax increases of 1965) affected manufacturing, especially of cars and consumer durables. The government supported the Arbitration Commission's decision in July to raise the basic wage by $2 a week, and thought periodically of how it might stimulate demand while controlling inflation. (A Gallup Poll claimed that most Australians thought that their cost of living had risen by 10 per cent over twelve months).

Defence continued to claim an increasing share of government outlays. An 18 per cent rise in the August budget was accompanied by Treasury demand to place a ceiling in 1966 at $1,000m. No one, however, could install a ceiling over the escalating costs of the F111.

In 1966, a year after the ALP had finally dropped 'White Australia' from its Platform, the government approved a significant departure from Australia's restrictive immigration policy.

In March, on advice from Hubert Opperman, the Minister for Immigration, Cabinet reversed a decision of September 1964 and agreed that non-Europeans could be selected on an individual basis to enter as immigrants with permanent residence status, and that the 15-year rule be reduced to enable non-Europeans to apply for permanent residence status and naturalisation on an equal basis with European applicants.

The new proposal would let in non-Europeans in limited numbers depending on their ability to integrate into the community, their general suitability for settlement, and having special knowledge, experience or qualifications useful to Australia and contributing to its economic, social or cultural progress. No approval would be given for manual workers, even skilled ones.

Opperman told Cabinet that a quota system was impracticable, that the existing 15-year waiting rule had been severely criticised as discriminatory and unnecessary in the case of distinguished and highly qualified immigrants, that he did not expect more than a few hundred would apply, and be eligible for, permanent residence and citizenship, and that the 12,600 Asian students would not be eligible under the proposals. Finally, he argued for the need to maintain 'the present social homogeneity' of the Australian population.

A senior public servant questioned the necessity of these changes, foresaw pressure building for more admissions and thought that numbers had to be kept to 'an absolute minimum' in order to preserve 'Australia's longstanding and widely approved policy of social homogeneity'. Cabinet emphasised that the basic principles of the immigration policy remained intact, insisted on an annual statement for a few years listing non-European admissions, and required the Minister to avoid 'unacceptable increases' and to ensure that people admitted for a particular service continued to provide it and didn't use it as a means of entry for their own purposes.

Labor supported the changes, defended Australia's record for tolerance and liberality, and warned against any fundamental shift from 'the accepted and established principles of our immigration policy'. The editorialists also approved, but a decision which had far-reaching consequences for 'White Australia' was never seriously debated outside parliament, and was buried in the commentary on Holt's contemporaneous statements on Vietnam and the economy.

Other domestic matters

More Australians in 1966 seemed willing to embrace the early days of the 'Swinging Sixties'; the mini skirt arrived and so did Robert Zimmerman, Normie Rowe escaped a carnal knowledge charge but was knocked unconscious when screaming female fans invaded his space, Diana Rigg became an Avenger, and Harold Holt posed in a wet suit alongside his three bikini-clad daughters-in-law.

While Prince Charles enrolled at Timbertop, the Country Party revised its platform to drop 'White Australia' and emphasise Australian self-reliance rather than the British connection.

In February Joern Utzon left the Opera House project, decimal coinage was introduced, and Victoria ended six o'clock closing, all without causing the feared disruption.

In May the government rejected a committee's advice to introduce a separate television network for educational purposes. At the same time, despite Treasury reluctance, it was prepared to expand its commitment to tertiary institutions.

In August the government announced that it would remove the bar which prevented married women from holding permanent positions in the Public Service.

Predictably, St George won its eleventh successive Grand Final, and Collingwood lost one. Doug Walters won plaudits for calmly accepting his national service duties and the Wallaby, Ross Cullen, sent home from Britain on a biting charge, lost some credibility after accusing the victim of twice inserting an ear in his mouth.

Rains in August and October helped to break the drought, the citizens of Geraldton and Kalgoorlie detected an eastern conspiracy in the failure to deliver television services, retailers spoke of a good Christmas and Henry Bolte was ignoring public protests and preparing to hang Ronald Joseph Ryan.

By then, the 'Age of Menzies' had become, for many, part of a distant past.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2014