History of Australia since 1901

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This article is part of the series
History of Australia
Commonwealth

Australia before 1901
Federation of Australia
Australia since 1901
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Federation

Main article: Federation of Australia.

The 1890s depression (the most severe Australia had ever faced) made the inefficiencies of the six colonies seem ever more ridiculous, and, particularly in border areas, a push for an Australian Federation began. Other motives for Federation were the need for a common immigration policy (Queensland was busy importing indentured workers from New Caledonia, known as Kanakas, to work in the sugar industry: both the unions and the other colonies strongly opposed this), and fear of the other European powers, France and Germany, who were expanding into the region. British military leaders such as Horatio Kitchener urged Australia to create a national army and navy: this obviously required a federal government. It was also no coincidence that in the 1890s for the first time the majority of Australians, the children of the gold rush immigrants, were Australian-born.

The New South Wales Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, was the initial leader of the federation movement, but the other colonies tended to see it as a plot for New South Wales dominance, and an initial attempt to approve a federal constitution in 1891 failed. The cause was then taken up the Australian Natives Association and younger politicians such as Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton. Following a federalist convention in Corowa in 1893, the colonies agreed to hold elections for a Federal Convention, which met in various cities in 1897 and 1898. A draft Constitution, largely written by the Queensland judge Sir Samuel Griffith was approved, and was put to referendums in the colonies in 1899 and 1900. New South Wales voters rejected the draft because it gave too much power to the smaller colonies, but eventually a compromise was reached.

Discussions between Australian and British representatives led to adoption by the British Government of an act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia late in 1900. The Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, nearly derailed the whole process by insisting that British courts retain their jurisdiction over Australia. The Australians eventually reluctantly agreed to this. Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom gave her royal assent to the act on July 9 creating the Commonwealth and thus uniting the separate colonies on the continent under one federal government. The act came into effect on January 1, 1901.

Melbourne was chosen as the temporary seat of government while a purpose-designed capital city, Canberra, was constructed. The future King George V, then the Duke of York, opened the first Parliament on May 9, 1901, and his successor, (later to be King George VI) opened the first sesson in Canberra during May 1927. Australia became officially autonomous in both internal and external affairs with the passage of the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act on October 9 1942. The Australia Act in (1986) eliminated the last vestiges of British legal authority at the Federal level. (The last state to remove recourse to British courts, Queensland did not do so until 1988).

The 20th century

The first federal elections in March 1901 saw a Parliament elected in which none of the three parties has a majority in either House. Barton formed a Protectionist Party government supported by Labor, with George Reid's Free Trade Party in opposition. The Barton government, which was succeeded by the Deakin government in 1902 enacted much fundamental legislation, as well as turning the White Australia Policy into law.

In 1909 the Protectionists and Free Traders merged to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party, but this was not enough to prevent Labor coming to power under Andrew Fisher in 1910. Labor was narrowly defeated in 1913, but returned to power in 1914, and seemed set to become Australia's dominant political party. But the outbreak of World War I was to change Australian politics permanently.

Australia gladly sent many thousands of troops to fight for Britain in the war, and thousands lost their lives at Gallipoli, on the Turkish coast and many more in France. Both Australian victories and losses on World War I battlefields contribute significantly to Australia's national identity. Over 60,000 Australians died during the conflict and 155,000 were wounded - which was the highest death toll per capita of any Allied country. Australia still has an annual holiday to remember its war dead on ANZAC Day, 25 April, each year, the date of the first landings at Gallipoli in 1915. The parades attract large crowds across Australia (and New Zealand: Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps).

In 1916 the Labor Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, decided that Australia must have conscription if the strength of Australia's forces at the front was to be maintained. The Labor Party and the trade unions were bitterly opposed to conscription, and Hughes and his followers were expelled from the party when they refused to back down. In 1916 and again in 1917 the Australian people voted against conscription in national plebiscites. (See History of Australian Conscription) Hughes united with the Liberals to form the Nationalist Party, and remained in office until 1923, when he was succeeded by Stanley Bruce. Labor remained weak and divided through the 1920s. The new Country Party took many country voters away from Labor, and in 1923 the Country Party formed a coalition government with the Nationalists.

Australia's dependence on primary exports such as wheat and wool was cruelly exposed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, which produced unemployment and destitution even greater than those seen during the 1890s. The Labor Party under James Scullin won the 1929 election in a landslide, but was quite unable to cope with the Depression. Labor split into three factions lost power in 1932 to new conservative party, the United Australia Party (UAP) led by Joseph Lyons, and did not return to office until 1941. Australia made a very slow recovery from the Depression during the late 1930s. Lyons died in 1939 and was succeeded by Robert Menzies.

Australia again sent its armed forces to fight alongside Britain during the Second World War. In 1940-41, Australian forces played prominent roles in the fighting in the Mediterranean theatre, including Operation Compass, the Siege of Tobruk, the Greek campaign, the Battle of Crete, the Syria-Lebanon campaign and the Second Battle of El Alamein. Menzies was judged an unsuitable wartime leader, and in 1941 Labor returned to office under John Curtin. The war came closer to home when HMAS Sydney and the German raider Kormoran sank each other off Western Australia: the 645-strong crew of the Sydney were all lost, and the ship itself has never been found.

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Allied states throughout East Asia and the Pacific, from December 8 (Australian time) 1941, Curtin insisted that Australian forces be brought home to fight Japan. After the Fall of Singapore in February 1942, 15,000 Australian soldiers became prisoners of war. A few days later, Darwin was heavily bombed by Japanese planes, the first time the Australian mainland had ever been attacked by enemy forces, an event which caused a state of near-panic throughout the country. Over the following 19 months, Australia was attacked from the air almost 100 times.

Curtin forged a close alliance with the United States, a fundamental shift in Australia's foreign policy. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the South West Pacific Area, moved his headquarters to Australia. In May 1942, Japanese midget submarines sunk several troop transports in a daring raid on Sydney Harbour. The threat of Japanese invasion was averted by Allied successes in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.

Australian forces then fought bitterly Japanese attempts to take Port Moresby, by way of the Kokoda Track, in the highlands of New Guinea. The Australian victory in the Battle of Milne Bay was the first Allied defeat of Japanese land forces. However, the Battle of Buna-Gona set the tone for the bitter final stages of the New Guinea campaign, which persisted into 1945. It was followed by Australian-led amphibious assaults against Japanese bases in Borneo (see Borneo campaign (1945).

The alliance with the U.S. was later formalised by the ANZUS Pact of 1951.

Postwar Australia

After World War II, Australia launched a massive immigration program, believing that having narrowly avoided a Japanese invasion, Australia must "populate or perish." Hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans, including for the first time large numbers of Jews, migrated to Australia. More than two million people immigrated to Australia from Europe during the 20 years after the end of the war. Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia became major sources of immigrants, later followed by Turkey and Lebanon. Australia actively sought these immigrants, with the government assisting many of them and they found work due to an expanding economy and major infrastructure projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. This wave of immigration greatly changed the character of Australian society, which before the war had been monocultural, inward-looking and conservative. Immigration was still restricted to Europeans in most circumstances, although the White Australia policy was gradually eased from the 1950s onwards.

In 1949 the wartime Labor government (led after Curtin's death in 1945 by Ben Chifley) was defeated by a Liberal government headed by Menzies, who became Australia's longest-serving prime minister and the dominant figure in Australian politics until the 1960s. Menzies exploited Cold War fears to retain office, and in 1951 he narrowly failed to win a referendum to allow him to ban the Communist Party. Menzies poured money into higher education and industrial development.

Menzies also maintained the alliance with the United States, sending Australian troops to the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Australia's participation in Vietnam, and particularly the use of conscription, became politically contentious and saw massive protests, though they were for the most part peaceful. The Liberal Party maintained power through Menzies' successors, Harold Holt (who disappeared in 1967, while swimmming in the sea), John Gorton and William McMahon, though each PM in succession was generally considered to be less able and less politically skilled than his predecessor.

The late 1960s and early 1970s are also often associated, at least in the mind of many Australians who were young adults at that time, with a flowering of Australian culture. Indigenous Australians achieved greater rights, immigration restrictions and censorship laws were swept aside, theatre and opera companies were established across the country, and Australian rock music began to mention explicitly Australian themes.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam became the first Labor PM in 23 years, and carried out sweeping reforms such as introduction of universal health insurance and reform of divorce and family law. Whitlam's radical and imperious style eventually alienated many voters, and — after a series of ministeral scandals in 1975 — the Senate for the first time used its constitutional powers to block the government's budget. When Whitlam refused to back down, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, dismissed him on 11 November. Despite the condemnation of a large section of the Australian public (and legal opinion) that these actions caused, the conservative leader Malcolm Fraser won the subsequent elections and retained power until 1983, though the social reforms of Whitlam were retained and in some ways continued under Fraser. In 1983, Labor returned to power under the former trade union leader Bob Hawke, a much less confrontationist figure than Whitlam.

The 1980s saw severe concerns about Australia's future economic health take hold, with severe current account deficits and high unemployment at times. Hawke's government introduced many economic reforms, including tariff cuts, a floating exchange rate, the privatisation of many government services, and most prominently an agreement with trade unions to moderate wage demands and accept more flexible working condition arrangments by accepting tax cuts in return. Ultimately, many of the reforms, continued by successor governments, appear to have been successful in pushing the economy along. Economic growth continued through the 1990s at rates higher than most of Australia's trading partners, and even through to 2003 despite recessions elsewhere.

Partly because of divisions on the conservative side of politics, Hawke held office until 1991, when he was deposed by his former deputy, Paul Keating, who kept Labor in office until 1996.

Whilst trade with Asia had overtaken trade with the UK many years before, Asian immigrants became a major cultural influence on Australia by the 1970s and beyond, perhaps first with refugees from Vietnam, but also including large numbers from China, many of whom initially arrive as university students (a large group were given permission to stay after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989). The Chinese influence, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, is obvious to the visitor despite not being reflected in Australia's image overseas.

Recent controversies

From the 1950s onwards, Australians began to rethink their attitudes towards racial issues. An Aboriginal rights movement, supported by many liberal white Australians, was founded, and a campaign against the White Australia policy was also launched. In 1967 a referendum was held and overwhelmingly approved to amend the Constitution, removing discriminatory references and giving the national parliament the power to legislate specifically for the Aboriginal people. (Contrary to frequently repeated mythology, this referendum did not confer citizenship on Aboriginal people, nor did it give them the vote: they already had both.) From the late 1960s a movement for Aboriginal land rights also developed. In 1971 Neville Bonner became the first Aboriginal person elected to the Australian Parliament.

For more on the 1967 referendum, see Australian referendum, 1967 (Aboriginals).

During much of the twentieth century, Australian governments had removed many aboriginal children from their families. This practice, while beneficial to some individuals, did great damage to the Aboriginal people, culturally and emotionally, giving rise to the term stolen generation to describe these families. Since the publication in 1997 of a federal government report, Bringing Them Home all state governments have followed the recommendation of the report in issuing formal apologies for their past practices to the Aboriginal people, as have many local governments. The Howard government has refused to make such an apology, despite pleas from the Aboriginal people and from many sections of the wider community, on the basis that it would constitute a legal admission of guilt and give rise to widespread claims for compensation.

The Australian republicanism which had been a feature of the 1890s faded away during the First World War. Monarchist sentiment in Australia peaked during the Menzies years with the wildly successful 1954 tour by Queen Elizabeth II. The issue of a republic did not arise again until the 1970s. In the 1990s it was bought to the forefront of national debate by Prime Minister Paul Keating, who promised in 1993 to introduce an "Australian federal republic" by the centenary of Federation in 2001. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Australian support an Australian republic, but a referendum on the issue failed on November 6, 1999.

Some republicans blamed the conservative and monarchist Prime Minister John Howard (elected in 1996), whose leadership certainly did not aid the republican cause. But there were other significant factors, including a split between "minimalist" republicans who wanted an Australian president to be chosen by the federal Parliament (as happens in, for example, Germany), and more "radical" republicans who wanted a directly elected President, as in the Irish Republic. Public opinion suggested that a republic would only be acceptable if a president was directly elected. Since the referendum proposal was for an indirectly elected president, many radicals opposed it. The debate since 1999 has died down, though it will probably become a topic of national importance again when Howard leaves office.

Since being elected in 1996, the Howard government has attempted to reduce Australia's government deficit and to reduce the influence of labour unions, placing more emphasis on workplace-based collective bargaining for wages. The government also has accelerated the pace of privatisation, beginning with the government-owned telecommunications corporation, Telstra. Howard's government has continued some elements of the foreign policy of its predecessors, based on relations with four key countries: the United States, Japan, China, and Indonesia. The Howard government strongly supports US engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. However some observers noted a greater push towards engagement with Western nations than the previous Keating government which emphasised that Australia was part of Asia. These observers point to various controversies such as the Tampa affair in which the MS Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship was at the center of a diplomatic dispute between Australia, Norway and Indonesia off the coast of Christmas Island as indicating a shift back towards the more conservative policies of the mid-20th century.

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