During the 61 years that Old Parliament House served as the home of the Federal Parliament, some nation-defining decisions were taken in the building; a few of these are outlined below.
The National Service Act 1964
Conscription, or compulsory military service, has been a controversial issue throughout Australia’s history. The National Service Act 1964 introduced by the Liberal/Country Party Government divided both Parliament and the country, particularly when young conscripts were sent soon after to fight in the Vietnam War. It was not the first time that a system of conscription was introduced and challenged in this country.
The Universal Service Scheme, instituted by Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in 1911, lasted until 1929 when it was abolished by the newly-elected Labor Government. Compulsory military service for duty within Australia was revived in 1939; soldiers had to serve in defence of Australia and its South-West Pacific territories. The reintroduction of the National Service Scheme by the Liberal Government in 1951 was criticised for draining Regular Army finances and manpower and was discontinued in 1959.
Selective National Service was reintroduced in 1964 because the Menzies Government argued that conscription was necessary to safeguard Australia’s security against the spread of communism. The issue was fiercely debated in the House of Representatives, with the Labor Party morally opposed to the Bill that passed in November 1964. By May 1965, Australian soldiers were involved with the war in Vietnam, and Menzies planned to raise the army’s numbers to 40,000 in order to meet other South-West Pacific commitments.
Under the National Service Scheme, all 20 year-old males were required to register for national service. Their names were selected by the ‘birthday ballot’, in which men were randomly selected for national service by their date of birth. Marbles marked with a date were drawn out of a Tattersall’s lottery barrel. Such a draw occurred every six months and on average, an Australian male stood a one in 10 or one in 12 chance of being selected. The Leader of the Opposition, Arthur Calwell, described this system as a ‘lottery of death’. Those who were selected for national service were required to serve for two years full-time in the regular army, and three years part-time in the reserves.
Between 1965 and 1972, more than 800,000 men registered. About 63,000 were conscripted and more than 19,000 served in Vietnam. Following widespread debate, anti-conscription and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations within the Australian community, the Scheme was abolished on 5 December 1972 by the newly elected Whitlam Labor Government.
The 1967 Referendum
Australians seldom vote ‘yes’ in referendums. Yet on 27 May 1967, an overwhelming majority of Australians voted to alter the Constitution. The changes allowed Aboriginal people to be counted in the national census and the Commonwealth to make laws relevant to them. Before this time, the States controlled all matters regarding Aboriginal people.
Throughout the 20th century, several events organised by Aboriginal leaders and activists raised public awareness of the Aboriginal movement for equality. In 1928, the Association for the Protection of Native Races advocated the need for a Royal Commission to investigate the possibility of the Commonwealth taking control of Aboriginal affairs. The Australian Aborigines’ League, established in 1932 by activist William Cooper in Melbourne, challenged the living conditions of Aboriginal people. In 1938, the first national protest was held by the Aborigines’ Progress Association on the 150th anniversary of European colonisation of Australia. It was organised by both Cooper and Jack Patten, activists who lobbied the Government for citizenship rights. They renamed 26 January as the ‘Day of Mourning’.
In 1957, Jessie Street and Faith Bandler campaigned for a referendum for Aboriginal people to be included in the Australian census, and to change discriminatory references to them in the Constitution. They drafted amendments to the Constitution and established a political lobby group—the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). The main aim of the group was to push for a referendum and in 1958, a petition with over 100,000 signatures was presented to the House of Representatives. A key development over this ten year campaign was a meeting in 1965 between Prime Minister Robert Menzies and executive members of FCAATSI. At this meeting, Indigenous issues from the States of Australia, reasons for a referendum and changes to the Constitution were discussed. Despite mounting community support, it was not until 1966 that the Government, led by Prime Minister Harold Holt, agreed to hold a referendum.
The 90.7 per cent ‘yes’ vote brought welcome changes to the Federal legislation, addressing land rights, discriminatory practices, and preservation of cultural heritage. The referendum is remembered as one of the significant victories for Aboriginal people in the 1960s, along with winning the right to vote through The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962.
The Racial Discrimination Act 1975
The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 meant the end of the White Australia Policy. This policy had endorsed a preference for British migrants since Federation when The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 limited migration to Australia. The immigration restrictions were supported by many, including the union movement, which believed that cheap Asian or South Sea Islander labour undermined Australian working conditions. In 1904, over 4,000 islanders were deported under the Restriction Act.
The exclusion or deportation of migrants could not be determined by race since Britain opposed racially-based restrictions. The selection process for Australian migrants took the form of a 50 word dictation test set by customs officials in any European language. If the applicant passed, they would then be tested in another language. After 1909, no-one who sat the test passed. Successive Australian Governments sought to increase Australia’s population with child endowment payments and migration incentives for British people. As British citizens in the Asia Pacific region, Australians felt vulnerable. This fear was increased by Japan’s offensive in the Second World War and the Communist victory in China. The post-war immigration policy was ‘populate or perish’—increase the population to defend Australia.
Australia’s first Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, targeted Northern Europeans. Their customs and appearance were considered suitable for rapid assimilation into Australian culture. Calwell argued that Australians were too intolerant to cope with non-Europeans. Many agreed with his infamous throwaway line in 1947, ‘Two Wongs do not make a white.’ During the 1950s, the White Australia Policy was widely condemned. In 1951 and 1952, the Federal Government signed migration agreements with Italy and Greece. Government aid programs welcomed large numbers of Africans and Asians to study in Australia. Immigration Minister Harold Holt’s Immigration Act 1958 abolished the dictation test, but the entry permit system was still racially-based.
The White Australia Policy officially ended in 1973 when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam declared, ‘As an island nation of predominantly European inhabitants situated on the edge of Asia, we cannot afford the stigma of racialism.’ The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 followed. Immigration Minister, Al Grassby, promoted ‘multiculturalism’, a concept that valued cultural diversity and underpinned the policies of both the Australian Labor Party Government and the Liberal/National Country Party.
The World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983
On 1 July 1983, the High Court upheld the Federal Government’s World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 against a challenge from the Tasmanian State Government. This stopped the Franklin River dam and confirmed the Federal Government’s power to protect world heritage sites.
Long before the Gordon-below-Franklin dam proposal was put forward in 1978, successive Tasmanian Governments supported increased hydro-electricity generation. Cheap electricity meant opportunities for industrial development and employment growth. The State’s largest employer, the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC), controlled water resources and was government owned.
The conservation movement in Tasmania grew in response to development in environmentally significant areas. The United Tasmanian Group became the world’s first green political party in 1971. Protest groups tried and failed to stop the HEC flooding Lake Pedder in 1972. By 1976 the groups had united as the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. Their ‘No Dams’ campaign was underway when the State Labor Government legislated for the Gordon-below-Franklin dam in 1981. In June 1980, 10,000 people had rallied in Hobart to save the Franklin, the largest Tasmanian protest ever. In December 1981, a referendum offered Tasmanians a choice between two dam proposals on the Gordon River. The referendum results were unclear—53 per cent preferred the Lower Gordon option; 9 per cent the Upper Gordon and 38 per cent protested by writing ‘No Dams’ on the ballot.
A State election followed with a change of government. New Liberal Premier, Robin Gray, threatened to secede from the Commonwealth if the Federal Government interfered with State affairs. The Wilderness Society leader, Bob Brown, toured Australia raising support for the campaign. He hoped this would persuade Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to overrule the State legislation. Protesters formed a blockade at the dam site on 14 December 1982, the day on which the area was listed as a world heritage site. During January 1983, around 50 people arrived at the blockade every day. Over 1,000 people were arrested. In early 1983, Labor leader Bob Hawke promised to save the Franklin River as part of his federal election campaign. Labor won office with a large swing on 5 March. By May, The World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 became law.