December 2, 1972
The 1972 Federal Election was an historic turning point in Australian political history. The election of the Labor Government, led by Gough Whitlam, marked the end of 23 years of conservative government by the Liberal and Country Party coalition government.
Led by Sir Robert Menzies for 16 years (1949-66), then by Harold Holt (1966-67), John McEwen (1967-68), John Gorton (1969-71) and William McMahon (1971-72), the Liberal and Country parties won 9 elections in a row (1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966 and 1969).
But the coalition had gone into decline between 1966 and 1972, following the retirement of Menzies.
During its 23 years in opposition, the Labor Party – under Ben Chifley (1945-51), Dr. H.V. Evatt (1951-60), Arthur Calwell (1961-67) and Gough Whitlam (1967-77) – endured a debilitating split in 1955 which led to the creation of the conservative, Catholic-based Democratic Labor Party. DLP preferences went solidly to the coalition and helped keep Labor out of office, particularly through its influence in Victoria.
But the ALP also suffered leadership and structural problems which contributed to its ongoing defeats. The brilliant jurist and humanitarian who was instrumental in the early work of the United Nations, Evatt was an erratic leader. His behaviour during the Petrov espionage scandal of 1954 and the subsequent Royal Commission contributed to Labor’s defeat and the party split.
Arthur Calwell, a politician who seemed increasingly out of place in the society of the 1960s, was nearly elected in 1961, reducing Menzies’ majority to only one, but he was trounced in 1963 when Menzies capitalised on the image of the “36 faceless men” determining Labor policy whilst Calwell and Whitlam waited in a Canberra street for their policy positions to be decided. One week before the election that year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, an event that some believe consolidated Menzies’ position.
Labor adopted a principled, but electorally damaging, position of opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, as well as opposing military conscription for young men aged 18 and over, men who were not permitted to vote at that stage.
The ALP was comprehensively defeated at the 1966 election, the last of the genuine “khaki” elections, dominated by a visit by US President Lyndon Johnson and anti-war protests. Vietnam was a popular cause with the majority of voters.
Following the 1996 landslide defeat, the ALP turned to Edward Gough Whitlam, a charismatic, but abrasive, former air-force navigator and lawyer. Whitlam had been in Parliament since 1952. In several years of dramatic leadership leading into 1972, Whitlam set about establishing a broad range of new Labor policies, focusing on health, education and urban development. In bitter battles with the party machine, conflicts which involved leadership challenges and nearly led to his expulsion from the party, he reformed the internal structure of the ALP, won 17 seats at the 1969 election and positioned the party for victory in 1972.
During this time following the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies, the Liberal Party went into a steady decline. Bereft of ideas and beset by internal dissension, particularly between people such as McMahon and Country Party leader, John McEwen, the coalition seemed increasingly out of touch with modern concerns.
The era of Vietnam and the Cold War, the pill, the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll, women’s liberation, demands for civil rights at home and abroad, and a developing multiculturalism, was producing a new political climate, conducive to change.
It has often been said that Whitlam’s victory in 1972 was the product of a three-year campaign described as “the party, the policy and the people”, a reference to internal structural reform, policy development and selling those policies to the people.
In the area of leadership, that much-talked about secret ingredient that is regarded as essential to a winning campaign, there is no doubt that Whitlam had established an ascendancy in 1972 that saw McMahon widely ridiculed.
The national mood was perhaps best summed up by the ALP’s campaign slogan, “It’s Time”.
In fact, though, whilst Whitlam’s victory was assumed and presumed by many, it was by no means assured. The ALP won 8 seats from the coalition and polled 49.6% of the primary vote, securing a majority of 8 on the floor of the House of Representatives. The big swing had taken place in 1969 when Whitlam lifted the ALP’s primary vote from 40.1% to 47.0%.
Whitlam entered government with a major program that he was determined to see implemented.
This ABC video gives a sense of the political mood in 1972:
Snedden, McMahon, Whitlam and Gair – this 22-minute compilation of radio segments broadcast on the ABC’s “PM” program on November 27, 28 & 29, 1972, contains:
- the then Liberal Treasurer, Bill Snedden, commenting on the election of Norman Kirk’s Labor government in New Zealand, and avoiding leadership questions and criticisms McMahon had made of his Cabinet. Snedden became the Liberal leader after the election.
- Prime Minister William McMahon’s visit to Puckle Street, Moonee Ponds, in Melbourne. It includes some classic vox pops with locals.
- Gough Whitlam addressing the National Press Club, discussing a range of issues, including his views on the voting system.
- The Democratic Labor Party leader, Senator Vince Gair, addressing the National Press Club. Of particular interest are his comments on issues of morality and “pollution of the mind”.
- Whitlam’s final interview three days before the election.
- Click the PLAY button to listen:
Whitlam’s It’s Time Speech
- Nov 13, 1972: – It’s Time For Leadership – the ALP Policy Speech, delivered by Gough Whitlam, at the Blacktown Civic Centre.
The final state of the parties in the House of Representatives following the 1972 election was:
|House of Representatives Elections 1972|
There was no Senate election in 1972. The Senate remained the same as it had been following the 1970 half-Senate election.
|Senate Election Results 1970|