The National Archives of Australia has released Cabinet documents from 1970 under the 30-year rule.
The papers show that the Gorton government looked for a civilian alternative to national service, reconsidered a Federal public order bill to prosecute protesters, and started to soften its punishment
of conscientious objectors to the war.
The Liberal-Country Party coalition government was in its 21st year in office in 1970 and was led by John Gorton, who had succeeded to the prime ministership following the drowning of Harold Holt in December 1967. Holt had succeeded Sir Robert Menzies in Janaury 1966. Menzies had governed since December 1949.
1970 is best remembered as the year of the anti-Vietnam moratorium marches. Led by Dr. Jim Cairns, the moratorium movement was at its peak in this period.
By 1970, the government was in decline and would suffer a convulsive leadership dispute in March 1971 when the Defence Minister, Malcolm Fraser, resigned, precipitating a leadership challenge that led to the accession of William McMahon. New information on the events leading to this political crisis is contained in today’s release of documents.
The Cabinet documents show that a decision to withdraw one of Australia’s three battalions in Vietnam was resisted by the Army and led to the writing of a hostile paper by Army leaders, which an official in the Prime Minister’s department describes as “argumentative, impudent and wilful”.