From LSHG Newsletter no. 51 (Spring 2014)
Years of Rage:
Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era
By Tom O’Lincoln
Melbourne, 2012, 251pp
(New edition; first published 1993)
In 1975 Australia’s Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam, was removed from office by the Governor General. In the ensuing election a right-wing coalition headed by Malcom Fraser took over. Fraser remained in power for some eight years. They were years of sharp social conflict. Fraser attempted to cut wages, to weaken trade-union organisation, to attack social services and health provision, and to normalise high levels of unemployment.
The parallels with Britain under Thatcher or Cameron are obvious. To someone like myself, whose knowledge of Australia comes largely from Neighbours, O’Lincoln’s narrative reveals many unknown events. Yet there are constant echoes of British experience. Australia’s working class has its own characteristics and traditions, and sometimes a British reader may stumble over details of history, geography or language. While in Britain people on benefits are “scroungers”, in Australia they are “bludgers”. Yet a computer would have no difficulty in translating the vile bigoted rhetoric. And it is interesting to note that the slogan “One more cut – Fraser’s throat” originated in Australia and was later applied to Thatcher.
O’Lincoln’s narrative weaves together several strands in order to give a vivid account of the years of rage. Fraser’s arrival coincided with the end of the post-war boom and the economic crisis of the mid-seventies. As O’Lincoln argues, this was an international crisis of capitalism, and therefore could not be blamed on previous government policies or excessive wage demands. He dismisses the arguments of sections of the left who wanted a strategy based on “Australian independence”.
Fraser’s strategy, however, was to face the crisis in the way that would bring most advantage to Australia’s employers. Between 1967 and 1983 the rate of profit in Australia fell by 30%. Fraser’s aim was to resist this tendency by pushing wage restraint. The Melbourne daily The Age (often compared to the Guardian) described the result: “The trade union movement has become the effective opposition to a government whose authority and arrogance had seemed invincible.”
O’Lincoln gives a full account of the various trade union struggles. But they took place in a broader
context. Australia had a vigorous left, inherited from the student struggles and the campaign against the Vietnam war in the 1960s. The 1970s saw struggles for women’s and gay rights, against the oppression of Aborigines, and around environmental issues such as uranium mining. But, as O’Lincoln shows, such campaigns tended to be most effective when they were linked to the organised working-class movement.
Within the left there was a revolutionary current, pushing for greater and more effective mobilisation and solidarity. Though it was too small to change the course of events, it did have some influence, and was at the heart of many struggles. O’Lincoln writes as a participant (at the time he was a leading member of the International Socialists), and he includes personal experiences and those of his comrades.
Among the many interesting episodes described in the book, I was particularly struck by the account of the strikes by power station maintenance workers in the Latrobe Valley near Melbourne. In one sense power workers epitomise the strength of the working class; without their labour society cannot function. Action by power workers led to 500,000 workers being laid off, cuts in transport, heating and lighting and the limitation of television to eight hours per day. Strikers stood up to the courts and
threats of troops being sent in. Yet in the end, despite their determination and despite magnificent and widespread solidarity from other workers, they were defeated, because their own union leaders did not have the political will to prevail over their opponents.
Fraser won many partial victories, but in the end, O’Lincoln shows, he “was unable either to solve the economic crisis or to smash the unions”. In 1983, a Labor government came to power under former union leader Bob Hawke. And with the conclusion to the story comes the final twist (perhaps I should add “spoiler alert”). As O’Lincoln puts it, “Labor in the eighties achieved Malcolm Fraser’s goals more fully than the conservative parties could do”.
O’Lincoln’s book, with its fascinating but sadly familiar story, will be of great value not only to historians, but to trade-union activists.
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