Australia has grown up a lot since the end of the Second World War. Here’s a look at some key historical turning points from the 1950s to the modern day, to inform your next visit ‘Down Under.’
1950s: Suburban dream
The 1950s saw an economic boom in Australia of full employment and low inflation. New suburbs were developed with detached houses on large blocks near the city as Australians enjoyed the “suburban dream.”
Australia’s population swelled to 10 million on the back of postwar European immigration, including from Greece, Italy, Holland and Germany, as well as its traditional source, Britain.
Liberal Party leader Robert Menzies regained office in 1949 and ruled through to 1966, becoming Australia’s longest serving prime minister.
Major events of the decade included the British royal tour of 1954 and the arrival of television in 1956, also the year of Melbourne’s Summer Olympics. The decade was mostly peaceful too, despite Australia’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) and the ongoing threat of the Cold War.
Australia-Japan ties enjoyed a renaissance, with the signing of the Australia-Japan commerce agreement in 1957 spurring a wave of bilateral trade and investment.
1960s: Protests and prosperity
The 1960s marked a turning point with the children of the postwar era coming of age and exerting their influence. Large-scale public protests were held against conscription and the Vietnam War, together with campaigns for women’s equality and the rights of Indigenous Australians.
Culturally, Elvis Presley and the Beatles ruled the airwaves, with an estimated 300,000 people welcoming the British band to Adelaide.
In 1966, Australia welcomed then U.S. President Lyndon Johnston, the first visit by a U.S. president. Menzies’ successor, Harold Holt welcomed the U.S. leader with the slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”
Economically, the decade also saw the start of a mining boom, with increased exports of minerals such as iron ore fuelling Japan’s industrialisation.
1970s: It’s time
The 1970s was a period of great change for Australia, marked by the 1972 election of the left-wing Labor party led by Gough Whitlam. Campaigning under the slogan “It’s time,” Labor enacted a raft of reforms, including ending the ‘White Australia’ immigration policy, withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam and enacting free university education and national healthcare.
The end of the restrictive immigration policy opened the door to a wave of Vietnamese refugees and other immigrants, marking the beginning of a multicultural Australia.
Economically, in 1973 an oil price shock caused by OPEC disrupted the global and Australian economy, leading to sharply higher inflation and rising unemployment.
In 1975, amid political turmoil, the Whitlam government was dismissed by the governor-general, John Kerr, under the authority of Britain’s Queen. Whitlam was replaced by Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser, who ruled until 1983.
1980s: Greed is good
The 1980s saw an economic revolution characterised by the ‘greed is good’ ethos of the 1987 U.S. movie, Wall Street. Young, upwardly mobile professionals known as “yuppies” were seen enjoying the fruits of prosperity with their imported cars and smart suits.
Unfortunately, the stock market crashed on October 19, 1987, a day known as ‘Black Monday’ for its global impacts. Australia plunged into recession, with Labor treasurer Paul Keating describing it as the recession Australia “had to have.”
Culturally, “Advance Australia Fair” became Australia’s official national anthem in 1984, replacing the British anthem, with green and gold becoming Australia’s colours.
Labor’s Bob Hawke ruled as leader from 1983 to 1991, gaining a record high approval rating of 75% in 1984 and enacting a range of deregulatory reforms. Hawke also famously celebrated Australia winning the America’s Cup yacht race in 1983, declaring that “any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up [to work] today is a bum.”
The fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 also marked a new era, with the end of the Cold War heralding a new phase in global relations.
1990s: Recession and recovery
Japan’s ‘bubble economy’ crashed in 1990 and Australia also experienced a downturn at the start of the 1990s. Unemployment reached a record high 11.4% in 1992, with airline and bank failures hitting the business sector hard.
Socially, increased immigration resulted in nearly one in four Australians being born overseas, representing some 100 countries. The 1990s also saw the arrival of the internet and mobile phones, heralding a new era of communications.
Politically, Paul Keating ended Bob Hawke’s reign in a successful leadership challenge in 1991. However, after 13 years in office, Labor suffered a landslide defeat to the conservative Liberal-National coalition in 1996, led by John Howard, who ruled until 2007.
Overseas, Australian military forces supported the U.S.-led Iraq War in 1990. Closer to home, Australian troops led a U.N. peacekeeping force into East Timor in 1999.
2000s: Celebrations and terror
The new decade began with a celebration for the new millennium, with Sydney hosting the Summer Olympics in 2000 and the centenary of Australia’s federation being marked on January 1, 2001. Economically, the growth of the internet led to a “dot-com boom” on the stock market which saw massive gains for internet-based companies.
However, terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in September 2001 signalled the start of the global “war on terror” with Australia contributing troops to U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ordinary Australians also felt the effects of the war, with Islamic extremists bombing a bar in Bali, Indonesia, killing 88 Australian tourists.
In 2008, the global financial crisis (GFC) plunged the world into recession. However, the ‘Lucky Country’ managed to avoid a significant downturn, thanks to government spending and a mining boom driven by China’s rapid industrialisation.
Politically, Australia saw change again with John Howard’s long-serving government losing office in the 2007 election to Labor, led by Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s changes included ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and an apology to Indigenous Australians for the “Stolen Generations.”
2010s: Political topsy-turvy
Australia sailed into the new decade on the back of a seemingly unending boom, with the nation continuing to enjoy economic growth despite the GFC.
Yet while the economy remained stable, politically the decade was marked by a revolving door of leaders knifed by their own parliamentary colleagues. Kevin Rudd was the first to go, falling prey to his Labor party rival Julia Gillard in 2010 before snatching back the top job in 2013.
Liberal leader Tony Abbott then trumped Rudd at the 2013 general election, before he felt the pain of a political backstabbing just two years later from his colleague Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull however suffered the same misfortune, being overthrown by Scott Morrison in 2019. It all seemed very different to Japan’s period of leadership stability under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Natural disasters hit hard however, starting with the Brisbane floods in 2011 and followed by the bushfire disasters of 2020, known as “Black Summer” for burning some 1.8 million hectares and killing an estimated billion animals.
In 2020, Australia was hit by the global COVID-19 pandemic, with the nation quickly shutting its borders to non-residents. The success of such measures has been shown by its limited toll from the virus, with 909 deaths reported as of March 31, 2021 among a population of more than 25 million.
As of April 2021, vaccines were slowly being distributed nationwide, with hopes of international travel resuming later that year or in 2022.
Did you know?
- In 1957, Australia became the first nation to sign a trade pact with Japan since the end of World War II.
- Bob Hawke, one of Australia’s most popular leaders, famously held the world record for drinking a yard glass of beer in under 12 seconds during his time at Britain’s Oxford University
- Rosemary Follett was the first woman to lead an Australian government when she became chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory in 1989; Julia Gillard became the first female prime minister in 2010
- The first Japanese settlers arrived in Australia in the late 1800s, working in the pearling industry.