Contemporary Issues

Unit 1: 1940's & 1950's

Cultural Aspects Historical Issues Race Relations Contemporary Issues

Unit 1: 1940s & 50s Unit 2: 1965-1975 Unit 3: Independent Research

Contemporary issues

Unit 01: 1940s - 1950s


Friday December 8 2006, London

We see familiar things more clearly than objects about which we have no stock memories. And when, under emotional stress or excitement, our imagination is more than ordinarily active, it often happens that we interpret sensa as manifestations of the objects with which our imagination is busy, rather than manifestations of the objects actually present in the external world.

(Huxley, 1942; p.89)

Like many of his generation, my father did not have friendships with Aboriginal people. For many Australians who were experiencing the stress of unemployment, their imaginations led them to believe that Aboriginal people were to be feared. A fearful eye can be a blind eye.

I am writing from my father's house in Islington, London. He is 82 and has trouble remembering a lot of everyday things. But he can still remember many things from the past. This morning I ask him if he remembers Bill Onus, an Aboriginal artist who was part of the Aboriginal Advancement movement in Australia in the 1950's, and who I remembered as a child growing up in Kallista. "He was good friends with Jean (my mother). I did't know him well."

What impact did the Second World War have on the way Australians thought of themselves and the rest of the world?

Australia was recovering from the second world war, during which there had been a real fear of invasion by Japan. Britain's other colonies were disintegrating, as they fought for their independence. Although Australia was not seeking independence from Britain, it seemed less likely that Britain was in a position to continue the responsibility for Australia that she had once sought. No longer looking to Britain for protection then, Australians increasingly identified with America, as an ally and cultural role model.

After the war Australia's population was about 7 500 000, less than half of what it is today. Fear of possible future invasion and an increasing desire to forge her own cultural identity, an immigration policy was begun.

In stark contrast with today, the white Australian population after the war was homogeneous, with ninety percent of people having been born locally, from English, Irish or Scots ancestors. A post-war immigration scheme brought more of this stock to its shores in a bid to bulk the numbers against further possible invasions.

In 1947 the Australian government sought to further increase and determine its racial identity through extending its immigration policy to include peoples from its war-time allies, Britain, France, Dutch, USA, Norway, Denmark and Belgium.

In 1947 the Australian government co-operated with the International Refugee Organization to resettle Europeans displaced as a result of the war, including many from Baltic countries. My English grandmother, who lived in Melbourne at the time, worked as part of this organization, introducing them to the kinds of cultural circles they would have been familiar with in their home countries: musical, literary and theatrical.


What was the attitude to Aboriginal ex-servicemen and women?

Aboriginal Australians had fought side by side with white Australians during the war, but afterwords were expected to return to the old divided society of pre-war society.




How different is my street from how it wold have been in the 1940s?

I live in Newtown, Sydney. Since the 1940's our street has been colonized by the Chinese, Greeks, Italians, white and Aboriginal Australians. All skin colours are represented. One of our neighbours grew up here, and has recently bought and renovated his father's house, where he was born. He is a white Australian, of British stock, and said that the people who used to live in this street were mostly white Australians when he was growing up here.

How different was life in Australia in the 1940s and1950s?

I went to a state school in Victoria's Dandenong Ranges. On my first day there in 1954, when I was five, my class were told to sit on a hot slope of concrete and wait for our names to be called. A little boy wearing short leather trousers weed on the concrete, and it slowly trickled down the slope. We all watched in silence. We all saw how different he was from us white Anglo Celtic Australians. I had never met a German before. In our class there were others. Their names rhymed: Anika, Rynika, Minika and Veronica. I suspect Veronika was not German, but her name has stuck in my mind because it rhymed.

The pace of life in Australia was slower. People tended to make their own entertainment more, rather than consume the corporatised media products that they do today. Friends would come to the house and play musical instruments. My father read and my mother explored various crafts. I was encouraged to draw and read and write for the pleasure of it. The only reason we had a TV was because my father enjoyed the challenge of building one. We lived in a culture of 'make do'. When 'Gladwrap' came in, my English grandmother washed it and re-used it. Although we had a car, we walked rather than drove to places, and walked every weekend in the nearby Sherbrooke forest for exercise and relaxation. We were part of a fit and thrifty community.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a multicultural society?

Living and working side by side people with different ethnic backgrounds provides opportunities for greater understanding and empathy, and for sharing skills, language and ideas. Sadly, such opportunities are rare, with the prevailing tendencies of such groups to live separately from each other, as well as for continuing suspicion of difference, particularly when unemployment is high. With no shared language, a multicultural society runs the risk of cultural misunderstandings, and lack of tolerance and respect for different values and beliefs.

Australia's immigration policies after the war were a generous humanitarian response to the needs of others. Restricting immigration to white people revealed the Australian government's blatant racist attitude.

I must have been about thirteen when I sat in an old 'red rattler' train at Glen Waverley station opposite a very beautiful and serious looking Aboriginal girl. Older than me, and dressed in an immaculate school uniform, complete with blazer, hat and gloves, she seemed close to tears.





As more British colonies - USA, South Africa, New Guinea - strove for independence from Britain, Australia's policy was shown up as racist to the international community. The policy was driven by fear of the unknown, and a belief in the superiority of white people. White Australians feared that migrants would work for less pay, and lower the country's high living standards.

The White Australia changed with the change of government - from Liberal to Labour. The Whitlam Government acknowledged the need to build trade relations with our nearest neighbours, Asians. Also, Australia was becoming more actively involved in the United Nations. The international community was accepting the ideals of Universal Human Rights.

Migrants were still isolated from mainstream society by language, and their qualifications and skills are not always readily recognized. Often they were forced to work in isolated places, such as on hydro-electric stations in the Snowy Mountains, or Tasmania.

Attitudes of Australian society were slow in catching up with the ideals of human equality, as was demonstrated by the success of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party of the 1990's.

However, the racism experience by migrants was mostly less than what they had experienced in their homelands during the war.



The cost of living then and now


Petrol was only 33.5 cents a gallon; but relatively few people owned cars.

There were't that many migrants and certainly not from Asia; and hardly anyone traveled overseas.

Going to the cinema was popular and there were a lot of cinemas; but television was not introduced until 1956.

There were a lot more jobs available than there are today; but most people finished school at 15 and few went to university or TAFE

class="quoter">(Cavanagh, 2000; Unit 01, p. 20)

The cost of living then was much lower than it is today, but life was simpler. The luxuries people take for granted today, such as televisions and cars, and domestic labour saving devices were unavailable to all but the wealthy.

In the 1950's my father worked in the electronics industry, and was the sole earner of our household, fixing marine radio and radar equipment. He traveled a long distance to work by train before the company he worked for provided vans for their workers in the late 1960's. We had an ice chest in the kitchen for keeping food. We had an outside toilet that was regularly emptied by a 'night man'. Milk and bread were delivered by horse and cart early in the mornings. My father built us a television from spare parts he found at work.



The role of women


In the 1940s and 1950s, my mother pursued traditional female occupations: home making, child rearing and dressmaking. She was, as were most of her friends, uninterested in public affairs. She married young, produced three children and only occasionally sought paid work as a tailor . During the war, before she met my father, she had worked in a production line, sewing the flies on heavy canvas tents.

Mainstream values held that men were 'shirkers' if their wives were seen to be working. This was a cause of conflict in our family, where my parent's values differed. My father had been influenced by the women's suffragette movement, and respected the rights of women. My mother, however, believed that 'a women should't have to work.'


There were advantages and disadvantages of the 1950's view of the role of women, and men and families. When gender roles were clearer, families could be more organized, because people knew what was expected of them. If the values were shared within a household, there was no conflict for women, as there is today, between home and career. They were not expected to have a career.

Views of women's roles have changed since the 1950's. Intellectually, physically and creatively, women in mainstream Australian culture was highly restrictive. Dependent on men for money and status, the skills and qualities they might have contributed to it were not valued.

Now, women are expected to work, and are educated with the same expectations as men. There are exceptions to this, where people who have moved to Australia maintain their cultural values which may contradict mainstream Australian values. Generally speaking, however, it is expected that women work, and the higher cost of living demands that they work, regardless of whether or not they have children.

Although society's expectations of men and women are perceived to be equal, males occupy the majority of senior management positions. When women reach a certain level in their career, they reach what has come to be known as the 'glass ceiling', through which they do not seem able to penetrate. The stereotypical board rooms of senior management comprise mostly males.

In the 1950's, women received 75percent of what men earned for the same work. It was post-war times, with men returning to work after being away. This ruling provided little incentive for women to continue the paid work they had been undertaking. It was assumed that women would return to domestic duties and support men in their work, whether as wives of domestic staff. It worked to shape the power structure within family unit.

In 1972, when the Labour Government came back into power after 23 years of Liberal rule, equal pay for equal work was given to men and women, and later in the 1970's it was acknowledged that women needed support in balancing their roles as mothers and workers, and maternity leave was instituted. Women were now encouraged to work and have a family.



How did the world change after the war?


Britain experienced the collapse of its Imperial power, as its colonies asserted their independence. With the ousting of a British QC from Indonesia, it was clear that her status was declining. America rose to dominance, assuming the role of world police, and entered into the internal conflicts of other countries, such as Vietnam, to impose its own flavour of democracy.

These changes impacted on Australian's identity. On the other side of the world from her original motherland, Britain, she was now forced to consider her relationship with her Asian neighbours in different ways, and to form new allegiances. It reinforced her fears of invasion and need to 'populate or perish'. As well as for positive humanitarian reasons, it was in Australia's political interests to bring in more migrants.






Attitudes towards Aboriginal people in the 1950's


In her review of the film 'Jedda', by Josephine O'Neill, a deeply felt ambivalence towards Aboriginal people is expressed. she is clearly drawn to the natural beauty of the landscape and its people, but there is a tension between her admiration and respect, and her paternalistic concern. She sees that the Aboriginal people simply do not fit with the European cultural landscape. The assumption is that they must adapt and that they are failing. (O'Neill, 1955, cited in Cavanagh, Patrick, 2000; Unit 1, p 33)





In the 1950's these people were upheld as success stories in Aboriginal assimilation. They were perceived as Aboriginal people who were able to assimilate European culture:

Albert Namatjira (190-1959) was an artist who learned to paint Australian landscapes in a European manner.

Robert Tudawali (1930-1967) was one of the actors in the film 'Jedda' (Chauvel, 1955)

Kunoth Monks (b. 1937) was one of the actors in the film 'Jedda' (Chauvel, 1955)



Life in the 1950s for an Aboriginal woman


Refer to the interview with Elaine Russell in the Final Assessment Event for Cultural Issues.



White advocates for Aboriginal advancement


Gordon Bryan (1914-1991) and Kim Beazley senior were both ALP Federal members with an active interest in the rights of Aboriginal people. They encouraged the Yolgnu people's protest of the Nabalco mining of their land in the 1960's. Bryant was a co-founder of the Aboriginal Advancement League and was the first Minister for Aboriginal Affairs for the Whitlam government.

Jessie Street

Charles Duguid was a doctor from South Australia, and a founding member of FCAATSI.

Don McLeod (b. 1908) was a prospector and Communist. After the second world war he helped Aboriginal people in the Pilara organize a long strike, the first example of a more militant Aboriginal movement.



Aboriginal leaders of the 1950s

Doug Nichols

Daisy Bindi

Pearl Gibbs

Kath Walker (Oogeroo Noonuccal)

Faith Bandler

Bert Groves




1956: the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, Sydney

1957: the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League

1958: the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines (FCAA)

1961: Queensland's One People for Australia League (OPAL)

1964: FCAA became the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).This was the driving force behind the referendum and became increasingly Aboriginal and militant at the end of the 1960s.



1.12 (optional)

Changing Attitudes in the 1960s


Australian society changed radically during the 1960s. There were changes in the roles and status of women, in the position of migrants in society, and in the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. A catalyst for the changes in Australia was the growing international awareness of universal human rights.

The process of decolonization after the second world war showed to the world the strength of colonies to determine their own identities. The success of South Africa and Algieria, for example, inspired the self-determination of oppressed people elsewhere. India, Pakistan and Burma had separated themselves from Britain and achieved independence by the end of the 1940s, and Indonesia had achieved independence from the Dutch in 1949. In 1954 Vietnam had freed itself of control by France.

This rapid decolonization helped Australians to overcome the simplistic world view in which British and European people were regarded as superior and the natural rulers of others.

Cavanagh, 2000; Unit 1, p. 46)



The influence of the United Nations

Established in 1945, the United Nations influenced international thinking, shaping public opinion on racial equality.

International law had traditionally focused on relations between sovereign states, but the plight of minority groups in newly created national states led to some support for the idea of attempting to influence domestic policies where there were 'crimes against humanity' or gross violations of human rights.

Particularly important were a number of UN declarations, covenants and treaties, all of which were agreed to by Australia and which defined international standards of human rights. They included:

1948: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

1960: the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples

1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

1966: the International Covenant on Economic, social and Cultural Rights

Cavanagh, 2000; Unit 1, p. 46)

With its direct involvement with the United Nations in decolonizing Papua New Guinea after the Second World War, Australia was acting according to the UN's declarations, covenants and treaties. These decreed that peoples of all races be treated equally, and that their self determination towards economic, political, cultural and social independence be respected. Acting according to such values would have a positive impact on Australia's attitudes to its own Indigenous peoples.



Developments in mass media

With the world broadcast of Melbourne's Olympic Games in 195?, Australians were linked to the rest of the world, and world attention was drawn to Australia. Australia was no longer isolated. The advent of mass media, through live television and increasing freedom of the press provided a mouth piece for the oppressed people, and the eyes and ears of people all around the world were opened to their struggles. Television and newspaper coverage was given to political protests surrounding apartheid in South Africa and America, and the Vietnam War. The power of protest was being seen live as it was happening. Within Australia, television shows like 'Four Corners' and the ABC's 'This Day Tonight' drew the attention of Australians to local issues such as Aboriginal discrimination in health, education, employment and accommodation. Through these programmes the protests of the Gurinji people in the Northern Territory came o the notice of white Australians.



The American Civil Rights Movement


The three main leaders of the movement were Martin Luther King, who advocated non-violent action, Stokely Carmichael, who promoted the notion of Black Power and Malcolm X, who support more direct action. He was also associated with an Islamic revival.Although each of these activists were killed while still young, their ideas continue to influence human rights activists around the world. A large portrait of Martin Luther King looms over Kings Street, Newtown, over a small park where Aboriginal people congregate. "Show respect" has been painted beneath it, as a warning to would-be graffiti artists to honour the image.


The boycott and sit-in tactics of America's Black Freedom Movement (1954-1972) were to influence the Aboriginal protest movement's Freedom Rides and Tent Embassy. The Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) was formed in America in 1961, initiating freedom rides through the country's South.

The Black Panther Party was regarded as a militant and violent group. They ran their own welfare and education programmes. Aboriginal activist Sol Bellear and actor Bob Maza visited America and made contact with militants of the Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by this, Australian Aboriginal initiatives like EORA College in Sydney began - run by and for Aboriginal people - for teaching Aboriginal history and culture. Other initiatives that can be traced to this time include Aboriginal-run legal and health services, school breakfasts, art galleries and workshops, and dance, music and theatre companies.



The Vietnam War


Because every young Australian male was in the running to be drafted for the Vietnam War, people who had never been terribly politically aware or active suddenly needed to make a stance, and act on it. Many opted for academic study, or pleaded as 'conscientious objectors' to the war, for release from service if they were called up.

The Hippy Movement's catch cry of the 1960's, 'Make love not war', expressed the sentiments of anti-war protesters against America's and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. Marvin Gaye, wrote the song of that name. Other anti-war lyrics were produced at this time by John Lennon, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Whether the protests or the protest music came first is open to question, but they would have certainly have inspired each other.

1960's was an era of individualism and free expression. As one who was a teenager who screamed beneath their high-rise hotel when the Beatles toured Australia, and marched at anti-Vietnam protests, I was aware that individualism and freedom became an increasingly personal affair at that time. The pill had become freely available. In this era before the AIDS virus, 'free love' for many was practiced in rebellion against the restrictions of conventional post-war society. A modern Feminist movement was afoot, rife with bra burning, role exchanges between genders and experiments in communal living. Women were taking on men's roles and men were exploring house-husbandry. Clothes became statements of one's political stance; people were perceived as ultra conservative or unconventional depending on how you dressed.




Huxley, Aldous, 1943, The Art of Seeing, Chatto & Windus, London.

Cavanagh, Patrick, 2000, Contemporary Issues B, Open Training and Education Network, NSW Australia

Sheridan, J. & Tranter, J. 2000, Aspects of Cultural Studies A Learner's Guide, Open Training and Education Network, Sydney.

Isaacs, J. 1987 Australian Dreaming, 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History, Lansdowne Press, Sydney.

Benterrak, Mueke, Roe 1984 Reading the Country, Freemantle Arts Centre Press

Ngankat-kalo: Aboriginal Education , [Online accessed 21 August 2006]