The first Federal election I remember was in 1960. It was the one Robert Menzies won by one seat – the ‘Killen, you are magnificent’ election.* I couldn’t vote, being only 18 (the voting age for Federal elections was not lowered from 21 to 18 until 1973) but my sister, three years older, could. Apart from remembering headlines about the closeness of the result, the reason I remember it so well is that my sister, who had an aversion to the harsh-voiced unappealing Arthur Caldwell, announced her intention to vote Liberal.
We were a Labor household. My parents had both voted Labor all their lives and continued to do so until their deaths. My paternal grandfather had been a Labor councillor in Footscray and had had a street named after him. One of my father’s older brothers was named Keir, after British Labour leader Keir Hardie.
My sister had no car at the time and my father refused to drive her to the polling booth, which was some distance away. I hasten to add that she became a Labor supporter in the late 1960s and through the heady Whitlam, Hawke and Keating days.
I voted Labor from the start and remember the acute disappointment of the 1969 ‘Don’s Party’ election when Whitlam came so close, being kept out of office only by DLP preferences. I was in Canberra for the 1972 election and the city seemed to be speaking with one voice. At a rally in Hall, then a country town and now, I am told, virtually a suburb, labour historian Bob Gollan denounced the McMahon government as ‘discredited’, which it was.
And so it went, as Bob Ellis might say, through the Whitlam triumphs and failures to 1975 and what I still think of as ‘the coup’. When I arrived home to hear that Malcolm Fraser had been installed as caretaker PM I dropped the bottle of beer I was carrying and it smashed.
Looking back from the gloom of the Howard era, the Fraser years don’t seem so bad. The Coalition failed to dismantle most of Whitlam’s achievements and built on some, like Aboriginal land rights.
Then came the excitement of Hawke and Keating. I have no understanding of economics but I gather the reforms in this area were beneficial, although I remain sceptical about privatisation without Scandinavian-style safeguards (the Commonwealth Bank’s profits are a disgrace). The leaders had vision, exemplified by the Keating/Watson Redfern speech.
There was apprehension among Labor supporters as the 1993 election approached, with the party slipping in the polls and Keating becoming unpopular. It was the first election I recall in which the media played up politicians’ gaffes, such as John Hewson’s confusion over how the GST would apply to a cake. This has, lamentably, become a feature of election coverage ever since.
Stirred out of the apathy born of the confidence of three successive victories, Jean and I attended an arts supporters’ party the night before the election at which Keating was scheduled to speak. He arrived late, immaculately suited, but possibly with a few drinks on board. His relaxed, confident informality was a tonic and when he described the conservatives as ‘basically dumb bastards’, we knew we had the right man, no matter what happened.
Keating won for the ‘true believers’ and things went downhill after him. Australian politics and the public mood tilted to the right during the Howard years, a shift that has never been corrected.
Although I moved my vote around during the Howard period, supporting Independents and left-leaning candidates, I voted Labor again in 2007. I disliked Rudd’s religiosity and manner (‘A prissy fellow,’ my mother, then in her middle 90s, said, ‘but I suppose we have to put up with him …’) but he was the only one likely to oust Howard.
For that he deserved gratitude but for not much else, apart from the stolen generation apology.
When I go into the voting cubicle clutching my magnifying glass, I’ll simply be hoping for a result where some intelligent Independents and Greens can keep the other discredited parties in check.
* Liberal MP James Killen claimed to the Brisbane Courier-Mail that Menzies had rung him saying, ‘Killen, you are magnificent,’ but he admitted later that he had concocted the story to cover his disappointment at not hearing from Menzies.