Coming from the Kim Beazley school of electoral pessimism, I figure
that yesterday was the day that will see John Howard returned on
October 9. The Jakarta bombing will colour the campaign for its
duration. It will be interesting to see how the Treasury budget figures
today will play in the long shadow of the Embassy bombing, if they’re
still released. The right thing has been done, and the hostilities of
campaigning have ceased – but this will surely mark the day when the
Latham campaign was brought undone, by what Harold MacMillan simply
called “events, dear boy, events”.

Analogies from history are drawn too frequently, and often
inaccurately: but today my mind turned back to the 1963 Federal
election on 30 November. The parallels offer some insights but few
lessons. I pulled down my shopworn copy of Ross McMullin’s history of
the ALP, and the Official History of Australia’s involvement in South
East Asian conflicts, to refresh my memory of the 1963 campaign.

Labor had gone into the election needing to win only two seats to
form government after the near tie in 1961 (caused largely by a credit
squeeze which prompted the Sydney Morning Herald, fearful that its
rivers of advertising gold might dry up, to editoralise in support of
Calwell and the ALP, a first for Granny Herald). The electoral tie had
been broken in Menzies’ favour by Jim Killen winning Moreton by a very
slim margin.

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The 1963 election saw the State Aid for non-government schools
debate reach a crescendo as the ALP locked its Parliamentary members
into opposing State Aid. Proving that there’s really nothing new under
the sun when it comes to politics, for the cost of some science labs
for non-Government schools, Menzies was able to drive a wedge right
through the ALP, and its core constituency, that took nearly a decade
to overcome.

Following the 1961 credit squeeze, Menzies was accused of brazenly
stealing Labor’s economic policies, which he had denounced in the 1961
election as irresponsibile and inflationary, to kickstart the economy.
Menzies would surely smile on Howard’s brazen efforts in rebranding
himself as Medicare’s best friend. Another parallel for Menzies and
Howard was the constant speculation that this would be Menzies’ last
campaign as Prime Minister, given that he would turn 69 in December
1963. (In its own parallel, Labor had a star recruit running for it a
la Peter Garrett: running against the Olympic cyclist, Hubert Opperman
in the seat of Corio was the rising star of the Labor movement, Bob
Hawke. Hawke ran Opperman to the line with a #% swing to Labor, against
the national swing away from Labor of 2.5%).

Anticipating the debate over the Free Trade Agreement agreement, in
1963 Labor was again split, this time over the issue of building the
North-west Cape communications facility, which would support the US
nuclear submarine capability. A foreign base on Australian soil and
supporting America’s nuclear program sent the Left into a frenzy,
hoping that it would prevail and oppose the Government’s plans. But
there was a significant pro-American elements in the leadership of the
ALP, who were minded to neutralise the issue by supporting the base. A
special federal conference was called in March 1963, where by the
narrowest of margins, Labor voted to support the base. This was the
conference which saw Calwell and Whitlam, not being members of the
federal executive, lurking in the bushes outside Canberra’s Hotel
Kingston while waiting for the vote – only to be caught by Alan Reid
and a photographer, leading to the charge that the ALP was ruled by “36
faceless men”.

In July 1963, recognising the possible harm to Labor’s fortunes from
perceptions that it opposed the Australian-American alliance, the ALP
conference resolved to ‘honour and support Australia’s treaties and
defence alliances’, while resolving that Australian forces should not
be committed overseas without a ‘clear and public treaty’.

Labor was again left wrong footed by Menzies when he announced the
purchase of the F111 to boost the RAAF’s readiness for conflict in Asia
– in fact, one of the apparent “selling” points for the F111 was that
it had the range to bomb Jakarta should it be necessary. The
possibility of conflict in Asia came not from Vietnam (at this time,
Australia’s commitment only extended to the team of ‘advisers’, who
proved to be the advance team for a much larger commitment) but from
Malaysia and Indonesia, and it was these tensions that proved to be the
defining point of the 1963 campaign.

Sukarno’s belligerence gave rise to Indonesia’s ‘Konfrontasi’ with
Malaysia – which would define Australia’s relationship with the region
for the next decade. In echoes that ring down the years, it was an
embassy in Jakarta – but this time, the British, not the Australian,
mission – that bore the brunt of the conflict; burned by a mob.
Australian and British support for Malaysia eventually saw the
confrontation subside – but not before three years of tension on
Australia’s doorstep, and the groundwork laid for Suharto’s ascent.

However it was two events during the campaign, first South
Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem and then JFK were assassinated in the
matter of weeks(the latter resulting in what is surely an urban myth
that when Whitlam (or was it Freudenberg) was told by a taxi driver
that Kennedy had been shot,he responded by speculating on who might now
host “In Melbourne Tonight”).

It was Kennedy’s assassination, just 8 days out from the election,
which finally cruelled Labor’s chances. Cold War tensions (the Cuba
Missile Crisis happened only a year before the elections) and the
possibility of conflict closer to home had all conspired against
Labor’s fortunes, but it was the shock and anguish over the death of a
President that resulted in the outcome described by Labor historian
Ross McMullin:

“To some voters disturbed by the insecure international
environment it seemed best to play it safe and stick to the coalition
government, rather than flirt with the alternative which had not known
the responsibility of office for 14 years.”

Menzies increased his majority from two to 22, and consigned Labor to opposition for nine more years.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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