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The Historical Context: Events and Issues that made news in 1971

The following paper has been prepared by Dr Geoffrey Bolton, Emeritus Professor in History, Murdoch University.

After twelve years in office the Coalition government led by Sir David Brand was narrowly defeated at the polls in March 1971 and gave way to an ALP government with the 69-year-old John Tonkin as Western Australia's oldest premier. The Tonkin government's hold on office was precarious, as the Coalition still held a majority in the Legislative Council and Labor had a majority of one in the Legislative Assembly. When the Speaker (J M Toms) died in October 1971 parliament was prorogued for five weeks during the ensuing Ascot by-election. This was won by Mal Bryce for Labor against the Liberal Fred Chaney junior, but the Tonkin Labor government still found itself unable to implement many of its policies, such as the abolition of the death penalty and the introduction of daylight saving.

Among the major issues during the Tonkin government's first eighteen months of office were the following:

  1. The Environmental Protection Authority was established at the end of 1971, replacing a smaller body set up by the Brand government. Dr Brian O'Brien was the first Director. The EPA at once made its mark by reporting decisively against a proposal to locate the Pacminex alumina refinery in the Upper Swan valley. This scheme was supported by both the Brand and Tonkin governments, but the EPA's recommendation was accepted by the government. Pacminex was offered another site at Muchea, but eventually for economic reasons the plan did not proceed.

  2. The Public Service Board was established at the beginning of 1971.

  3. The age of adult status was lowered from 21 to 18, thus entitling eighteen year-olds to the right to vote.

  4. The MRPA (Metropolitan Regional Planning Board) endorsed the corridor plan as the future pattern of development for the Perth metropolitan area. Critics of the scheme included Councillor Paul Ritter, who was appointed by the responsible minister (H E Graham) to report on the MRPA proposals; however his report had little impact.

  5. Plans were unveiled for the construction of an underground railway system for the Perth metropolitan area. It was also proposed that the railway between Perth and Leighton should become a busway. It was not until 1980 that Sir Charles Court's government closed the Perth-Fremantle line as a first step towards this proposal, and by that time the idea was losing favour.

  6. Greyhound racing and bingo were legalised.

  7. Seat belts were made compulsory.

  8. A rural reconstruction act was passed to afford assistance to primary producers affected by rural recession.

  9. The Mining Act was amended to ensure that the proclamation of temporary mining reserves remained in the State government's hands. This was a consequence of a prolonged series of disputes and litigation between the firm of Hancock & Wright and successive State governments over the right to prospect in the Angelas area in the Pilbara. A majority, though not all members of the Liberal-Country Party Opposition backed the Tonkin government on this issue.

  10. Legislation was prepared providing for the appointment of a State ombudsman.
The Legislative Council rejected the Tonkin government's proposals to introduce price controls, to extend police authority over traffic control, to introduce daylight saving, and to extend the range of services offered by the SGIO. A bill to amend the laws relating to abortion was also rejected after a conscience vote by members.

Aboriginal affairs played a more prominent part in politics. For several months in 1971 much excitement was created by the failure of the police to capture an Aboriginal escapee from Woorooloo, Lionel Brockman, although while on the run he was accompanied by his wife and eleven of his twelve children. After re-capture and sentence Brockman managed to escape again in 1972. During 1972 a tent consulate was established on the grounds of Parliament House in imitation of the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra. It was later removed.

In May 1972 the leader of the Liberal Party, Sir David Brand, retired from his position for health reasons. He was replaced by his veteran deputy, Charles Court, who thus became Leader of the Opposition. Shortly afterwards Court was knighted.

In his first year as premier John Tonkin was generally respected, although not everyone was convinced by his personal opposition to the fluoridation of water supplies. His government, although inexperienced, performed competently but was restricted in its programme not only by the hostile Legislative Council but by a deteriorating financial position after the end of the 1969-70 mineral boom.