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Cabinet papers: War, a leadership challenge and the ‘Granny Killer’ collared

Then prime minister Bob Hawke and treasurer Paul Keating on June 29, 1990. Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner in March 1990.

A sandbag wall on the outskirts of Nyngan during the 1990 flood. Photo: Jack Picone

The partying 1980s came to a screaming halt when booming house prices in Sydney and Melbourne sagged under the weight of an 18 per cent interest rate that also turned the Hawke government’s glory days into a distant memory.

And just as recession bit deep, Australia was fleetingly distracted by war.

But the First Gulf War, even though there were marches nationwide demanding the withdrawal of troops from Kuwait, did little to disguise an economic downturn in NSW and especially Victoria, where postwar industries that had thrived were suffering as tariffs fell and protected industries went to the wall under Labor’s workplace reforms. Somebody called Victoria “the rust bucket state”. The name stuck. Many citizens fled to the promise of Queensland.

State governments were hit as financial institutions paid the price of staying at gaming tables too long. In the bush, sheep farmers were devastated by the end of protectionism as the wool reserve price scheme was abandoned, buried under a stockpile of wool so massive that it threatened to overwhelm the entire Australian economy. Wheat farmers fared little better as boom turned to bust and many were caught with properties that banks had encouraged them to buy and falling prices made it impossible to service loans.

Paul Keating seemed the only one who had not noticed when he famously declared in November 1990 that Australia was experiencing “the recession we had to have”.

In contrast to the ’80s, Bob Hawke’s popularity was falling but the day after the Reserve Bank shaved the rate back to 17 per cent in February 1990 he saw his moment and called a March 24 election.

Hawke sneaked back, thanks to opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s failure to impress against the Hawke/Keating juggernaut and Labor’s astute manipulation of the hopes and dreams of conservationists.

One of the first thank you calls Hawke made as he prevaricated on claiming victory at Melbourne’s Hyatt Hotel was to the Australian Conservation Foundation head Phillip Toyne, a useful ally in landing the Green vote.

Labor won an unprecedented fourth term but suffered a 6 per cent swing. Peacock, however, only managed to pick up 1 per cent while the Nationals lost three points. Much of the swing went to the Australian Democrats. It also helped install independent Ted Mack in Joe Hockey’s old seat of North Sydney.

Peacock was history. Ten days after the election, the Liberals elected John Hewson leader.

Earlier, in Western Australia, Labor’s Carmen Lawrence became Australia’s first female premier as a precursor to the establishment of the WA Inc royal commission into the activities of Brian Burke, Alan Bond, Laurie Connell and Co.

Six months later, in August, Victoria followed suit with Joan Kirner replacing John Cain as Labor reeled from the collapse of Tricontinental, a State Savings Bank of Victoria subsidiary, that caused the parent bank to be sold to the Commonwealth Bank. The SSB’s $1.345 billion loss was the largest in Australia’s corporate history.

In South Australia, the State Bank needed a $2.4 billion government bailout. Victoria’s biggest building society, Geelong-based Pyramid, also collapsed with debts over $3 billion. Kirner introduced an unpopular universal 3c a litre fuel levy to bail out Pyramid investors who lost money chasing higher returns.

In May 1991, Nick Greiner’s ruling Liberal/National coalition was forced into minority government with the support of four independent MPs after a state election resulted in a hung parliament.

But Labor’s ongoing federal leadership battle was the main soap opera.

In June 1991 journalist Laurie Oakes revealed that Hawke had given an undertaking to Keating in 1987, the “Kirribilli agreement”, to hand over the leadership after the 1990 election. With Hawke’s stonewalling exposed, Keating challenged. Unsuccessful, he headed to the backbench. But with John Hewson’s relaunched “Fightback!” economic policy tearing the ground from beneath Hawke, Keating challenged on the final sitting day of Parliament before Christmas and became Australia’s 24th prime minister.

Away from overt politics, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was founded and the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended changes to the way Aborigines were dealt with in police custody.

In the media: rule changes allowed Kerry Packer to redeem the Nine Network for $250 million from Alan Bond (having received $1 billion from the Perth businessman in 1987 Packer graciously backed Keating in the subsequent federal election); the John Fairfax Group was placed in receivership; Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror and Melbourne’s Herald and Sun News-Pictorial merged; and AARnet, the academic and research network and the first step of the internet in Australia, was established in 1990 by the CSIRO and universities.

Floor trading ended at the Australian Stock Exchange, domestic aviation’s two-airline policy and one and two cent coins were all abandoned, the Queen reportedly asked that Australian citizens no longer be nominated for British Imperial honours, the Australian republican movement was launched and Nyngan was inundated.

In February 1990 the “Granny Killer” John Glover was arrested after terrorising Sydney’s North Shore for 14 months where he murdered six women. In August 1991, Wade Frankum killed seven people, mostly women, in a shooting and knifing spree in Strathfield Plaza in western Sydney before turning his gun on himself. Twelve people died in a fire at Dungog’s Palm Grove Hostel, the former Queensland police commissioner Terry Lewis was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption and the perjury trial of his boss, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a former Queensland premier, ended in a hung jury.

In sporting endeavours, surfer Pam Burridge won a world title, walker Kerry Saxby broke her 26th world record, the Australian media’s affair with Lisa Curry annoyed New Zealanders at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games and the Victorian Football League transmogrified into the Australian Football League. Collingwood won its first grand final, in 1990, since 1958.

Joan Sutherland gave her final performance at the Sydney Opera House. The younger crowd’s hits included Nothing Compares 2 U (Sinead O’Connor), U Can’t Touch This (MC Hammer), Vogue (Madonna), (Everything I Do) I Do It for You (Bryan Adams) and I Touch Myself (Divinyls), while hit films included Pretty Woman, Home Alone, Godfather III, Point Break and The Silence of the Lambs.

Among deaths were author Patrick White, former governor-general Sir John Kerr, historian Manning Clark, Russian defector Vladimir Petrov, former Victorian premier Henry Bolte, large Queensland politician Russ Hinze, murdered surgeon Victor Chang, businessman Robert Holmes a Court, boxer Jimmy Carruthers and Collingwood champion Darren Millane.

Women were permitted to do combat-related duties in the defence forces, London Bridge on Victoria’s scenic west coast collapsed and Australia’s population reached 17 million.

In January 1991 someone bombed an Islamic mosque in Sydney’s west.

Cabinet records release

Cabinet records for 1990 and 1991 held by the National Archives of Australia became eligible for access from January 1, 2016. Information about the cabinet records, lists of the documents and copies of key cabinet documents, including selected submissions and decisions, are available on the Archives’ website (naa.gov备案老域名). Click on the “Collection” tab, then “Popular research topics”, then “Cabinet”.

Requests for access to records not already released may be made via RecordSearch on the Archives’ website.

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