The 1976 Cabinet records
Most people remember 1976 as the year after the political upheavals of 1975. But to those who were in government, it was a year of almost constant Cabinet meetings and massive workloads as Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser drove forward his vision for Australia.
Much of Cabinet’s time was spent on the economy. Inflation was in double figures, unemployment was rising, investment was stagnant and the budget deficit was huge. The government’s attempts to check inflation by opposing full cost of living wage rises also brought it into conflict with the trade union movement. Pressure on the Australian dollar became a problem and the government decided to devalue it by 17.5%.
Budgetary problems were compounded by calls for help from many areas of Australian industry. Manufacturers wanted tariff protection from rapidly increasing Asian imports. Farmers wanted support to get them through low commodity prices and an El Nino drought.
Overseas, the government sought to strengthen our relations with Japan, China and ASEAN following the end of the Vietnam War and the Indonesian annexation of East Timor. At home they passed land rights legislation for the Northern Territory and grappled with the uranium controversy. They even had time to give us a choice of four national anthems.
For a full description of the Cabinet records including indexes, registers and records of meetings, refer to Cabinet records of the Fraser government, 1975–83.
Most of the 1976 Cabinet records have been wholly released and are available to the public. A small amount of material has been withheld from public access to protect Australia’s defence, security or international relations.
The second Fraser Cabinet received 944 submissions in 1976. Of these, three were not considered until the following year. Of the total received, 45 submissions were withdrawn completely, and 22 were withdrawn and replaced by other submissions. Twenty-eight of the submission numbers were not used.
Most Cabinet business was conducted on the basis of formal submissions (also known as memoranda, minutes or agenda). As far as possible, submissions were circulated to all ministers before meetings. Cabinet submissions once lodged could be withdrawn by their originating department or minister. In such cases all copies, other than a master copy retained by the Cabinet Office, were required to be returned to the originating department. Withdrawn submissions are not always found in the folders of submissions but can usually be found in the relevant Cabinet Office file.
Submissions considered by the second Fraser ministry are held in series A12909. Submissions were allocated a sequential number and are filed in folders in submission number order with their relevant Cabinet decision. Related material may be held in the Cabinet files held in series A10756.
The second Fraser ministry made a total of 2098 decisions in 1976, of which 834 were made without submission.
Cabinet decisions were allocated a unique number in sequence. However, the decision number is not the same as the submission number to which it relates. This is because decisions are not made in order of receipt of submissions and many decisions were made without a submission.
Although much Cabinet business was conducted on the basis of submissions, the prime minister could decide to raise, or allow a colleague to raise, a matter without submission. In such cases, the Cabinet decision is the only formal record of such deliberations, except where background papers were retained and registered as Cabinet papers. Even after the introduction of Cabinet papers many decisions continued to be made with no supporting documentation.
Cabinet decisions are held in series A13075 and A12931 (decisions made at whole of ministry meetings).
Cabinet Office ‘LC’ files
Cabinet Office ‘LC’ files, in series A10756, contain the originals of the submissions, briefing papers and related decisions. They also contain departmental advice and exchanges between officials and ministers not included in the formal Cabinet papers. There is a file in this series for most submissions.
During 1976 the Fraser government introduced a new category of Cabinet document – Cabinet papers – which approximated submissions. It had been an established practice for many years that ministers might, with the prior consent of the prime minister, introduce at a meeting a matter in relation to which no formal submission had been made. These were termed ‘under the line’ matters and resulted in a decision without submission. Ministers frequently produced a variety of documents at the meeting to support an ‘under the line’ proposal or to provide general background information.
In September 1976 Cabinet Office decided that as these documents influenced decisions, they should be identified, controlled and copies retained. From 23 September 1976 the practice was introduced of registering and identifying such papers. The registered papers were called Cabinet papers and were generally not written expressly for presentation to Cabinet. The papers are held in series A12933.
Cabinet papers and related decisions considered by the Foreign Affairs and Defence committee (FAD) between February and December 1976 are held in series A12934.
The selected documents illustrate the major issues the Fraser Cabinet addressed during 1976. Introductory notes are provided for each topic. The documents – sometimes excerpts only – include:
- submissions (series A12909)
- decisions (series A13075) and
- Foreign Affairs and Defence committee papers (series A12934).
Every attempt has been made to reproduce high-quality images of the original archival documents. Sometimes, the result may not be fully legible due to the poor quality of the original document.
A full set of reference copies of the 1976 Cabinet submissions and decisions is held in the Cabinet room within the Canberra reading room. Related Cabinet Office files (series A10756) may also be requested for viewing in the Canberra reading room.
Use the links in the right-hand column to download the key documents. To view PDFs, you will need Acrobat Reader.
The economy, budget and industrial relations
– Fighting inflation and the budget deficit
– National Wage Cases and industrial disputes
Industry assistance and restructuring
Mining and the environment
– Sand mining on Fraser Island
Aboriginal land rights and housing
Health, welfare and migration
– Reforming Medibank
– Banning tobacco advertising
– Tightening eligibility for unemployment benefits
– The Immigration Programme
Legal and security issues
– The Australian Constitutional Convention
– The Freedom of Information Bill
– Demonstrators and terrorists
– The Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security
Foreign affairs and defence
– China and Japan
– South-East Asia
– Papua New Guinea
– Resumption of visits by nuclear-powered warships
– Overseas aid
– The future of Norfolk Island
Songs and honours
The University of Melbourne Archives holds an extensive collection of Malcolm Fraser’s personal records. Details can be found in RecordSearch. Enter Mr Fraser’s Commonwealth Person number (CP 51) into the field for ‘Reference numbers’, then select from the ‘Search’ drop-down menu to search ‘Series’.
The National Archives also holds personal records deposited by other members of the 1976 Cabinet.
The National Archives holds many records documenting Malcolm Fraser’s parliamentary career and prime ministership.
The Australia’s Prime Ministers portal provides a wealth of information on Malcolm Fraser’s life and career, with links to relevant records held by institutions around the country.
Attribution: © Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2017.