In common parlance, a cabinet is a piece of furniture.
But in that peculiar rarefied world that we call parliament, it’s a group of senior ministers meeting all together in a room behind closed doors.
The notion of a cabinet evolved over hundreds of years in Great Britain, was transported to our colonial parliaments, and eventually adopted in our Federal Parliament.
One of the characteristics of Cabinet is solidarity, which means that collective decisions made are to be fully and publicly supported by all ministers. To achieve this there is much open and free discussion, with dissenting views being aired, under the assumption that cabinet meetings are confidential.
There is a written record of Cabinet business including submissions, decisions, memoranda, minutes and the like, that are marked ‘Cabinet in Confidence’. In 1983 Parliament approved the public release of these documents going back 30 years.
So, in early December each year, an historian, who has gone through the massive amounts of cabinet papers from the relevant year, briefs journalists to give an overview of the major issues of that year. The journos are given a media kit that includes copies of some key documents, and are given access to the records in the Archives’ Canberra reading rooms.
Then on January 1, media outlets start publishing stories of tantalising and revealing information from decades ago.
In 2010 Parliament allowed for the waiting period to be reduced to 20 years, with 2 years being released at a time, to catch up.
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Since Federation there was always a desire to have a national body that would house government records. In 1920, Edward, Prince of Wales, (of Mrs Wallis fame) actually laid a foundation stone for a National Archives in Canberra, but in good government style, the building was never built.
In 1998, the National Archives moved into its own home, in what was once, among other things, the General Post Office. Known as East Block, this 1926 building, situated in the Parliamentary Triangle, was designed by government architect John Smith Murdoch, who was responsible for many of the capital’s early buildings, such as the original Parliament House.
(In more recent times, the Archives building was sold, the staff were temporarily relocated at The Museum of Australian Democracy, and are now back in a renovated East Block.)
The actual records are held in another part of Canberra, so East Block is the public face of the Archives.
Like all the cultural institutions of Canberra, the National Archives has a public program that enhances the accessibility of the collection. This is where we come in.
In 2008 the year of cabinet release was 1977, and we were asked to come up with a short performance about that year, its politics, songs, general news, dramatic events, interesting stories etc. The way it worked was that we would be the warm-up act for one-time ABC journalist, Peter Manning, who would talk about what he’d come across in the cabinet documents.
It went well, with several full houses. They asked as back and Out of the Cabinet became an annual event, with the historian being Jim Stokes for the next six years, then Nicholas Brown for two years.
In the latter years it was part of the Enlighten Festival, and to capitalise on the brilliant atmosphere of projections on public buildings, became a nighttime activity. We always reckoned that only in Canberra would people go out on a Saturday night to see a show about government documents.
It was one of our favourite gigs of each year, but everything has a life, and in 2016 our involvement in the project was ended by the Archives In that time we covered the years 1977 to 1991 missing out 1981 in the changeover from 30 years to 20).*
Now as part of my shortistory project, I have gone back over the shows and written them up as e-Essays, presenting a quirky look at 15 years of history, social changes, popular song, politics, interesting facts, and more.
These essays document an era that saw three Australian Prime Ministers (Fraser, Hawke, Keating), and world leaders like Thatcher, Carter, Reagan, Brezhnev and Yeltsin. They cover dramatic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, Chernobyl, and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen rose and fell, the Australian Democrats were born, the Franklin Dam was stopped, and the Bicentennial was celebrated controversially.
It covers some fantastic songs, from classics to one-hit wonders, and some legendary albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Sting’s Dream of the Blue Turtles.
It was a time when we saw a whole host of female music debuts by the likes of Madonna, Kate Bush, Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry. Hip-hop, disco and punk were born, Elvis Presley and John Lennon died.
Australia’s population went from 14 million to 17 million, and technologically we witnessed the coming of the fax machine, the worldwide web, the mobile phone, the popularity of the VCR and the CD, not to mention Neighbours and Home and Away.
There were also major changes in society- for instance homosexuality was illegal in all states at the beginning of the years we covered, and legal (Tasmania excepted) by the end of our coverage.
To research each year I essentially went through 365 editions of The Sydney Morning Herald and Sun-Herald. I chose the Herald because I lived in Sydney from ’77 to ‘91, and was familiar with the local references. I thought that by using the newspaper as my initial reference I would get day-to-day stories, ads that indicated the costs of things, dramatic and funny stories, attitudes, and my specialty- things you don’t necessarily find in a history book.
What you’re about to read doesn’t, by any means, cover everything that happened on these years, so there will be some big events and songs left out. The choice of what to include came down to what we could make work in a live performance, and within the length of each performance.
I also regularly referred to certain source materials like-
The Book by Jim Barnes, Fred Dyer and Stephen Scanes
Rolling Stone Magazine
The Faber Companion of 20th-Century Popular Music by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing
The Chronicle of the 20th Century
Australian Chronicle of the 20th Century
The Encyclopaedia of Australian Rock and Pop by Ian MacFarlane
50 Years- Celebrating a Half-century of Australian Television by David Clark and Steve Samuelson
Friday on My Mind by Ed Nimmervoll
Singles (6 Decades of Hot Hits and Classic Cuts), various writers
I used many internet sites, always cross-referencing as much as I could. Sometimes it is the only source on, say, a one-hit wonder.
Additional sources of information are given at the end of each essay.
I also give links to YouTubes of relevant songs, and to the talks and transcripts by Peter Manning, Jim Stokes and Nick Brown.
And where it’s relevant I bring in personal stories.
Moya Simpson for her role in the original shows as performer and as editor (Slasher Simpson I call her)
Fred Harden for his technical know-how and support
Lawson Lobb for his proof-reading and editing
Peter Manning, Jim Stokes and Nick Brown for brilliant research and informative talks
National Archives staff for being so supportive over those years
Information for this preface comes from the Parliamentary Education Office, and National Archives of Australia
I hope you enjoy Out of the Cabinet.