Primary Sources 50 stories from 50 years of the Archives

Rally against Thatcher

Melbourne, to us, is a byword for beauty, for graceful and elegant buildings, for wide streets, lovely parks and gardens — and noisy demonstrations! … It is remarkable to think that only 150 or so years ago the site of your present city was purchased, if I remember my history, for forty blankets, thirty axes, a hundred knives, fifty scissors and two hundred hankies — quite a bargain!1

So begins Margaret Thatcher's address to the State Government dinner commemorating Australia's bicentenary in 1988. Both this and her 1981 visit to Melbourne were met with large-scale protests against her ultra-conservative policies.

In the nine years after becoming Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher pursued a vigorous program of neo-liberal reforms which included the extensive deregulation and privatisation of government utilities, legally inhibiting the powers of trade unions, and dramatically reducing expenditure on social services such as education and housing — all with the aim of reducing the role of government and increasing the self-reliance of the individual.

Thatcher's resolute logic with respect to Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' (late 1960s–1998) and her response to the wave of hunger strikes by IRA prisoners in the early 1980s brought international condemnation. Thatcher said, 'We are not prepared to consider special category status for certain groups of people serving sentences for crime. Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.'2 The British press hailed her 'resolute' stand, however it proved a bitter victory for Thatcher as she became the most reviled figure to Irish Republicans since Oliver Cromwell, thereby galvanising a new wave of support and an upsurge of Republican protest.

Thatcher had also become a figurehead of the right-wing backlash towards the liberal movement of the 1960 and 1970s. The sharp rise in unemployment and homelessness under her policies; the introduction of Section 28 (laws that discriminated against homosexuals, 1988–2003), and the 'Empire strikes back' attitude (Falkland Islands War, 1982) incensed many in the Australian community who believed in trade union solidarity, human rights and Indigenous reconciliation.

 

1. Margaret Thatcher, Speech at State Government dinner in Melbourne, 3 August 1988.
2. Margaret Thatcher, Press conference, 3 October 1981.

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