Warning: This resource may contain references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may have passed away.

Australia in the 1990s


In the 1990s, the dramatic economic and social changes of the two previous decades were changing how Australians lived. As a result of the Cold War ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was also a spirit of global optimism.

The economic reforms implemented by the Hawke and Keating governments removed tariff protection from Australian industries. The meant increased competition from overseas producers with some industries unable to compete. Manufacturing industries disappeared and factories closed. New industries arose in tourism, retail, services, education and health. With the 1991 economic recession and high interest rates, some Australians found this new economic world order challenging.

Continued Vietnamese, Chinese, Islamic and other migrants were changing the social fabric of Australian society. Many Australians thought that it was time for Australia to become a republic and to work for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

For First Nations peoples, the 1990s offered hopes of greater self-determination. In 1990 a national representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was established, which led to programs and consultation with First peoples. In 1992, the High Court recognised the Meriam people of Mer (Murray island, Torres Strait) as owners over their country, reinforcing land rights in Australia. This native title case was led by Eddie Koiki Mabo and his wife Bonita along with 33 Meriam people over a ten-year legal battle.

In 1997, the Bringing Them Home report by the Australian Human Rights Commission acknowledged and documented the forced removal of First Nations children by governments, referred to as the Stolen Generations.

The Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 where 35 people were killed shocked the nation. In response the Australian Government, working with state and territory governments, initiated the National Firearms Agreement so the whole country had identical gun laws. It meant a ban on fully automatic and semi-automatic firearms, new limits on who could use weapons, and standards on licences for gun permits.

A snapshot of the 1990s

History and Politics

High Court decision in the Mabo v Queensland case 1992 acknowledged native title in Australia. 

The Australian Parliament passed the Native Title Act Amendment Bill 1998.

First female heads of state with Rosemary Follett in ACT 1989 and Carmen Lawrence in Western Australia 1990.

Republic referendum failed, 1999.

Society and Culture

Port Headland detention centre set up for refugees fleeing Cambodia, 1991.

First 10 women ordained as Anglican Church priests 1992.

Superannuation was introduced in 1992. 

Science and Technology

Sydney Harbour Tunnel started in 1988, finished in 1992.

John O’ Sullivan and the CSIRO worked out how to make Wi-Fi work - moving data around inside buildings, 1996.

Astronaut Andrew Thomas was the first Australian to walk in space, 1997.