Vale Malcolm
A Whitlamite sends off an old enemy who became almost a friend

It was easy to hate Malcolm Fraser, and for many years a lot of people did. Even before the outrage of 1975, the squire of Nareen seldom inspired affection.

Aloof, disdainful and almost insanely ambitious, he had torn down one Liberal leader, John Gorton, and ruthlessly undermined another, Bill Snedden. When his own ascendancy looked inevitable, his colleagues still disliked and distrusted him. With Fraser’s shameless breaching of convention in order to steal the prime ministership he believed was his by right, it seemed that their worst fears might have been realised.

He won, but at the cost of a divided and embittered nation, almost half of which refused to accept his legitimacy. Fraser appeared impervious, even pleased with the disruption; he lived, it seemed, by the dictum of the emperor Tiberius: let them hate me so long as they fear me.

The Whitlamites, of whom I was one, endured the next seven years with smouldering resentment. When Fraser actually implemented many of his predecessor’s initiatives, notably Aboriginal land rights and multiculturalism, it looked more like he was rubbing our noses in it than offering some kind of olive branch.

It was less confusing to focus on his right-wing agenda – relentlessly attacking public health, public education and the trade unions. Bob Hawke finally defeated him in 1983. We cheered when Fraser shed tears on television. He should have shed more, and a long time ago.

I maintained the rage for many years. It was only after John Howard, and in particular the Tampa election of 2001, that I came to realise there could be worse leaders, and when Fraser himself joined in the condemnation of his former protégé I became, somewhat reluctantly, the enemy of my enemy – not a friend, but at least a temporary ally.

Around that time, we spoke to each other for the first time in more than two decades, and were memorably photographed together at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. And I openly applauded when he resigned from his 60-year membership of the Liberal Party at the advent of Tony Abbott’s leadership.

Fraser was, then, a rather more complex character than he was portrayed in the early days; my caricature of him as the crazy grazier was accurate enough as far as it went, but it was only half the picture. The generation that has forgotten or never knew the trauma of 40 years ago has been seen his humanitarian persona, almost a bleeding heart leftie who the modern Liberal (or Illiberal, as he saw it) Party now despises and rejects.

His rejection of racism, his sympathy for refugees, his real compassion for the downtrodden were always genuine and always there; they had been just been swamped by his burning desire to fight his way to the top at all costs.

We paid the price, but so did he; the abiding image of Malcolm Fraser is not as the stony Easter Island face of autocracy, but that of the buffoon who lost his trousers in Memphis. And frankly the latter was the more appealing. So vale John Malcolm Fraser, 22nd prime minister of Australia. When we look at the current alternative, he was not all bad. Perhaps we just didn’t know when we were well off. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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