March 2010

Arts & Letters

Progressively Liberal

By Tim Soutphommasane

Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs

Malcolm Fraser tells a story about his time as army minister in the 1960s administering conscription during the Vietnam War. In a hotel bar in his electorate of Wannon, in Victoria's Western District, Fraser was confronted by a constituent whose son’s number had come up in the draft. Nine months later, Fraser returned to the same bar and was confronted once more by the same man, because his son had married “one of them” – a Vietnamese. The next time Fraser returned, the man accosted him yet again, only this time because he wanted to buy Fraser a round. His son had brought his new Vietnamese bride home. “That girl, she’s the best thing that ever happened to our family.”

It is always dangerous to reduce a political career to a single event or issue. For a long time, the legacy of the Fraser prime ministership (1975–83) was tainted by the Whitlam Dismissal of 11 November 1975. Whitlamites – and there were many – maintained their rage, if not always their enthusiasm. Even though Fraser’s Liberal Party won the election of December 1975 with a clear majority in both houses, and went on to win two more polls in 1977 and 1980, Fraser laboured in office under something of a cloud of illegitimacy.

But in more recent years, with the memory of the Dismissal less liable to ignite partisan passions, it has been difficult not to view Fraser through the prism of human rights and anti-racism. After retiring from parliament in 1983, he became a member of the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group, which was dispatched to South Africa to broker negotiations on ending apartheid. Over the last decade he has been a vocal critic of the Howard government’s treatment of asylum seekers, as well as a supporter of a Bill of Rights. Fraser’s decision as prime minister to accept, during the late 1970s and early ’80s, close to 70,000 Indochinese refugees forever changed the complexion of the Australian population – a reminder that politicians needn’t stoop to divisive racial politics.

In making the slow conversion from a villain of the Dismissal to a figure of progressive respectability, Fraser has become increasingly alienated from the political party he once led. The estrangement has been deeply ideological, as the Liberal Party fell under the control of “dries” committed to free-market economics and, later, under the spell of imported neo-conservatism and the extreme cultural politics of John Howard.

A sense of urgency animates The Political Memoirs (MUP, 864pp; $59.99). For a long time, Fraser rejected invitations to write his memoirs; those in search of a portrait of the man have had to settle for works such as Philip Ayres’s 1987 biography and Patrick Weller’s 1989 study of Fraser as prime minister. It was not until 2002, almost 20 years after he lost office, that Fraser published a collection of his speeches. But, as noted by his narrator in this volume, the journalist Margaret Simons, Fraser wanted to speak “to a new generation about the true nature of liberalism: its rationality, resilience, beauty, pragmatism and importance”. “It is this conception of liberalism,” we are told, “that has motivated him to collaborate in this book.”

The book presents the story of a Liberal who throughout his life has been guided by a progressive liberal philosophy. Those who regard Fraser as something of a paternalistic Tory will no doubt detect a strong whiff of revisionism. At best, he was a patrician whose sense of duty was motivated by noblesse oblige; at worst, he was a politician guided not by ideals but by a relentless ambition that propelled the Australian Federation into its one and only constitutional crisis.

To be fair, the evidence suggests there is an oft-ignored intellectual depth to Fraser’s politics. The foundations, as Simons notes, were laid in Oxford, where Fraser travelled in 1949 to study philosophy, politics and economics. Immersion in the works of Bertrand Russell, John Locke, ?Arnold Toynbee and John Maynard Keynes awakened in the young idealistic Fraser a belief in the primacy of the individual and a commitment to empiricism and basic decency. ?Fraser was to rehearse these themes following his return from England to Victoria, where he became the endorsed Liberal candidate for the seat of Wannon. As a 23-year-old candidate for federal parliament, Fraser delivered weekly lectures on local radio stations in Hamilton and Warrnambool, something he would continue to do right through to 1983.

Many of these lectures reflected the sentiments commonplace at the time of their delivery; in his very first talk, in 1954, for instance, Fraser warned that Australia was faced with a great peril from “teeming millions” in Asia “living on a pannikin of rice a day” who were eyeing “a land vast in size and empty of people”. But they also contain evidence of a liberalism – forged from a robust anti-communism and a deep suspicion of metaphysical truths – that asserted the task of government was the practical pursuit of human progress and happiness. There was also a bold vision for Australia: Fraser believed in the 1950s that Australia would eventually become an independent and confident nation populated by 25 million people. All this coalesced into something of a comprehensive world view by the time Fraser gave his 1971 Alfred Deakin Lecture, in which he delivered his immortal line on how life was not meant to be easy.

Given Fraser’s progressive achievements as prime minister, there is perhaps no one more obvious to undertake the effort of wrestling the Liberal Party’s soul back from its contemporary, conservative custodians. His government’s decision to allow the settlement of Indochinese refugees, at a time when the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs had warned cabinet that the refugee crisis could “impose very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society”, can only be regarded as courageous. The establishment of SBS, and the adoption of the recommendations of the Galbally Report helped put in place much of the architecture of an official multiculturalism. The Fraser government also made significant progress in placing Aboriginal disadvantage on the national political agenda. Internationally, Australia became a more sympathetic middle power towards the Third World, with Fraser’s leadership playing an important role in carrying Rhodesia (as it was then known) to majority self-rule.

Needless to say, Fraser’s record offers a stark contrast to that of the next Liberal prime minister. Fraser certainly doesn’t hold back from expressing his disgust at the excesses of John Howard. This book reveals that Fraser and his wife, Tamie, both considered resigning as members of the Liberal Party in 2001 in protest against the Howard government’s demonisation of boat people. They ultimately decided not to, because it would “let down other party members who were still fighting for true liberal values”. But, according to Fraser, Australia has regressed to the 1960s as a result of Howard’s assimilationist policies on Indigenous affairs and reactionary politics on asylum seekers. Howard should be judged as a latter-day Billy Hughes: a prime minister who succumbed to sectarianism when the duty of high office required decency and discretion.

It would be too easy, though, to let Fraser off the hook. There are certain issues on which conviction must trump partisan allegiance. You think of those Republicans in the United States who campaigned for Barack Obama in protest against George W Bush with the slogan, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party, the Republican Party left me.” Fraser can’t have it both ways.

The same applies to Fraser’s attempt to offer a coherent statement of liberalism. For all of this volume’s emphasis on his political philosophy, there remains something elusive about Fraser’s outlook. This is partly because Fraser has always been defined more by what he stands against than by what he positively represents – whether it is socialism and communism, as it was during earlier days; or the American unilateralism, radicalised politics and neo-liberal economics to which he is vehemently opposed today. And then there is Fraser’s deeply reserved nature. We are unable to get a rich sense of the core of Fraser’s commitments from this book, because, true to form, he maintains a conscious distance between himself and his reader. While the fact that it is ?written in collaboration with another isn’t anything exceptional, the use of Simons as narrator inserts an intermedi?ary into Fraser’s story; this book is as much an authorised biography as it is a memoir.

The picture of Fraser that emerges, then, is really a portrait by Simons. It is an unavoidably sympathetic treatment. Some might say it is guilty of presenting Fraser as a civic-minded idealist, and skates over his notorious deviousness, cunning and ruthlessness as a politician. His resignation from the Gorton government, for example, is depicted ?as a product of his refusal to accept both Gorton’s sloppiness as prime minister and his apparent undermining of Fraser as defence minister. Yet Fraser’s dramatic resignation speech in parliament, in which he declared of Gorton, “I ?do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of prime ?minister”, remains one of the coldest public exercises in fratricide in Australian political history. It spelled the end of Gorton’s leadership.

The disloyalty to Gorton was merely a preview of Fraser’s most dramatic piece of political manoeuvring: manipulating Governor-General John Kerr into dismissing Whitlam from office. As Simons acknowledges, Fraser “used every inch of leverage and every insight he had into Kerr’s character”. In Fraser’s own words: “I knew that [Kerr] wanted to be seen as doing the right thing. It was part of my judgement of him, as a man, that he did not want to be condemned for not doing the right thing.” This is about as close as Fraser will come to admitting responsibility for a constitutional crisis that was by no means inevitable. Fraser maintains he acted as he did only because he believed that Whitlam and his ministers were guilty of abuses of power, and that Australia wouldn’t have survived another year of a Whitlam government with Bill Hayden as treasurer. Again, history hasn’t judged him so kindly.

The other questionable aspect of this book’s narrative concerns Fraser’s record as an economic manager. Simons argues that Fraser – far from resisting economic reform – was an architect of financial deregulation, contributing significantly with his commissioning of the Campbell Inquiry and his “dirty float” of the dollar in 1976. This is a bit of a stretch. Fraser never, of course, took the final step in floating the dollar, ever wary of the resistance of John Stone’s Treasury. In terms of political economy, Fraser’s government was a transitional one: a bridge to the radical modernisation of the Australian economy that was to come in the Hawke–Keating years. “Fraser,” as the journalist Paul Kelly has noted, “failed to perceive the nature of the globalised age starting to emerge.”

Overall, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs gives a thorough, if sometimes revisionist account of Fraser’s political career, backed by Simons’ detailed research. But its real value lies in its challenge to contemporary Australian liberals (classical liberals and left-liberals alike) and Fraser’s reminder that any liberal polity must take seriously a respect for the individual, a commitment to equal rights under the law and an ethos of the strong protecting the weak. “Those are the imperatives for a decent country, and a civilised world,” he says. Simons notes early on in this book that, as a candidate for parliament, Fraser, still finding his way as a young man in a hurry, would struggle to be heard. Now approaching his ninth decade, Fraser has no such problem today.

Tim Soutphommasane
Tim Soutphommasane is a philosopher and political theorist. He is a research fellow at Monash University’s National Centre for Australian Studies, fellow of St James Ethics Centre and senior project leader at Per Capita think tank. His books include All That's Left and Reclaiming Patriotism. @timsout

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