May 2005

Arts & Letters

Uncle Malcolm

By Martin Flanagan

“You should write about Uncle Malcolm,” Lenny Clarke told me one day. Lenny’s a Kirrae Wurrung man. He lives on his traditional lands, opposite the Framlingham forest, outside the Victorian town of Warrnambool. Fraser got to know the Clarke family – particularly Lenny’s late father, known to all as Uncle Banjo – when he was the local member during the 1970s or ’80s. Neither Fraser nor Lenny can be more precise about the date.

The day Lenny told me to write about Fraser was the day Fraser launched Wisdom Man, the story of Uncle Banjo’s life, at Melbourne’s Federation Square. Fraser began by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which he stood. He spoke about the discriminatory legal status under which Uncle Banjo lived most of his life, and then he told the largely Aboriginal audience that the people in immigration detention centres were, in effect, the new blackfellas. It was a forceful speech. At the end Fraser looked old and somewhat pale, white strands of hair plastered across his big pink head. Lenny was holding his arm. “Let’s find you a place to sit, uncle,” he was saying.

In his speech that day, Fraser likened Banjo Clarke to Nelson Mandela. This was not a casual evaluation. Fraser knows Mandela. The first time I interviewed Fraser was just after he returned from South Africa in the late ’80s as part of the Commonwealth team attempting to negotiate a peaceful end to apartheid. He had met Mandela in a jail outside Pretoria. He was carrying a vivid picture in his head. For 90 minutes I sat and listened as he unwove the blood-clotted strands of South African history. I was impressed by his mind. It wasn’t brilliant but it was exceptionally thorough. It was like watching heavy machinery at work. But something was missing. It was as if I wasn’t there. In the old days the press would have labelled that quality in Fraser arrogance. But Lenny says: “You fellas in the papers get him wrong.” Lenny says the cartoonists always made Fraser look like an aloof western districts squatter. Lenny knows an aloof western districts squatter when he sees one and Fraser is not among their number. “He always talked to us blackfellas,” says Lenny.

Fraser says Uncle Banjo, like Mandela, emerged from a long history of discrimination determined to create something better. Lenny now lives in his father’s hut, from which no one in need was turned away. Uncle Banjo had some superior quality of compassion that transcended race or religion and by the time of his death, five years ago, people were coming from other countries to meet him. While being Aboriginal in his views, he gave his religion as Baha’i, the first whitefellas to ask permission to walk on his land being of that belief.

Lenny had an older brother who died. He has four sisters. He has many kids. One, a son, was taken by the welfare during the ’70s and later died in a traffic accident in England, where his adoptive parents lived. Afterwards the mother came out and visited Framlingham. The body of Lenny’s son stays in England because, in Lenny’s view, the old woman loved his son like a mother.

Periodically Lenny rings me with things he thinks should be in the papers. The treatment of people in detention centres upsets him. He petitioned the Indonesian consul about Schapelle Corby. Last year he rang to say white people better understand that young blackfellas today aren’t the patient lot they were in his day. “Young blokes today hook up to the internet,” he said. He means they know of the world outside Australia. This phone call came after the Redfern riots. Lenny, who was at one time the adviser on Aboriginal matters to Victoria’s police commissioner, could see trouble up ahead.

When I ask Lenny to describe Fraser, he says he’s a leader. He doesn’t mean 30 years ago. He means now. “That old fella, he has leadership not only within the Australian community but the world community. John Howard is a leader just for his political party. Uncle Malcolm’s voice should be heard and listened to very clearly.”

After thinking about what Lenny said, I rang Fraser’s office. I put to Fraser the big criticism made of him by former Liberal colleagues – that he has “turned”. He dismissed the notion with a big toss of his head. Hansard records Fraser opposing apartheid as a young member of parliament in the early ’60s. John Howard, in stark contrast, admitted to journalists in 1985 that he had arrived at his policy of opposing economic and sporting boycotts of the apartheid regime without discussing the issue with a single black South African. At the time, no doubt in his eminently sensible and reasonable way, Howard was maintaining that if apartheid collapsed the Australian taxpayer could end up funding the frontline African states.

Malcolm Fraser is a big character, Macbeth with a twist. He wasn’t such a bad prime minister and he proved a good and wise leader in his political afterlife. But some people can’t forget he killed the king to get the throne. When I ask Lenny about The Dismissal there is a slight pause. Uncle Banjo had no whitefella education but every time I went to his hut the TV was tuned to SBS. Lenny’s smart and well-informed too. He answers the question carefully. The Dismissal was a disappointment to him at the time, he says, but once the reasons for Fraser’s actions were made clear to him, he “saw the need for what had been done”. In case you haven’t got it, in Lenny’s eyes, Malcolm’s one of them – one of Lenny’s mob – though he says blackfellas around the country speak about Fraser in much the same way. “That old fella’s getting up in time now,” says Lenny. “We live in fear of when he goes.”

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

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