Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser Dead At 84

FOLLOWED BY CONTROVERSY throughout a career in public life that spanned seven decades, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in Melbourne early this morning, aged 84, the day before what would have been the 40th anniversary of his election as leader of the Liberal Party. A dour and divisive figure from privileged roots, Fraser will be forever remembered for engineering the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

If readers will permit me a personal reflection, Malcolm Fraser was central to my first outing in active politics, aged 5; accompanying my mother to vote in the safe Liberal Queensland seat of Petrie at the 1977 federal election, I proceeded to entertain polling officials and other voters with a reasonable rendition of the Liberal Party’s election pitch; at the end of my remarks — and this is the only part of the episode I recall clearly — a polling official with big black glasses knelt down in front of me to look me in the eye. “But why would you vote for Mr Fraser?” he asked. “Because he’s got better policies than Mr Whitlam and a fistful of dollars,” I replied solemnly.

The polling official — as my father reminded me last night, ironically as we recounted the incident just hours before Fraser’s demise — confided to my mother once I was out of earshot that I had made more sense than Whitlam and Fraser, too.

Time changes all manner of things, and this wealthy scion of Australia’s landed squattocracy and descendant of Federation pioneer Sir Simon Fraser will largely not be remembered by the wider public with any affection or warmth; despite achieving the two biggest election wins in Australian political history and spending seven and a half years as Prime Minister, Fraser — famously a loner, and nicknamed “the Prefect” by his colleagues — was never personally popular, and despite his stature as a political titan in the 1970s led a government lamented by liberals and conservatives alike to this day as an opportunity squandered.

Fraser is rightly acknowledged as having presided over the restoration of economic and social stability in Australia in the aftermath of the brief and turbulent tenure of the Whitlam government, and his government is credited with several notable achievements — the establishment of the Federal Court and the Australian Federal Police, the creation of SBS, the introduction of child endowment allowances, opening Australia for immigration by refugees from Vietnam, the return of powers to the states, as well as measures in environmental policy and Aboriginal land rights, to name a few.

But despite commissioning the Campbell report in 1981 — which paved the way for extensive deregulation and opening of Australia’s economy and financial system — Fraser refused to allow his Treasurer, John Howard, to implement its recommendations: the report would instead form the basis of the eventual reforms introduced by Hawke government Treasurer Paul Keating.

It is this failure to reform, coupled with the related criticism that it did nothing to substantially reform industrial relations laws during its tenure in office, that earned the Fraser government scathing criticism after its defeat that it had been a do-nothing government that persists today.

Yet Fraser will be remembered forever, with his name etched deep in the events of October and November 1975 that saw the Whitlam government dismissed from office; I have made the case in this column sporadically in the past that the Dismissal was, at heart, a constitutional law case, and that Governor General Sir John Kerr acted in accordance with the only constitutionally valid course open to him in withdrawing Whitlam’s commission as Prime Minister on 11 November 1975 so a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament could be resolved by a double dissolution election.

(We most recently looked at it in the aftermath of Whitlam’s death late last year, and readers can access that piece here).

Those tumultuous and controversial events divided Australia, and Fraser was at their epicentre as their driver and their beneficiary; there is a school of thought that quite plausibly ascribes the thin record of reform achieved by his government to a latent sense of illegitimacy in view of the manner by which it arrived in power, and whether readers subscribe to such a theory or not, it doesn’t change the fact that whilst Fraser led a competent government in the broadest sense, as a right-wing reformist outfit — unlike its contemporaries in the UK, the US, later in Canada and in parts of continental Europe — it was a failure.

But reform or no reform, Fraser was controversial, and controversy and division dogged his political career almost from the time he became a minister in the 1960s; he spectacularly resigned from Cabinet in 1971, accusing Prime Minister John Gorton of “gross disloyalty” and interference in his discharge of ministerial responsibilities and accusing Gorton of being “unfit to hold the great office of Prime Minister.” This outburst ultimately led to Gorton being replaced by William McMahon: scarcely an improvement, whatever Fraser might have thought of Gorton.

With the Dismissal and the thumping 1975 election win out of the way, Fraser led an unhappy government that was racked by scandal and resignations throughout its tenure; by 1981, he faced a challenge to his leadership from heir apparent Andrew Peacock — which he easily saw off — but having made many enemies in a political career even then 25 years long, it was evident that Fraser’s grip on the Liberal Party had started to slip: and as it did, so too did the bond between the Coalition and the electorate, as a severe recession in 1981-82 and the arrival of Bob Hawke in the parliamentary ALP eventually saw the Fraser government trounced at a double dissolution election early in 1983.

Controversy has followed Fraser ever since, conferring some notoriety upon him two years later as Australians awoke to the news that “Big Mal” had been found wandering around a hotel in Memphis, wearing only a bath towel, and unsure as to the whereabouts of his trousers and other personal effects. For some, it seemed for the first time that the oft-detested Fraser was almost human.

Yet one of the paradoxes of Malcolm Fraser is that this good, decent man, with a reputation among those who knew him for great warmth and personal compassion, was so coldly regarded by Australians generally: one of the favourite themes of political cartoonists of his day was a portrayal of Fraser in the statuesque manner of an Easter Island precipice — carved and hewn by bitter winds out of granite.

But a solitary childhood spent on the rolling agricultural properties that underpinned his family’s wealth and privilege meant that Fraser never connected easily with people, although when he did he was renowned for his loyalty and generosity.

He enjoyed great loves, two of the best-known being a fondness for cars and motor racing and a passion for the Carlton Football Club, and it was particularly pleasing to me today — as I went about my business in and around Melbourne — to hear a number of key Carlton figures from the club’s heyday during Fraser’s Prime Ministership (especially the coach, David Parkin) pay tribute to him on Melbourne radio for the devotion and hospitality with which he repaid the club’s attention to “a fan” as it won three Premierships in four years between 1979 and 1982.

And in later years, he reconciled with Whitlam — spawning an unlikely but truly great friendship — with the pair working alongside one another to advance a number of causes, the best known being their advocacy for a republic at the (thankfully) doomed referendum on the issue in 1999.

I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to Fraser’s family, and I acknowledge his widow Tamie — who, as the country’s First Lady, brought a grace and elegance that so often served as a foil to the more abrasive antics of her husband, and who rightly remains warmly regarded and popular by millions of Australians even now. Our thoughts are with her at this painful and difficult time.

Those who know me know I have spoken dismissively and harshly of Fraser, particularly where the failure of his government to utilise the colossal mandate it held to reform Australia is concerned and in view of the apparently increasing leftward trajectory of his views, and especially in the years since he deserted the Liberal Party that had nurtured his career for so long in 2009.

I would emphasise that these criticisms only ever applied to Fraser’s ideas and actions, or the lack of them as the case may have been; personally I liked Malcolm enormously, for he was a good and decent man in spite of whatever criticism may have been levelled at him, and even if not perhaps having truly achieved the greatness that his promise might have heralded.

In the end, Fraser was a man and a politician of his times: and the views he held that are roundly decried as left-wing, bleeding heart poppycock today are almost unchanged from those he held 40 or 50 years ago that earned him the contrary description of right-wing authority figure and anti-democratic tyrant.

Time, indeed, changes all manner of things.

Yet in a final irony, it changed Fraser little as the years passed, and as Australia (and the world) evolved around him: for a man whose utterances suggest a profound distaste for conservatism his life has been a virtual embodiment of it, and the man dismissed 50 years ago as wanting to “Put Value Back Into The £” (sic) and on a mission to restore Australia to the “golden age” of Sir Robert Menzies and the 1950s has remained as relevant, and as controversial and divisive, as the continuing beliefs and ideas he propounded have proven more enduring than anybody could probably have dared to believe when he was pilloried for them.

VALE, John Malcolm FRASER AC CH (21 May 1930-20 March 2015), 22nd Prime Minister of Australia, 1975-1983.

Revisionism And Whitlam, Exhibit #1: The Dismissal

IN THE AFTERMATH of the death of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, sections of the Left have wasted little time bombarding the country with inaccurate, debased versions of the “legacy” of the Whitlam government, and the alleged wrong it suffered on 11 November 1975 as the exercise of S64 of the Constitution saw it ejected from office. As conservatives pay tribute, the Left rekindles a fight it could not win in 1975 and will not win now.

Ignorance — in this case, of the law — is a potent weapon for those on the Left who would mould public opinion; hypocrisy, too, is a virtue, as too often those on the Left are either complicit in and/or openly commit the very sins they incite public outrage over when such actions are undertaken by their opponents.

I should make the clear point at the outset that my remarks today are not aimed at Gough Whitlam nor, in the main, to those Australians who hold him as an idol or a hero, despite the fact I do not share that judgement of him; rather, I want to talk about the “mythology” that has always existed in any public discussion of the former Prime Minister, and specifically, a legend that is at best highly embellished and bookended by a refutation of the Dismissal that has always been sorely wanting for any basis in fact.

It strikes me as an exquisite irony that as conservatives fete Whitlam in death with praise ranging from the moderate to the effusive — and this column quite happily did the same thing on Tuesday afternoon, as quickly as I could publish comment after learning Whitlam had died — the militant Left across Australia is railing against conservatives who might take advantage of Whitlam’s death to revel in his passing, and tear at their great leader’s legacy.

Presumably, they had in mind something resembling their own (gleeful, exultant, triumphalist) conduct last year when Margaret Thatcher died.

And just to ram their point home, countless manifestations of the Whitlam “legacy” — replete with decades-old embellishments, omissions, and outright fabrications — have leapt from the bunkers of the ABC, the Fairfax press, The Guardian, and all the other branches of the media and the commentariat given unquestioningly to the Left and the sanctity of its version of the country’s past.

It is fortuitous that some journalists, and some media outlets, remain intellectually honest enough to shoot these fictional stories down, and to call them for what they are and were; and without diverging down the tangential path of rehashing them, two excellent pieces from today’s press, by Miranda Devine at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Greg Sheridan at The Australian, use hard, cold facts to blow so many holes in the Whitlam “legend” constructed over four decades by his disciples that if it were the Titanic, there would be no need for any iceberg.

But I have had a first-hand taste overnight of the peculiar savagery the ceaseless rewrite of history in Whitlam’s honour is generating, thanks to a vicious exchange on social media involving acquaintances welded to the political Left and centred on that “nuclear weapon” of alleged misdeeds against Whitlam and his government: the Dismissal.

The fracas (which I am hoping will continue no further, in the interests of decency) centred on an article, penned by the outspoken left-wing journalist David Marr and published in The Guardian, which leapt adroitly at the throats of both conservatives and former Governor-General Sir John Kerr over the “ruthless clawing down of Gough Whitlam.”

Appearing less than three hours after news of Whitlam’s death broke, it seems an odd tribute, to say the least.

But — such is presentation — Marr weaves a story of lies, deceit, illegal conduct and sheer bastardry that he claims “the verdict of both the law and history has been savage” to. It is a compelling story. It is also unmitigated and misleading rubbish.

(And to be clear, that description applies to the version of these events adhered to by the Left generally, which is merely reflected in Marr’s representation of them).

As anyone with a basic knowledge of political history knows, early in 1974 — armed with a majority in the Senate — the Coalition parties under the leadership of Bill Snedden moved to block supply to the first-term Whitlam government to force an election; Whitlam capitulated, calling a double dissolution, and was re-elected: albeit still lacking a majority in the Senate, with Labor and the Coalition each winning 29 spots, with two Liberal-leaning Independents.

In October 1975, under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser — with the scandal-plagued Whitlam government limping in opinion polls, and evidence to hand that one of its ministers, Rex Connor, had continued to pursue loans negotiations with Tirath Khemlani after the revocation of his authority to do so, placing the Australian government in breach of US law over other loan-raising activities — the Coalition again moved to block the budget and force another election.

It was aided in this enterprise by two casual ALP Senate vacancies, one in Queensland and one in NSW; in Queensland, Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen appointed an obscure ALP member known to be hostile to Whitlam personally in the knowledge he would be expelled from the Labor Party for accepting the Premier’s nomination. In NSW, Premier Tom Lewis appointed an Independent. It meant that the Coalition controlled the numbers in the Senate.

As it happened, the supply bills of the budget were indeed blocked: the result was that had the government run out of money it would have ceased to be able to function, with wages, rents, and other expenses unable to be paid as the money to do so would not legally be available to the government.

Ultimately — as provided for in section 64 of the Constitution — the deadlock between the Houses was broken by the Governor-General terminating Whitlam’s commission, and appointing Fraser in a caretaker capacity until elections could be held.

(That’s the quickest version of the Dismissal I have ever seen 🙂  )

I understand why this event caused (and causes) so much outrage in ALP circles. After all, this government — which its supporters had waited 23 years to see arrive — was terminated after just three, and by spectacularly unorthodox means.

But there are ample precedents for the legal use of regal and vice-regal constitutional powers in Australia and elsewhere; in fact, Labor itself was a willing cheer squad to the intervention of the Queen in 1977, when Bjelke-Petersen wanted to extend the term of his favourite Governor in Queensland, Colin Hannah — and the Queen said no.

The hypocrisy — with 1975 representing an outrage, and an abuse of power by an unelected representative of a “foreign” power refusing to accept advice from her Prime Minister — is compelling. In 1977, the ALP was cheering the same “foreign” power on for refusing to accept the advice of her Premier. Revenge is not an adequate justification. It is merely naked opportunism.

Even so, much of the bile Marr spouted on Tuesday is ridiculous.

What “verdict” of law has ever condemned the Dismissal? The matter was never taken to the High Court; Labor (and Whitlam) sensibly allowed it to stand, perhaps advised privately that seeking to overturn the decision was an enterprise unlikely to succeed. The Constitution is open to interpretation. But S64 is explicit that the Prime Minister holds office “during the pleasure of the Governor-General,” and it is generally accepted on all sides that the Constitution confers upon the Governor-General the ability to sack an elected government: even if, in Labor’s case in 1975, it did not like it.

The conspiratorial bent of Marr’s story fails to stand up; even with the emergence last year of the fact former High Court Justice Anthony Mason advised Kerr — as did another judge, Justice Barwick — it has been well documented that this advice was to confirm the constitutional integrity of the course of action on which Kerr had already determined, not to influence or “plot” it.

Whitlam was outraged that Kerr sought this advice, pointing to the convention that the viceroy should only be advised by the head of his government. But Kerr — in discharging a constitutional obligation of the office — quite properly sought advice to ensure the legality of his intended actions, and was perfectly entitled to do so.

It didn’t matter whether Bob Menzies was urging the Liberal Party to back down; he no longer held a seat in Parliament. Assertions the Coalition Senators were about to “crack” were and are not worth a can of beans; they didn’t. And far from Kerr being some anti-Labor, anti-Whitlam villain whose ill intent was calculated to “claw Whitlam down,” he “struck” — to use Marr’s term — at the last possible time to do so, and after every avenue for compromise and resolution had been tried, and had failed.

Marr is right that 11 November held no particular constitutional significance; it was, however, the last day on which an election could practicably be called prior to Christmas.

The fact the government had two weeks’ worth of money left on 11 November is part of the problem that forced Kerr’s hand; elections in 1975 required almost five weeks between the announcement and polling day, and the government had insufficient funds to make it that far. Or to Christmas. Or past the “silly season.” Without decisive resolution, tens of thousands of public servants would remain unpaid, as would all other government outgoings. The country would grind to a halt.

Whitlam’s plan to call a half-Senate election, contrary to Marr’s assertion, offered virtually no prospect whatsoever of Whitlam winning enough Senate seats to control the chamber. In fact — so far behind in published polling was the government at that time — it was far likelier the government would go backwards. Such judgements are, of course, subjective. But a deadlocked Senate after a half-Senate poll would have triggered utter chaos.

Whitlam’s other plan (which Marr conveniently fails to mention at all) was to get the country’s big banks to advance credit to the government indefinitely to fund its activities, thus circumventing the Senate and allowing it to stay in office despite its inability to pass its budget. The legality of this plan remains unclear to this day. It may have been legal, as Whitlam maintained; it may not. But it was certainly undemocratic, and a contempt of Parliament to boot.

The spectre of Kerr’s refusal to receive the Speaker of the House of Representatives is a red herring; the advice to dissolve the Houses of Parliament had been offered by Fraser and the proclamation to do so posted. Yes, the House of Representatives refused to adjourn for some time. But ultimately, the action that dissolved it usurped this last-ditch stand.

Most of the remainder of Marr’s article is melodramatic, biased twaddle designed to appeal to people’s hearts rather than their brains. It does not matter, incidentally, what Malcolm Turnbull told Marr. Turnbull, like so many of the other irrelevant bystanders Marr tries to drag into his argument, quite literally has nothing to do with it.

And his attempt to link any defence of the events of 1975 to “this ugly coup” remaining alive — and blaming conservatives for this fact — is simply an exercise in the provocative semantics of a partisan hack who seeks to continue to flog a dead horse decades after it died. It isn’t the Right that keeps dredging the Dismissal up, or disputing the facts surrounding it.

For all the high-minded piety of Marr’s piece, it fails to mention that the following Labor government of Bob Hawke fiddled the Senate by enlarging it, in a blatant attempt to ensure the Coalition could never again control the upper house (which it did — for one term — at the 2004 election). It never ceases to amaze me that the “anti-democratic” Dismissal = bad for the Left, whilst the anti-democratic structural distortion of a house of Parliament itself = good, sound, appropriate policy. Again, the hypocrisy of the Left fails to surprise in its consistency.

If Marr wanted to crucify the real villains of the piece, he would take aim at Bjelke-Petersen and Lewis, whose interventions undoubtedly made the difference between Fraser being able to block supply or not. But this features in Marr’s article as a virtual afterthought.

But whilst the Constitution has since been amended to dictate future Senate vacancies be filled by a member of the same party, what the two conservative Premiers did — whether you like it or not, and whether it seems decent or not — was completely legal and constitutional, if not perhaps done in good faith.

In the end, the Dismissal (as I have said in this column in the past) and ongoing debate on it are matters of constitutional law, not partisan politics, although it goes without saying that their ramifications were entirely political.

And Kerr, despite his (many) faults, took the only appropriate course open to him, and after exhaustive efforts to find an alternative resolution that was legal, functional, and — unlike Whitlam’s half-Senate election — likely to be workable.

Marr’s arguments (and countless others like them) pander to “the man on the street” who has scant interest in the constitutional and legal niceties of such matters, let alone any knowledge of them, and that makes this kind of hypocritical partisan rant all the more telling for its intellectual dishonesty.

On one level, the fact Whitlam’s government was annihilated at the 1975 election is irrelevant to this discussion, although it provides a clear indication of the mood of the public, and had there been outrage against the act of the Dismissal that Marr insinuates, Whitlam might have been re-elected or, at the very least, defeated far less heavily.

Of course, none of this is convenient for the Left.

And it sits perversely with the demands for respect that Whitlam acolytes who claim to be “grieving” and “in mourning” make that the vocal elements within their own ranks now seek to rekindle — and stoke — divisive matters such as this at the time of Whitlam’s death, supposedly in his defence, yet with a complete disregard for both the full facts of the event and its constitutional integrity.

This has been merely one look at the debased version of the history and legend of Gough Whitlam, as represented by his ageing surviving warriors. As night follows day, there will be plenty of others.

 

It’s Time: Gough Whitlam Dead At 98

AUSTRALIA HAS LOST a political colossus, with the death this morning of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at the age of 98; one of the most deeply divisive, controversial and reviled figures in the country’s history, he will be remembered for the dysfunctional and ramshackle government he presided over that was terminated by the events of 11 November 1975. Whitlam leaves a legacy whose worth will continue to be debated for many years.

It is a quick post from me this afternoon, as I am on the run today; but I wanted to note the passing of Australia’s 21st Prime Minister this morning, and recognise that whatever people think — or thought — of him, an extraordinary Australian who inspired and divided in equal measure has gone.

Contrary to ALP legend, Gough Whitlam was not a god, or in fact the God; and despite the mythology that has sprung up around him since the dismissal of his government in 1975, his reputation for reform was neither as far-reaching as credit often insinuates, nor his government as visionary as is often boldly proclaimed.

There can, however, be little doubt that Whitlam was an agent of change at a time of great upheaval in Australia and, indeed, across the world; his ascension to office came as the baby boomer generation became eligible to vote for the first time, and was framed against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the free love movements of the 1960s, and the age of Watergate and investigative journalism.

Yet Whitlam’s government — framed in hindsight as revolutionary by his adherents, and destructive verging on ruinous by his detractors — is as notable for the mythology it has generated as it is for any legacy of reform it left behind.

Certainly, the notion of socialised medicine and healthcare, manifested first as Medibank (now a health insurance fund) and later as Medicare is arguably the Whitlam government’s most enduring legacy, with the concept only becoming truly uncontested in the past 20 years, and forming a government service that is accepted as the norm today.

But other Whitlam reforms — such as free universities that had largely been implemented by the government he followed, ending Australia’s commitments in Vietnam, which has all but been discontinued when he reached office, or ending the White Australia Policy, which in 1972 continued to exist in name only — are more mixed, and in the case of the universities in particular had already begun to be unpicked by the Hawke government by the 1980s.

The platform provided to minorities, the arts, and the cultural elites by the Whitlam government persist to this day; in some cases to the country’s betterment, and in some cases otherwise.

Yet the notion Whitlam’s government was an inclusive one, or that it governed for all Australians, has provoked passion and debate since it ended almost 40 years ago, and probably always will.

The Whitlam government — often held out by conservatives as the worst in Australia’s history, a mantle I contend was usurped by the Gillard regime — was a mediocre and incompetent administration, often mired in scandal and riven with dissent, and which sought to excuse illegal actions in the name of its “mandate” with the Australian public.

It will be remembered for the Khemlani affair, which sought to plunge the country recklessly into debt on the word of an obscure Middle Eastern loan shark whose bona fides were later proven to ring hollow.

It will be remembered for incompetent ministers who sought to circumvent established convention and the law, such as Rex Connor and Jim Cairns, and whose activities tarnished the image of Whitlam’s government as the damage to Australia’s reputation grew.

But it will forever be remembered for the events of Remembrance Day in 1975, when constitutional power vested in the Governor-General were used to break a deadlock between the Houses of Parliament, with Whitlam’s commission withdrawn and a double dissolution election called by caretaker Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Conspiracy theorists of the left will forever argue these events were a violence against Australian democracy; opponents rightly argue the Dismissal to not only have been legal (which it was) but a proper course of action that rescued Australia from the social damage that would follow the attempt to evade the constitution Whitlam had sought to realise with his proposal that commercial banks fund government in order to circumvent the Senate’s attempts to block his budget and force an election.

The public verdict, of course, was the overwhelming repudiation of Whitlam Labor in what still stands today as the ALP’s greatest-ever electoral defeat: a judgement repeated two years later, when Whitlam was again beaten by Fraser in a similar result to the first.

There can be little doubt that Whitlam and his acolytes were genuinely committed to what they saw as the best interests of this country, although that vision was widely disputed in its day and remains hotly contested now.

And his drastic expansion of the role of government in most areas, but notably in spheres such as the scale and breadth of the welfare state, underpin political debates that persist today: and in the case of the welfare industry, Whitlam’s legacy — however well-intentioned — has arguably bequeathed lasting damage and endless division where, if taken at face value, it sought to heal.

In retirement Whitlam found rapprochement with many of his former adversaries, most notably Malcolm Fraser; yet the “rage” he promised to maintain (and which persists with a flicker rather than a fire) was maintained in his own mind to the day he died in terms of the events of 1975 and toward the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, who will forever be viewed as a “Labor bastard” for his actions.

Whitlam, whose wife Margaret died two years ago, is survived by three sons and a daughter.

I extend my condolences to his family and those around them at this difficult time, and note that the great anger and hostility that followed Whitlam from Parliament 37 years ago has, in true Australian fashion, largely dissipated over time.

And whilst I feel no fondness at all for the memory of his government or most of what it did or purported to do, Whitlam himself was a likeable enough figure whose wit and intellect tower over Australia’s polity: so it was in life, and so it will continue to be in his death.

It’s time: Whitlam has now passed, and it would befit his wry humour to ponder whether that passage has been upstairs or downstairs.

Much debate and discussion of Whitlam and his legacy to Australia will now ensue, and to this end — with more time to hand in the next few days — we will likely add to its stocks in this column.

VALE, Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (1916-2014), 21st Prime Minister of Australia, 1972-1975.

Hawke Elected, 5 March 1983: 30 Years Ago Today

SPARE a thought: it’s 30 years since Bob Hawke led the ALP into office, just seven and a half years after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s government and the shattering electoral defeat of 1975; 1983 heralded change in Australia, and its impact on politics could never have been foreseen.

It was the election Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser should never have called; popular mythology had it that Fraser was simply too slow off the mark on the morning of 3 February, when Labor leader Bill Hayden resigned in favour of former ACTU president Bob Hawke a couple of hours before Fraser was granted his double dissolution election.

But the truth is that Fraser had wanted to go to the polls in December 1982 and was talked out of it by his cabinet colleagues. Had he done so, he would likely have been re-elected.

The Liberal Party retained a key marginal seat  (Flinders) in a difficult by-election that was held the day Fraser had wanted to go to an election.

This imbued Fraser and the Liberals with false confidence, as the result in Flinders also made certain a leadership change in the ALP; its unpopular leader Bill Hayden had already survived, narrowly, one leadership challenge from Hawke.

The Flinders by-election virtually guaranteed any subsequent challenge would succeed.

So Fraser — thinking he was locking Hayden in — called an election, and was soundly beaten by Hawke; it was the beginning of 13 years of Labor government, and Hawke’s would be just the second Labor government (after Whitlam’s) to see a Labor Prime Minister elected twice to office.

Labor bequeathed Australia a clutch of enduring reforms, such as the floating currency, financial deregulation and the dismantling of tariff barriers; it is questionable whether their primary architect — Treasurer Paul Keating — fully understood the far-reaching nature of these reforms, but this was lasting legacy of the Hawke government, and remains today.

These reforms, of course, were consolidated and built upon by the Howard government, in areas such as industrial relations, taxation, and prudential regulation.

It is reasonable to assert the Hawke/Keating years represent a zenith for the ALP which it will never revisit: the government’s reforms, so diametrically opposed to traditional Labor policy, have fundamentally changed the politics of the Left in this country.

We can see the results of this change today: the splintering of the ALP Left, which has sustained and grown first the Australian Democrats, and lately the Communist Party Greens; Labor has returned to its interventionist, tax-and-spend past, untroubled by economic rigour, and a preference for “social justice” at the cost of fiscal responsibility.

The Liberal Party, too, was changed by the 1983 result: descending first into a protracted period marked by leadership ructions and coalition infighting as it grappled with the reformulation of its economic policies, it emerged — finally — in 1996 to reclaim government a stronger, more resilient and arguably more durable entity than it had been since the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies 30 years earlier.

(If anyone doubts this, compare the 1974 and 1984 election results to that of 2010: nobody could seriously argue that the Liberals of 1974 or 1984 had commenced an inexorable march toward regaining government, whereas in 2010 I believe they did; indeed, had the Senate numbers in 1974 not been so favourable to Fraser, history may have played out very differently indeed).

As I said at the outset, I believe Fraser would have won an election in December 1982 against the hapless Hayden; but by the same token, just three months later I think Hayden would have beaten Fraser — he was probably right when he memorably proclaimed, after his resignation, that a “drover’s dog” could have won office against Fraser by that time.

The campaign is of historical note for a couple of things; the Ash Wednesday bushfires in the country’s south that wrought such destruction and misery — at the midpoint of the campaign — did nothing whatsoever to augment the fortunes of the Fraser government; indeed, the disaster probably hardened the resolve of voters in these areas against it.

But with unemployment, interest rates and inflation all rising as Australia was hit by the world recession of 1982-83, the final blow to Fraser’s credibility was self-inflicted; his remark that voters would be best served hiding their money under the bed if Labor won was devastatingly answered by Hawke, who simply quipped that people couldn’t hide their money under the bed — because that’s where the “Commies” (Reds, or Communists) were.

Subsequent events showed Fraser’s claim mightn’t have been as ridiculous as it seemed, given the assortment of state Labor governments that presided over the catastrophic collapses of financial institutions toward the end of the 1980s, John Cain’s in Victoria and John Bannon’s in South Australia especially. But at the time, the damage was done.

Victoria and South Australia were, ironically, the best-performed states for Labor in 1983, providing almost half of Labor’s 75 lower house seats between them.

And at the other end of the political spectrum, Tasmania not only stood by Fraser, but swung heavily to the Liberals as popular sentiment favouring Liberal Premier Robin Gray’s plan to dam the Franklin River saw Fraser government MPs widen their margins over Labor in all five Tasmanian electorates.

Malcolm Fraser today is a virtual pariah within the Liberal Party, roundly (and I believe correctly) dismissed as a left-wing bleeding heart whose views are totally out of touch with modern mainstream sentiment in Australia.

Hawke is a revered elder statesman in the Labor Party; his Treasurer and one-time friend, one-time foe Paul Keating succeeded him as Prime Minister and stayed there for five years before losing in a landslide in 1996.

Of course, Fraser’s Treasurer, John Howard — sarcastically dubbed “Honest John” by Keating — ultimately became PM too, but it took two attempts and more than ten years.

After a decade of rivalry with Andrew Peacock that culminated in him losing his leadership for six years in 1989 (and the Liberal Party going through three different leaders in those six years), Howard’s return in 1995 and his triumph in 1996 surely marked the closing of a circle in conservative politics that began to be drawn in March 1983.

Readers shouldn’t interpret my remarks tonight through the paradigm of serious analysis; I simply think that 30 years on from what was unmistakably a turning point in Australian polity and society, it is fitting to mark the occasion with some recollections and thoughts.

These are mine. If anyone would like to add to them, please feel free to comment.

 

Crawl Back Under Your Rock, Keating

It’s a new book providing the pretext for re-emergence this time…but for years, Paul Keating has behaved as if he was never booted from office. Reviled as Prime Minister, ultimately rejected by millions, it’s time for the “Lizard of Oz” to crawl back under his rock — and stay there.

Reading Paul Kelly’s interview with Keating in today’s Weekend Australian, it struck me that when it comes to the former PM, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Mind you, unlike many conservatives — who regard Keating with visceral loathing and positive hatred — I have nothing against him personally, and whilst I’ve never met him, I’ve been assured by those who have that the published accounts of his personal warmth and charm are correct.

But his agenda is something I have a very large problem with — and so do those of our countryfolk who tossed his government from office in 1996 in one of the biggest landslides in Australian history.

And that agenda, it seems, is unchanged.

After the chaos of the Whitlam years, and after the patrician, right-wing authoritarianism that so coloured perceptions of Malcolm Fraser’s government (but infected few if any of its legislative achievements), the climate in Australia was ripe for the consensus politics ushered in following the election of the Hawke government in 1983.

Hawke was successful because he always sought to take the electorate into his confidence and to ensure that the majority in the political middle were carried with him.

I’ve always found it ironic that having been in politics throughout, and having witnessed these episodes in full — Keating was first elected in 1969 — that his government is looked back upon as one of the most divisive in our history, Whitlam’s own government (in which Keating was a minister) the only competitor for that dubious mantle.

Indeed, the agenda of Keating’s government was, in many ways, Whitlamesque.

Much of what Keating covers in his interview with Kelly I have no quarrel with, but eventually — and typically — the agenda resurfaces: the focus on the elites, the arts, the minorities, the republic, the insistence on Australia being an Asian country in preference to a focus on more traditional links…all the stuff that left the majority of Australians feeling alienated, overlooked, and forgotten.

The people who elected John Howard on slogans like “For All Of Us” and “Building A Better Australia Together.”

It might surprise readers to know that my objective is not to tear the Keating agenda apart — that’s no longer necessary, receding in the rear-view mirror of history as it is.

Rather, my point is to question the relevance and value of former leaders like Keating, who resurface at intervals to share the benefit of their “wisdom” long after they were despatched at the ballot box.

Bob Hawke and John Howard surface very infrequently; Howard’s messages are generally limited to the economic management credentials (or otherwise) of the ALP; Hawke’s typically limited to comment on issues facing his own party.

It’s a moot point these days when it comes to Gough Whitlam, now aged 95 and obviously in the twilight of his life.

And Kevin Rudd, still a serving cabinet minister — a vocation that will lead God alone knows where — is best overlooked in the context of this discussion.

But Fraser’s noblesse oblige-driven agenda since leaving office has seen him increasingly resemble an unreconstructed socialist more so than the small-l liberal he purports to be, and certainly more so than the right-wing authority figure he was characterised as in 1975.

And then there’s Keating, clinging determinedly to the minorities, the elites, the republican ideal, and to Asia.

It’s certainly true of Keating that he sees his place in Australian history and is prepared to fight for it; it’s also certainly true that he has — and had — a vision for Australia.

The problem is that his vision was not shared by the men and women of Australia, who terminated his tenure in 1996. The truth be told, they would in all probability have terminated it three years earlier, had Keating been faced by anyone other than the politically useless John Hewson at the 1993 election.

At what point does the relevance of an agenda such as Keating’s cease?

Malcolm Fraser these days is widely viewed as completely out of step with majority opinion in Australia; his party had moved on from him long before he moved on from it; and his views are hardly taken seriously in political circles today (except, perhaps, by the Greens).

It is well-known that Keating could never accept the legitimacy of Howard’s government or of his own defeat; whether through arrogance or denial, or sheer strength of conviction, he remains determined that he was right and that even now, more than 15 years later, that Australia should embrace his vision and his agenda.

The point is that I question how much value — if any — is added to political debate by beaten leaders endlessly trundling their wares in front of an electorate which has assessed their wares, and passed judgement on same at an election.

I will, in all likelihood, get a copy of the Keating book and read it, perhaps over Christmas.

But I do think that having made their contribution — the merits or otherwise not in question — the likes of Keating, Fraser et al should retreat from the field, and let the current generation of elected representatives get on with doing what they are charged with, and for the reasons they have been allocated those tasks by voters: running the country.

And so, to use the vernacular, I think Keating should crawl back under his rock; for the self-styled “Placido Domingo” of Australian politics, the show was over many, many years ago.

What do you think?

Tax Reform, Revenue And Expenditure, And Fixing The Budget: It’s Simple, Controversial, But Fair

This is probably my most controversial post to date: the budget is heavily in the red, and the spending priorities of this government (and its predecessors for 30 years) have been completely out of touch with reality. The answer is simple.

Two words: welfare budget.

And I want to see what ideas people might have around the idea I raise here.

It’s very true that the present ALP government in Canberra has, proverbially, been pissing money up against a post; borrowing heavily from overseas lenders to throw money at anything it thinks may have votes attached to it, and driving the country deep into the red.

And it’s also very true that as a result of these activities and the lingering effects of the so-called “global financial crisis” the Commonwealth budget isn’t in the shape it was in five years ago.

But an insidious aspect of government spending — completely addictive where some of its recipients are concerned — has grown, blown and spiralled out of control during the past 40 years.

I talk of course of the welfare state conceived and initially implemented by the government of Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.

Whitlam’s welfare programs — noble enough in their intent — sought to provide a solid safety net under the genuinely disadvantaged members of Australian society.

The expenditure on such programs has grown to the point where today, one dollar in every three expended by the government in Canberra goes to one form of welfare payment or another.

To be fair, this situation did not markedly improve during the years of the Howard government, although that administration did begin to take steps to rein in welfare spending.

And it didn’t improve during either the Fraser years or the Hawke/Keating years: if anything, the country’s welfare bill grew exponentially during the tenure of both of those governments.

But quite clearly, it’s not acceptable that a third of government spending goes on welfare payments — especially when it’s the TAXPAYER who is funding the bill.

And we’re talking about well over $100 billion in annual welfare payments here.

Yes, some of it is old age pension payments: I would never advocate taking a pension off a pensioner.

Some of it is paid to war veterans for various reasons: again, these people should never face a reduction or cancellation in their benefits.

I’d like to look at sickness/disability payments, unemployment benefits, and single mothers’ benefits.

Let’s start with the single mums.

I understand that sometimes accidents happen, and that when they do, dads bugger off and leave the pregnant lady — quite literally — holding the baby.

I think it’s fair enough for a single mother’s pension to be paid for a single “accident:” preferably until the girl/lady in question is able to enter or re-enter the workforce, but to act as a safety net until such times as her ability to work is restored.

I do not, however, condone the payment of pension benefits to “single mothers” who have multiple children to multiple fathers, and then ask the taxpayer to foot the bill for their continued existence.

Indeed, the present federal government restricted and modified access to what had been the Howard government’s “baby bonus” by breaking it into fortnightly payments over a period of time, rather than payment of $5000 as a lump sum after the birth of a child.

And it was the present Prime Minister (in her previous ministerial role) who was at the forefront of the change; she called the baby bonus the “plasma grant” in reference to people using it to buy plasma screen TVs, but she also made the point it was an inducement for young girls to get pregnant to pocket a chunk of change.

Quite. It illustrates my point.

Obviously deserted wives with children and no recent work skills or experience, for instance, would have their eligibility protected; as would rape victims, domestic violence victims and so forth.

But, there are “single mothers” who, by a revision of the eligibility criteria, could be thrown off benefits.

(Hear me out before you start abusing me…)

Next stop is the disability/sickness benefit recipients.

There are genuinely sick/disabled/incapacitated people in receipt of state benefits; for those people, they should remain so.

Yet others, on full benefits for minor injuries or for conditions that do not preclude them from doing other types of work, are a different story.

For example, someone receiving a sickness benefit because they hurt their leg at work would be quite capable of doing other work sitting down.

And as for unemployment benefits…anyone forced to take a dole payment out of sheer necessity, because they find themselves out of work and with responsibilities to meet and bills to pay will tell you that it’s not possible to live off the dole.

Indeed, for people who really want to work, the dole is probably the single greatest incentive in the country to go and find a job.

Yet many do live on the dole: by pooling three or four dole cheques to run a communal household, it’s very feasible to live a simple life, eat cheap (and probably unhealthy) food; supplemented with other benefits such as health care cards, concessions on public transport, and so forth.

Obviously, to weed out the type of people bludging off the system — to separate them from the genuinely needy recipients — would require a radical revision of the eligibility criteria around these benefits. I don’t pretend to have the answer to that — indeed, one of the reasons for raising this subject is to see what ideas other people have.

And whilst we’re at it, the amount of foreign aid this country pays out needs a good hard re-examination; especially as immigration levels (despite the blathering debate about boats) remain historically high at roughly 200,000 people per annum, and these new arrivals are given every assistance in helping them to get established here.

I see foreign aid in those circumstances as an extravagance: when we really can’t afford to look after the people in this country properly, and when the budget is as far in the red as it is, I see no over-arching case for shelling out billions and billions of dollars in external aid payments.

I re-emphasise — and cannot do so strongly enough — that this post is in no way advocating throwing really needy people off benefits just to save money.

What I do advocate, though, is to get the leeches off the public purse — I think there are plenty of people, quite capable of working, who would suddenly see work as an attractive proposition if their ride on the gravy train were to come to an involuntary halt.

And for those who don’t — there’s family, charity, and so forth; people who simply refuse to take responsibility for themselves simply because they want someone else to give them a free ride should not be a burden on the working public.

And what of the money such a radical overhaul of, and crackdown on, welfare abuse might save?

Some of it, it will not surprise readers to say, ought to be used to strip recurrent expenditure out of the budget, pulling it much closer to being back in balance.

But some of it should be directly channelled into increasing benefit payments for those recipients genuinely needing the help.

And some should be used for tax cuts: after all, some of the benefit of lifting a weight off the public purse ought be returned to those who fund the public purse in the first place: ordinary taxpayers.

I believe there is scope to cut billions — perhaps tens of billions — out of the Commonwealth welfare and aid budgets, to better look after those in real need, and to take a little of the burden off those who pay the taxes in the first place.

This isn’t mad ideology, or a case of an attack of the “nasty Tory” gene, or a witch hunt: simply an attempt to discuss ideas on how the fiscal resources of the government could be better and more effectively targeted, and to get better outcomes from the system overall.

What do people think?

Please keep comments on-subject.