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.