Malcolm Fraser, RIP

March 26, 2015 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

John Malcolm Fraser (“Malcolm Fraser”), passed away on 20 March 2015, at 84 years of age, after a short illness. Malcolm Fraser was a member of the Liberal party and prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983. His prime ministership was born out of controversy and wedged between the prime ministership of two Labor party legends, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.

Fraser was born in Melbourne to a wealthy family with a tradition in politics and grazing; a tradition that Fraser proudly grasped with both hands. He became a career politician at 25 years of age and continued his association with grazing throughout his political career. His knowledge of the highs and lows of grazing was to shape his future moderate and cautious stance towards economic reform. Fraser was the youngest MP to enter federal parliament and it was not for another 20 years that he controversially became prime minister at the age of 45 years. By the time Fraser resigned from parliament, after losing the 1983 election to Bob Hawke, he had served for 28 years.

Fraser suffered from polio and pneumonia as a child. He attended two of Australia’s most exclusive schools: Melbourne Grammar and Geelong Grammar, the latter as a boarder. And like many other Australian prime ministers, he studied at Oxford university. Fraser’s adult life was well balanced between family and politics. He benefited from a stable family life and was most loyally supported by his wife of 59 years, Tamara (“Tamie”). And together they had four children: Mark, Angela, Hugh and Phoebe.

Turning to Fraser’s life in politics, it was characterised by instability and division. It was a Shakespearian drama; a drama of his own making. In his quest for power, sometimes he played a cruel and divisive role, emerging from the dark side of the stage, turning colleagues into foes or pushing natural foes off the stage. But once he gained power, for most of the time he played the role of a moderate and, surprisingly, a left-wing humanitarian commanding centre-stage. Yet in his lead up to seizing power, raw ambition was his calling card and on two memorable occasions he played his card with cruel and divisive effect. Fraser led a move to oust his fellow Liberal party member and amiable prime minister, John Gorton. Gorton was replaced by William McMahon. However, McMahon, rich in self-esteem and duplicity but poor in articulation, instantly became Gough Whitlam’s ‘easy-beat’ at Question Time and the ‘plaything’ of newspaper cartoonists. Fraser’s public justification for turning against Gorton was his opposition to Gorton favouring centralism or federalism at the expense of decentralised state government and more stingingly Fraser claimed Gorton was unfit to hold the office of prime minister. On one view, it is more likely that Fraser’s true justification was to protect his ultimate ambition of becoming prime minister. The threat to Fraser’s ambition arose because under Gorton’s prime ministership, a safe 45 seat majority, inherited from Harold Holt, had been whittled away to a seven seat majority at the 1969 election. And of greatest historical significance was Fraser’s engineering of the senate to stall or block money supply to the Whitlam government in 1975 and thereby cause the greatest constitutional crisis in Australia’s history: the sacking of the Whitlam government by governor-general, Sir John Kerr. Fraser’s public justification for stalling or blocking supply was his claim that Whitlam’s government was running amok and trashing the economy. Another view is that Fraser’s true justification is more likely to be that by stalling or blocking supply, he created an opportunity to achieve his ambition and become prime minister.

The sting in the constitutional controversy stems from the view that Fraser joined the governor-general in a civil coup to topple the Whitlam government. That view is founded on the understanding that the governor-general gave Whitlam no warning or notice of his dismissal and that the governor-general had concurred with Fraser about forming a ‘care-taker’ government before the governor-general dismissed the Whitlam government. Whether or not that amounts to a civil coup turns on the interpretation of the Constitution and the authority of unwritten conventions which the Australian parliament uses to supplement the obvious shortcomings of the Australian Constitution. Suffice to say, the alleged absence of a warning from the governor-general to the prime minister on such a vital matter as dismissing the government, the governor-general’s failure to seek a constitutional determination by the High Court, whose role includes interpreting the Australian Constitution, and Kerr’s growing personal contempt for Whitlam, are elements, when combined, are strongly suggestive of tyranny. Perhaps fate created Malcolm Fraser and shaped him in to the form of a lesson. And that lesson, which had been and still is perilously ignored by members of parliament, is that whilst a written constitution acts to close the door on tyranny, unwritten conventions keep the door ajar.

While in office, Fraser was a moderate and not the hardcore, right-wing champion or “dry” which he was encouraged to be by many in his cabinet, most notably by his well-performing treasurer and future prime minster, John Howard. Fraser viewed economic reform through a social lens and closely monitored its affect, accepting that targeting pain is the price paid for community gain. Clearly, Fraser was a “wet”. And most importantly, Fraser did not get mesmerised by the trendy economic free-market reform theories of Milton Friedman which favour the ruling class, unlike Reagan, Thatcher and all subsequent US, UK and Australian governments. Nothing mesmerised Fraser. Fraser was mindful of the social cost of laissez-faire economics, espoused by Friedman. In the tradition of prime ministers that held office before him, Fraser recognised that a small economy, such as Australia, needed incubation, nurturing and protection using the tools of tariffs and government subsides to protect its young companies and small workforce so that the companies could mature and then withstand foreign multinational competitors. He was heavily criticised by members of his cabinet at the time for acting cautiously. Fraser acted as a grazier: once bitten twice shy. He sought to stabilise the economy after the hyperinflation of the Whitlam era, address the continuing affects of the oil crisis and social cost of high unemployment. Fraser was not an economic reformist, rather he was an economic pragmatist.

Fraser’s reforms were social, traditionally the territory of Labour prime ministers. Those reforms have long been denied their place in history by a mainstream media that remains as fixated by Fraser’s alleged wrong in Whitlam’s dismissal as it does by a vicar’s juicy sex scandal. In the ongoing anti-Fraser rhetoric, mainstream media omits to mention that at the election that was held only weeks after the dismissal, Fraser won the greatest majority in Australia’s history, and he went on to win two more elections. In democracy, the people have the final word and the people spoke loud and clear by, rightly or wrongly, endorsing Fraser’s handling of Whitlam. Fraser’s long list of significant reforms include: curtailing the federal government’s encroachment on state power, reducing the size of government, introducing legislation to recognise Aboriginal land rights, supporting refugees and asylum seekers, outlawing tax avoidance schemes, creating a right to freedom of information, establishing a public tribunal system where citizens can request a review of a range, albeit a small range, of government decision making, establishing the federal court system, creating the human rights commission, vigorously campaigning against apartheid, banning whaling, creating the Kakadu National Park, promoting multiculturalism, and encouraging migration from Asian countries.

It is said of Fraser that he was observed to have changed his stance on the US: when he was in government he was pro-US and in retirement he became anti-US. At face value, that observation has some merit, however once the surface is scratched its merit quickly falls away. As mentioned previously, nothing mesmerised Fraser, be it the trendy open-market theories of Friedman, which to this day mesmerise Western governments, or the sheer vastness of US economic and military power. Fraser was first and foremost a person who viewed international relations through the lens of ‘Australia’s national-interest’. During the Vietnam war, he served as minister of the army, and then minister of defence, and was acutely aware that it was in Australia’s national-interest to assist the US in a war in Australia’s sphere of influence. However, in his retirement he was very vocal in condemning Australian governments of all stripes for providing military assistance to the US in Afghanistan and Iraq because in his view it was not in Australia’s national-interest to do so: Afghanistan and Iraq are not within Australia’s sphere of influence. His stance in retirement did not change from his stance in government, he was not anti-US. It was the context that changed but Fraser always maintained his pro-Australian stance.

Fraser was also deeply concerned by the Liberal government’s of Howard and Abbott narrowing the Liberal party’s traditional thinking from being a party that thought liberally to a party diminished by the narrow thought of conservatives. To support his concern, Fraser cited the Liberal party’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers (e.g., the “stop the boats” and “off-shore processing” policies), and anti-terror legislation which he viewed as unnecessary, ineffective and reduced personal freedoms while alienating Australia’s Muslim community. Fraser resigned his membership of the Liberal party upon Abbott becoming prime minister. Ironically, his resignation followed in the footsteps of Gorton, who resigned his membership of the Liberal party upon Fraser becoming prime minister.

On a personal level, Fraser in public life rarely outwardly showed emotion. His first documented whiff of emotion came during a speech where he conceded defeat, having lost the 1983 election. Fraser had long since made peace with Whitlam, together they promoted republicanism and Aboriginal rights, and last year Fraser attended Whitlam’s memorial service. And as for Gorton, Gorton remained forever a Fraser adversary. However, on a global level, Fraser’s cup overflowed with compassion for refugees and asylum seekers and he worked tirelessly to keep the notion of humanitarian compassion alive in the public forum. On leaving politics, Fraser served in many distinguished roles including roles with the Commonwealth, United Nations and The American Enterprise for Public Policy Research.

At the time of his death, Fraser was a professorial fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law, at Melbourne University’s Law School. Slowly, he was gaining recognition for his 30 year old social and humanitarian reforms that have long benefited Australia. However, in stark contrast he quickly gained wide-spread domestic and international community support for speaking-out against the current trend for Australian governments to turn a blind eye to Australia’s moral compass. That is now all in the past: Malcolm Fraser, RIP.


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This post was written by Mark Horner

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