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«Launch of Malcolm Fraser – The Political Memoirs By Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS ...»

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Melbourne University Press,

University of Melbourne Law School,


4 March 2010.

Launch of Malcolm Fraser – The Political Memoirs

By Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons

The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG








The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG Malcolm Fraser is an enigma. His Political Memoirs, written in collaboration with Margaret Simons, lift some of the veils that hide the inner core of the man. But the centre remains mysterious. One suspects that this is the way he likes it.

Curious that it should be so. Very few people in the history of Australia have had such a long public life. Born in May 1930, he is approaching his eightieth birthday. His first election to federal parliament was in 1954, when Mr. Menzies was Prime Minister and Dr. Evatt led the ALP.

He was elected from the rural Victorian seat of Wannon, then marginal.

He gradually built it into safe Coalition territory. At 24, he was welcomed to Canberra as „the youngest MP ever‟. And he has been part of national politics ever since.

Even last week, he made a typically pointed condemnation of the reported misuse of Australian passports by the Israeli secret service.

Characteristically, he warned in blunt language that Israel could not act in such a way and claim exemption from international law because of the Holocaust. In an age when politicians live by opinion polls, fed by a media addicted to infotainment, this dour plain speaker comes across as something authentic - a shock to the system.

His only request to me was that I should acknowledge the work of Margaret Simons in writing this book on the basis of conversations with him and with access to his huge collection of official and private papers.

The book is well written and is a good read. Unlike some other political memoirs of the 70s, it is not jam-packed with self-justificatory official documents, written by protective public servants long-forgotten. Until now, Malcolm Fraser says he did not have the interest, or desire, to record his political perspectives. He explains that, 35 years on, he finds the controversies surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam Government “boring”. He declares that, if this book produced news stories asserting that it had disclosed “new evidence” on that subject, the authors would have failed. There is, of course, some new evidence. Already a number of the published facts and perspectives have been challenged by other actors in those far-off dramas. That is inevitable with history. One has to have boast of a small emotional repertoire to maintain hatreds over three decades. Fortunately, that attitude is almost completely missing from the memoirs.

Most Australians know the basic outline of Fraser‟s life. (I describe him in this way, as the book does. It is part of his persona to reserve his given name to a few close friends. In biography, this is often a problem for the writer. But, in Malcolm Fraser‟s case, it is no problem at all because only the surname fits.) Fraser was born in Riverina New South Wales, into a family which boasted one of the founders of the Australian Commonwealth, Sir Simon Fraser, a Scottish immigrant from Canada. His parents were comfortable farmers. But, like most of their kind, they suffered the ups and downs visited on them by nature. Eventually, the family moved to the western district of Victoria. There they established the family home at Nareen. It was beautiful but quite modest. It would later be elevated in the public imagination into a kind of squatter‟s mansion, akin to Tara in Gone With The Wind. Fraser‟s sister, Lorri, is a gifted artist who stood up for her rights when that was less usual in young women. As a child, Malcolm gave little trouble except by displaying no real interest in sport.

When, later well-meaning party spin merchants were trying to exaggerate his prowess in football, he penned a blunt disclaimer. He said that the only role for which he was suited on the football field was that of a goal post. He was always tall.

Fraser‟s hopes to sit in the Menzies Cabinet were never realised. It was Harold Holt who gave him his first ministerial position. This he did after Fraser bluntly asked Holt whether he had a future in politics or should move on. In his ministerial posts he revealed the depth of his thinking.

This contrasted with his sometimes awkward oral delivery in and out of parliament. Appointment as Minister for the Army during the Vietnam War was a poisoned chalice. But he discharged his ministerial tasks with authority, making huge demands on his public servants although generally earning their respect.

Fraser‟s disagreement with Holt‟s successor, John Gorton, led to a bitter parting of the ways which led to Gorton‟s own fall. Groton‟s replacement by Billy McMahon virtually guaranteed the Whitlam victory for the ALP that followed in 1972. When Fraser replaced Sneddon in 1974, the temperature of Australian politics rose markedly. The Senate, exceptionally, held up the grant of supply to the elected government.

Whitlam was dismissed by the Governor-General, opening the way for three electoral victories that kept Fraser Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983. His defeat, in 1983, at the hands of a resurgent ALP, belatedly led by Bob Hawke, resulted in Fraser‟s resignation from parliament.

Since then, Fraser has taken part in many national and international projects. These have included his role, with the support of the ALP government, on missions that helped lead Zimbabwe and South Africa to eventual majority rule. At home, he joined with his old adversary Whitlam in backing the republican referendum in 1999, and the national apology to Aboriginals in 2008. During the latter period of the Howard Government, Fraser was repeatedly critical of the policies pursued by that government on Hansonism, refugee arrivals and terrorism laws. His blunt speaking tested severely the oft-made proclamation that the Liberal Party of Robert Menzies was still a place for different opinions and a „broad church‟, open to all believers within the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Fraser was denied election as President of the Liberal Party of Australia.

But he refused to resign from the Party over their differences. In the book, he explains that: “It is our party too”. He repeatedly suggests, in words taken up by his co-author, that it is not he who has changed his opinions over recent years. For Fraser, it is both the Coalition parties and the ALP that have moved steadily to the right. Fraser portrays himself as an „enduring Liberal‟. The rest of the Liberal Party may have altered and shifted to a more conservative stance under John Howard.

But he has maintained what he sees as the „liberal tradition‟ of the Party founder, Menzies. Still he acknowledges, in a poignant passage, that „my thinking just doesn‟t coincide with that of the times‟. It is an assessment with which his critics would probably agree.

The basic questions presented by Fraser‟s life, as told in this book, are whether Fraser‟s diagnosis of his positioning in the national political spectrum is correct. Or is it the kind of self-justification that Australians have come to expect in political biographies of this kind? To answer these questions, the book not only details the actions and achievements of Fraser in politics and beyond. It also reveals the features of his personality that played a part in the values that he espoused from his earliest days.

The memoirs disclose how Fraser was a member of one of the shortlist of important families in right-of-centre politics in Victoria last century (the Hamers, Caseys, Horderns). More surprising is it to discover the profound effect that his education at Oxford had on his thinking. There, he learnt from fine scholars like Keynes, Toynbee and A.J.P. Taylor, teaching their young charges to think problems through and to refine their thoughts by vigorous debate with others. Fraser often seemed tongue-tired in public speaking. He recounts how he „threw up behind the hall‟ after the pre-selection speech that won him the chance to become an MP. He tells how, viewing the cheeky assertiveness of his grand-children, he could not imagine behaving so boldly. It would, he says, cause him to „shrivel to death‟ with fear. Yet, on paper and in action, this was a man capable of great boldness, courage and risktaking.

From their early days together in the old Parliament House in Canberra, Fraser admired Gough Whitlam for his grand ideas and potent sense of Australian identity. He parted company with him on economic themes and what he saw as Whitlam‟s naive faith in international institutions and over the US relationship. By 1974, he could not abide what he regarded as dangerous departures from due process when, as he saw it, Whitlam sought to bypass the Senate and the irksome necessity of getting supply, to procure a huge loan from doubtful sources on the international money market.

The book reveals that Fraser, perhaps from his time in Oxford, recognised the decline of the British Empire. In this, he was well ahead of the nostalgics in his own party. By delving into his early life, the memoirs seek to explain his embrace of multiculturalism and his rejection of religious sectarianism. Each of these were reactions to what he saw as repulsive family and party attitudes. As Minister for Education and Science (twice), he played a big part in advancing State aid for Catholic schools. His strong stance on Aboriginal rights was greatly praised at the time by Charlie Perkins, first Aboriginal agency head in Canberra. He declared that, on such issues, Fraser was „absolutely A-1... tops... the best of them all‟.

The book brings out Fraser‟s demand, and even need, for argument and disagreement in the evolution of politics. For him, process was always essential. Critics will say that he himself departed from proper process in 1975. His answer is that exceptional steps were necessary because of the departures by Whitlam from due process in the Khemlani loans affair.

The sections of the book dealing with the government‟s dismissal are comparatively brief. He discloses the supporting advice he received at the time from Menzies, the cautionary warnings of Ian Macphee and Dick Hamer and the assurance that Senator Alan Missen gave him that he would not cross the floor to vote with the ALP. That risk, with others, is often cited as evidence that the Governor-General acted prematurely.

Sir John Kerr‟s denial that he telephoned Fraser before effecting the dismissal of Whitlam, is contradicted by a note Fraser recorded in his handwriting (reproduced in a photograph) of the conditions that Kerr offered, and Fraser accepted, for the caretaker appointment given to him immediately Whitlam was sacked. Fraser also reveals an acquaintance with Kerr over many years that led to his canny assessment of Kerr‟s personality and motivations. In the end, this proved more accurate than that of the man who had appointed Kerr and who would have counted him as a colleague and friend, Whitlam.

There is not much new that is revealed on the subject. Perhaps now we know it all. I remember at the time considering that Kerr had undoubted legal power to do what he did. It was Whitlam‟s predecessor as head of the ALP, Dr. Evatt, who had demonstrated this in his book on vice-regal powers. The issue was not power, but, in a sense, due process.

Whatever the risks and consequences, those who value the system of constitutional monarchy expect that the monarch or her representative will always act with total candour and integrity towards those commissioned as head of government. Like Kerr‟s denial of his telephone call to Fraser at Parliament House just before the dismissal, his assertion that Whitlam‟s immediate response was that he would „telephone the palace‟, seems most unlikely. In any case futile and ultimately unimportant. People die for the Crown. Kerr‟s duty was one of complete honesty to Whitlam, Fraser and the Australian people. Any error here was, in the end, Kerr‟s. It was not Fraser‟s. This is always the view that Whitlam has taken. It is why he describes his relations with Fraser as always civil, and growing in warmth as old men can do.

Much of the second part of the book is a description of the doings of the Fraser Government, its fall in the 1983 election and Fraser‟s many activities since, including in the charity CARE Australia, to which he was introduced by his daughter Phoebe. This chronicle attempts to counteract what Fraser believes is a „myth‟ plagued by a lack of legitimacy, having regard to the way he first won office in 1975. And that this resulted in paralysis and inaction, especially on the economic front.

For these myths, Fraser blames the later leaders of the Liberal Party, including John Hewson and John Howard.

From the point of view of a lawyer, there is no doubt that the Fraser Government had many major achievements to its credit, in the field of human and legal rights. It implemented an astonishing range of laws to render federal government more accountable: creating the Ombudsman, wider judicial review of administrative decisions, FOI, administrative appeals and a national Human Rights Commission.

Clearly, such basic rights mattered greatly to Fraser. He reversed Whitlam‟s antagonistic policy on Vietnamese refugees. He created an Institute on Multicultural Affairs. He also set up the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) for which any Australian with the slightest interest in news beyond the headlines must be eternally grateful.

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