«Launch of Malcolm Fraser – The Political Memoirs By Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS ...»
Much space is devoted to demonstrate, with strong arguments and evidence, that it was Fraser, before Thatcher and Reagan, who pioneered the principle of containing the growth of big government. I can confirm that this was the immediate first, and recurrent, impression of the Fraser Government from within as seen after 1975. I was then chairing the Australian Law Reform Commission. Like every part of government, we were cut back and reined in under the successive „razor gangs‟ led by Phillip Lynch. If Fraser did not introduce further economic reforms that came later under Hawke and Keating, the politics of the Coalition and a lack of pressure from Ministers, including Treasurer Howard, may afford explanations. At the very least, this book provides a partial antidote that needs to be administered before yet another urban myth becomes accepted as gospel truth in the media-driven world of contemporary Australian politics.
All of these battles, and the occasional factual dispute over who said what to whom, and when, melt into insignificance 30 and more years on, in comparison to the remaining puzzle that Malcolm Fraser‟s political memoirs present to us.
The book candidly reveals Fraser‟s personality which is one of the most unusual to reach a top position in Australian political life. Throughout its pages, there are references to his apparent aloofness and unapproachability. To his reserve and sometimes inconsiderate behaviour towards colleagues and workers. To his awkwardness and lack of the usual coterie of close friends. To his shyness and distain for the bonhomie and glad-handling that are such a feature of most successful political lives. To his unwillingness, even where it would be in his interests, to offer the emblems of apparent friendship and thanks.
How did such a reserved man, repeatedly pictured as an indigenous human variety of the Easter Island statutes, reach the top elected office in Australia? Having got there, how did he proceed to win three successive elections, two with landslide majorities?
The answer to these questions, suggested in the book, is that Fraser did this because he was very steady, highly focused, intensively hardworking and deeply interested in policy. Observers declare that Bill Clinton was the greatest „policy wonk‟ to reach the presidency of the United States of America. Malcolm Fraser was of a like disposition. He was not in politics for the gain or the trappings. He was interested in values and decisions. He worked himself, and those around him, with unflagging zeal. He was methodical and ordered, which is why he could not accept what he saw as the chaos of Gorton or the deceit of McMahon.
Above all, Fraser had distain for the world of infotainment which, even in 1975, was beginning to surround Australian political leaders. For him, politics was about public policy – something his latter-day critics like David Kemp and Tony Staley who were then close to him – readily concede. His delivery of speeches was less inspiring than others. But he was what his old adversary Clyde Cameron wrote of him on his loss of office: „I admired you in your moment of defeat. Although you lost the election, you did nothing to lose the respect of those who admire a tough and courageous political fighter‟.
So is it true that Fraser just remained the same, although both the principal political caravans, Labor and Coalition, had moved on and to the right? In part, this may be true. Certainly, Fraser became a lonely voice over the past decade, criticising Australian tendencies to revert to racism, condemning the Tampa affair and refugee policies under successive governments and attacking anti-terrorist laws as extreme. In government, and in opposition, he too performed acts deemed necessary at the time, but which he now appears to regret: conscription and the war in Vietnam, resistance to the damming of the Franklin River where he now fishes, the exit of Bob Ellicott from the Ministry, the failure to appoint a true liberal, Alan Missen, to Cabinet, and an inability to deliver effective land rights for indigenous Australians. Perhaps the infotainment age, the almost daily opinions polls, personality politics and media agendas are a product of the new technology of the internet, Facebook, Google and Twitter now play a growing role in politics as it is now practised.
Yet, I cannot accept that such an intelligent man as Fraser just stood still, emotionally and intellectually, whilst the rest of the world exited off to the right. In my view, Malcolm Fraser has maintained his commitment to the rule of law, the role of the individual, and anti-racism, which were always part of his core values. But other values have changed, like his embrace of a republic and his commitment to a constitutional Bill of Rights to prevent the kind of abuses in Australian law and public life that he has seen and condemned in recent years. As Prime Minister, Fraser took important steps on the environment such as on Fraser Island, the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere. He now has a greater sense of urgency about it. This is seen by his praise of Bob Brown for his role in federal politics and his assessment that the leader of the Greens „often talks a great deal of sense‟.
Few people are completely immoveable in their values. Certainly not a politician of such substance as Malcolm Fraser. In the deep pools of his feelings are to be found undisclosed waters of strong emotion and firm commitments. He himself accepted that in politics, realities deny even the chief players many stands on principle. He says that, for himself, a resistance to racism was one such a rock-solid principle to stand by.
This book reveals others. In the end, it acknowledges errors and mistakes. In the democratic way, it leaves it to the reader to judge where the balance lies in his life.
The cover displays a lined and pensive face of Malcolm Fraser. Within there are handsome photographs of his life‟s journey. His wife, Tamie Fraser, emerges as a calm and sensible partner, with good humour and the willingness to argue back that Fraser alone respected.
In my own life, like many Australians, I owe a debt to Fraser. He preserved and, with Ellicott, utilised the Law Reform Commission. This was one of the many changes of the Whitlam Government that he took over, adapted and used. His razor gangs spared us from destruction, although that would have been easy and relatively painless at the time.
He re-appointed me to that Commission on 1980 and later to the Institute of Multicultural Affairs. In 1983, just as he was about to lose office, he recommended to the Queen that I be appointed to the Order of St. Michael and St. George, in the last imperial honours list in Australia‟s history.
When, in March 2002, a Senator from his old Party, misused parliamentary privilege to make false claims against me in Parliament, later withdrawn, Malcolm Fraser was only the second person on that strange morning to telephone me at the High Court to express his abhorrence and disapproval: „I do not believe that this would have happened during my time as Prime Minister‟. Quite.
Last week, with perfect equipoise, I delivered the 2010 Whitlam Lecture in Sydney. We must get better in Australia in honouring our public figures, and especially those who have carried the heaviest elected burden of them all: the Prime Ministership. Political parties and citizens dishonour the democratic tradition by failing to acknowledge the room for legitimate difference in a democracy and in political parties and the need for public debate and disagreement. The British are so much better at this then we are. It is time (if I can use a phrase) that we all grew up.
After the Whitlam Lecture, Gough Whitlam telephoned me with words of thanks. I told him that I was to launch Malcolm Fraser‟s memoirs. Ever the stickler for detail, he expressed some words of praise for Malcolm Fraser. But then he declared, with characteristic precision, that the record should be corrected to contain the exact words that he expressed to his successor as Prime Minister when he was criticised in the memorial service for then predecessor John Gorton: „What I actually said‟ declared Whitlam, „as I reached over the grasp his arm, was “Let not your heart be troubled, comrade”‟.
Those who read this book and who reflect on the life and national contributions of Malcolm Fraser over such a long span of years, can take those words as an assessment of an old adversary and once political foe. Years should heal wounds and give perspective. For all the errors, there were many more good achievements by Fraser in the service of the people of Australia, who are the ultimate judges in such matters.
And as for that judgment, contemporary Australians can say to Malcolm Fraser with thanks: „Let not your heart be troubled, comrade‟.
****** Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser – The Political Memoirs (The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing Ltd., 2010). ISBN 9780522855791 (Hbk).