Malcolm Fraser: The paradox politician who changed the social face of a nation

Malcolm Fraser watching his Hereford and Simmental breeding stock being sold at auction in 1978. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Few politicians get to span the political spectrum as did Malcolm Fraser, Australia’s 22nd Prime Minister. He leaves the country having shaped it in dramatic ways, with both sides of politics having loathed and loved him along the way for how he went about it.

Fraser, who has died at 84, was a paradox to many: an intensely shy young man who went on to be far too outspoken in the eyes of some. A pragmatist, and an idealist. The man who disliked the national capital – “great Canberra is not, and will not be,” he wrote as a teenage boy on his first visit – yet went on to define his life by it.

A loner who led a nation.

Part of Australia’s squattocracy, educated at Melbourne Grammar and Oxford, he delivered the immortal line “life wasn’t meant to be easy” in 1971.

Fraser, with his son, Hugh, at a 1978 cattle sale. Photo: Getty Images.

He was erudite and patrician, and ruthlessly cunning in the political sphere.

Alongside the born-to-rule self righteousness came a Downton Abbey-esque sense of responsibility towards all under his care and an unremitting belief in social justice.

Despite the bitterness of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government – and a rancour maintained by ALP supporters – he became good friends with the man he deposed on November 11 nearly 40 years ago.

There’s a view that Fraser had a recent conversion to humanitarian causes, but he was an outstanding advocate for them his entire life.

Journalists would ask him what had changed. Not me, Fraser would reply.

There’s no greater example of this than his decision, while PM, to allow 70,000 Vietnamese refugees, many of them boat people, to settle in Australia, despite warnings from immigration and ethnic affairs (as it was known) bureaucrats that had the potential to “impose very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society”.

It was the first great wave of Asian immigration after the White Australia policy’s end, with 200,000 starting a new life here.

He founded SBS. He campaigned for self rule by the black majority in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and against apartheid in South Africa, visiting Nelson Mandela in prison as head of the Commonwealth’s eminent persons group, one of the first major international politicians to do so.

He recounted Mandela asking him from prison if Don Bradman was still alive. Later, when he became South Africa’s first president, Fraser took him a signed cricket bat that read “To Nelson Mandela, in recognition of a great unfinished innings, Donald Bradman.”

He was founding chair of Care Australia, an organisation his daughter Phoebe was also intimately involved in. He also championed Aboriginal rights, especially with the landmark Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976.

But Fraser’s views put him at increasing odds with the party he once led. He saw himself as the true guardian of liberalism, lost amid the economic dries and political opportunism in debates on social issues such as refugees, and wasn’t shy in excoriating his former colleagues, especially his one-time treasurer, John Howard, when he was PM. Fraser’s take on lifters and leaners was more that at some stage, we all need someone to lean on before returning to lifting.

It led to that strange reversal in the order of his supporters in the community. The Left increasingly became fans of Fraser, while Conservative disgust for him was matched only by their one-time leader’s own disdain.

Malcolm Fraser with Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1974. (Brian Alpert/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Yet there are parts of Fraser, the politician, which the current incumbent, Tony Abbott, would surely admire with awe and reverence. There are also resonances too.

He set up the Australian Federal Police in the wake of the Hilton bombing, Australia’s first real brush with terrorism. And in 1980, the Costigan Royal Commission into the thuggery and corruption of Victorian waterfront unions would send shock waves through the national union, political and business classes.

“Bottom of the harbour” tax avoidance entered the lexicon. Fraser warned supporters who avoided tax to get out of the party. John Howard launched a crackdown on tax avoidance schemes. Kerry Packer’s reputation was besmirched during the investigations, but he was defended stoutly by a young lawyer named Malcolm Turnbull.

The environmental movement had its big break as the Fraser era came to an end, and it was something he was keen to contain. When the Tasmanian government proposed a dam on the World Heritage-listed Franklin River, Fraser offered then-premier Robin Gray $500 million to build a coal-fired power station instead, hoping to create “breathing space”.

Gray rejected it. The dam became an election issue in 1983 and the making of a young conservationist called Bob Brown.

On the environmental front, Fraser saved Queensland from the worst excesses of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, despite the premier’s assistance in bringing about the 1975 crisis, via the political manoeuvring of what became known as the (senator Vince) Gair Affair, followed by the nomination of Albert Field to replace the deceased Bertie Milliner. Those two acts allowed Fraser’s opposition to block supply in the Senate.

But Bjelke-Petersen was livid when the PM revoked the licence for sand mining on Fraser Island and the pair clashed once again over the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and its subsequent World Heritage listing.

Australia’s whale tourism industry has Fraser to thank for banning whaling in 1979, at that point coming into conflict with the Western Australia, the industry’s last stand. His daughter, Phoebe, deserves some of the credit for her father’s decision.

One criticism of Fraser’s leadership is that it could also be framed by the things he opposed, rather than the those he stood for – arguments that continued into later life. His economic achievements as prime minister were modest; some view his eight years with Howard by his side as a lost opportunity, since the Coalition also had control of the Senate, but he paved the ground for the deregulation that followed under Hawke and Keating, in part via the 1979 Campbell Inquiry into the financial system. His government was the nexus between insulated Australia and globalism, although Fraser certainly didn’t flag or position the nation for the global interactions to come: his opposition to neo-liberalism and the US unilateralism were to become key battle cries.

And then there were small reforms that continue to shape Australian politics today. Fraser insisted his ministers resign as directors of public companies and fill out a pecuniary interests register. And here’s Fraser in his political memoir on politicians and party fundraising:

“It has to be corrupting, if not in the strict legal sense then in the sense of improper influencing of decisions”.

There’s another prism through which Abbott could be viewed as Fraser’s heir, at least politically, if not philosophically.

Fraser was ruthless in his pursuit of power. He felled John Gorton as leader by resigning from cabinet with a damning indictment that his boss as not “fit to hold the great office of prime minister”, describing him as “unreasoned” in his “obstinacy, impetuous and emotional reactions”.

Gorton was replaced by Billy McMahon the next day.

While Fraser continued to maintain the perception that Whitlam’s dismissal was at arm’s length from his own ambition, there’s no doubt Fraser played the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, admitting that “it was part of my judgement of him, as a man, that he did not want to be condemned for not doing the right thing”.

In bringing the Coalition back to power so emphatically, he restored the order many raised in the Menzies era sought after the last turbulent few years of Liberal rein before Whitlam’s sudden rise and demise.

Fraser spent 28 years in parliament after being elected as the MP for Wannon in 1955. He was just 25, and Canberra’s youngest MP. This was his first job, having stood as Liberal candidate a year earlier, only to lose by just 17 votes to the Labor incumbent.

He thrived in Canberra, becoming minister for the army and then defence under Harold Holt during the fraught Vietnam war era. The 1964 introduction of conscription had caused civil unrest. Fraser backed conscription, but the way America treated its Australian ally cemented his enmity towards US imperialism. He would go on to regret our involvement in Vietnam, but in 1967, established the Australian Civil Affairs Unit, a government aid organisation in region, arguing that “the fight against ignorance, sickness and poverty” was as important as the war battlefield.

His discovery that the army planned to wind up the program led to his 1971 showdown with Gorton.

In education, Fraser’s focus was on getting Asian languages taught in Australian schools. Hindsight suggests he was well ahead of his time.

If there’s an anecdote that sums up Fraser’s political career and the way he shaped Australia, it’s about visiting a pub in Victoria’s Western Districts where he was the local MP. As defence minister, one of the blokes at the bar had a go at Fraser for sending his son to Vietnam as a conscript. Nine months later he accosted Fraser again, this time because the son had married a Vietnamese woman. On Fraser’s third visit, the man came up to him and wanted to buy his MP a beer.

Why? The newlyweds had come home and “that girl, she’s the best thing that ever happened to our family”.

Sheltering his wife Tamie with an umbrella at their home in South Yarra in 1975. Photo: Getty Images

The latter stages of his life were spent on a large property on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula with his wife Tamie. Fraser was an avid gardener, and his wife dubbed him the “king of the camellias”. He even created a new variety of camellia japonica, named Tamie Fraser (there’s one in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens).

In recent years he took to social media with a vengeance, reading widely and tweeting prolifically, sharing links to stories that supported his world view and never shying away from expressing an opinion on the shortcomings of those now in power.

The paradox of saying “life wasn’t meant to be easy” was that, rather than being fatalist, Fraser considered it a rallying cry to tackle challenges.

He acknowledged, in later life, that it was borrowed from George Bernard Shaw.

The full sentence is “Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.”

He kept diaries and in one journal, cited in the 2010 political memoir he co-wrote with Margaret Simons, the last entry a teenage Malcolm Fraser wrote before he left Australia for Oxford University read:

All my life I will have memories of calm night beneath the sky, of waking before dawn to see the sun rise in the east and of driving over lonely bush roads with dust eddying all around. The deformed Mallee scrub and the ghost farms, the great plains and the endless sand hills, the majestic mountains, the beautiful valleys and pleasant hills.

All these are part of Australia and part of my memories.

Among them I will find my home.

Malcolm Fraser, 21 May 1930 – 20 March 2015.

Fraser at Gough Whitlam’s funeral in 2014. Photo: Getty

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