Political Memoirs by Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons; Miegunyah, 2010, 864 pages, $59.99.
“In 1980,” we are told in this book, “the Western Australian government wanted to force drilling for oil at Noonkanbah, a pastoral least bought by the Fraser government for the Aboriginal community in the face of the state government’s opposition.” What is not said is that “the Aboriginal community” was a small handful of Aborigines and part-Aborigines who claimed, with the encouragement of various ALP figures, that the area was the home of a sacred lizard—a great goanna. The incident blew into a constitutional crisis with the state government of Premier Sir Charles Court providing the drillers with an armed escort. “No oil was found, and Australia was embarrassed.” No great goanna was found either, incidentally, and if Australia was embarrassed it was by the spectacle of its Prime Minister getting his knickers in a twist over a mythological reptile.
On the subject of knickers, incidentally, it may be noted that the incident of the Eminent Person losing his trousers at the Admiral Benbow Hotel, a seedy Memphis establishment where, I am told, rooms are generally rented by the hour rather than the day, has somehow escaped the memoirist’s notice.
In more recent times Fraser is quoted as saying: “Australia shouldn’t be frightened to be in the forefront of international action on climate change.” There is something typical about this: assuming there actually is a need for action on climate change or that effective action is possible anyway (large and increasingly questioned assumptions), Fraser when Prime Minister could have had Australia set an example by developing nuclear power as safe, clean and non-polluting energy. Charles Court and other influential figures were in favour of it and would have supported nuclear power stations in the remote north-west at least. What did Fraser do about it? Nothing whatsoever. This is parallel to his strange lack of action in so many areas of economic and other reform. I think it was Bert Kelly who said: “From what he says he must be aware of the damage tariffs are doing to our export industries, but nothing seems to happen.”
Fraser was, of course, not Whitlam, and his ministry was of incomparably higher standards than Whitlam’s, of which a later Labor Finance Minister, Peter Walsh, was to say that a majority were economic cranks. There was nothing like the Khemlani or the Iraqi breakfast affairs, no remote equivalents of Grassby, Cairns, Connor, Cameron, Crean or Murphy, no scheme to destroy the states and nothing like the now almost forgotten but shocking “twenty-one bills” which the 1975 election mercifully killed. Lynch slashed the inflation which Cairns had wantonly and deliberately created while Cairns went off to write about the sexual positions of monkeys. But it is hard to know how much this was due to Fraser and how much to the Liberal Party of the day being able to pick sane people.
The Fraser government’s finest hour was its generous acceptance of Vietnamese refugees in the face of unremitting attacks by the Labor Party, leftist unions and sections of the press and academia. And yet there was another side of the coin: while the Fraser government allowed those who reached Australia to stay instead of, presumably, being swept into the Antarctic Ocean, why were no Australian naval ships sent to help them? Recently aircraft and warships have been dispatched to help lone yachtsmen, yet none were sent to help Australia’s recent military allies, and their wives and children, who were drowning in considerable numbers.
The government seemed relieved when a so-called “orderly departure program” was instituted by means of which Vietnamese sought Hanoi’s permission to leave. Of course, the very people who most desperately needed to get out, such as escapees from “re-education camps” and other fugitives who had been associated with the Saigon government, were exactly the people who would not dare approach the Vietnamese communist authorities for permission to do so. Neither Fraser nor his Immigration Minister, Ian Macphee, showed interest in this little Catch 22, Macphee reading out the provisions of the agreement in Parliament with what seemed to be real enthusiasm.
This book virtually glosses the whole phenomenon of the Left’s attack on the refugees. It allows an impression to be created that those opposed to the admission of Vietnamese refugees were right-wingers and red-necked racists. Fraser is quoted as saying, “There was a hard core within the immigration department which opposed a genuine compassionate and humanitarian response. It was ultra-conservative and reactionary with a strong racist streak” (emphasis added). In fact, the people who wrote and otherwise campaigned in support of the admission of Vietnamese refugees, to whom almost no credit is given, such as B.A. Santamaria, Frank Knopfelmacher, Ross McLean (Liberal MHR for Perth), Peter Samuel in the Bulletin, Greg Sheridan in the Australian, James McAuley, Patrick O’Brien and a number of other Quadrant and News Weekly writers, were all political conservatives, though not all were Liberals.
When Fraser was pushing Mugabe’s candidature for the dictatorship of Zimbabwe it was already known that Mugabe had led a gang of Marxist criminals and murderers. How much Australia and the other stable Commonwealth countries could have done to support the moderates and the existing black majority government (although with a malapportionment of white seats) is uncertain, but any other outcome would probably have been better than what was actually achieved, with a wealthy, food-exporting state reduced to starvation and one of the lowest life-expectancies in the world. One wonders how far Fraser thought—if he thought about the matter at all—the loyalty of Liberals in Australia could be stretched on the issue? In the final analysis there was no need for Australia to be involved at all, and becoming so seems to have done it little good—if Australia gained any goodwill in black Africa and the Third World I know of no microscope sensitive enough to detect it.
Perhaps Fraser had to hobnob with such enemies of democracy (and even of sanity) as “Kanunda and Nyerere, and Michael Manley of Jamaica”, but there is something disgusting about the fact that he actually seemed to enjoy it, not to mention his obsequious obituary (not quoted here) of Mao Tse-Tung, not merely the greatest enemy of freedom but also the greatest mass murderer who ever lived: “An outstanding figure … the architect and inspiration for the re-building of the world’s most populous nation … To my great regret I was unable to meet him but the renascent China I saw is his monument.” This is in glaring contrast to the statement by Taiwan’s deputy director-general of the Mainland Affairs Council, quoted by Greg Sheridan in the Australian in 2010: “You have many economic transactions with China and I admire your courage in raising issues of human rights and religious freedom with China even while you have such transactions. This is very important.”
Though I have not seen the idea put forward by anyone else, it is my own belief that Fraser’s canoodling with these tyrants played a part in undermining the moral fibre of the Liberal Party, particularly among the intellectually keen and idealistic members of the Young Liberal movement and the various university Liberal clubs, and played a part in the defeat of 1983, when it had been elected and re-elected with landslides in 1975 and 1977.
There are other things—the abandonment of Sir John Kerr, contemptuously referred to by Fraser by his bare surname as though he were a sort of lackey, the whole business of what Peter Ryan called the “turncoat knights” of the Republic debates and his televised love-ins at that time with Whitlam, apparently in search of a particle of conscience-salving praise. There was Fraser’s odd behaviour over the Moscow Olympics: either it was morally right for Australians to participate or it was not: Fraser condemned participation, then sent the successful athletes congratulatory messages.
I was present at Fraser’s Menzies Lecture, given at the University of Western Australia shortly before the 1975 election. What a contrast there was between that firm, decisive, almost Churchillian rhetoric that night, cheered to the echo by an overflowing crowd in Winthrop Hall, and so much that followed!
Fraser wanted a multicultural Australia. Well, we have seen in Britain, and are beginning to see in Australia, the disastrous results of enforced multiculturalism, which have frequently had the opposite results of what was intended—the promotion of racial harmony—along with the growth of an army of Jobsworths intruding on citizens’ private lives, freedom of expression and even private thoughts (among the latest multicultural news from France, police have banned a private sausage-and-wine party in Paris lest Muslims be offended), and, in some cases the sheltering of extremists and even terrorists. The evening I wrote this, it was reported that members of the British group Muslims Against the Crusade shouted “Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!” and “British troops go to hell!” as members of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, paraded down the streets of Barking, Essex. We have been told in Australia that scantily-clad women are uncovered meat for the cat. British comedian Rory Bremner has said he and colleagues are afraid to joke about Islam for fear of being killed (we know that several other people have been killed). In the twenty-first century the whole idea of multiculturalism is looking very shabby.
This book has more than a tinge of Howard-hatred. It is claimed that John Howard did not condemn Pauline Hanson’s views, and Fraser is quoted as saying, “I never expected that kind of thing from John Howard.” I was present in a room full of several hundred delegates to a Liberal state conference plus media when Howard dissociated himself from Hanson emphatically and repeatedly, and instructed all Liberals present to do so as well.
Next comes one of the book’s little gems:
Fraser … on a visit to China in 1998 … had a conversation with the Premier Zhu Rongii. “He said: ‘Malcolm, as an old friend of China, I can ask you this. Tell me about Pauline Hanson. Why doesn’t Howard condemn her?’”
That, Fraser says, “was a difficult question to answer”. I would have thought it was about the easiest question in the world to answer, perhaps along the lines: “Rongii, as an old friend of China, I can ask you this: Why do you drive over pro-democracy demonstrators with tanks?” Or perhaps, “Rongii, why do you keep scores of thousands of people in the Laogai slave-labour camp system?”
It is claimed (no evidence is produced) that “Under Howard … Australians were encouraged to feel affronted and threatened by the refugees”. Apart from the fact that the implication that this was Howard’s doing is to the best of my knowledge, which includes several years of research on the subject, false, the circumstances by the time of the Howard government were completely different. In the earlier period refugees had been escaping at the risk of their lives in leaking boats from a brutal tyranny. Many of them had been fighting alongside Australians in Vietnam a short time before. By the time of the Howard government the situation was obviously entirely different and there is no excuse for not being aware of this.
I turn briefly to the curious article “The Realpolitik of Malcolm Fraser” by Philip Ayres in the May 2010 issue of Quadrant. We are told of “Fraser’s developing friendships with black Commonwealth heads and the satisfying and transforming experiences of advancing their agendas, which were largely about ‘social justice’ and human rights.” Not all Commonwealth heads, apparently. According to report some ended up in their successors’ refrigerators. The Chief Executive of Sierra Leone, Samuel Doe, lent his ears, in the most literal sense possible, to his successor, although, as P.J. O’Rourke put it: “the lads kept the best bits for themselves. They removed His Excellency’s genitals and chowed down in the belief that the ‘powers’ and ‘manhood’ of the person whose parts you’re eating are transferred to the eater.”
The greatest beneficiaries of social justice and human rights seem, with some exceptions such as Botswana, to have been the Wabenzi tribe, named by their unfortunate subjects after their Mercedes-Benz fleets.
Ayres states that liberal democracy is “not appropriate to everyone” (So what is? Slavery? Just as well William Wilberforce and David Livingstone didn’t have that attitude) and “Fraser’s attitude to China is brutally realistic.” (Sounds from this like a bit of brutality is just what we need!) “It’s obvious that behind the insistent preaching [sic] by its critics that China embrace liberal democracy lies the expectation and desire that it would promptly disintegrate, which, of course it would.” How does Ayres know? Has he been round the labour camps to ask the critics their desires?
All this would, he says, “be anathema to the old Quadrant guard”. Personally I know nothing about Quadrant guards old or new, although I have contributed to it for some time. Is Ayres suggesting that concern for the human rights of a third of the human race at least is obsolete? He refers to such concern as “political evangelism” and appears to be congratulating Fraser for giving it up. Fraser, he says, has “no time for an American empire”. By and large, America has behaved responsibly and generously. Those loudest in condemning America also tend to be the loudest in their calls for American help in disasters—which has usually been given unstintingly.
Presumably the Taliban who hanged a seven-year-old boy for a breach of sharia law the day I read this have no time for an American empire either. Another word for this might be “civilisation”.
Of course, no serious student of China suggests it could be turned into a liberal democracy overnight. The proposition is a ridiculous straw-man, unworthy of argument. That Australia has a population of only 23 million emphasises how little it can do in this direction. However, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out in The Oak and the Calf, freedom can win small victories in areas like religious worship and economic activity, and small victories may lead to larger ones. This does not call for Cold War rhetoric but for the sensible exploitation of what opportunities occur. Common humanity and the heroic example of those who are campaigning for human rights in China make it obligatory that we at least try to help them.
Already there is much more freedom of, for example, artistic expression than during the Cultural Revolution. Who knows, some day China might achieve a level of human rights comparable to Putin’s Russia or even Franco’s Spain? The testimony of many previous communist dissidents, however, is that outside help is of great importance and probably indispensable.
Fraser’s apparent indifference to democracy when talking about China appears, according to Ayres, to disappear when he “recognises that Hamas won the Palestinian elections, and are therefore the legitimate authority in Gaza”. This is, in fact, highly dubious under international law, and certainly not legitimate under the ancient conditions for a “just war”. Legitimacy means not only winning elections—in this case in highly questionable circumstances—but observing such norms of international law as not subjecting the schools and hospitals of a lawfully-constituted neighbouring state to rocket bombardment.
One closes this book with a feeling of regret for the seven wasted years of Fraser, and gratitude for the good government of Hawke and Howard. The “Dries” who he apparently ignored won some victories in the long run and we are all the better off for it. The Vietnamese boat refugees who have found useful and happy lives in Australia and proved themselves good citizens remain Fraser’s best memorial. That, and the fact that he played a part in getting rid of Whitlam when he did, saving Australia from who knows what.
Hal G.P. Colebatch wrote “The Left Rewrites Its History on Refugees” in the October issue.