The Realpolitik of Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser’s Political Memoirs are a well-written, third-person account of the subject’s reflections on his political career, and running as they do to 850-plus pages they are not short on detail, including the years of childhood and the period since his retirement from parliament. The memories and reflections are his, but quoted and mediated through the voice of Margaret Simons, who backgrounds and orchestrates them, providing context and creating a narrative, so that what emerges is political biography rather than autobiography, but biography consistently from Fraser’s point of view. These are his reflections on the past and present. As Margaret Simons drives the shooting-brake through his landscapes, he gives his thoughts on the hills, valleys and inhabitants, who’ve mostly moved their houses to the hills on the right, fires at preferred targets over there (John Howard, John Stone and others), and reveals what he thought then and still thinks now, for his views are “enduringly liberal”, a phrase that runs like a leitmotif through the book.

How adequate is it as a description of Fraser? It seems that the book was originally meant to be titled Malcolm Fraser: Enduring Liberal, and the words are intended as key to a proper understanding of the subject.

I remember pulling into a university parking spot in my sports car that warm November day in 1975, reaching to twist the ignition off when the flash came through the radio: the Governor-General had dismissed Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister and appointed the Opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, in his place. It certainly felt like a coup, the same excitement and elation for one temperamentally on-side with the plotters, and I recall the feeling of pleasure with which I relayed the news upstairs to my disbelieving colleagues, left-wing members of that tyranny of consensus one finds in universities. This perfectly constitutional coup had been engineered and foreseen by Fraser and was the chosen path to power of a ruthless politician prepared to act radically—the small-l liberals in his team, like Ian Macphee, went to water during the weeks Fraser was blocking supply. He had to deal with their pathetic fretting. So “liberal” does not quite fit Fraser in that significant respect.

The current wisdom, that Fraser missed the opportunity provided by massive majorities in both houses of parliament to overthrow the Whitlam legacy in a really thoroughgoing manner, is unfair and self-serving, but it takes off from the correct notion that in 1975 Fraser was acting like a ruthless radical and that he changed. To the extent that people liked the radical Fraser, they were disappointed in the perceived change. His best speech-writer and closest adviser was David Kemp, who never has been a small-l liberal. In 1975 an aggressive Malcolm Fraser was tearing the Whitlam government to shreds on the floor of parliament, asserting the pre-eminence of the individual, arguing for smaller government, subverting the Gough-hallowed notion of capital-C Community—rather like Margaret Thatcher, Fraser at that time distrusted abstract nouns like “society”—and he continued to do these things, but gradually a compassionate side became dominant, along with a subscription, one suspects, to abstract notions like “social justice”.

This liberal strain had always been there, in his 1960 speech on the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, for example, but from the mid-1980s and perhaps a little earlier it became the strongest element in the Fraser “brand”. The ruthless Fraser who, by resigning his portfolio, brought Gorton down in 1971, and who brought Whitlam down four years later, the razor-gang Fraser, the radical federalist who offered the income-taxing power back to the states (who declined to contemplate or negotiate it)—there is a space between that Fraser and the “enduring liberal” of today. Otherwise, what were the Australian Democrats reacting against?—for they were the party of small-l liberalism, in reaction to what was called “Fraserism”.

The shift in tone and emphasis can largely be put down to a perceived need to reconcile divided elements of the nation, and the mellowing effects of time and circumstance, including Fraser’s developing friendships with black Commonwealth heads and the satisfying and transformative experience of advancing their agendas, which were largely about “social justice” and human rights.

Since then, there has been some winding-back of the “liberal” Fraser, for his close, first-name friendships with Chinese leaders in particular have tended to stimulate a realpolitik approach to international relations in which the West, and especially the United States, are not seen as divinely privileged light-bearers, nor liberal democracy appropriate for everyone. Fraser’s attitude to China is brutally realistic. It’s obvious that behind the insistent preaching by its critics that China embrace liberal democracy lies the expectation and desire that it would then promptly disintegrate, which of course it would, for the Middle Kingdom has always been held together by an authoritarian centre, the alternatives to which are warlordism or geographical break-up. This cold realist is the most interesting and (to my mind) persuasive Fraser of all, and it could be argued that there was a strain of it as far back as his private discussions with the Communist Party of Indonesia’s leader, D.N. Aidit, in Jakarta in 1965, a willingness to engage with and comprehend those across the ideological divide.

All this would be anathema to the old Quadrant guard, or today’s News Weekly readers, though not necessarily to Bob Santamaria, who could always think laterally. This realpolitik in Fraser is far more pronounced now—an outright rejection of the political evangelism found in the younger Bush’s Washington and its associated neo-conservative think-tanks. As many traditional American Republicans from Pat Buchanan to Ron Paul know and proclaim, America was founded as a republic, not an empire, and Fraser has no time for an American empire. That is one reason he likes Obama, because Obama is dismantling it, carefully and very subtly, precisely when it can no longer be afforded.

These changes of tone, emphasis and attitude are the essence of life, what makes it dynamic. “Enduring liberal” is not only inadequate, it discourages us from seeing what is more interesting.

There is a disconnect within Fraser’s critics. This new book reminds us how they were thinking back in 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, when Fraser enjoyed those double majorities. They were more reluctant than he to devalue the dollar, they certainly didn’t suggest it be floated, and they were cautious on other changes he’s now accused by them of going slow on. Fraser set up a group within his own department to question the mainly status-quo advice he was getting from Treasury. Shock, horror!—didn’t he realise that politicians were elected by the people in order to be steered about by permanent departmental heads? Set up independent sources of advice? Disrespect for convention! And when the razor gang were cutting up the public service, and the editorials were squealing about the pain, how many of his latter-day critics were shouting, “Slash much harder”? The late Sir Henry Bland qualifies, but there were very few others.

One can expect political memoirs to contain mea culpas, regrets, and acknowledgments of error, and these are all there, though not in abundance. Fraser’s political memoirs largely consist of a series of explanations of, and justifications for, consistently held attitudes, defence of the subject’s record as minister and prime minister, demonstration of the self-serving nature of much of the right-of-centre criticism of his government’s record (not enough cut-backs, too slow in moving to free up the economy), and a good deal of analysis of the political world since Fraser’s retirement, especially in the form of criticism of the Liberal Party under John Howard’s stewardship, its human-rights record (not much here on its excellent economic record), and strong criticism of Australian and American foreign policy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on America. These are all woven into the chronological, biographical narrative, fairly seamlessly. Fraser likes President Obama’s domestic and foreign policies, so his outlook on the wider world is currently optimistic.

Fraser sees himself as true to the Menzies legacy, and tends to make Menzies over into his own current image in ways that are not always convincing, but he may be right in arguing that Menzies did not have his heart in the legislation to ban the Communist Party:

Look at the kind of campaign Evatt ran against the legislation compared to the campaign Menzies ran for it. Menzies spoke very seldom, very little. He was a real believer in the rule of law, and a real liberal. But there was a strong anti-communist element within the Liberal Party. There [were] a number of senior, important ex-servicemen around who would have had this view, and they would have been pushing him. On my reading of Menzies’s character, he wouldn’t have liked this legislation, though he was wily enough politically to use it …

Fraser now sees the Vietnam War as a mistake, which is unsurprising—“I never believed in the domino theory,” he says. The domino theory was so wrong that in the wake of North Vietnam’s victory over the United States, the first war the reunified Vietnam fought (again victoriously) was against Communist China. What is surprising is Fraser’s revelation that the first he heard of the American involvement in the 1963 overthrow of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was in 1995 when he read Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect. It was common knowledge in the 1960s and there was plenty of evidence. I read about it back then.

Some of the quotes in the book come from unpublished retrospective pieces written or dictated by Fraser in recent years and kept in a filing cabinet in his Collins Street office. One of these is about John Gorton, and Fraser’s relations with him. Fraser was a strong Gorton supporter when Gorton beat Paul Hasluck in the party-room leadership ballot following Harold Holt’s death. Fraser was Holt’s and then Gorton’s Minister for the Army, and following the 1969 elections Gorton promoted him to Minister for Defence. But under Gorton, Fraser writes in this retrospective piece, “I despaired for the good government of Australia” and “determined that if for any reason my authority were to be reduced or my position challenged in a way that could remove me from cabinet, then I would have to do my utmost to see that the PM accompanied me”—exactly what Fraser did do in 1971 over a three-way conflict of loyalties involving Gorton, Fraser and the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Thomas Daly, a conflict Fraser believed compromised his authority to the point where resignation and destruction of the Prime Minister was the only honourable course.

Yet it’s debatable whether Gorton was seeking to destroy Fraser in this highly complex affair, and there are indications that Gorton, anything but a ruthless man, was desperate to find some way out of the maze of conflicting wills and loyalties, some agreement that would reconcile the three of them, cut the Gordian knot, and move on from there. It may have been impossible. But one suspects that Fraser, now eighty years old, is privately troubled over the rightness of his course and regrets his strategic but in any case false reassurance to Gorton—“Sleep well, boss”—on the very eve of Gorton’s destruction. Eighteen pages are spent on this affair.

When I was writing the first Fraser biography Gorton would not speak to me, which was a shame, as, like many Australians, I always liked Gorton. He carried to his grave a sense of profound injury he could not humanly have felt had he been plotting Fraser’s political demise on the eve of his own.

Fraser has fallen out with some of his closest friends, including Tony Staley. Even his friendship with David Kemp was at hazard. Staley successfully stood for election to the presidency of the Liberal Party when he knew Fraser wanted the position, and Staley, like most Liberals today, is highly critical of Fraser’s long string of attacks on the Liberal Party under John Howard. David Kemp lost most of his family during his service with the Fraser government, in a terrible accident south of Canberra, and Fraser never had a more devoted and valued adviser than Kemp, who still admires Fraser enormously. Fraser once told me he believed he could not have won the 1980 election without David Kemp.

But then, some years after Fraser had retired from parliament, the Liberal electoral committee in the safe Victorian seat of Goldstein decided that they had had enough of their federal MP, Ian Macphee, and offered the seat to Kemp. It was not a secret coup engineered by Kemp and his supporters, but a straight-out, clear-cut, popular rejection by the Goldstein Liberals of Ian Macphee as unresponsive to and unrepresentative of his constituents. This was the same Macphee, in visceral respects, who in October–November 1975 had urged Fraser to pass supply. The Liberals in Goldstein had lost respect for him. But now Fraser came out with a public criticism of Kemp for “taking” Macphee’s seat.

It is also clear from these memoirs that Fraser admires the parliamentary performance of his former adviser Petro Georgiou (downbeat successor to Menzies and Peacock in the bluest blue-ribbon seat of all, Kooyong) as superior to that of David Kemp. He praises Georgiou’s backbench record, ignoring Kemp’s more substantial frontbench one. But in the view of most Liberals, Georgiou was a spoiler who may as well have been on the Labor side of the House for all he ever did to advance his own side. On literally every issue on which Fraser was critical of Howard, Georgiou would get up in the House and attack Howard. Many who admire Fraser for the quality of his character, strength of will, independence and integrity find it hard to comprehend his contrastive attitude to these former advisers. Surely Kemp was just so much better both as an adviser and as an MP? The memoirs, which are otherwise fair with respect to Kemp, quote Kemp’s response to Fraser’s telephone call asking him to step aside and leave the highly unpopular Macphee in place against the wishes of his constituents: “Malcolm, you know and I know that that is not right. If I step aside my reputation will be ruined, and I am surprised that you would give me that advice.” It’s to Fraser’s credit that his memoirs quote this.

Fraser regrets his neglect of Sir John Kerr in the months following the dismissal of Whitlam, when Kerr was an isolated, lonely and widely despised governor-general. Kerr personally liked Fraser and disliked Whitlam. It probably gave Kerr a degree of pleasure to install Fraser in Whitlam’s place, quite aside from the rights or wrongs of the affair. Afterwards Kerr needed Fraser’s friendship, and Fraser could see that Kerr, under frequent mob attack, was a broken man who felt abandoned:

I probably didn’t discuss with or inform the Governor-General as much as I should have. I can remember someone telling me that Kerr was put out because I wasn’t telling him what was going on, and I said, “Well, he is briefed on everything, isn’t he?” “Yes, he’s briefed on everything.” But I think that he thought that I ought to be briefing him.

There is regret, too, that he did not go to Phillip Lynch’s hospital bed and ask him personally to stand down during the 1977 election campaign while Lynch was under investigation for land speculation. This shows Fraser’s ability to scrutinise and judge his past. Lynch was his Treasurer. “I should have just got in the car and gone down to see him in hospital. I have always regretted that I didn’t do that.”

On Aborigines, Fraser advocates compensation in the wake of the “Sorry” declaration, but that raises the question of how much compensation for how long. How much per person per month? And for a set number of years, or indefinitely? To be paid to each individual, or to some Aboriginal leadership group? To everyone who claims Aboriginal descent?—right down to the sixteenth, or the thirty-second part? These are not trivial or racist questions, they are questions the precise answers to which would have to be spelt out by the government in legislation. And to what good effect, finally?

Multiculturalism is one of Fraser’s proudest achievements, and there is much to be said for multicultural Australia, just as there is much to be said for monocultural countries like Italy, Austria, Lithuania, whatever. Tuscany is attractive precisely because it’s monocultural. There’s no ipso facto goodness about multi- as distinct from monocultural entities, indeed many multicultural entities don’t work very happily (the Netherlands today, or the outer suburbs of Paris, or the mixed parts of Sri Lanka, or Bradford—though that’s increasingly monocultural). Examples abound. Statements about the advantages of multicultural countries are more convincing if nuanced or qualified a bit, for example with the reflection that multiculturalism is more appropriate to a settler society like ours, or America, than to countries like Italy or the Netherlands. There are down sides in Australia too, and it must be recognised that sovereign nations have the right to determine their immigration mix. Fraser criticises former Howard government Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrews for cutting the number of African refugees accepted into Australia because, on the basis of interdepartmental advice received by Andrews, “they had trouble integrating into society”. But then Fraser does not say on what bases he would fine-tune the policy if he were in power, and whether social cohesion would be among the factors. One hopes it would.

As for illegal immigration, Fraser rightly points out that we get far more illegal stay-ons coming by air than by leaky boat. The former, however, are invisible. Where Fraser would draw the line on the leaky boats is unclear, but it must be somewhere, or our immigration policy will be meaningless and our borders effectively proclaimed as open to all. He cannot want that.

For me, the most persuasive Fraser is still the hard Machiavellian realist of old, perceptible today in the man who refuses to preach liberal democracy to China or prescribe it as a universal cure-all, who debunks the neo-conservative dream of making the world over in our image, who recognises that Hamas won the Palestinian elections and therefore are the legitimate authority in Gaza, and who sees the folly of putting Christian armies on Moslem soil. Those sections of the book that explode the hindsight criticism voiced insistently by people who were silent about or resistant to reform in the 1970s are very effective too.

Philip Ayres is the author of Malcolm Fraser: A Biography (Heinemann, 1987), of Owen Dixon (Miegunyah, 2003), and of other biographies and books on cultural history.

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