Fraser: Misconceptions and Errors

fraser ancient2Admiration for Ayn Rand’s autonomous heroes, support for multi-culturalism, belief in smaller government, a disliking for big banks, defence of illegal immigrants, distrust of United States global policy, a non-Marxist anti-imperialism (compare Ron and Rand Paul or Dennis Kucinich), advocacy of a protectionist national industry policy. Any consistency in all that?

Many of Malcolm Fraser’s attitudes were based on his perception of institutional threats to individuals, cultures, even nations. Ayn Rand, whom he went out of his way to meet because he admired much of her philosophy (though not her contempt for the weak—her heart never bled), pits her fictional heroes against encroaching bureaucracy, the state, and the rule of bad law, which they defiantly break or disregard. That resonated with Fraser. Each of the apparent incompatibles listed above relates in some way to the encroachment of institutionalised power.

Take illegal immigrants (and accept for argument’s sake that most aren’t refugees). Put the following: “These individuals have managed to save or scrape together ten or fifteen thousand to pay some potentially double-crossing boat-owner to get them here, with all the financial and physical risks involved in that, breaking the rules. Weed out any who are dangerous or criminal by all means, but don’t we need more and not less of that spirit? They’d be better for our economy than most of the legals because they’ve shown they have the guts and determination to work and save money and make their own way, like entrepreneurs, who break rules too. They’ve done more than wade across the Rio Grande.” Fraser could think such thoughts, though he overplayed the “refugee” bit, like his allies on the left, with whom he had more and more in common as social justice increasingly figured in his statements.

The other thing he liked to point out was that most “illegals” arrive unnoticed, by air, and simply overstay their visas. By contrast, a statist would say the law must be obeyed, “the proper channels,” etc. Even in his increasingly soft-hearted days, Fraser was more individualist than statist, and had always been more federalist than centralist (he offered to hand the income taxing power back to the states, whose it originally was until World War II, but they declined the offer: too hard, let Canberra keep that). Along with his individualism went a social conscience. His social individualism was similar to that of Menzies.

Fraser grew up in an isolated place, on the vast wooded flatlands of the Riverina, by the banks of the Edward River, forty miles from the nearest sociable neighbour. “There were no strangers about,” his mother told me. “If there were strangers he would disappear straight away. Very, very few people ever came.” There was a manager, some station hands, a series of nurses. He’d ride into the eucalypt forests alone, each time venturing deeper, up to 25 miles at a stretch, where others had been lost and never found, or he’d wander among the river red gums hunting for rabbits, with a pet dog and devoted galah. There was freedom and lack of constraints, which, together with the isolation, promoted a self-sufficient, interiorised personality, immune, in his case, to the collective mentality of a Melbourne Grammar School, where he had few friends. The interests he developed were those of individuals, not groups: sporting cars and motorcycles, shooting, photography and fly-fishing. When we occasionally met we talked sports cars and motorcycles as often as international politics (he seemed less interested in the local variety).

In intellectual terms it was probably a mistake for his parents to send him to Oxford straight after school. He would have done better to complete a local degree first, but it was traditional to go directly to Oxbridge, his father had done the same, all their friends did that. He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a revelation and challenge. He kept all of his seventy-odd essays, which I analysed in detail, and which I suspect no one else will bother to read. They’re worth looking at because they show precisely where he’s going: towards an idealistic, socially-focused individualism. Those who think he changed a lot should read them, they’re in the Fraser archive. He thought the best Conservative would be “like Churchill—a radical determined to destroy evil, and wherever he found it, by constructive legislation,” and he retained this reforming and idealistic vision until the end. Later (1973-75) he’d define the relation between the apparent incompatibles of individualism and social policy in terms of enablement of freedom (government-provided family allowances, for instance). But views of Fraser are fixed now: in 1975, so it goes, he was a radical rightist (almost a fascist, some think), and then he degenerated into an idealistic dreamer, moving from far right to wimpy left. Post-mortem the journalists re-hash the same old themes. “To think is to think again”?

This is one of the funniest ones: an Australian legend has it that Fraser at Oxford was close friends with a black student from Africa, and hence took up the cause. I asked him about that and he laughed, we both laughed to think that support for anti-colonialism and sympathy for national liberation struggles has to be explained in such a way … Only in Australia.

Fraser’s choice of a life in politics was the direct result of his studies at Oxford and was made before he ever returned here. The same idealism, the same social individualism, runs through all his early speeches. Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre he made the strongest speech of any in the parliament against apartheid, “a crime” he said, a doomed system. “The spirit and the emotion of our times are represented in the emancipation, freedom and self-government of coloured people. Anything that flies in the face of this spirit cannot stand and will be pushed aside in this present age.”

But didn’t Fraser go from pro-American and pro-British to seeing the United States and Britain as dangerous allies? Actually, he never trusted either.

Yes, he believed the Vietnam War was somehow winnable, and for a long time clung to the notion that America was forced to fight “with one hand tied behind their backs,” as he put it to me. “Tied behind their backs?” I asked. “With 550,000 men committed there, and dropping more bombs than they’d dropped on Europe in World War II?” Should they have gone nuclear, I wondered, or all-out chemical (they’d gone geo-chemical). No, of course not—but I never got it clear in my head, that “hands behind their backs” thing. Was that his, or something free-floating I’d missed? Or he’d talk about America’s home-front rebellion against the war and LBJ’s weakening of will. I decided this was pure self-defence on his part—until the late 1980s he was still backing positions he’d taken during his tenure of the Army and Defence portfolios in the 1960s. He ceased doing that in the 1990s. However, he’d never trusted the Americans, witness his negotiations in Washington over the F-111 purchases—he found Melvin Laird and his associates in the Defense Department full of deceit and played them at their own cheating game. Later on he was close to Kissinger, with whom he never disguised his distrustful view of United States policy; he liked Kissinger and admired how he had turned policy around on China. Kissinger thought outside the square, within a creative geopolitics, not reflexively like most conservatives. In general Fraser saw the Americans as being for themselves; they would never defend us out of altruism. Hadn’t they backed Indonesia, not us, on West Irian? Where were they on Konfrontasi? Nor was he at any time pro-British. At Melbourne Grammar he’d never bought the empire stuff, any more than Rupert Murdoch bought it at Geelong Grammar, was never part of a school-inculcated mentality, thought for himself and viscerally disliked the Britain he found in 1949. He told me his dentist there said he’d never seen such good teeth.

As Prime Minister, the first country he visited was not Britain or the United States but China, where he was shown around sensitive defence facilities Whitlam had never seen, for instance the nuclear missile sites out from Urumqi. He developed and maintained close personal relations with top Chinese leaders over subsequent decades and admired the successes of their market socialism (or “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, in the tradition of Bukharin’s anti-Stalinist “Enrich yourselves” line on the Russian peasantry in the late 1920s). Like Gerald Ford and other Republican presidents, he immensely admired Deng Xiaoping. The striking economic success of market socialism, with the government in control of the commanding heights but where individuals were encouraged to become rich, enriching the economy in the process, impressed him all along, it was not something on which he “moved to the left.” He saw China as a logical ally for Australia because their economies were so mutually dependant, whereas (for example) the United States had never treated our agricultural exports favourably. It would be foolish, he thought, for Australia to allow itself to be pressured into any military alliance against China. His opposition to the establishment of an American base of operations in Darwin is consistent with his attitudes to China and the United States over forty years.

The reason Fraser did not ruthlessly overturn the Whitlam legacy was because, having come to power by ruthless means, via a man whom he read like a book, Sir John Kerr, he understood that the nation required stabilisation, not revenge. It’s fair to say that after his second sweeping election victory, of 1977, he had the chance to move further, faster, on economic and fiscal reform, although he did wind back the proportion of government spending to GDP. Moreover, context has to be taken into account: a conservative Treasury under John Stone (at least in the view of Fraser, Keating and Hawke; Stone would later become a harsh critic of Fraser on this very issue, and fight all three on the historical facts), a nation that had never heard of “smaller government,” a fourth estate shocked and alarmed by the scale of the Razor Gang’s cuts (we look back now and wonder how they could describe them as “swingeing”)—that was the context, so that when, a few years later, Hawke and Keating proceeded to reform the Australian economy in a really bold way, the ground had been prepared. It also has to be said that Fraser’s caution on economic reform, for instance his setting-up of the Campbell Committee and then his reluctance to go full-speed on its recommendations, was due in part to his agrarian background, his distrust of the banks including the Reserve Bank, generally what Jack Lang used to call the money power; and there was always an element of market socialism in his thinking, which was and remained moderately protectionist. But here again there is consistency.

Following preliminary moves in that direction under Whitlam, Fraser introduced his policy of multiculturalism. The problem was that he created an industry around it, with professional organisers and bureaucrats feeding off the public purse. In any case the policy itself was unnecessary and divisive, but here again he was acting, as he saw it, in defence of individual and cultural difference against a dominant Anglo power structure he’d never had much time for, in a country that had always been a settler state, unlike, say, France, Germany or Italy. But it was unnecessary to have a policy built on “multiculturalism.” All that was needed was to cease using the term “assimilation,” which was an historical lie in any case. Australians have never been an “assimilated” people; those of Catholic Irish or Italian or Greek background have always kept hold of their culture, autonomously, without any bureaucratic pressure or incentives to do so. The taxpayer doesn’t have to support that. It was bad policy, unnecessary. Fraser would probably have replied that it was another policy of enablement, in this case of individual and cultural distinctiveness. Ayn Rand would have despised that notion—let individuals help themselves. I mention her again because I can’t get it out of my head that as Prime Minister he had his staff call her up and brought to his hotel in New York for a talk. What she made of that seems to have gone unrecorded.

THE MOST impressive thing about Fraser, to my way of thinking, was his strong interiority and self-sufficiency, though there was an emotional vulnerability, as with anyone. He didn’t need other people much, except politically, and within the family. This offended the press, who had no possibility of plucking out the heart of the mystery—they just couldn’t get in there. Nor could I, but then I didn’t want to. I was worried about something or other once, and said so, and he told me “Don’t fret,” which made me despise myself, because he’d never do that.

The following is by way of a close-up on the force of such a personality. Try envisaging any other former Australian prime minister in the following situation—it won’t compute. I observed him closely in South Africa in 1986 as he confronted the apartheid police, with their riot guns and rhino-hide sjamboks, out in one of the “homelands,” and again in Somalia in 1992 when, as president of CARE International, he confronted General Aidid—an interesting day, with two strong men at a stand-off, in a situation of total chaos. I didn’t dislike Aidid, what little I saw of him. He was on our side, more or less. There was nothing instinctively to dislike, and of course the character who goes under his name in the film Blackhawk Down is a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. Yes, he became an enemy of America.

After four days’ warning in which to fortify it, General Aidid’s south-western stronghold of Bardera, a major aid centre for CARE and other agencies, had succumbed to a dawn attack by armed units aligned with the Somali National Front (SNF) and led by the cultivated “General” Morgan—Mohammed Said Hersi Morgan, son-in-law to the ousted dictator Siad Barre, and reputedly the worst war criminal in the country. If one had to choose between a city’s fate being in the hands of Morgan or Aidid, any well-disposed person would choose Aidid. Fraser needed his help to move the aid convoys but the man’s power was slipping.

It was just three hours after the fall of this town that Fraser met with him. I took detailed notes.

Aidid’s compound in south Mogadishu was heavily guarded. You climbed to an upstairs landing and entered his private rooms, but first you removed your shoes, and once inside you sat on cushions, not chairs. This was the Islamic aspect of Aidid’s United Somali Congress (USC). The rival USC led by the smooth Ali Mahdi Muhammad, self-styled “Interim President”, who held north Mogadishu and not much else, made no attempt to create any such effect (his furniture was plush). In 1991 they had fought a civil war through Mogadishu, leaving this white and once-elegant Italian colonial city looted and in ruins. A “green line” separated its north from its south. You could see how attractive it had been in Mussolini’s time, for the built environment of that period was entirely intact, including an arch of victory.

Aidid couldn’t have guessed that Fraser already knew about the fall of Bardera, from where one of CARE’s aid workers had radioed that he and two journalists were hostages of the SNF. After handshakes all round, we received a history lesson designed to show that the chaos was everyone’s fault but Aidid’s. He told us he would never sit down with the man he had overthrown, the evil Siad Barre and his gang. Nor would he talk to Ali Mahdi and his clique until he ceased calling himself “Interim President.” Aidid assured us he controlled eleven of the eighteen regions of Somalia. If only that had been true, the country would have been the better for it, for then more of the aid would have been getting through to the people who needed it, instead of into the hands of independent gangs.

“I’m sorry, General,” Fraser interrupted, “but I have to contradict you.”

Aidid was visibly put out. “ … If you would permit me to continue?”

“Look, General, you don’t even control your own centres. Two-and-a-half hours ago your forces were pushed out of Bardera. Now we hear that Morgan’s men, victorious there, are closing on Saccouen. CARE thought it was safe in Bardera because it was your town, General, but our confidence was misplaced. As for your ‘control’ here, it’s obviously not you who controls the streets of south Mogadishu but undisciplined gangs. Just listen to the random gunfire—it’s totally insecure here. You don’t even control the airport—right now the strip’s closed because of clan fighting.”

The General squinted through all this in obvious agitation.

“Please, sir! Please! If you would permit me to respond? First, it is true that we have been forced out of Bardera. I am sending reinforcements and we will retake that town, I assure you …”

“But, General, you had four days’ warning of the attack and still you lost it.”

“And we will re-take it, I promise you. Then your point about security in Mogadishu—I am giving orders that all the armed gangs are to be forced off the streets and disarmed …”

“When, General? When will you do all this?”

“Within one week!”

One week in his dreams. Although he would have the necessary forces at his disposal to repel the US incursion some months later, he would not be around for long, dying in July, 1996, of a heart attack, either during or immediately after an operation on wounds sustained in a clash with rivals. I have a Kodachrome slide I took of him and Fraser conversing.

That confrontation tells you a lot about Fraser, how he handled himself, his power of control. He thrived on confrontation. In the month-long blocking of Supply in October/November 1975, when it was only his will that held a fraying Opposition together, he was at his best. His Oxford essays, even, are confrontational. He was happiest fighting in what he saw as a good cause and if he brought the house down on top of him, as he seemed to be doing in 1975, so be it. There were the odd contradictions, but generally his political outlook over the years was philosophically consistent. He made major mistakes in the latter years, such as unsuccessfully seeking the Liberal Party’s federal presidency, a post no former Prime Minister should probably hold, and his resignation from the party that had done so much for him was arguably as selfish as it was (in his view) principled. The party had abandoned him, he said, not he the party. In fact both things were true. The party had moved to the right, ditching some of the social elements that had always been there in his philosophy, while he had gradually magnified them. Things change.


Philip Ayres is author of Malcolm Fraser: A Biography (Heinemann, Melbourne, 1987)

3 thoughts on “Fraser: Misconceptions and Errors

  • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

    This is a most enlightening article and most readable as well. It certainly puts Fraser in a far more favourable light than his detractors see him. However, one gets the impression of not inconsiderable bias of the author.

  • Jody says:

    Some inconsistencies here; the author says Fraser read John Kerr “like a book”. This is not a characteristic feature of an individual who has few friends and who is not a social animal; it takes real human intercourse and intimacy to understand human behaviour – not some remote reference to it from a play, novel or university paper. Read Christopher Hitchens if you want an example of an individual who came to understand others and who was a very social animal.

    The point Fraser was making about the Vietnam War being fought ‘with their hands behind their backs’ was, I thought, axiomatic and generally understood. No matter how much hardware you put into war it won’t work if you have each day’s atrocities beamed into the living rooms of peoples’ homes and fuelled by a left-liberal media already opposed to the war. People don’t like victims and they readily saw the USA as the aggressor (along with its military) and the ‘enemy’ as the victim. Try running that line in a vigorous democracy. Hitler never had to do it!! Neither did Stalin.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. ‘The best ship is that with a course of 100 tacks; for from a distance it will be seen as going in a straight line.’

    He could have been describing John Malcolm Fraser.

Leave a Reply