Saturday, 12 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Malcolm Fraser

20th March 2015 – Malcolm Fraser, 84

("MalcolmFraser1982" by Camera Operator: A1C MONTGOMERY. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.)

Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983, and the beneficiary of Sir John Kerr’s move on Gough Whitlam. Whitlam and Fraser were sworn enemies, though they became friends later in life.

“Malcolm Fraser's decision in 1975 to block Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's budget was the ultimate in brinkmanship. It eventually delivered him the prime ministership. And, although he won three general elections in a row, the dismissal of the Whitlam government that followed the budget impasse haunted Fraser for the rest of his life and overshadowed his political achievements. During his prime ministership between 1975 and 1983, Fraser was considered patrician, aloof and arrogant, even by some of his supporters. Dubbed the "crazy grazier" by the media and an "Easter Island statue" by Labor opponent and future Labor prime minister Paul Keating, Fraser was a study in contradictions. He was an economic conservative but a modest social reformer; a Cold War warrior and a fierce opponent of apartheid; a traditionalist with a social conscience he only gave full rein to in his later years.”
Wendy Frew, BBC obit

“From his first days in politics, Mr Fraser was an advocate of immigration as a means of boosting the population.As a minister in the Gorton government, he became the first federal politician to use the word "multiculturalism" — an historic break from the Anglocentric past of his own party.Mr Fraser's multicultural conviction found shape in immigration policy in the post-Vietnam war push to bring refugees from mainland South East Asia to Australia."I believe we had a moral and ethical obligation," Mr Fraser later said. "If we had taken polls ... I think people would have voted 80, 90 per cent against us but we explained the reasons for it. We were also working to get people to understand that the idea and the reality of a multicultural Australia could be an enormous strength to this country, not a weakness. There is strength in this kind of diversity so long as we understand what it's about."
Peter Lloyd, ABC obit

“Sir Robert Menzies indicated in earlier discussions, going back I suppose 20 or 30 years, that he believed that the whole system of apartheid was abhorrent and doomed to the most ghastly failure because, in all its simplicity, the South Africans were saying that they would give black Africans educational and economic equality but never, of course, political equality. Therein is the certainly that apartheid must one day fail, because the more people have educational or economic equality, the less will they be prepared to accept or tolerate political inequality. Whatever view one might have of the immorality of apartheid, logically, and on a straight analysis of what apartheid is about, it is doomed to failure.”
Malcolm Fraser, 1982 speech

In 1975, as leader of the opposition, Fraser had told his colleagues to block the Whitlam government budget, believing it would lead to an early election that the Liberal party could win. When Whitlam, to cut a long story short, went to the Governor General to talk of a half-Senate election, Kerr decided to sack the Prime Minister instead and replace him with the leader of the opposition.

“Well may we say "God save the Queen", because nothing will save the Governor-General! The Proclamation which you have just heard read by the Governor-General's Official Secretary was countersigned Malcolm Fraser, who will undoubtedly go down in Australian history from Remembrance Day 1975 as Kerr's cur. They won't silence the outskirts of Parliament House, even if the inside has been silenced for a few weeks ... Maintain your rage and enthusiasm for the campaign for the election now to be held and until polling day.”
Gough Whitlam (who as you can imagine, was quite calm about things)

However, for all the rage and protesting the dismissal caused, by the time of the election in December 1975, Fraser’s Liberals wound up with a 27 seat majority, as the election focused less on the injustice and more on the economics of the time. [Whitlam had fallen into the same PR trap in 3 years that Harold Wilson had in 6: being seen to be strong on social issues but weak on finance.]

The Fraser government was all about the financial bottom line and reducing the deficit, in clear parallels with the modern Conservative party. Inflation, free trade and restraint were the buy words. However, after 8 years of government, local issues – the Australian drought of ’83 – meant the economy was in recession, as despite the frugality, the government hadn’t stimulated the money supply.

“As Paul Kelly recounted in The End of Certainty: "The economy-busting deal came in late 1981 in the metals industry, with a collective bargaining agreement ratified by the full bench (of the Arbitration Commission). It meant an average rise in hourly wages of 24 per cent for 400,000 metalworkers or 9 per cent of the workforce. In 1982, wages rose across the workforce by 16 per cent, with a resulting squeeze on profits." The bonanza quickly became a disaster, both for the timid government of Malcolm Fraser and for the unions, a point former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty later conceded. About 100,000 jobs were lost in the metal trades alone. Inflation and unemployment soared, with the jobless rate in 1983 rising 6.6 to 10.3 per cent. In 1986, Paul Keating blasted the AMWU for "carrying 100,000 unemployed dead men around its neck".In winning the 1983 election, Bob Hawke campaigned on a promise of creating 500,000 jobs, a feat he recognised would require vast modernisation of Australian workplaces and wages policy. He secured union restraint through his early Accords, the forerunner of more extensive IR reforms for the next 20 years. And the 500,000 jobs target was reached by November 1985.”
“Heeding the lessons of the 1981 recession”, The Australian, March 13 2009

Socially, Fraser’s government included the first Aboriginal senator, and in 1976, they passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. He was a multilateralist, and a multiculturalist.

“He backed legislation that gave Indigenous people in the Northern Territory more control over their traditional lands. He remained an unapologetic supporter of multiculturalism and set up the government-funded national broadcaster SBS to provide multilingual services. The immigration program was revitalised with a fresh focus on Asia. More than 2,000 boat people were granted entry under his watch.His real focus was on foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region and turbulent southern Africa. Defence ties and trade relations were beefed up with Asia in an era when there was still a fear of communism spreading. He formed close and productive ties with African leaders in the campaign against apartheid, which in his case stretched back to speeches he gave after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. At that time, in defiance of Menzies’ view that apartheid was an internal matter, Fraser argued for international action against South Africa because of “the great principle of human rights, that all men are born equal and have an inalienable right to their place in the sun, no matter what their colour, race or creed”. He opposed white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia and backed Robert Mugabe to head an independent Zimbabwe.”
Christopher Zinn, Guardian obit

“The international community ought to do much more. We have had a refugee intake of around 12,000, that is an official intake. Amongst official intakes worldwide, that is relatively high. But if you want to make an honest judgement about what a country does, you look at the official and the unofficial intake. Some time ago, in the 90s, Australia made a decision to reduce the official intake by the number of boat people who came here. So there was a cap of about 14,000 on humanitarian intake overall... If we were genuine in having a real humanitarian view of these issues, we would again join with other countries that are far more generous than we are like America, Canada, the Nordic countries and argue for all recipient countries to take more refugees out of UNHCR camps and we would also argue for more countries to become recipient countries and try and reduce those numbers.”
Malcolm Fraser, The Conversation 2011 (disclaimer – I’ve removed a large piece explaining how governments fudge the figures for length and meander reasons)

Fraser became a critic of his own party in later life, criticizing the policies of John Howard (whom Fraser had given his first break in government 30 years previously). Later, when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party, Malcolm Fraser left the party entirely.

“A FEW days after Malcolm Fraser delivered his most recent - and most damning - critique of the Howard Government, he rang Gough Whitlam to discuss the reason for his attack: the counter-terrorism laws that were introduced this week. In a neat coincidence, Whitlam informed his old adversary that he had spoken out on the same issue that very morning, and made arrangements to fax a front-page report on his comments in The Sydney Morning Herald to Fraser's Melbourne office. Three decades ago, they were on opposite sides in the nation's gravest constitutional and political crisis. Today, when it comes to the biggest issues facing the nation and the planet, they are two grumpy old men, generally in furious agreement."In today's world, there's more we have in common than there would be that divides us," says Fraser, now 75. "And certainly, so far as our personal relationship is concerned, whatever happened in the past has passed. "That's the strong impression he has given me for a long while - and it's certainly what I've felt in relation to him." And what about Whitlam, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next July? "I've said on many occasions that I find it difficult to think of any matter in foreign affairs where I don't agree with the views he expresses these days," he says.”
Michael Gordon, Sydney Morning Herald, 2005

“I think the whole party is very much on the extreme right. I happen to believe that the Minchin/Abbott duo to get rid of Malcolm Turnbull – who had actually won a couple of party room votes, even though narrowly – but then they said we’re not going to work with you anyway, we’ll walk out. The minority was saying we won’t accept the majority and the majority just accepted it. It was an extraordinary occurrence and I believe that rather than being on the emissions trading scheme, it was because Malcolm was showing some significant signs of being a liberal and they didn’t want a liberal in charge of the Liberal party, they wanted a conservative in charge of the Liberal party.”
Malcolm Fraser, The Conversation 2011

His reputation, on the left, tends to swing on John Kerr. Had he naturally beaten Whitlam in an election without the coup (as he almost certainly would, have done it handily after!) then there would been far less recriminations. Whilst his coming to office was dubious in the manner, and his focus on the economics the bastion of the centre-right, his social policies (including extra funding of the Arts, and his unflinching stance on immigration) were highly approving, and Australian politics would be in a far better place if it had Liberal leaders more in the Fraser mold.

When Gough Whitlam died last year, an expert in the field’s view to me was, basically, “F*** John Kerr”. When Fraser died, another expert in the field’s view to me was, basically, “F*** John Kerr”. On that, it seems, everyone can agree who the bogeyman was.

The trouble for Australia is not that Fraser beat Whitlam through chicanery first, or that Kerr helped to propagate any stab in the back mythologizing. The trouble is that what it needed to do, as a country, was take the best ideas of Gough Whitlam AND Malcolm Fraser in going forward. Mix them together and you have a damn fine political legacy.

The trouble is not that which side to pick. The trouble is that modern Australian governments have moved away from both.