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A talk with Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm FraserMalcolm Fraser

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast, I would be your host Matt Smith, and we’ve got a very special podcast today, it’s in an interview with the 22nd prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser. He was prime minister from 1975 – 1983.

Matt Smith:

What is it that influenced you to join politics when you were younger? Is it that your grandfather served in the Victorian Parliament and the first Australian Senate?

Malcolm Fraser:

First Australian Senate, yes.

Matt Smith:

Was that part of the influence to go into politics?

Malcolm Fraser:

Well, partly. I mistakenly thought politics would fit in well with farming, that you'd have time to do both. That very quickly was found not to be so. But also if you go back to the wartime years or the immediate postwar years, there were very sharp divisions between the political parties. The Labor Party had just attempted to nationalize the banks and all financial institutions. And people believed that it was not only socialism, but nearly communism by democratic means certainly when the communists would seize power by force.

But there was a sharp philosophical divide and the Labor Party really did believe that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned by the State and they attempted to put that in place. They went a long way in Britain to putting it in place and I had seen when I was at the university there that it just wasn't working and it was leading to gross inefficiencies. And in any case, I believe that the purpose of a government really was to serve individuals and enable them to lead their own lives as free men and women, and if the state owned everything that wasn't really going to be possible.

So, by the time I came back to Australia, in my view a living example of socialism's failures applied to Britain and the trouble that was the Australian experience of an attempt to nationalize the banks. So, there was something to be against and very strongly against. And then, when you looked at what the Liberal Party stood for, it was for the individual. It was for freedom. It was for the rule of law. At that time, the Democratic Government was under monarchy. It was for private enterprise, but did not totally deny the necessity for government activity and government enterprise. As I believe, it espoused liberal principles in a way which I supported then and I'd support now.

So, it's very easy to make the decision. You were against the Labor Party. That gave you an incentive because they destroyed the way of life that most people in Australia had grown up in. And the Liberal Party gave you the positive. Menzies especially gave you the positive of something to work for. So, it pretty holds this together, the incentive. If you could do something about it, it was quite strong.

Matt Smith:

You just mentioned Menzies. Did you admire him a lot?

Malcolm Fraser:

He was a great prime minister. He was cautious. He was a true Liberal. It's interesting the way successive Liberal leaders have said that they embrace the Menzies' faith. Well, I think Malcolm Turnbull maybe does; I'm sure John Howard did not. When Menzies signed onto the Refugee Convention in 1954, he would have been appalled by the policies applied to asylum seekers by the previous coalition government. It was Menzies who little by little whittled away the White Australia policy.

If you had tried to do this openly and overtly, somebody would stretch the redneck nerve and it would have become very difficult if not impossible. But Harold Holt was able to finally abolish it and this was done in a speech but he was up for Minister for Immigration about 1967. It's true that Gough Whitlam got rid of some legal remnants which had no practical effect whatsoever in 1972. But in practical terms, they were whittling away the destruction of the White Australia policy. It was begun on Menzies' government and continued ever after.

Matt Smith:

You were quite progressive in the way that you were the prime minister, you brought over 100,000 refugees from the Vietnam post-war environment.

Malcolm Fraser:

Well 2-3 years in a row, we had about 20,000 refugees coming out of Indochina. We had fought alongside these people. We had given them commitments where we eventually had failed. And I thought there was an ethical obligation, quite apart from the broad humanitarian motivations which a lot of people believed we should have responded to anyway. And I thought there was a particular responsibility on Australia at that time.

And I think America did likewise. America took a very large number of refugees within China, something like 1.5 million, I think. China then took a very large number. And China had not been fighting in Vietnam but they still responded with very significant generosity as they nearly always have to a refugee situation. And this was an additional step, if you like. That was the first time there had been any significant migration of any kind for a very long while from Indochina or whatever. There was actually quite a lot of migration from China in the 1800s.

Matt Smith:

In post war, I suppose this had been the first.

Malcolm Fraser:

It was widening immigration refugee policy in the postwar context very significantly, yes.

Matt Smith:

Was that sort of thing well received?

Malcolm Fraser:

I believe it was because we were seeing what these people were fleeing from and what chance their families have. Because we were explaining the reality of the situation, I think Australians welcomed Vietnamese refugees with a good deal of compassion and concern. I think we would also welcome refugees from Afghanistan if people really explained what they're fleeing from, instead of calling them illegals, queue jumpers, potential prostitutes, maybe drug runners, maybe even terrorists.

Matt Smith:

They're seeing the very bad side of things.

Malcolm Fraser:

From that time onwards, there seemed to be a competition to denigrate asylum seekers, which was a very ugly chapter, I think, of Australian history.

Matt Smith:

And what do you think of that current approach to what seems to be the subcontract of the refugee problem to Indonesia?

Malcolm Fraser:

Well, I think there ought to be agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia. When we were taking significant numbers of refugees, we didn't persuade Malaysia in particular, and I think also Indonesia but I did not want to check that, to hold boats and have a camp with people to go in their territories and not as troops out to see as the Malaysians would have done if we hadn't had an agreement with them.

But we promised them and we had agreements with America and Canada also that we were going to take a very, very large number of people from these camps and that Malaysia just wasn't going to be left holding the bundle. Without that sort of agreement, Malaysia wouldn't have established the camps and probably would have continued their policy of troughing boats back out to sea, and many of them were just river crafts, totally unsuited to survival at sea. Many, I suspect, probably were lost and people drowned, anyway.

So, we had agreements with regional countries that were important in enabling people to get to Australia. Now, if there was a proper regional agreement and then if there were also agreements about Australia taking a significant number of the people who might be in the Indonesian camps or were in Indonesia, then that is something that I think might work and also avoid the necessity of people having an even longer voyage by sea in a pretty un-seaworthy boat.

On humanitarian grounds, that could become a good policy and it would diminish the role that people smugglers have. A lot of this debate is turned on how evil people smugglers are and that because they themselves are evil, then what they're carrying is evil. Well, it's sad to say I'm seeing if an Afghan family had a couple of girls and if the Taliban are in charge, then there's no future for the girls. They can't get educated. They can't get a job. They can't do anything but all they can do is marry and have kids with no other future or whatever, living in ignorance all their lives.

Years ago, the Afghan society was quite liberated and women were able to advance through business, through universities and professions in very, very significant ways. And that had all been chopped off when the Taliban were in charge. And now, with the Taliban seeming to have more and more success militarily, it's understandable that more people will be just going to get out before the Taliban take over. And so, if you really understand the nature of the "push" factors, as they call it now, they're significantly greater than they were years ago when they might have thought that an attempt to establish a more open and democratic Afghanistan was more likely to succeed.

I think the government and the minister in particular is trying to handle this in a reasonable and humanitarian way. But the opposition with their rhetoric and their constant attacks on the government are making it difficult. And Chris Evans, I think, is holding the line in a reasonably responsible fashion up to now. And I think even the prime minister might have modified some of his language. He was saying how tough his policy. It's his toughness that is his desirable quality. I think you do need a strict policy but you also need one that's humane and compassionate and recognizes what you're dealing with. And I just hope in the future that at some point, politicians will learn that you don't try and score political points with people's lives, which is really what they're doing, especially the Liberal Party.

Matt Smith:

If you were in politics now, what would be the first thing that you'd want to address and what party would you belong to?

Malcolm Fraser:

What party would I belong to? Well, they both are different.

Matt Smith:

They both changed a lot.

Malcolm Fraser:

They both move to the right. Kevin Rudd's Labor Party might almost have moved into the sort of middle ground that the Menzies government held. The Liberal Party has some elements in it that are still very liberal in that sense. But it has also got a very strong, very extraordinarily conservative group. They almost behave for the liberals the way the Socialist Left used to behave for the Labor Party in keeping Labor out of state of Victoria. It seems that the Socialist Left would sooner be pure and out of office than have a reasonable policy with a chance of getting an office.

Well, the Socialist Left in the left got done over and their extremism was pushed aside. And so, I hope that the Liberal's strength in the Liberal Party can reassert itself. I think Malcolm Turnbull has basic instincts of the Liberal and I hope he has the strength to be able to make that more and more assertive as time passes.

Matt Smith:

So, your call would still be Liberal?

Malcolm Fraser:

Well, I'm still a member of the Liberal Party because there are liberals within the Liberal Party. Let's just leave it like that.

Matt Smith:

And what would you address?

Malcolm Fraser:

In today's world, well, you can't obviously avoid the issues of asylum seekers. But one of the great trends over the last 15 years of affluence is the disinvestment in health and education, especially by the Commonwealth Government. I'm told that if the Commonwealth Government was putting into universities higher education the sums that were going into higher education 10 or 15 years ago, it would be about extra $8 billion a year.

Now, investment in education is one of the most important things for the development of a country in years to come. It's all very well to rely on overseas students to find the universities. Well, that might well be a fairly short term. You build in a reliance on something which, at the end of the day, might just not be there. Many Asian countries are spending huge fundings on higher education on their universities and building up their research capacities because they recognize that their future wealth and well being for their people will depend on increasing their well-educated people. So, there'd be less and less incentive to go to places outside their own countries. But quite apart from that, we have not invested in medical schools the way we should have. The idea that we have to attract doctors from outside and often from the third world, I think, is an outright disgrace.

Matt Smith:

Especially considering the good they can do in their own countries.

Malcolm Fraser:

Exactly. And you don't necessarily see it as much in Melbourne but when you go to regional centers, regional hospitals the number of non-Australians who are doctors and nurses and whatever in these hospitals is huge. We ought to be able to supply our needs or something like that. Well, partly because the Universities Commission was abolished, this forward planning thus ceased to take place. The previous governments seem to believe that the market will fix everything. Well, there are a lot of things which the market won't fix and where governments have to make decisions. Universities need to make decisions but they need the resources and commitment of resources often to do it.

After universities reestablished higher education or universities commission, Labor abolished it. They wanted to get their sticky fingers into higher education instead of the Liberal Party so they supported the evolution. We'd be much better off having a very high liberal committee advising on what is necessary to make our education institutions amongst the best in the world again and to make sure that in Australia we could provide not not only world-class but maybe world-first education at every level of education.

Now, this would be expensive but I think it would be the best investment you can possibly have for the future. You can't do this in one year and the tragedy is in the years of affluence when a lot would have been possible without much hardship. Now, it's going to be hard for the government to find that kind of investment the way the world economy is going in years ahead.

Much of the same can be said for hospitals and medical care fundamental research as an adjunct to university expenditure. Very often, the great discoveries come out of purely fundamental research and you can't necessarily see the practical use for that research, certainly not today, not next week, probably not in the next year or two. But a lot of the most beneficial results from scientific research come from purely fundamental work, which isn't necessarily nowhere to lead.

So, this area is where the government can really decide whether our country is doing what it ought to do to protect its future or whether it's just bumbling along. Now, the current government has made noises about reinvestment in both education and health. But if it will be able to go, I think, has got a question mark, however. And I'm not questioning the intent in saying that how available will finance be to get the job done. Two other things, one domestic. There is no comprehensive water policy for the driest continent in the earth.

Matt Smith:

No, there is not.

Malcolm Fraser:

And for Brumby to bring a pipeline of water out of the government water that could save the currents, I'd sooner save the currents. And if Melbourne were forced into a situation of almost having to ban showers, it seems a bit far-fetched. But the city goes on growing. We have the same water catchments as we had 20 years ago. I mean, new sources of water are going to have to be part of the future for Melbourne.

And that doesn't mean making the currents dry up and destroying environmentally important areas. It doesn't mean that we have to destroy the Murray. Other dams could be built. It has got a desalinization plant that's going to be frantically expensive. But when I say there's no overall water policy, storm water, we don't recycle water. We don't make sure that every household or building has rainwater preserved. Certainly, a short while ago it was illegal to run a rainwater tank.

So, there's a great deal that can be done in the city and in the countryside. I would abolish extravagant uses of water which would include rice. Private irrigation should not be allowed. It's absurd that countries are short of water, that we use so much for rice. It's not all that much now because with 75% of known entitlement, there's just no water. There would be a great deal to be done to develop a comprehensive overall plan for the whole of the country, which might involve re-planning a lot of our own cities which would be expensive but you could do it over time.

If you prepare to spend $43 billion, which might well become $60 billion, on a fiber optics network which might be out of date because Wales has some kind that will overtake it, should we be considering the costs of bringing water from the Kimberly East to Adelaide into Melbourne? No idea what that would cost but somebody should be asked to do the sums. Maybe a budding engineer of La Trobe would do the sums and see what it might cost. But there are parts of Australia that do have the water, especially during the wet season. Vast quantities of water could be transferred. I think we got to the stage where these sorts of things would at least be on the desk for discussion.

Internationally we should be more independent, preserve the American alliance certainly, but our last defense white paper was an absurd document. At a time when the prime minister has established a committee and Gareth Evans has designed to establish a roadmap towards total nuclear disarmament, it puts out a defense white paper that rests on the extended nuclear deterrent and the necessity to keep America involved in the Western Pacific.

Well, in Japan there's beginning to be a discussion about removing Japan from dependence on the extended deterrent which is America's nuclear umbrella. Thus, for the new government in Japan, it's a very healthy move. In my view, all of this has become urgent because the knowledge on how to construct a nuclear weapon is increasingly available. More countries are closer to being able to do it. Some countries that do not have nuclear weapons certainly have the missile capacity if they had a nuclear weapon to lob it to any capital in the world. Japan and Germany would be two such countries. If there's more and more knowledge of how to do it, and we've seen what's happening in the North Korea, we've seen the discussions over at Iran, at some point, somebody will let off a nuclear bomb. Maybe a terrorist will get hold of one. That wouldn't be easy but it's one of the things that causes concern. You couldn't guarantee in today's world that the insurgency in Pakistan wouldn't take over Pakistan. Then, they're going to get hold of a nuclear arsenal. Then, how likely would a nuclear war between India and Pakistan be? And then, you look at the environment consequences of even a limited nuclear can do, which I'm told would have devastating effects to the climate of maybe decades ahead.

So, with today's knowledge, how do you prevent a nuclear accident of that kind? And I believe the only way you can prevent it is heading towards zero nuclear weapons. Now, we have an American president who uses the same sort of language. America is negotiating with Russia now to renew disarmament talks, all of which is encouraging. And Russia and America need to take a lead because they have so many more nuclear weapons than anyone else.

But abolition ought to be the goal. And if abolition is the goal, there'll be much less incentive for countries like North Korea and Iran to attempt to pursue nuclear weapons. I would like to know, it doesn't matter whether I would be able to know, how much President Bush has talked about regime change with a stimulus to make North Korea move towards nuclear weapons.1f you got America saying, "I'm going to get rid of that regime," how can that regimen best protect itself? A lot of them would say, "I'll get myself a nuclear weapon." Has that been an element in Iran's thinking? But Iran says it's not moving towards nuclear weapon.

Under the nonproliferation treaty, you're allowed to go a long way down that track. And I don't think Iran has done anything illegal under that treaty at the moment. But if you can go so far, then you can make a dash for it for the final steps, all of which makes zero option important. And I wouldn't internationally plan to take these things seriously because that would mean having a defense policy which didn't brand China as an enemy and say we've got to maintain our protection into the American deterrent.

Matt Smith:

What is something that you've been surprised to learn through your career?

Malcolm Fraser:

Surprised or disappointed?

Matt Smith:

Good surprise, bad surprise, really.

Malcolm Fraser:

I suppose I was disappointed to learn that your fiercest political arguments are sometimes with your own side rather than with your political foe. You expect to have opposition from your political foe. You don't always expect to have opposition from within. I've been around politics too long to be surprised. It was in the Kosovo War that I learned absolutely that people say in war truth is the first casualty. Well, there you learn that people you think are on your side will tell a lie just as easily as the enemy.

And I was in Budapest because I had care workers in Serbian jails and I was determined to get them out. Bombs were going off all around the place. In the hotel, the international press where you can get BBC World so I look at BBC World first thing in the morning, 5 or 6 o'clock, and I'd see Jamie Shea who was the NATO's spokesman. And one morning I saw him saying, "Yes, we regret the collateral damage when the bomb went through the children's ward of the Belgrade Central Hospital, but it was the Serbs' fault because they had a tank squatted in the command centre, hiding in the grounds of the hospital."

So, I rang up somebody and said I wanted to cancel my plans for the first half of the morning and I wanted to go to the Belgrade Central Hospital. And Serbs, of course, knew I wanted to go. And sure enough, a bomb had gone through the children's ward. But there was no tank squatted. There was no command post. The lawns around the hospital were freshly cut. They were pristine. There were no tank tracks or marks. There were no bomb marks anywhere except through the children' ward. There were no shrapnel marks on the barks of the trees, pieces or on the path. So, it was all just a lie.

I had dinner in the same hotel with Mary Robinson when she was the High Commissioner for Refugees. And a couple of days later, she issued a statement. NATO needed to be careful of its own legality. She was late for the dinner meeting I had with her because she said she had spent the day walking through the suburbs of Nice which had been totally flattened. However, NATO was not just bombing military establishments. They were just bombing Serbs. The disappointing factor is that you have to know enough to know whether somebody is telling the truth. And that applies to your friends, your allies or your enemies; slightly sobering…

Matt Smith:

Malcolm Fraser, thank you for your time.

Malcolm Fraser:

Thank you.

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