Reflecting on the late Malcolm Fraser

When Malcolm Fraser lost the election in 1983 after seven years as Prime Minister, he had few friends on either the Left or Right of politics.

The Left could not forgive him for the role he played in the Governor-General's dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975, or for the fact that he was one of the Western world's most muscular Cold Warriors and most vigorous opponents of the Soviet Union, especially following their invasion of Afghanistan.

For its part, the Right—which was by now influenced by the wave of neo-liberalism washing over the English-speaking world following the election of the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan administration in the United States—soon thought of the Fraser Prime Ministership as an era of lost opportunity, or, in the biblical phrase, as Seven Wasted Years. Even though Fraser took office half a decade before the beginning of the Thatcher or Reagan neo-liberal revolution, he was generally blamed by the Right for failing to be wise, or, as some might think, unwise, before the event.

Both Left and Right could not then and still cannot see the central achievement of Fraser's Prime Ministership—his normalisation, as a true conservative, of the most significant cultural achievements of the Whitlam government in the fields of ethnicity and race. Howard turned his back on Keating in the sphere of the political culture. By contrast, Fraser cemented what Whitlam began.

Whitlam initiated the movement that would lead to the granting of land rights to the indigenous people in the Northern Territory. But it was under Fraser that the legislation was passed.

Whitlam dramatized the movement towards multiculturalism, as the umbrella philosophy guiding the state with regard to how the millions of migrants from beyond the United Kingdom and Ireland should be settled. But it was only under the conservative Malcolm Fraser that the old Australian ambition to assimilate all migrants to an Anglo-Celtic norm was finally and definitively abandoned. Fraser remembered and detested the Protestant-Catholic sectarian hatreds that had scarred Australia until the early 1960s. There has been no politician in Australian history for whom multicultural religious and racial toleration mattered more.

In the late 1960s, the White Australia Policy was buried, almost in secret, by the governments of Holt, Gorton and McMahon. Under Whitlam it was given its public funeral, leaving the misleading impression that it was Whitlam who brought about the end of White Australia.

When some two thousand Vietnamese refugees arrived by boat on Australian shores after 1976, the Fraser government treated each and every one with a compassion and a humanity that would put all later Australian governments to shame. (As the President at the time of a small lobby group called the Indo-China Refugee Association, I remember all this with greatest pleasure.) Even more importantly, the Fraser government soon took the politically courageous decision, in collaboration with the US and France, to provide homes for tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese refugees living in the archipelago of squalid camps that were by now scattered throughout South-East Asia. Under Whitlam a small number of the highly educated from Asia were admitted to Australia. Under Fraser a very considerable number of refugees—from peasants to professionals—were welcomed.

Despite the subsequent grumblings of provincial conservatives, like Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard, there was nothing that mattered more in the moral history of Australia than Malcolm Fraser's courageous decision, taken only a decade after the White Australia Policy had been timidly abandoned, to provide homes to large numbers of Indo-Chinese refugees. And there was nothing of which Malcolm Fraser in later years was more proud and justly so. It was only during the Fraser Prime Ministership that the policy and the racial attitudes associated with the loathsome White Australia Policy became altogether unthinkable.

After losing office, most Prime Ministers spend their time making money or defending their record. Fraser did neither.

In the early 1990s Fraser toyed briefly with BA Santamaria's idea of creating a new anti-neo-liberal party (in which I was also involved). For very many years he became very actively involved in overseas aid. But it was really only in the mid-1990s that the new direction of his political interventions became clear.

Fraser found his new calling following the emergence of a new Australian racism, associated with both the election of Pauline Hanson and the creation of the One Nation Party, and the ambiguous position of the Howard government on several political questions concerning ethnicity and race.

Fraser was appalled by the conservative opposition to the High Court's Mabo judgment that recognised the existence of native title in Australian common law. (The first time I met Noel Pearson was in Fraser's Melbourne office on the day Pearson had described the conservative opponents of Mabo as "racist scum".)

Fraser was appalled at the mean-spirited unwillingness of the Howard government to offer an apology to the families of the "stolen generations", the thousands of Aboriginal children who between 1900 and 1970 had been seized by agents of the states and separated from their mothers, families and communities, whose suffering was documented by the Human Rights Commission.

Fraser was appalled by the fact that the Howard government had turned its back on the hope that had animated millions of Australians during the 1990s—for a reconciliation ceremony and declaration to mark the centenary of federation on January 1 2001.

Between 1999 and 2001 relatively small number of asylum seekers from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Afghanistan under the Taliban or from the theocratic state of Iran arrived by boat. They were placed in indefinite mandatory detention in a string of mainly isolated desert camps, whose legislative architecture had been lain down by the Keating government in 1992. In August 2001 John Howard went even further. He decided to save his political skin by repelling all new boat asylum seekers by military means and sending them to offshore detention camps. Fraser was shaken by the conspicuous cruelty of the Howard government

By now it was clear to everyone interested in Australian politics that something exceedingly strange had happened. Fraser had once been the most hated figure for the Australian Left. He was now, especially but not exclusively on questions concerning ethnicity and race, one of the Left's most powerful voices, who, as the nation became increasingly conservative, had leapfrogged from the right of the Liberal Party to a political position well to the left of the Labor Party.

Fraser's political journey was not yet complete. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s Fraser was probably the most hard-line Cold Warrior and, therefore, most pro-American politician in the Australian parliament. During the 1990s, however, as he watched the United States squander the opportunities of a peaceful post-Cold War new world order, and as he witnessed the growing influence in Washington of the triumphalist neo-conservative movement who were seeking not peace but US global hegemony, Fraser became an increasingly radical opponent of the drift of US foreign policy—of both the "humanitarian interventionism" of Bill Clinton and, even more, of the post 9/11 madness of George Bush the Younger that culminated in the decision to invade Iraq, a decision that sowed the seeds of the bottomless tragedy that now afflicts large parts of the Middle East.

In the early 1990s Fraser did not accept the standard left-wing foreign policy trope, of Australia as a deferential lackey of the United States. By the 2000s that had altogether changed. In what we now know was his final political intervention, Fraser was invited by Melbourne University Press to write a book on Australian foreign policy, Dangerous Allies. He arrived at the conclusion that the only security danger facing contemporary Australia was its military alliance with the United States.

Fraser was appalled that Australians did not know that an Australian ship, HMAS Sydney, sailed as part of the US Seventh Fleet and that an Australian General, Rick Burr, was Deputy Commander of the US Pacific Army. He was appalled that President Obama had so little reason to respect Australian independence that he confidently announced the decision for a new Darwin base while on Australian soil.

As a result of all this, Fraser believed that if the US became involved in conflict with China, Australian participation alongside the US had become, de facto, a certainty. Quietly we had ceded our national sovereignty to a foreign power. In an interview last year, I asked him whether he had begun his research with this conclusion already in mind. He said that he had reached his conclusion only as result of a willingness to face with honesty the facts and the logic of the situation. No one could have believed while he was Prime Minister that Fraser's final intervention in Australian politics would be the argument for the abandonment of the US alliance.

In that interview, I suggested to Fraser that his political trajectory resembled that of the nineteenth English Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who began his political career as an ultra-conservative Tory and ended it almost tearing his country apart on the question of Irish Home Rule. Fraser was amused by the comparison. He reminded me that he was now the same age as Gladstone at the time of his final Prime Ministership. It was impossible to imagine, as he joked in fine humour, eyes sparkling after more than three hours of conversation, that he had less than one year to live.

The life of a great Australian patriot—of a progressive conservative, a kind of Australian political species now almost extinct; and of a principled, warm-hearted and utterly fearless man—has now, suddenly and unimaginably, reached its end. It is often said but in this case it is actually true. We will not see his like again.

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.

Image: AAP/Joel Carratt

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