Malcolm Fraser: Political Decadent
Dr. Andrew Campbell
Australia’s progressives have a new hero: Malcolm Fraser. Two years ago, Labor Party icon and former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, “rattled off” the issues he and his former political enemy and “new mate” shared: “the republic, reconciliation, the ‘illegal’ N.A.T.O. strike against the former Yugoslavia, opposition to U.S. plans for a nuclear missile system and the need for Australia to stay out of any conflict between China and Taiwan”.
Fraser’s demand for an “apology” to the Aborigines and compensation for the “stolen generations”, his unremitting hostility to the United States exemplified by his rejection of the A.N.Z.U.S. Alliance and his rejection of Australian participation in U.S. missile defence research through Pine Gap, and his slavishly pro-Chinese attitudes led to Kim Beazley informing Fraser, “I’m finding it difficult to find an issue on which I’m more on the Left than you”.
Fraser was the harshest critic of Whitlam’s radical and anti-American domestic and foreign policy and his incessant overseas travels. In office, he pushed an anti-Western third world agenda further than Whitlam.
Fraser still shares Whitlam’s reflexive anti-Americanism. In 2000 he gratuitously advised that the Russian Prime Minister “will win by standing up for Russia by making it perfectly plain that Russia has a mind of its own, that Russia will not be bullied by the West, that Russia, in co-operation with China, will seek to limit United States dominance of the world”.
Fraser is not only concerned with U.S. dominance of the world but is also opposed to the United States having a defence capability. In July 2000, Fraser expressed concern that the proposed U.S. anti-ballistic missile system would “make it possible for the United States to make war on any country with no risk to mainland America. If the U.S. had a really effective anti-missile system, it would be totally immune”. 1
Fraser’s judgment has not improved since he told an interviewer in 1987 that “President Reagan seems to talk as though communism is a dying faith, as though rollback in Eastern Europe is a possibility — which it isn’t”. 2 Reagan’s assessment was correct, not Fraser’s.
As A.N.U. international affairs analyst Coral Bell noted, the Americans were so tired of his earnest third world advocacy that they “breathed a sigh of relief that Hawke was not going to emulate Fraser’s fervor”. 3
In 1978, P.P. McGuinness described Fraser’s approach to international economic policy, exemplified by the Common Fund, as “not far from the kind of line which is popular amongst the Marxist Left”. 4 Fraser’s promotion of “third worldism”, a neo-Marxist “blame the West syndrome”, was one of his more bizarre policy reversals.
Fraser’s Seeking the Holy Grail
Fraser wrongly believed his accession to power was tainted with illegitimacy. The opinion-making elites may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress, mainly due to their loss of unearned status and access to public funds, but most Australians supported a change of government as three successive Liberal election victories proved.
By 1977, the “legitimacy crisis” engendered by Fraser, the respecter of conventions, had been resolved by a second overwhelming electoral victory. However, Fraser and many of his government remained fixated on removing the “stain” of 1975 by political and policy overcompensation. Fraser promoted middle class radical and symbolic “progressive” causes and “reforms”, launching aboriginal land rights, multiculturalism and saving whales. Fraser was not an “intellectual in politics”. He boasted of his anti-intellectualism, but his ever-hovering displaced academic advisers, few of whom achieved distinction in academia or politics, provided much needed rhetorical gloss.
Fraser’s identification with symbolic and progressive causes also reflected his dismal academic record, which was gained through inheritance and mediocre performance. Fraser was an academic mediocrity. Not surprisingly he had poor skills in conceptual areas and poor judgment.
Fraser never achieved academic distinction through competitive examinations or scholarships or intrinsic academic excellence, either at secondary school or Oxford University. As Paul Kelly points out, Fraser “followed his father’s footsteps to Oxford, by winning entry after a written request from his father”. 5 Rarely has paternal patronage been so poorly rewarded.
The Fraser Legacy: Creator of
the Australian Democrats
One of Fraser’s many destabilising political legacies was his pivotal and personal role in the creation of the Australian Democrats. Fraser’s constant overreaching and duplicitous political style was particularly demonstrated by his refusal to include Don Chipp in the December 1975 ministry, which led to Chipp’s defection and the formation of the Australia Democrats. Chipp learnt of his exclusion through the media, and Fraser’s political sensitivity was demonstrated in his informing Chipp that he was excluded from Cabinet only half an hour after the official notice had been published. Typically Fraser avoided face-to-face-contact and phoned Chipp.
Only Fraser knows the truth concerning Chipp’s exclusion and typically he has not been forthcoming, although he allegedly told a perplexed Chipp that cabinet had “too many Victorians”. The establishment of the Democrats further destabilised the Liberal Party as they held the balance of power in the Senate by June 1981. Yet, Fraser never requested a meeting with Chipp in the two-and-half years from October 1980 to March 1983. Chipp later wrote that he found Fraser’s attitude “extraordinary”; however, it exemplifies Fraser’s cognitive denial of political realities. 6
Indeed, the Chipp episode was typical of Fraser’s style. According to Chipp’s account, which is supported from other sources, Fraser had previously publicly declared that Chipp would be his Social Security minister. However, five days prior to the election, his office had leaked to the Sydney Daily Mirror that he would not be the Minister, and the Federal Director of the Liberal party, Tony Eggleton had telephoned Chipp announcing, “Don, Malcolm has personally asked me to tell you that there is absolutely no truth in the newspaper report.”
Fraser the Paradigm Promise
Fraser’s words were not his bond. Few politicians made political promises with such conviction. In 1977 Fraser promised the electorate large tax cuts. In the post election period, Fraser did not deliver the promised tax cuts which contributed significantly to undermining his Governmentís much vaunted espousal of integrity in government. As respected political commentator, Michelle Grattan has pointed out, “the Fraser Government lacked the fortitude and conviction to actually implement its philosophy. The lesson from this is that Malcolm Fraser only half believes in the philosophy himself. Fraser is a bribing politician like many others. He has offered tax cuts, given them, withdrawn them, reversed them and promised some big ones in the future. A classic record of broken promises. Mr Fraser is the biggest taxing Prime Minister yet. He has probably exploited the promise of tax cuts more than any other Prime Minister in history.” 7
Breaking promises is popularly regarded as the essence of Machiavellianism. Fraser was commonly described as Machiavellian. However, he lacked the resolution recommended by the Great Florentine. When questioned by a journalist on his political morality, he denied that he had ever read Machiavelli’s The Prince. But as reported by political commentator Peter Costigan, Fraser giggled and claimed: “I have actually read it twice”. 8 Fraser was not sufficiently principled to be a Machiavellian. As one of his political advisers commented shrewdly, “even when he was telling the truth, people thought he was lying”. 9
Fraser promised billion dollar tax cuts in the election campaign in November-December 1978; the so-called “fistful of dollars” election. Liberal party advertising depicted handfuls of dollars being thrust at the voters. However, Fraser applied a 1.5 per cent tax surcharge for almost eighteen months from mid 1978 — so much for Fraser’s political promise and projected image of fiscal responsibility. The 1983 elections demonstrated that the electorate did not believe his promises and did not trust him. Fraser’s broken tax policy came to be regarded as the paradigm politician’s promise.
Fraser as Prime Minister: the
The progressive class is finding a “new” Fraser. They did not realise they are embracing an old friend, insofar as Fraser ever had any friends. Fraser was always a closet progressive. His conservative leadership was a political artifact. Fraser had a will to control, often confused with a will to power. In power, he shirked from power.
Fraser never commanded the legitimacy and respect deriving from genuine leadership. Academic studies, memoirs of associates and media commentary reveal that his leadership style was characterised by indecision and impulsivity, impatience, irrational intrusions into public policy, the inappropriate issuing of commands, poor crisis management and confused retreats which usually involved the selection of a scapegoat.
Fraser developed the art of making political enemies amongst his colleagues; it was one of his few intrinsic skills, and by 1982 he faced his first leadership challenge from Andrew Peacock. A year later, he was no longer Prime Minister. He was criticised by the “dries” and “wets”. Both factions may have overlooked Fraser’s opportunism and concern with office seeking. By 1982, he was de-authorised within the party and the electorate.
By the time of the federal election in 1983, Fraser’s leadership persona was fraying. His Whitlam-like overseas travels, his third-world posturing, and the Government’s incessant conflict and crises, were similar to the failings of the Whitlam Government. By 1983, Fraser had become Whitlam’s mirror image. In 1983, Labor leader Hawke, by contrast, was successfully promoted as a conciliatory consensus seeker who offered a respite from his crisis style, and broken promises.
Fraser was a crisis engendering “control freak”. He became anxious at matters, real and imaginary, that he believed he could not control. Seeking to control, he invariably failed. His “command style” resulted in the alienation of his senior liberals and ministers, notably those who had been sacked or pressured to “resign” and who subsequently organised anti-Fraser factions or foci of dissent. As with Whitlam, his government became factionalised.
Fraser’s Inability to Understand
Intelligence and Security Issues
Contrary to the writings of leftist conspiracy theorists, Fraser maintained an Olympian attitude towards the Australian intelligence community, and, in particular, to A.S.I.O. A.S.I.O.’s Director-General during the Fraser years was a self-professed Whitlam admirer appointed by Fraser and recommended by Whitlam. The same Director-General boasted publicly to the National Press Club audience that he had never provided the Fraser Government with any political party information. 10 According to a former acting Attorney-General, Neil Brown, Fraser reportedly “had a low opinion of A.S.I.O.’s competence and rarely let an opportunity to pass by when he could give it a side swipe”, 11 although typically he did not act decisively.
The Director-General of the Office of National Assessments, appointed by Fraser, openly described him to sympathetic staff as “wilful” thus setting the trend for the office. An economic paper written by the leading O.N.A. “economist” (who had a pass degree in philosophy and was previously employed by a foreign newspaper in which the Russian intelligence service had a long-standing operational interest), was described by Fraser as the most brilliant piece of writing he had read from a public servant. The paper was rightly treated as a comic document by Treasury officials.
Fraser was typically unaware that the Australian intelligence community at the senior management level was not a “hot bed of reaction”, as alleged by conspiracy theorists, but was a hot bed of cold feet generally sympathetic to Labor. Fraser’s anti-detente views were continuously subverted through strategic leaks to newspapers and the rewriting of assessment by senior management of the Australian intelligence community.
Throughout the 1980s, Western governments organised a programme of expulsion of Russian officers. Fraser had many legitimate opportunities to expel Soviet intelligence officers from 1975-1983, especially as he had criticised the Labor Government’s security record. But he never did. Yet the Hawke Labor Government expelled a Russian intelligence officer within the first six months of office in 1983.
Fraser was ignorant of the private contempt freely expressed towards him by senior public servants, especially in senior sections of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Joint Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments. On the few occasions Fraser was offered reliable security advice, in the case of a senior appointment to his office, he rejected it on the dubious grounds that the person concerned “came from a good background” and accepted him in a position of trust. The person concerned proceeded to leak information from his office to Fraser’s most fervent opponents in the intelligence community.
Fraser compounded his misjudgment by offering the same person a highly sensitive position in the security intelligence establishment. Curiously, Fraser tended to favour and promote those who held him most in private contempt, for reasons best left to clinical research. Fraser’s biographer Ayres has provided a fascinating case study of his impotence in relation to the cabal of officers in the Office of National Assessments (O.N.A.) who in 1980 sought to destabilise his Afghanistan policy. As Ayres points out Fraser sought to transfer three senior O.N.A. officers but was stonewalled. Typically Fraser roared like a lion and acted like a mouse. Two of the three O.N.A. officials later emerged as “men of principle” and were appointed and rewarded by the Labor Government as a senior Prime Ministerial adviser and Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. So much for Fraser’s resolve. 12
Fraser and the Tidal Wave of
Leaked Security and
Government Documents: 1975-
Under Fraser, A.S.I.O. vetting for access to security information was effectively abolished. Not surprisingly, the Fraser government was constantly plagued with leaks of sensitive information to the media including the full budget papers in 1980 and the National Times treasure trove of classified information. Characteristically, Fraser was periodically fixated on this problem and directed A.S.I.O. to launch an inquiry which developed into an illegal and sensitive operation with ominous implications for the individuals involved.
By 1980, the Daily Telegraph editorialised, “The sieve in national security has become an embarrassment not only to the Government but to the country as a whole. The proliferation of leaks would be laughable if the implications were not so serious. Last night the Federal Opposition was able to hand out a confidential document prepared for the Prime Minister Mr Fraser, by his own department. The Government must investigate every aspect of the security system and where necessity overhaul it — no matter whose toes it treads on.” 13 In this matter as in so many other security matters, Fraser was the mouse that roared.
During the Fraser Government, there was not a single prosecution for the leaking of classified information. Nor were there any prosecutions under Sections 34 and 35 of the Public Service Act, or under the Crimes Act. Fraser lacked the courage and political will to discipline and dismiss Labor party moles covertly and overtly networked through the public service and the Australian intelligence community. The strategic leaking of classified documents is one of the many legacies of the Fraser Government which continue to plague the Howard Government.
Fraser was disloyal to colleagues. The night before he destroyed Prime Minister John Gorton, Fraser told Gorton, “don’t worry about it boss, just have a good night’s sleep” 14. The next morning Fraser resigned, accusing Gorton of “intolerable disloyalty” with a “dangerous reluctance to consult cabinet and an obstinate determination to get his own way”. 15 Fraser’s criticisms of others were generally projections; he found his own faults in others.
In the event, Gorton consequently ceased to be Prime Minister, and the hapless Billy McMahon became leader of the Liberal Party. However, that prospect did not unduly concern Fraser. He always demanded loyalty from others but rarely displayed loyalty to others. A former close adviser noted, “God help you if you ever helped Malcolm Fraser. I would have to say that ingratitude was one of his most memorable features”. 16
Fraser’s assumed self-righteousness has been described as a reaction to the excesses of the Whitlam years. However, like Whitlam, he was the central figure in a series of ministerial crises which destabilised his government, including the resignations of Vic Garland, Attorney - General Bob Ellicott, John Moore, Michael Mackellar and Ian Sinclair and the sacking of Reg Withers.
These crises destabilised the leadership and the party at Federal and State levels. Withers, for example, became an implacable opponent from the time of his unnecessary dismissal on 7 August 1978 and mobilised support for Peacock in his leadership bid against Fraser. Fraser, ever the opportunistic tactician, ignored the strategic political implications of his manic self-righteousness.
Fraser’s ingratitude was most evident in his sadistic treatment of his loyal Deputy Leader, Phillip Lynch, who was sacked over alleged land deals. Lynch was hospitalised with a kidney disorder and medicated. He was unable to mount a defence. Typically, Fraser did not speak to Lynch face-to-face and relied on third parties, phone calls and intermediaries.
Lynch was accurately described in Weller’s academic study of Fraser as an “important victim”, took the retirement option, and ensured a by-election in the seat of Flinders. However, the Labor Party’s poor performance in the by-election precipitated a leadership spill in the A.L.P., leading to Hawke defeating Hayden for the leadership. Fraser’s fate was sealed with the election of Hawke as Labor leader. Fraser had made two irreversible strategic errors. He had also alienated supporters by his ruthless treatment of his former deputy and treasurer who had played a crucial supportive role in defeating the Whitlam Government, a fact conveniently “forgotten” by Fraser.
Fraser: A Political Hysteric
Fraser was a political hysteric. A former official who had closely observed Fraser described him as, “pathologically indecisive”. Paul Kelly acutely described him as “a timid prime minister. Fraser fooled himself and others into believing he was a man of action and history . . . The political giant killer was an agoniser, reluctant to take decisions that hurt people.” 17
Fraser was impatient and demanded, generally on impulse, immediate results and reports, and as Paul Kelly has noted, the human cost was high 18:
“Cabinet ministers sat until ministers got tired, got sick and refused to come. Then Fraser would call another cabinet meeting. Firstly Ivor Greenwood died, then Eric Robinson died, Peter Durack had a heart attack. Philip Lynch became terribly ill; everybody worried about their health and their wives told most of them to quit politics to avoid Fraser . . . The head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Sir Alan Carmody, dropped dead; his successor Sir Geoffrey Yeend paced himself and took sick leave. Fraser could not live without crisis”.
“Work” was substituted for reflection and assessment of the direction of the Government. Many Cabinet meetings were a response to a Fraser-engendered or media-engendered “crisis”. Neil Brown has pointed out, “Fraser seemed to thrive on crisis. If there were not a crisis on the horizon in the morning, then one would have to be invented to carry on through the day.” 19
Fraser had won government by a constitutional crisis and as prime minister he continued his crisis-driven style. Sir James Killen has recalled that “he could not understand that prolonged cabinet meetings could not only be exhausting but were also very distracting to ministers with large departments to administer and work loads which were themselves demanding. Cabinet meetings should have been halved in duration. The fact that they were not, was a reason which led to the decline in the Government’s standing both in Parliament and in the country”. 20 Administration became crisis management.
Fraser: Cabinet Government by
The Fraser Cabinet held an average of 354 meetings per year compared to 159 by Whitlam’s. From 1975 to 1978, the Fraser Cabinet made 4,291 decisions compared to the Whitlam Government’s record of 1874 decisions. The Fraser Cabinet received 1431 submissions and memoranda per year compared with the Whitlam Cabinet of 851. 22
From 1975-1983, the Fraser Government had 2446 Cabinet meetings and made 19,350 Cabinet decisions. Many were trivial. Cabinet meetings were invariably protracted and tortuous. In 1978, Paul Kelly noted that Fraser, “kept the cabinet sitting exhaustively, during some weeks almost every day ... He has generated a Cabinet workload that has crippled most of his ministers, and is clearly beyond their capacity to handle”. 22
The phrase “in the bunker” was used to describe the atmosphere of focus on minutiae. As a former senior minister has pointed out, “There was no end of discussion in trivial matters. The plight of the Abbott’s Booby bird was a case in point. This attractive creature had made its home on Christmas Island [but] was in danger of extinction. It need not have worried; the Fraser Cabinet was devoting hours of deliberative time solely to its preservation.” 23 And, “In contrast there was little discussion of the rising unemployment figures, reducing the size of government, restoring incentive, the tax burdens on business, how industries could be encouraged to start or Australia’s place in Asia, to name just a few issues one would have thought Cabinet would be accepted to discuss every week.” 24
Analysis paralysis in Cabinet prevailed. A senior official stated in 1978, “Never have so few people sat at the Cabinet table for so long to decide so little”. 25 Fraser sought advice and counsel from as many sources as possible, in his words, to get “further advice” although he generally confirmed his original decision.
As a senior cabinet minister pointed out, “he had not the slightest idea in the world of listening to an argument and then drawing the various points of view together”. 26 Uranium policy was discussed at eight Cabinet meetings from July to August 1977. In September 1977, Cabinet met to discuss A.U.S.S.A.T and a decision was finally made in 1982, after Cabinet had met on thirty-one separate occasions.
Ministers buckled under the strain and not surprisingly there were allegedly cases of illness of some ministers and premature deaths of senior ministers. Michelle Grattan has referred to “endless Cabinet meetings, which often ran into the night, which left ministers exhausted and privately cranky”. 27
Fraser’s Cabinet domination was a classic case of Michel’s “iron law of oligarchy” in which centralised power and policy-making remained in the hands of a permanent minority. He posed as opponent of centralised power in Cabinet; he used his leadership to reinforce centralised power to the point where it became dysfunctional, as factions began to develop in resistance.
The allegedly great supporter of traditional and family values was oblivious to the human cost of Cabinet government by exhaustion. The fate of individuals rarely, if ever, concerned him. Fraser was not interested in the human dilemmas of others; he simply did not notice them. If individuals fell, usually after he had pushed them, it was because he believed they did not achieve the high ethical standards he allegedly embodied.
Questions of natural rights, political gratitude or simple justice did not concern him. For example, the abolition of a $40 funeral benefit for pensioners led to two backbenchers and six Liberals in the Senate crossing the floor and invoked much discontent within the party and set a precedent for future Senate rejections. Yet Fraser could not see the human dimension of such legislation. Fraser capitulated, however. The Minister for Social Security, Margaret Guilfoyle, learnt of Fraser’s back down whilst she was assuring the Senate that the government would not backdown, another example of Fraser’s exquisite political insensitivity and poor communication with senior Cabinet ministers. 28
Fraser’s Whitlamesque Record
Despite three continuous massive electoral victories, and his age advantage (he entered the Lodge at the age of 45), Fraser did not show leadership on any key domestic issue. In 1994, Fraser claimed his one mistake was “allowing the new parliament house to be built”. The cost to the taxpayers leapt from $200 million to over $1 billion, which undercut Fraser’s claim of restraining government expenditure and good economic management. Fraser adopted the characteristics of those he professed to despise, especially the Whitlam Government. In the end the Fraser and Whitlam governments resembled each other; a form of political pas or folie a deux which did not go unnoticed by the perspicacious.
In mid-1982, Treasury secretary John Stone correctly likened Fraser to Whitlam. As Kelly has documented, Treasury was opposed to “Fraser’s vote-buying, his skepticism about markets and his Country Party instinct for rural economics”. 29 Fraser’s legacy of a projected $9.6 billion budget deficit for 1983 provided rich political capital for subsequent Labor Party criticism concerning the Liberals’ claim to be responsible economic managers.
Fraser’s Dismal Economic
Fraser’s economic performance was dismal. Economic growth over seven years was 2-2.3 per cent. The income tax burden rose from 12.6 to 14 per cent of G.D.P. The size of government in comparison to Whitlam was reduced by only 2 per cent. Unemployment was 5.2 per cent in 1976-77 and rose to 9 per cent. Inflation rose to over 10 per cent in the final years of the Fraser administration. Fraser typically blamed others — natural factors, the drought and external factors. He did not refer to his failure to deliver tax reductions, to reduce unemployment and reduce government spending. Fraser was responsible for the wages explosion of the 1980s. Senior Cabinet Minister in the Fraser Government, Ian McPhee, recalled, “I remember Phillip Lynch saying in Cabinet — I was amazed he said it — that he was being asked all the time by industry, What is our wages policy? Do we have one? To which there was a chorus including myself saying ‘no’. Then there were rueful smiles. The truth is we never had one.” 30
As Paul Kelly summarized: “It was Fraser who created the climate for the early 1980s wages explosion, first by raising hopes, second by failing to devise a wages strategy. Fraser had fallen at the same hurdle as Whitlam. Whitlam had been ruined in the 1974 wages explosion, Fraser who had exploited the political benefits of that event was felled by the same process in 1982.” 31 However, Fraser was undeterred at fiscal warnings. He could always blame others and in retirement predictably blamed the Treasury. Blaming others was a Fraser specialty.
Fraser’s Capitulation to Trade
On 16 October 1977 Fraser delivered a “campaigning speech” to the Liberal Party Federal Council in which he stated that the Labor Party’s official policy was to place unions “above the law” and claimed “men engineering the industrial disruption are leaders of unions with close ties to the Labor Party”. Fraser subsequently admitted that “the major mistake we made was not to go for full industrial power for the Commonwealth in 1976”. 32 Fraser lacked the necessary political courage to reform the centralised industrial relations system.
Fraser: “Perplexed” over
Fraser’s role in securing the ascension of Marxist Robert Mugabe to power in Zimbabwe would be enough to secure his international reputation for poor political judgment. Fraser managed to “outwit” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by ensuring “the Australian press had been leaked so much of the detail of the draft of the communique ahead of schedule”, 33 thus providing him with a tactical win over Margaret Thatcher who was constrained by following rules and conventions.
Fraser was admired by third world dictators such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Tanzania’s Julius Nyere and Soviet surrogate, Michael Manly. Officials joked that Fraser was more popular amongst third world dictators than at home. Yet, in April 2000, even Fraser admitted to an A.B.C. interviewer that he was “perplexed” at the outcome of his endeavours, namely the atrocities unleashed by Mugabe and the desolation and ruin perpetrated on Zimbabwe.
Fraser: The Father of Political
Fraser’s administrative “reforms” paved the way for the institutionalisation of political correctness in Australia. As Neil Brown wrote in his memoirs, “The expansion of government influence went even as far as laying the foundations of approved ways of thinking.” 34 He demonstrated his ritualistic liberal credentials by establishing the Human Rights Commission, the Institute of Family Studies, and The National Women’s Advisory Council, the Ombudsman, the Office of Youth Affairs, the Institute of Multicultural Studies and the Broadcasting Tribunal and by promoting uncritical support for multiculturalism, aboriginal land rights and other progressive causes. Fraser’s willful interference in the complex aboriginal land rights issue has had devastating consequences for the aboriginal community.
Fraser had a divided self on economic matters which led Bert Kelly to claim that he had two speechwriters: a protectionist for domestic consumption and a free-trader who travelled with him on overseas trips who had fallen out and no longer spoke to each other. Max Walsh noted in 1982, “In seeking to understand what Fraser is about, it is necessary to separate words from deeds. If Freud were to conduct . . . a study into Malcolm Fraser he would probably conclude that the Australian Prime Minister is schizoid. That is because he treats public speaking as part of the theatre of politics.” 35 Walsh has underlined a critical Fraser flaw: a Zelig-like identification with the last distinguished person he spoke to, whether it was Reagan, Carter, Mugabe or the coterie of displaced academics who wrote his speeches.
In his political epitaph on Fraser, political journalist Peter Bowers noted, “Fraser talked like Ayn Rand and in office acted like Santa Claus.” 36 Fraser was a centralist and interventionist who supported and promoted Big Government. As a former senior Liberal noted ruefully, “The last year of the Whitlam Government saw 266 Commonwealth Rules introduced. We got off to a good start by passing 305 rules in 1976 and got it up to a record 408 by 1982 . . . If small government means fewer laws imposing fewer restrictions on the citizen, we failed that test by a long shot in the Fraser years . . . It is difficult to find a single case of any substance where the shackles of government control were lifted.” 37
Fraser emerged fully as a Whitlam clone, exhibiting the entire primary characteristic of the intellectually mediocre: a lack of systematic and rigorous thinking on complex issues. He is an instance of that most comic sight: a ruling elite on the run.
The analysis of Fraser presented here may appear harsh; but it is a political assessment. Fraser was a professional politician and it is by these standards that he is being assessed. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Fraser had the advantages of birth, inherited wealth, a long history of family involvement in politics, patronage and twenty years of parliamentary and political experience in three portfolios. However, Fraser did not make the transition from politician to Prime Minister. As Prime Minister he failed. He failed as he was not a leader.
Fraser was a regional and parochial political artifact. His lack of intrinsic leadership qualities led him to search for the holy grail of legitimacy which, due to his lack of intrinsic beliefs and poor judgment, he confused with approval from decadent opinion-making elites. In his identification with decadent elites, Fraser displayed a lack of character strength and fortitude; in this search Fraser revealed himself as a political decadent.
1. The Australian, 13 December 2000; The Australian, 22-23 July 2000; The Australian, 8 February 2000; The Australian, 18 July 2000.
2. R. Terrill, cited in C. Richardson, “The Fraser Years”, J. Nethercote (ed.), “Liberalism and the Australian Federation”, 2001, page 216. Richardson’s benign assessment of the Fraser Government raised Fraser’s wrath to the point where he made the redundant threat to resign from the Liberal Party, an initiative which met with surprisingly little resistance.
3. Cited in P. Weller, “Malcolm Fraser Prime Minister: A Study in Prime Ministerial Power in Australia”, Penguin Books, 1989, at page 354.
4. P.P. McGuiness, “Fraser and the Common Fund”, National Times, week ending 6 May 1978, at page 52.
5. P. Kelly, “John Malcolm Fraser”, in M. Grattan (ed.), Australian Prime Ministers, page 358.
6. D. Chipp and John Larkin, The Third Man, Rigby, Adelaide, 1978.
7. M. Grattan, The Age, 16 May 1981.
8. P. Costigan, The Sun, 11 November 1981.
9. Weller, op. cit., page 189
10. Justice A.E. Woodward, Address to National Press Club, 9 September 1981.
11. N. Brown, “On the Other Hand: Sketches and Reflections from Political Life”, The Poplar Press, A.C.T., 1993, page 153.
12. P. Ayres, “Malcolm Fraser: A Biography”, Richmond, 1987, pages 365-367.
13. Editorial, The Daily Telegraph, 20 August 1980, page 6.
14. P. Kelly, The End Of Certainty, page 37; P. Kelly, Australian Prime Ministers, op. cit., page 359.
16. Interview with former Fraser advisor, October 2001.
17. Kelly, op. cit., page 37
18. Kelly, ibid.
19. N. Brown, “On the Other Hand: Sketches and Reflections from Political Life”, Poplar Press, A.C.T., 1993, page 186.
20. J. Killen, Inside Australian Politics.
21. G. Souter, “Acts of Parliament: A Narrative History of the Senate and the House of Representatives”, M.U.P., 1991, pages 551-552; M. Grattan, Australia’s Prime Ministers; Weller, op. cit., pages 123-125.
22. P. Kelly, How Fraser Runs His Cabinet, The National Times, week ending 25 November 1978, pages 22-23.
23. Brown, op. cit., page 186.
24. Brown, op. cit., page 186.
25. Kelly, op. cit.
26. Killen, op. cit., page 256.
27. Michelle Grattan (ed.), Australia’s Prime Ministers, Introduction.
30. Cited in P. Kelly, The End of Certainty, page 51.
31. P. Kelly, Australian Prime Ministers, page 374.
33. How Mr. Fraser Won the Numbers in Lusaka, The Australian, 11-12 August 1979.
34. Brown, op. cit, page 181.
35. Max Walsh, The Bulletin, 9 March 1982.
36. P. Bowers, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 March 1983.
37. N. Brown, Canberra Times, 13 May 1985; “On the Other Hand: Sketches and Reflections from Political Life”, Poplar Press, A.C.T., 1993.
National Observer No. 52 - Autumn 2002