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The enigma of Malcolm Fraser


Malcolm Fraser and Gough WhitlamMalcolm Fraser was always an enigma to me. But that’s probably because I did not get to know him up close, all that well. With the departure of him and Gough Whitlam from the national stage in just five months, we are bereft of the leadership of elders who have known the highest elected office and who have lived long enough to share their wisdom immune from the partisanship of the day.

Through the rough and tumble of politics, Fraser helped the country find true north on issues relating to race and human rights. He had the courage to question fundamental national preconceptions like the US alliance and border protection which placed the claims of boat people out of sight and out of mind.

Fraser started his political life as an establishment toff in the Liberal Party from the Western District of Victoria via Oxford. He enjoyed the ministerial leather at a very young age serving under Prime Minister William McMahon. I well remember reading Peter Howson’s diaries which recount Howson’s many ministerial lunches at the Melbourne Club.

On 19 October 1971, Howson dined at the club with Fraser, recording: ‘I warned him that Coombs had been talking with the PM, and that we might have to revise our views on traditional land rights. Malcolm indicated very firmly that he would not change his mind or the views he expressed in Cabinet last week.’

Fraser was not for turning. Meanwhile Whitlam was pledging the Labor Party to national land rights. Within five years, Malcolm Fraser would be the prime minister trumpeting the passage of land rights legislation in the Northern Territory.

It is a tragedy that his prime ministership was permanently and irrevocably marred with the lack of legitimacy occasioned by the way he got there. Sir John Kerr did him no favour. No matter how many elections Fraser won, he could never cast off the tarnish which came from his complicity in a vice-regal initiative which required, if only for a moment, that the Leader of the Opposition be more privy to the mind of the Queen’s representative than the Prime Minister commissioned to advise him. No matter how many High Court judges gave it the nod, this just would not wash with the general public as a credible sustainable constitutional arrangement. We are yet to put it right.

I well remember Barrie Dexter, the Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, telling me: ‘Of all the difficult regimes for which I had worked in Aboriginal Affairs, the Fraser Government was probably the harshest.’  Dexter once wrote: ‘Mr Fraser was an enigma. He sought some positive achievements in the field of Aboriginal affairs, but at the same time conducted an inquisition into, and almost destroyed, the Department - through which his desired achievements would have to be implemented!’

It is an eternal tribute to Malcolm Fraser that he stood by the key recommendations of the Woodward Royal Commission, taking on the recalcitrant Country Party, and insisting that the Parliament enact the Northern Territory Aboriginal land rights legislation. Fraser took many principled stands for human rights and against racial discrimination. He made substantive changes like setting up the Human Rights Commission. He made bold and principled appointments including my father and Sir William Deane to the High Court. Key authors of the Mabo judgment, they were later appointed chief justice and governor general respectively by Paul Keating.

I well recall the ceremony at the University of Technology Sydney 10 years after the Mabo decision when the Chancellor Sir Gerard Brennan, bestowing honorary doctorates on Malcolm Fraser and Sir William Deane, said: ‘Today our nation stands in need of the kind of inspiration which our graduates of today have offered — a certain grandeur in public life, compassion for the marginalised in our own society and for those from other nations whom war or famine or persecution or poverty have robbed of human dignity, respect for the rule of law, commitment to an Australia that has pride in its place in the world.’

In the lead up to the 2007 election when emotions were running high about the Bali bombers, Robert McClelland, the Labor Shadow Attorney General, was copping Tory flak as well as Labor friendly fire for having made a principled statement against the death penalty. Fraser came out demonstrating how short sighted were his political successors saying, ‘It is sad to see principle being thrown overboard and an expedient argument, which politicians believe will be the popular argument, pursued. So often matters of principle need to be explained and supported by those in positions of authority – and then, more often than not, those principles will find general support’.

In October 2009 he lent his considerable physical presence to the launch of our National Human Rights Consultation report recommending a national Human Rights Act for Australia as well as other procedures for better protecting human rights in Australia. It was well beyond the call of duty or personal allegiance for him to be there. His sheer presence provided inspiration and hope for the many young people who thought Australia needed to do better in protecting and enhancing human rights.

His friendship with Gough Whitlam has been one of the great signs in Australian public life that human decency and shared commitment to noble ideals can transcend even the most entrenched political animosities cultivated across the despatch box, even when those animosities are exacerbated by vice regal intrigue with judicial warrant. May he rest in peace.

Now that all the principal actors in the 1975 dismissal are deceased, it's time to put right our defective constitutional arrangements which caused irremediable harm to Kerr, Whitlam and Fraser. We owe it to ourselves but also to them so that their finest achievements might outshine the darkness of that fracture in the nation’s constitutional architecture.

Frank BrennanFrank Brennan SJ, professor of law at Australian Catholic University, is presently Gasson professor at the Boston College Law School.

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam, The dimissal, Australian politics



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Existing comments

Hi Father Frank, wow such a wonderful piece of writing. You really are special person. In times that being an RC is difficult you are the true inspiration........you make me think in better ways.....

Andrew Teece

Andrew Teece | 20 March 2015  

Indeed, he was an enigma. Although an avid admirer of Ayn Rand whose moral defence of capitalism included an absolute rejection of altruism, Malcolm Fraser was capable of great acts of magnanimity. Generations of refugees, not least those from Vietnam, owe him a great deal. And I sometimes wonder if he didn’t regret some of the really big things in which he was involved. I vividly remember him being interviewed after Robert McNamara’s memoirs were published. He seemed to me to be sick in the stomach on realising that the United States had prosecuted its war on Vietnam for as long as it did, not through any commitment to the people of the south, but simply through a refusal to admit defeat. I suspect that it was then that Fraser began rethinking Australia’s traditional reliance on support from the great powers.

Paul | 21 March 2015  

A wonderful article Frank and a great tribute to Malcolm. I admired him very much. Its a pity we don't have men of his calibre around today. thank you for taking the time to publish this. hope you had a great St. Patrick's Day - Boston would be the place for it. cheers

Meagan Daniels | 21 March 2015  

He had boats sunk in Malaysia, helped set up the prisons on Pilau, the cages in Hong Kong and his press sec. yesterday stated his only goal with Vietnamese refugees was to stop the boats no matter how they was done. Why do people keep saying he was good with Vietnamese refugees when he couldn't really have cared less about them. And the Human rights commission legislation to set it up was done in 1986,

Marilyn | 21 March 2015  

To clarify two matters raised by Marilyn: The website of the Australian Human Rights Commission notes: ‘Australia's first federal Human Rights Commission was established by the Fraser Government under the Human Rights Commission Act 1981. This Act included a sunset clause (section 36) under which the first Commission ceased operation in 1986. The first Commission was replaced by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now renamed as the Australian Human Rights Commission) in December 1986.’ Thus my claim that Fraser ‘made substantive changes like setting up the Human Rights Commission.’ Re the Fraser government’s treatment of Vietnamese boat people: In 2011, Hieu Van Le, a Vietnamese boat person and now Governor of South Australia, gave a speech highlighting the concerns in the Australian community when he arrived on a leaky boat in Darwin. He then expressed the highest regard for Michael MacKellar, Fraser’s minister for immigration, and quoted Fraser with appreciation. He said: A recently released document shows that Federal Cabinet was warned in 1979 that the Indo-Chinese refugee problem 'threatens to precipitate a regional crisis of major dimensions'. That same memorandum says that 'if the refugee problem were to get out of control it would impose very serious strains on the unity and character of Australian society'. 'This new situation has all the ingredients for one of the most controversial and divisive issues in Australia's history,' the document says. Nevertheless, the then-Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael MacKellar, addressed many public forums and explained why Australia had an obligation to take its fair share of refugees. In one speech, he told of how he had visited 10 Indo-Chinese refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia—camps that housed a total of more than 65 000 people. 'My impression of the refugees,' he told the audience in Sydney 'was one of courage and determination.' In another speech—this time delivered in Adelaide in July 1979—Mr MacKellar said: '(Refugees) can be expected at an early stage after arrival to contribute to the social and cultural life of their new community. They have to do well here because once here, there is nowhere else to go… They are honest, hard-working people who respond well to challenge. They are willing to undertake jobs not readily acceptable to others in the community. Most Indo-Chinese children are reported to be adjusting well in school … Australia offers a great deal to refugees, but refugees also offer a great deal to Australia.' Malcolm Fraser wrote recently: 'When the Vietnamese came here, if I'd asked Australians before the event if they wanted to have 70 000 refugees from Indo-China that would go into a population of around a quarter of a million, in a public poll people would have said no. But when you say this is what we must do and these are the reasons then people accept it. Melbourne is one of the largest Greek cities outside of Greece—if you'd asked Melbourne in 1948 if they wanted that they would have said no. But it happened, and everyone would be enormously proud of the contribution Greek-Australians have made to Australia in so many different ways.' I stand by my endorsement of Fraser for establishing the Human Rights Commission and for putting out the welcome mat to those Vietnamese refugees who arrived on our shores in such numbers.

Frank Brennan SJ | 22 March 2015  

Touché Marilyn! But you must admit that Fraser's method of stopping the boats was a wee bit more humane than that coming from the current crop of sadists.

Paul | 23 March 2015  

Perhaps my favourite story regarding Malcolm Fraser is that of the granite faced, smile less Prime Minister awarding the prizes on Speech Day at a prestigious girls' school in Melbourne with the unvarying single word mantra "Congratulations". The prestige prize-winner lining up to receive stellar academic, sporting, character, leadership and captain of school awards prompted one of the PM's entourage to advise that perhaps he might add a few words other than "congratulations" when he awarded her prizes. Malcolm handed her an impressive pile, congratulated her and asked, 'What are you planning to do after school, my dear?" "Well, Sir," she replied, "I was planning to go straight home".

john frawley | 23 March 2015  

I have lived with and worked with Vietnamese priests. Some I knew suffered under communist for their faith in Vietnamese prisons. And today have effectively filled gaps in smaller population of priests. Their church in Fairfield Sydney is a tribute to the strong traditional Vietnamese Catholic Faith. Not forgetting holy pictures of Our Lady of La vang in Catholic owned Vietnamese, cake shops and take-always. At the fall of Saigon in 1975, there were only 1000 Vietnamese people living in Australia. Today, the Vietnamese surname, Nguyen, is the second-most listed after Smith in the Melbourne phonebook. # Our Lady of La Vang (Vietnamese: Ð?c M? La Vang) refers to a Marian apparition at a time when Catholics were persecuted and killed in Vietnam. The Shrine of our Lady of La Vang (Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang) is situated in what is today Hai Phu commune in H?i Lang District of Qu?ng Tr? Province in Central Vietnam. #Re Greeks: Melbourne is said to have the largest Greek-speaking population outside of Europe, after Athens and Thessaloniki, Melbourne’s Greek sister city. Greek migration to Australia dates back to 1827 but the vast majority of Greeks arrived between 1945 and 1982.

Father John George | 23 March 2015  

I despised Malcolm Fraser for his involvement in Gough's demise. However, since that time he has been an advocate for refugees and justice. I think he was a good man. None of us are perfect and I admire the fact that Mr Fraser stood up for what was right, often it was difficult. He even gave up his beloved political party because of injustice. If we should stand up and speak out about injustice, we could save the starving and persecuted. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy with our comfortable lives in Australia to spend much time on the issue, out of sight, out of mind. I will remember the good in Mr Fraser and learn from it.

Cate | 23 March 2015  

I have just listened to the eulogies for John Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister, in the Australian parliament. They reminded me of Elgar's Enigma Variations. One small grace note I would like to add is something that would never appear on any Cabinet Submission on the pros and cons of accepting Vietnamese refugees. They were strongly anti-communist.

Uncle Pat | 23 March 2015  

Nicely said, Fr Brennan

Patricia R | 23 March 2015  

I don't remember any occasion on which Malcolm Fraser lied to the electorate. Like him or loathe him (and I've done both), you have to admire him for that. It's a pity that our current crop of 'Team Oz' leaders don't follow his example.

Ginger Meggs | 23 March 2015  

I was privileged to care for Malcolm Fraser (and his wife at different times) during the course of my former professional life as a nurse. During these times of vulnerability and out of the public eye, Malcolm Fraser was humble, articulate and intelligent, dignified with great presence, and gracious and respectful to all in his purview. Vale to a true elder of our nation. Yesterday on ABC Radio 774, Jon Faine highlighted that, on the ABC website, there had been 14 hits with commentary re the Moss Report ... and 500,000 hits in relation to wasps. We are indeed bereft of the leadership of elders ... the ol' mantra "I'm alright Jack" is still alive and well. May Malcolm Fraser's spirit live on and on ...

mary tehan | 25 March 2015  

Well spoken. . Fraser was a strong voice after leaving parliament. ... Groups in the community were strengthened by his presence

Diana Batzias | 25 March 2015  

The major political parties have always been wary about receiving boat people to Australia. For example, on 15 August 1978, the Labor frontbencher Clyde Cameron asked Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser this rather hostile and insinuating question on notice: ‘Will he tell the Parliament what approaches were made by the United States of America which were in any way responsible for the decision to permit Vietnamese nationals to enter Australia without permits.’ Fraser provided this answer on 12 September 1978: ‘The United States of America has not attempted to influence procedures for entry to Australia. The Australian Government will at all times decide the requirements for entry to Australia. No Vietnamese nationals are permitted to enter Australia without entry permits. The 1634 boat refugees who have arrived in Darwin without prior authority were issued with temporary entry permits on arrival pending consideration of their applications to remain here.’ The major political parties were agreed on the need to arrest the flow of boats, while being generous with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees who then came through the camps in South East Asia under what later became the comprehensive plan of action in 1989. On this, Fraser led the nation.

Frank Brennan SJ | 27 March 2015  

Thank you for this balanced (as ever) piece on Fraser. A slight error. He was a Minister before William McMahon. I met Malcolm Fraser early in 1967 at Moem Barracks, Wewak - he was Minister of the Army - Harold Holt was Prime Minister.

John Nicholson | 28 March 2015  

Yes, Fraser (aged 36) served as a minister first under Holt, then under Gorton until they fell out. And then McMahon restored him to the Cabinet.

Frank Brennan SJ | 29 March 2015  

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