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For a time, it seemed he would be, like Nixon, remembered for a single sensational act. But Malcolm Fraser’s rebirth as a passionate libertarian now sees him back in public life. By Mike Seccombe.

Malcolm Fraser: the dour optimist

It’s been 31 years since Malcolm Fraser’s exit from the prime ministership, and 12 since our previous interview, but outwardly at least, he’s hardly changed at all.

He looks older, of course; he turns 84 on Wednesday. But he’s still in good nick: tall and ramrod straight, impeccably suit-and-tied. The stone visage, the dour manner, the slightly plummy western districts diction are the same.

His plush suite 32 floors above Collins Street has a sweeping view over Melbourne Park’s tennis centre and out to the southern horizon, but you get the impression he doesn’t look at it much. Too busy. He leads us straight to the big desk.

Suitably austere refreshments are offered. Two cups of black coffee and a few biscuits. 

“You probably won’t like them much. Gluten free,” he comments. That’s about as close to small talk as he gets before he starts talking about the business at hand.

This is Fraser as he ever was.

But once he starts to talk, the change to Malcolm is undeniable. He is spruiking his new book, Dangerous Allies, and its argument for what he acknowledges would be a “drastic restructuring” of Australia’s alliance with the United States.

And he does mean drastic. He would have American forces out of Darwin. He would close the joint defence facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs, a key element in America’s intelligence-gathering via spy satellites and allegedly (its operations are, of course, officially secret) in helping it target drone strikes. He would wind back military co-operation between Australia and the US at all levels.

He would do it for two reasons. First and more generally because he believes Australia has for too long delegated much of its foreign policy decision-making to powerful allies – initially Britain and then the US. Second and more specifically, he would do it because he believes America has become a specific danger to Australian interests. He believes that since the early 1990s, and even more since the start of the “war on terror”, the US has become “a different country”, more dogmatic in its belief in its own exceptionalism, more bellicose, more likely to drag Australia into conflict with other countries with which we have no quarrel, such as China.

These views denote an enormous shift for the man who was once a fervent cold warrior, who as a former Liberal minister for the army oversaw the conscription of young men to fight in Vietnam and who was as slavish as any Australian prime minister in his devotion to the US alliance.

More than that, though, they cap the most comprehensive rebranding in Australian political history, bar none.

The original Fraser, the Geelong Grammar- and Oxford-educated scion of the squattocracy, seemed the epitome of old-style ruling-class conservatism. In the Vietnam days, the undergraduate opponents of conscription were apt to write his name with a swastika in place of the “s”.

The big “L” Liberals appreciated the cold-blooded use of power though. The way he cut down first one of his own – prime minister John Gorton, who never forgave him – and later conspired to have an elected, reformist government – the Whitlam government – dismissed, thus precipitating Australia’s great constitutional crisis. 

He disappointed them, however. Having seized power ruthlessly, he used it timidly. The new breed of Thatcherite Liberals came to despise him for what they saw as his failure to implement economic reforms.

And so after his lip-trembling concession of defeat in 1983, he left politics not much admired by either the left or the new right. He seemed destined to suffer what might be called Nixon syndrome.

Richard Nixon was actually a US president of considerable achievement. In the environmental sphere, for example, he brought in the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other landmark measures. And, of course, he opened the door to China. But for what does the public remember him? Watergate.

Fraser – who incidentally makes several positive mentions of Nixon in the new book – faced a similar haunting. He could point to a fine progressive legacy – land rights legislation, the Human Rights Commission, SBS, the “Galbally Report”, which made him effectively the father of multiculturalism in Australia. Not to mention his leading role in opposing apartheid in South Africa, or the signal achievement of persuading the Australian community to accept that we had a responsibility for some 250,000 new arrivals from south-east Asia, many of them boat people, as a consequence of our military meddling in their countries.

Fraser did not deserve to be remembered simply for one act of bastardry – the Whitlam dismissal – but in 1983 that looked entirely likely.

To what extent his subsequent activities were motivated by a need for redemption, and to what extent they were simply an expression of his true underlying liberalism, we cannot know. But the fact is, he has been far, far more engaged in post-politics public discourse than any other living prime minister, and more than any politician I can think of, living or dead.

His engagement has become more vigorous over time. It was pretty orthodox liberalism at the start. He became co-chairman of the Commonwealth Committee of Eminent Persons in the mid-’80s, guiding reform in South Africa. He was chairman of the humanitarian agency Care Australia from 1987 to 2001, and president of Care International from 1990 to 1995.

It is a measure of the extent to which he rehabilitated his reputation that no less a personage than Gough Whitlam, the prime minister he usurped, declared in 2001: “In the last 10 years I cannot remember one issue on which Malcolm and I have differed.”

He was a notable liberal voice in the years of the Hawke/Keating governments, if not a strident one. That began to change, though, with the ascension of John Howard to the prime ministership.

Fraser despises Howard for having set out to make manifest the latent racism in Australian society.

He compares Howard to Billy Hughes, the World War I prime minister who determined to exploit divisions between Catholics and Protestants in order to bolster the case for conscription. At the time Catholics were reluctant to serve because of opposition to British occupation of Ireland.

Says Fraser: “Billy Hughes saw this, he said, ‘Ah! If I turn this into an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic referendum, I’ll win it.’ And that’s what he proceeded to do, in speech after speech after speech.”

The result was sectarian hostility that lasted well into the 1950s.

Howard played a similarly divisive political role in hardening Australian hearts against boat people, says Fraser, comparing the public reaction to the most recent wave of boat people to the reaction when he was prime minister, dealing with 25,000 Vietnamese boat people a year, for several years in succession.

“In fairness, I’ve got to say the Vietnamese operation was made easier for two reasons: a lot of them were Catholic, not Muslim, and they were a lot paler than people from Sri Lanka,” he says.

But mostly he regards it as a matter of national leadership.

“Ever since the time of Tampa [when, in August 2001, Howard ordered soldiers onto a Norwegian freighter that had rescued 438 refugees, to prevent it coming to Australia], the Australian public have been told that boat people are miserable people – drug runners, prostitutes, queue-jumpers [who] throw their children overboard,” he says.

“Before Tampa, governments didn’t really play politics – well, they’d started to, I suppose – but that was the real start of playing politics with race and religion.”

And now, of course, it has become an ugly field of competition between the major parties, played even more punitively in the latter stages of the Labor government than under Howard, and more harshly still under the Abbott government.

The new progressive

In 2002, Fraser published a book, Common Ground: Issues That Should Bind and Not Divide Us, that addressed issues with which he had long been associated, such as reconciliation, multiculturalism human rights. It also went to a broader context of global capitalism and American unilateralism.

His former colleagues in the Liberal Party were appalled. On the day of publication Neil Brown, QC, wrote a sneering opinion piece accusing Fraser of promoting a “bewildering array” of leftie causes.

“To believe in one or two causes is understandable; to believe in dozens of them looks like extravagance,” sniffed Brown. He also posed the question of how the tough conservative of 1975 had morphed into “such a trendy”.

In response Fraser vigorously asserted that he had not changed; the party had.

He was the true heir to Menzian liberal tradition, he insisted, not the political conservatives who had taken over the Liberals. The views expressed in the book were entirely consistent with those he had held as prime minister. As further evidence he pointed out that the final chapter, on multiculturalism, was a straight lift of a speech he had given 21 years previously.

Others defended him. 

Senator Fred Chaney, AO, another former senior colleague, who also had become estranged from the increasingly right-wing party, said those who accused Fraser of having changed since he left politics were talking “absolute bullshit”.

“I’ll give you a direct quote from the party room,” he told me at the time. “After a long debate on southern Africa he stood up and said: ‘Interesting debate, but I ought to inform the party room that for as long as I lead this party, we will have no truck with a policy that says one man is better than another because of the colour of his skin’. That was in ’76 or ’77.”

Fraser, said Chaney, always stood for “the best of the old Tory party: a sense of obligation – noblesse oblige – to the less well off”.

That was Chaney’s view in 2002. In the 12 years since, however, he has reassessed. Now he concedes that Fraser has changed, if not in his fundamental views, then certainly in the breadth of his critique. The new book, says Chaney, illustrates the point.

And so do other developments. Over recent years, the variety and vehemence of Fraser’s contributions to public debate have escalated.

Look at the way he has taken to social media, for example. His Twitter output is prodigious, and underlines the breadth of his policy concerns these days. Consider this random sample of topics over just a few days in the past week: Laurent Fabius talking about Syria, Ukraine and Iran; President Obama’s dealings with Japan; a territorial dispute between Vietnam and China; critiques of the Abbott government’s budget; US extra-judicial killings with military drones; US clandestine operations in Yemen; lots of posts about Australia’s grim asylum-seeker policy; rebuttals to critics of his book.

Truly, he’s become almost a one-man progressive media aggregation service, linking his followers to all manner of informed commentary from around the world.

Then there’s his own increasingly frequent output of opinion pieces for the more liberal Australian media, such as Fairfax Media newspapers and Guardian Australia.

And now there’s the new book, which has stirred a fair degree of controversy for its suggestion that Australia distance itself from America.

But it’s no leftie, anti-American diatribe. It’s actually a detailed argument in favour of greater Australian sovereignty. Australia, says Fraser, has always been “terrified” to assert its independence.

Indeed, Fraser endorses US complaints that we have been freeloading off them for years when it comes to defence. We spend just 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product on our military. They spend 4.4 per cent on theirs. He would have us lift our defence expenditure to at least something in the order of the 2.3 per cent of France or 2.5 per cent of Britain.

He just wants this country to take more responsibility for looking after itself, and to stop blindly following our big allies into wars. It’s actually quite a thoughtful contribution.

‘It’s about right and wrong’

But let’s get back to Fraser’s own road to independence. He quit the Liberal Party in disgust in 2010. To the extent that he consorts with any political party these days, it is with the Greens.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who led the Greens’ opposition to the harsh measures of both the Labor and Liberal parties, now speaks to Fraser regularly.

She doesn’t recall where she first met him, but it was at some function not related to refugees a few years back where “he just came up and put out his hand and said, ‘Sarah, good work.’ ”

She was surprised he even knew who she was. But she was more surprised in August 2012, during the parliamentary debate around Labor’s moves to reinstitute the old Howard government policy of offshore processing, when he turned up in her office.

“It was a very full-on time,” she says, describing herself as highly stressed.

“Labor was capitulating and reopening Manus Island and Nauru and stripping away even the protections John Howard had; even worse than 2001.

“And the vitriol! Every News Ltd paper in the country the previous weekend had an editorial about how the deaths at sea were blood on Sarah Hanson-Young’s hands.

“And I was to speak on the legislation. And I came up to get my notes, and he was sitting in my office.”

They talked for about 15 minutes before she had to go down to speak on the proposed legislation.

“I said he was more than welcome to stay, but I had to run down to give this speech. I assumed he would stay there and watch on the TV.

“But he didn’t. He came down and sat in the chamber behind me while I gave my speech to an empty chamber,” she says.

“It was such a lovely thing to do.”

Subsequently, in last year’s election, when it looked like she might lose her Senate seat to a Liberal, Fraser went to Adelaide to endorse and campaign for Hanson-Young. And in the immediate aftermath of the Manus Island riots, she called him to talk things through, not so much for guidance as reassurance.

“He’s always so level headed. He’s got a wonderful perspective. So calm and methodical and yet he’s dead serious.”

It’s not that he’s turned Green though. Absolutely not, says Hanson-Young. When their conversations stray to other subjects, that’s instantly clear.

“It’s not about party politics for him; it’s about what’s right and wrong,” she says.

And that is both admirable and unfortunate. For there is no place in organised Australian politics for Fraser.

Reflecting on this in one of the many digressions during our talk in his office – to the complicated history of Ukraine, to disputed islands in the South China Sea, to the corrupting influence of fundraising on the Liberal Party, among sundry other things – he acknowledges his political homelessness.

It’s not just his problem, he suggests. It’s all of Australia’s.

“There is no choice between the two major parties, no effective choice,” he says. And while he admires some Greens, he thinks others are pretty flaky.

“And that can lead to despair … But if you’re interested in public policy there is one thing that is absolutely essential – even if it’s long term, you have got to remain an optimist.”

Which he clearly is. He is optimistic that some time soon, someone will start a new political party that represents his kind of values. Optimistic that, in the meantime, his books and his tweets and his op-ed pieces are making a difference.

Without optimism, he suggests, you may as well kill yourself. It’s a very dour take on optimism. But very Malcolm.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "The dour optimist". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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