Some months back, I posted an article about Gough Whitlam, a former Australian Prime Minister, who had died. Gough, and even now it is really difficult to call him Mr Whitlam, was a rather large man, large physically, at well over 1.9m; large intellectually, an obviously brilliant person who would have excelled at anything he did; large visionary, who made a nation look at itself and say, we are good enough to do what we want to.
His main opponent, and the man who brought him undone politically, was Malcolm Fraser (no relative, at least that we admit to). Malcolm, and it is hard to call him Mr. Fraser, for different reasons though, succeeded Gough, as PM under extreme circumstances. Malcolm too was a bigger man, well over 2m, much larger intellectually than ever given credit for, and a large visionary, but with a different vision than Gough.
I suspect it was that difference that put them on opposite sides of the political fence. Gough the Labor champion and Malcolm, the conservative’s knight.
Malcolm was born to a wealthy landowning family, but decided he was more interested in politics than farming. He became the Member for Wannon at the age of 24, then the youngest person to be elected to Parliament. At school, he was known as “The Freezer” a humourless boy, later he was nicknamed “The Prefect”, a humourless PM.
Malcolm was impatient throughout his career, and he would not be kept on the backbench. He demanded of his Party Leader, the then PM promotion, and won it. The Liberal Party underwent a number of leadership changes, and Malcolm’s impatience drove him on. By 1970, he had waited long enough, he want the top job. In 1971 he brought about the political demise of a serving PM, John Gorton, the subsequent instability brought and end to 23 years of Liberal government. No one could deny him, he wanted the Leadership of the Liberal Party and after the unsuccessful leadership of Billy Snedden, Malcolm won it in March of 1975.
He wanted the PM’s job, and he won that by forcing a Constitutional Crisis. The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, ultimately dismissed the Whitlam Government, installed Malcolm as head of a caretaker Government, who’s sole task was to call an election.
There were a range of reasons given for Malcolm doing this, my favourite being “The Whitlam Government was unreasonably raising people’s expectations of what government is and could do.” These pronouncements were all for public consumption, the real reason was the Malcolm thought himself the best person for leadership, and was impatient, just as he had been all his life.
Every move he made was out of a sense of impatience, impatience with people around him, impatience with the pace of events around him, impatience with trivialities like Constitutional niceties. The fact that he was able to rise to head the Liberal Party and become the fourth longest serving PM, is really a testament to his sense of the rightness of his cause, not his patience.
There are reams of books about the Dismissal of 1975, and I do not propose to go into it here, except to say it happened and Malcolm precipitated it. While this was a successful strategy, it was also a self-defeating one.
The Liberal Party was, and still is, seen as a Party of opportunists, quite willing to smash the democratic process if it suited them, to use the weakness of democracy to support their own grab at, and retention of, power. To many of us, this was an act of political bastardy on a grand scale.
We were not dissuaded of that view by Malcolm’s first year in office. All the grand visions of Gough were undone. What we didn’t notice was the visions of Malcolm replacing them. Perhaps not as grandiose, but very much in the same vein as Gough’s.
The low key approach had, as its core, Australia as a key player in international affairs. Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia, was brought to majority rule largely at the work done by Malcolm. That he and the Commonwealth were betrayed by Robert Mugabe’s deep seated tribalism later that undid the essential concepts of democracy implanted by Malcolm, was not foreseen.
Malcolm saw Australia as an independent on the world stage. He was horrified at events in Vietnam in 1975 – 76. When the “boat people” fled their homelands, Malcolm gave them as much assistance as he could. While this was unexpected, he told us that the Vietnamese were the modern Balts, whom were received in the aftermath of WW2. The Viets were not entirely welcomed by all sections of the community, they were accepted, albeit grudgingly by some. Malcolm’s logic was that we had a responsibility to the Viets, we had fought in that rather grubby war, but more importantly, these were people in need, we had to respond. (BTW, one such refugee is now, at the time of writing, Governor of my home state of South Australia.)
Malcolm realized we could accept these refugees, thinking they might help bolster our economy, and our cultural diversification. He was right on both counts.
There were a number of economic initiatives undertaken by Malcolm and his Government. They laid some of the groundwork that was completed by the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments, and led us to the longest boom in the history of the country; brought to an end by the GFC in 2009 and revealed the Howard Government’s unpreparedness for such an event.
Most of the things Malcolm did were low keyed, but were effective none-the-less. It is this fact that has kept us reappraising Malcolm’s role and position as a leader since his defeat in the 1983 election. Even at the end, some eight years after the events of 1975, many of us thought that it was payback that he should be defeated in such an ignominious manner. Malcolm resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party, only to see the Party torn apart, struggle, then torn apart again, struggle then put back together but as a very different Liberal Party.
Malcolm, we can now see, acted out of a sense of responsibility, not as personal aggrandizement. He was certainly egotistical enough to think himself right, and for much of what he did, he was. While Malcolm’s record was not entirely spotless, he did push forward Aboriginal Rights, equal opportunity, structured and real welfare reform that benefited recipients, not criminalized them.
The people who control the Liberal Party now are not like him at all. Where Malcolm was expansive, these people are constrictive, where he was egalitarian, they are exclusive, where Malcolm saw a courageous Big Australia, they now see a small, fearful Australia, the list goes on.
Malcolm was critical of the Far Right taking control of the Liberal Party, and was ostracized for it. Eventually he quit the Party, because he could no longer stand to watch it tear down everything he stood for. As one person put it, “Malcolm didn’t leave the Liberal Party, the party left him.” I would argue this is a facile argument, not worthy of consideration. I would suggest that subsequent Leaders of the Liberal Party were and are much smaller men, lacking in real vision, without the real commitment of holding personal values. Their commitment is only to wrecking, not building, only to ideological purity, not a real purpose. That is why Malcolm quit the Liberal Party.
To end this sad tale, Malcolm will always be remembered as the bad guy in the Dismissal. Perhaps he does deserve that title, it certainly has tainted the Liberals ever since. Only because he was impatient. If he had waited until the next election, he could have been PM for much longer than he was.
Sometimes I wonder though, can we not relegate the bad and honour the good? Or perhaps better, can we not accept the bad and honour the good? Personally, I never liked his politics, could not accept the Dismissal, but now, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can honour his achievements. No government ever gets it all right, neither do they get it all wrong, but they try anyway.
Footnote: There was a gathering of surviving former PMs and the serving PM in early 2010. Gough was there, so was Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and serving PM, Kevin Rudd. The one person not in attendance was the Liberal, John Howard. Gough and Malcolm were clearly happy to be in each other’s company, much more so than Hawke and Keating. That is funny because Hawke (PM) and Keating (as treasurer) formed an incredible partnership that made the years from 1993 to 2009 so brilliant for Australia. (Howard was, for a time, Malcolm’s Treasurer and achieved nothing as Treasurer, pretty much as he did as PM.)