The most successful political parties are not just good at winning elections but have a coherent philosophy and savour the legacy of their leaders who shaped the nation. A great political party is organic, not just a utilitarian vehicle to deliver power to those who want to be famous.
The Australian Labor party has always been proud of its achievements and lionised its leaders. Not so the Liberal party of Australia. It has been Australia’s most successful post-war party and two of its leaders, Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard, are among the greatest three or four prime minister our country has had. Yet the Liberal party shows little interest in its history and is seldom respectful of its former leaders and their achievements.
A case in point is Malcolm Fraser. Many Liberals say that in later years he turned on the party he led through tumultuous times and his conversion to a kind of incomprehensible green-left ideology meant he was better ignored and forgotten.
I don’t agree. I think Fraser should be remembered for the huge contribution he made to the country as both opposition leader and particularly as prime minister. In a new short book called Fraser in Office, his last chief-of-staff, Denis White, reminds those of us with memories of the Fraser years that his was a government of real achievement.
White’s analysis demonstrates that Fraser had a very distinct set of values and philosophical framework within which he worked. His view of liberal market economics was not just utilitarian, it was founded on his belief in freedom of the individual and rewards for individual effort and initiative. In many, but in not all aspects of economic policy, his government applied this framework. The budget deficit was reduced, spending and welfare initiatives were curtailed, often controversially. This wasn’t done just to reduce inflation and control debt but to transfer responsibility from the state to individuals. He wanted to put power in the hands of ordinary people rather than bureaucrats and politicians.
In other areas of domestic policy, the same notion of the freedom of the individual and respect for the equal value of all individuals – regardless of their racial, ethnic or religious background – was apparent. Fraser set up the Human Rights Commission with the ambition of protecting the human rights of all Australians and initiated reforms in Aboriginal affairs recognising that Aboriginal people had not been treated with the respect and equality they deserved by generations of Australians.
As a farmer, Fraser cared for the environment and took a range of initiatives to conserve our fragile natural flora and fauna.
In foreign policy, some have said that Fraser’s crusade against apartheid did not sit comfortably or logically with his fierce opposition to the Soviet Union. After all, many of southern Africa’s freedom fighters aligned themselves with communism and socialism. That is wrong. In both cases, the apartheid regime of South Africa and the oppressive dictatorship of the Soviet Union, disregarded the rights and dignity of individuals. No one with Fraser’s disposition could ever tolerate either regime – and he did not.
This short book is a timely reminder of the many achievements of Fraser’s government and the strength of his leadership of it. The book also traces Fraser’s period as leader of the opposition, culminating in the dismissal of the Whitlam government and the subsequent election which gave the Fraser-led Liberal party the largest win any political party has had in Australian history. Denis White reminds us of the tough decision Fraser made to block supply in the Senate. Regardless of whether today we think that was the right or the wrong thing to do, it was a huge act of courage and determination to force the Whitlam government to a general election in December 1975. Fraser was one of the most courageous politicians Australia has known.
Despite the size of Fraser’s election win, there is a percentage of the Australian population which has never forgiven him for his role in the dismissal. Yet the fact is, Fraser was a more canny political operator and tougher leader than Gough Whitlam. If Whitlam had been a better leader he would have found ways to outmanoeuvre Fraser but he did not.
I always thought Fraser felt he had to compensate for the anger he had caused amongst the Australian left. He did not pursue the industrial relations reforms he thought necessary because a major confrontation with the unions would have exacerbated the political tensions caused by the dismissal. I’d have to say, that is entirely understandable and Fraser’s judgment may have been the right one in the interests of social stability and harmony.
Towards the end of his time as prime minister, Fraser was subject to substantial criticism from within his own party. He hadn’t achieved the industrial relations reforms the party had hoped for, he introduced retrospective tax to deal with a range of artificial and contrived tax avoidance schemes exploited by high-net-worth individuals and he didn’t liberalise the economy sufficiently, in particular retaining a then traditional view that Australian industry needed tariff protection.
Some of these criticisms were justified of course. And some of them Fraser himself recognised as valid, in particular the need to liberalise the Australian financial system if not to tear down the country’s tariff walls.
I worked on Fraser’s staff as a speechwriter for the last year of his government. The author was his chief-of-staff. It was a tough life. Fraser was a tireless worker, passionate about his country, totally immersed in politics and policy. He drove us close to exhaustion. But won our respect and admiration. I’m sad to say Fraser and I drifted apart as he became a trenchant critic of the Howard government. But that didn’t detract from my admiration of him as a prime minister. When he died, I was high commissioner in London and organised a commemoration of his life at Australia House because for all his faults, he was a great man.
White’s book is long overdue. It’s a first step towards rehabilitating Fraser’s reputation. Liberal party supporters should read it and be reminded of the party’s achievements in government between 1975 and 1983.
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Fraser in Office by Denis White, $24.95, 104 pages, ISBN: 978-1-922449-58-0, is published by Jeparit Press. It will be launched in Sydney by Alan Jones on 11 August. For details see www.menziesrc.org
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