Originally published 27 April 2015. Picked by David Lang.
Malcolm Fraser’s greatest contribution to foreign policy was the new consensus on Asia that he embraced, fostered and cemented.
Fraser’s Asia policy drew large elements of continuity from the Whitlam government that Fraser blasted from office. Here’s one of the many Fraser contradictions: he sought to scourge Whitlam’s politics, but in foreign and defence policies Fraser built on and secured his predecessor’s achievements.
Previous columns have looked at Fraser’s remarkable journey from realist to radical,
becoming the first non-aligned Oz PM (granted, in retirement), arguing that we no longer need great and powerful friends. And Fraser is awarded the quixotic title of being the last PM to see the Commonwealth as a core instrument for Oz foreign policy.
Here I turn from those distinctive and spiky bits of the Fraser legacy to focus on the part he played in the Canberra consensus on the Great Asia Project.
The title ‘Great Asia Project’ is mine, but the timeline and importance of what Fraser achieved is a John Howard judgement. This makes it a useful assessment because Howard is a discerning analyst of his opponents. Fraser and Howard stand together in the list of Liberal PMs, yet they warred over policy and the heart of the Liberal Party.
Howard’s view is that the Great Asia Project began with Whitlam in 1972 and has been pursued by all leaders since. In Howard’s memoirs, Lazarus Rising, the first sentence of the Asia chapter begins: ‘For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbours was critical to Australia’s future.’
Could the formulation of that sentence stretch to cover the Liberal PMs Holt, Gorton and McMahon? Nope. Trust Howard to refine the text to make his meaning explicit. On the following page, he returns to the issue of which leaders make the cut, drawing the line at 1972: ‘I came to office sharing the views of my four predecessors that close links, at every realistic level, with the nations of Asia were fundamental to Australia’s future.’
The Project lineage thus runs from those four—Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating—to Howard and every following leader. This is a powerful consensus heading towards its 50th birthday in 2022.
To start the consensus with Whitlam and Fraser is to mark a big before-and-after divide. Before 1972, Australia’s leaders were Asia Excluders; after ’72, the leaders became Asia Engagers. Using Howard’s phrase, the Engagers seek ‘engagement and collaboration’. The Bob Hawke catch-all was ‘enmeshment’.
The Excluders were equally interested in Asia—but chiefly to keep ‘em out through strategies on migration (White Australia as barrier to Asia and invitation to Europe), trade (tariff protection and Imperial preference) and military policy (Empire and forward defence).
As the first Engagers of the Great Asia Project, Whitlam and Fraser stood together in proud rejection of White Australia and embrace of non-discriminatory immigration. Fraser was even louder than Whitlam in his promotion of multiculturalism as a core value of the Project (one of the many areas of difference between Fraser and Howard).
Fraser entrenched the Whitlam reforms of the Defence Department and issued Australia’s first Defence White Paper in 1976, expressing the new defence-of-the-continent orthodoxy to replace Forward Defence. The Paper stated: ‘We no longer base our policy on the expectation that Australia’s Navy or Army or Air Force will be sent abroad as part of some other nation’s force, supported by it.’ Now there’s a sentence to launch a thousand expeditionary-versus-continental arguments—and it has!
‘The reshaping of strategic policy is only one example of the ways in which Fraser, as Prime Minister, quietly consolidated and institutionalised many of the changes in national security policy and structures that were initiated, often with considerable flourish and fanfare, by the Whitlam Government.’
Using defence policy changes as part of an Engager philosophy has problems—after all, the basic military purpose is keeping ‘em out. Yet the bipartisan remaking of defence by Whitlam and Fraser is important to the Asia Project narrative. The key is that Fraser’s White Paper codified the optimistic view that Australia could defend itself—the nation could build the capability to secure its continent.
On the other side of the divide stood the Excluders who, whatever their political divisions, were united on a dark point: the pessimistic belief that Australia couldn’t defend itself alone.
The optimism of an Australia that can secure its borders by its own military effort is a vital starting point for then going out into Asia on all the fronts that make the Great Asia Project such an engrossing and complex endeavour. As Howard acknowledges, Fraser picked up from Whitlam to launch the Project as the bipartisan position of the Oz polity. Fraser’s effort in creating and embedding the new consensus stands as his overarching contribution to Australia’s international role.