Malcolm Fraser, Australia’s 22nd Prime Minister, died in March 2015, at the age of 84. Fraser was Prime Minister from November 1975, to March 1983. This is part of ASPI’s new Strategic Insights paper, Reassessing Malcolm Fraser.
Malcolm Fraser helped cement the Australian political consensus on engagement with Asia—the Great Asia Project—that has directed Australian foreign policy for 40 years. Fraser’s term bedded down the establishment of the modern Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force in structures that endure. In 1976 his government issued Australia’s first Defence White Paper , marking the shift from forward defence to defence of the continent and its approaches
Fraser waged one of the greatest battles of Australian politics—the constitutional crisis of 1975—to destroy Gough Whitlam’s Labor government. However, Fraser embraced and enhanced much that Whitlam started in foreign and defence policy. 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.
The crash and crunch of the confrontation between Whitlam and Fraser is a major moment of Australian history. Yet the Whitlam policies on which Fraser built point to a simple Canberra truism: the consensus and continuities of policy are the broad current beneath the turmoil of political argument. What marks Whitlam and Fraser is how they turned that broad current. They stand together as important leaders who shifted the direction of policy and made firm a new consensus.
To start that 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.
Much of the commentary on Fraser’s death concentrated on how he had left the Liberal Party or, as Fraser put it, how the Liberal Party had left him. The central discussion of how Fraser’s international thinking changed must be his rejection of Australia’s alliance with the United States. His 2014 book Dangerous Allies is deeply flawed, and yet is a deeply important contribution to Australian debate precisely because of those flaws. Aged in his 80s, more than 30 years after losing office, Fraser had lost none of his ability to strike controversy and state his case in the sharpest terms.
The title Dangerous Allies is classic Fraser. Most modern books on foreign policy suffer from colon-itis. The title of the book is given and then the visible or invisible colon throws to a further phrase or phrases that define, refine and mediate the terms of the headline. No refining or definitional hesitation for Malcolm Fraser. He was writing about the danger of alliance with the US and quasi-alliance with Japan leading Australia to line up for a war against China.
It was tempting to write that Fraser had become Australia’s first isolationist leader. But that would have been to misunderstand and misrepresent his argument. He wanted strategic independence for Australia—to cease being what he called ‘a lackey of America’s’—so Australia could take its full place in Asia. The commitment to an independent Australia, able to think and act for itself, is central to the Fraser approach. The journalist Paul Kelly judged:
The unifying theme behind all Fraser’s foreign policy was a pragmatic and independent search for the Australian national interest. When speaking for Australia abroad he was consistently informed, formidable and constructive.
That word ‘independent’ recurs when talking of Fraser’s foreign policy compass. The aim is easily embraced by the Australian polity; steering the course to the aim is contested and controversial.
Such battles energised Fraser. All leaders must have the will to power. Fraser was defined by the steel of his will and his steely faith in his own judgement. The Prime Minister could be stiff and abrupt, even when trying to persuade. He was shy and solitary as a country child; a life in politics meant it wasn’t shyness but that glint of steel which could be glimpsed beneath the surface. His tall physique and—yes, steely gaze—meant that an argument with Fraser was a physical confrontation. And confrontation was what he did well. This man brought down a Liberal Prime Minister, John Gorton, stalked and bested a Liberal leader, Billy Snedden, and calmly saw off Andrew Peacock’s party room challenge to his Prime Ministership. In 1975, Fraser held his nerve and held his party steady in the great confrontation that killed a government with a clear majority in the House of Representatives. Self-belief was one of Fraser’s core strengths. Even as those beliefs might change, the strength of his conviction never wavered.
On Fraser’s death, his biographer Philip Ayres judged:
The most impressive thing about him, to my way of thinking, was his strong interiority and self-sufficiency, though there was an emotional vulnerability, as with anyone. He didn’t need other people much, except politically, and within the family. This offended the press, who had no possibility of plucking out the heart of the mystery – they just couldn’t get in there.
The Canberra journalist Jack Waterford wrote how Fraser rained telephone calls on all levels of the Australian public service, delivering sharp demands for instant information and explanation. In person he was daunting:
Fraser liked an argument, and, if a natural bully, usually warmed to people who stood up to him. He had about him a somewhat aggressive style of wanting to test every part of an argument before he adopted it, leading some to think that he was flatly opposed to a proposition he was in fact leaning to. Instead he was rehearsing the arguments, and learning, or absorbing, the counter-arguments. In this sense he did not mind being contradicted, even if he often disconcerted by the aggressive manner of his questioning, and a tendency not only to want to know what an official thought, but the complete provenance of an idea. One felt that one was being pinned, pushed, tested, and to the limit—and, because of Fraser’s impatience, never given much of a chance to explain.
What Fraser did to public servants he was equally willing to do to political colleagues and ministers. The evidence that today’s politicians might be a bit weaker than previous generations—or, at least, have a lower pain threshold—is the way the Labor Party caucus and ministry rebelled at the brutal treatment meted out by Kevin Rudd after little more than two years in government. The Liberal Party endured seven years of tough love (very tough, little love) from Fraser and the single leadership challenge was crushed.
One of Rudd’s many mistakes was to treat cabinet as something of a formality, with key decisions taken by a small ‘kitchen cabinet’. Fraser, by contrast, pushed and cajoled and kept cabinet sitting or reconvening until he got what he wanted, producing nearly 19,000 cabinet decisions. Rudd avoided cabinet while Fraser exhausted it.
Aged 45 when he entered the Lodge and only 52 when he left, Fraser was a workaholic, described by Paul Kelly as ‘an awe-inspiring political executive with a near-unrivalled capacity.’ That cabinet dominance also figures in Michelle Grattan’s summation:
Cabinet sat endlessly; his colleagues were exhausted. Fraser had his hands on everything – his department was omnipresent, ministers were often second-guessed.
Steel will and iron self-belief don’t guarantee the correct course, as Fraser’s former chief of staff and federal director of the Liberal Party, Tony Eggleton, recalled with one anecdote:
His determination sometimes translated into bloody-mindedness. I still smile when I remember Big Mal striding across the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel in London, convinced that he was taking a short cut to his suite. Despite the protestations of personal and hotel staff, he headed for a door and disappeared into the broom cupboard, to a clatter of mops and buckets. Despite some loss of dignity, he managed to crack a smile.
My best Malcolm Fraser story has me arriving at the Lodge with Owen Lloyd, one of the PM’s press secretaries, at 7pm one cool evening in 1980 to do a radio interview about an overseas trip Fraser would commence the next morning. Fraser emerged, glass in hand, to say there’d been a mis-communication; he was hosting a dinner and intended to do the interview at 7am, before departing for the plane at 7:30.
As we left, I told Owen that I’d be back at 7am with a companion, my two-year-old daughter Kate, as my wife would be on shift at the Royal Canberra Hospital. Sure, said the phlegmatic Lloyd, the staff will be glad to meet her. So it was that the next morning I handed a young lady in a dressing gown to the butler at the Lodge and went to record an interview with the Prime Minister. Heading to the kitchen 20 minutes later, I discovered Kate had enjoyed her first close encounter with chocolate biscuits, with nearly as much chocolate on her hands as her face.
With tape recorder on one shoulder and Kate on the other hip, I was turning towards the hall when up loomed an impressive figure in a magnificent pinstripe suit. ‘Ah, hello!’ said the Prime Minister. The ‘wow’ reaction from my chocolate-covered munchkin was to lunge at this immaculate apparition with both hands. I swerved even harder, nearly lost the recorder but held the girl, and the chocolate-smear-disaster was averted by inches.
It was the most human moment I ever shared with the big man. Typically, though, Malcolm Fraser had neither changed course nor altered speed.