Condolences – Rt Hon. John Malcolm Fraser, AC, CH

Senator RYAN (Victoria—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training) (12:10): When I was on the flight home to Melbourne last Friday morning with a number of colleagues from this chamber and the other place, we all turned our phones on as we taxied towards the Qantas terminal at Melbourne and we all received the news at the same time; and the shock that was expressed by colleagues of all political parties on that flight, I think, has been reflected on by some colleagues in this place earlier—the shock that was felt throughout the community because this was completely unexpected. As a number of people have commented upon, for him to follow in such close proximity his old sparring partner and recent friend, Gough Whitlam, does bring to a close a particular era in Australian politics.

After all, Malcolm Fraser was a giant of Australian politics, for a number of the reasons that people have mentioned. He is one of only four figures that have taken my party from opposition to government. Along with the names Menzies, Howard and now Abbott, he will always be in that particular pantheon.

I think it is particularly apt that we are having this debate in this chamber; this particular building is in fact one of Malcolm’s great legacies to the country. The project for building this modern Parliament House that of course took four decades to settle on, from the temporary home further down the hill, took a particular political personality, one who had to deal with the buts and barbs of what some might say are tabloid press and talkback radio about politicians building themselves a palace up on the hill. I dare say, if it was not for Malcolm’s particular personality, we might still be down meeting in the smaller chamber, to which he brought so much historical fame through his actions of 1975.

Malcolm Fraser loomed large in my own development, not only as a member of the Victorian division of the Liberal Party but particularly because for someone of my age, born in 1973, while the events of 1975 were well beyond my memory, my first memories were often of selling newspapers, or reading them, with Malcolm Fraser on the front page. Of course, a very clear early memory of mine was that of the loss in the 1983 election and that press conference but also the ongoing arguments, even by my own family members, about what happened in 1975. I have to admit that those debates fascinated me and were one of the things that brought me into politics, and I was lucky later on in life to have the opportunity to teach about them at Melbourne University and to bring some of the players in to speak to students at various points, such as Malcolm’s old colleague Tony Staley.

It has been said by a number of other people, and I think history points it out, that Malcolm Fraser represented the last Prime Minister of Australia’s old era—as written by my friend David Kemp, a ‘transitional’ PM. The world was in transition from the postwar economic model and from some of the assumptions we made, even about social values. Most of those, I think, we were all happy we were in transition from. Malcolm was the last representative of the old era, where there was greater faith in government intervention. The Keynesian consensus had not yet broken down, although a number of the consequences of it were becoming more and more apparent in public policy.

But, of course, in 1975, that moment which will forever be taught and which Malcolm’s name will always be associated with, while people have different views—and, as Senator Fifield said, we have all particularly talked about those areas with which we might agree on Mr Fraser—I think it is important to note as a senator that Malcolm Fraser stood for our constitutional arrangements. Malcolm Fraser stood for the rights of this place and for the rights of the Senate. He maintained the principle that is written into our Constitution: that, to govern, one needs supply through the parliament, not just through one chamber. That was the case in the United Kingdom; they only moved away from that in 1909 and 1910, with the ‘people’s budget’ crisis, and the elections that were held by Lloyd George. Australia has a different constitutional arrangement, and Malcolm Fraser stood by that.

While other nations changed, certain players in Australia asserted that ours should change with it. But there had not been a constitutional change, and Malcolm Fraser used the power of this chamber to force key issues before the people at an election late in 1975. I make the point that Malcolm Fraser often made: unlike other upper houses, this house has a directly elected constitutional mandate. That was not the case in the United Kingdom, in the examples brought forward by his then combatant Gough Whitlam, when he put the case that only the confidence of the House was required in supply matters.

In 1975 Malcolm Fraser led the charge to use the constitutional mechanisms available to him to force an election. He never resiled from that. It may be politically contentious, but it was based on unquestioned constitutional authority. I have always thought that one of the most interesting yet rarely written-about aspects of this is the fact that while he was resolute in this, he led a party in which there were waverers. Yet he managed to maintain the support of each and every colleague in this most tense of political moments.

I have never believed that the dismissal tainted the Fraser government. This perspective neglects the fact that there was an immediate election held, straightaway. The stories that talk about the outrage—I do not wish to be too partisan on an occasion like this—of the events of November 1975 tend to forget what happened in December. I know a number of people have commented on an election and record parliamentary majority that I doubt we will ever see in the likes of our lifetime.

It is also important to note that when we talk about Mr Fraser’s time in government—and I mentioned earlier the collapse of the Keynesian postwar economic consensus—while the policies were illustrating their political challenges, there was not yet a consensus for change. I note that the person who got elected in 1983 and beat Malcolm Fraser was known as a person for consensus, but in 1975 that was not the tone of his political rhetoric. Our society changed by the time Malcolm lost office in 1983.

Elements of government that we took for granted for decades, leading up to 1975, were, by a substantial proportion of the population, considered to be under threat—a process of genuine cabinet government, a process where cabinet ministers acted in a sense of solidarity, appropriate financial controls and processes when seeking to burden the Australian taxpayer with debt. Malcolm Fraser was of the view that these needed to be re-established. I make the point that the subsequent Labor government, the one led by Bob Hawke that beat Malcolm Fraser in the 1983 election, was rigorous about enforcing these particular standards.

Many Liberals have differed, at various points, with the Fraser government over the direction of economic reform. A couple of points are important. Firstly, a number of the platforms for reform, notably the Campbell inquiry into financial deregulation, were laid and built and followed up by subsequent governments. I would also make the point that there was not a consensus for liberal economic reform. The dries—people like Bert Kelly and John Hyde—were beginning to make their voices heard but there was far from a community consensus. That was reflected in the 1983 election, again, where we talk about the reforms undertaken, with the support of the opposition, by the Hawke government. No one seems to remember that the platform the Hawke government was elected on, in 1983, was not one that was profoundly liberal, economically. It did not talk about removing tariffs, removing financial controls and free trade. It was, in fact, a much more typical Labor economic platform.

My friend David Kemp wrote in the piece mentioned by Senator Fifield earlier, published late Friday and then again in The Weekend Financial Review, that Malcolm Fraser was a Prime Minister for his times. He said that he was often criticised ‘by those who supported a more open competitive economy, in relation to tariffs, industry subsidies, floating exchange rates and deregulation’ of the financial system. David Kemp went on to say:

The criticisms are often sharpest from those who believed that policy can be reformed by an act of will, for Fraser refused to exercise his powerful will to bring about reforms of which he remained to be convinced, and which he believed had only limited public support.

There is a particular insight here, for the reasons I just mentioned. There was not public support for those reforms that I am a passionate supporter of and that have done so much to deliver Australia prosperity over the last two decades. But he did lay the foundations for many of those. The Liberal Party he led did contain the voices that drove those reforms in subsequent decades.

I might also say that in a number of the arguments—whether it be for tariff cuts, which really started in Australia in the late 1980s with the industry statement and the policies of John Button, for labour-market reform, which started earlier on my side of politics in the mid-1980s but Labor only came around in 1990—we tend to look back and not understand the substantial time difference between those ideas emerging in Australia and a political consensus developing. I might also make the point that reflecting on our current experience that force of will is, indeed, not enough to guarantee that legislation might get through the Senate.

The Senate had a special place in Malcolm Fraser’s life. As was mentioned, his grandfather served here in the first Senate. There was the 1975 crisis. During his term as Prime Minister, even when his government had a majority until mid-1981, on more than one occasion—in fact, on many occasions—large handfuls of senators from the government’s side would vote against government legislation or vote very independently. It was said, as has been said about a more recent Senate, that Malcolm Fraser had a majority on most days, on most issues, but far from always.

There is an impressive list of administrative and constitutional changes that have been recounted by others. Notably, Malcolm Fraser was the most successful Prime Minister in our history when it comes to achieving public support for constitutional change. In a country that I am proud has not voted for change that often, because I have disagreed with most of the changes, he generated a consensus within the political structures and then support within the public for three referenda, on one day. I doubt we will see that like again, and it is a record that no Prime Minister—not even Robert Menzies—can even come close to matching. It reflected his ability, contrary to some of his public persona, to generate consensus and support, as he did within the Liberal Party during the difficult days of 1975.

As to the argument about whether politics changed, the Liberal Party changed or Malcolm changed I do not think it really matters. We have all changed. If a person does not change, in response to circumstances that develop, to a world that changes, then I think we are at a much greater risk of being dogmatic. In 1971 in his Alfred Deakin lecture—and I should declare that I am a trustee—a comment he made with respect to Australia’s international relations is quite prescient, given some of his later opinions. He made the point:

Strong ties to Britain prevented the full assumption of independence until the century had nearly half gone.

I obviously was not present at the time, but I think the use of those words by Malcolm Fraser was, in fact, a pointer to the direction of his views of the independence of Australian foreign policy. He also made the point:

Within existing levels of taxation, governments at all levels must learn to judge their priorities more harshly. There are many things which it is desirable to do, but we cannot achieve them all in this year or next.

That is as good a statement about the need for rigorous budget policy as could be made over subsequent decades.

It has been noted by many that he had unimpeachable views on race and on colour, and I think this is something for which he will be eternally remembered. He famously differed with many, even on our own side of politics, internationally as well as in Australia on the role of sanctions on the South African apartheid regime. On this I think he was correct—it is undoubted that sanctions and economic sanctions do impact on some of the most vulnerable in the societies we are sanctioning, but they also have an important role in de-legitimising a state that we believe lacks legitimacy and, at that point in our history, South Africa needed to be de-legitimised.

We serve in this place for a short period. We may come here with the passion of a thousand ideas, but we all need to prioritise. I cannot help but think that Malcolm Fraser’s passion on race was partly about addressing one of the barnacles on the Australian body politic, to use a phrase that has been used recently. The formality of White Australia was ended by Harold Holt; the Whitlam government took further steps. But the stake through the heart of the White Australia Policy was driven by Malcolm Fraser, through the move to allow thousands of Indochinese refugees into Australia and through moves such as supporting multiculturalism, which I always believe my home city of Melbourne and my home state provides such a beacon for. The stake through the heart of White Australia was driven by Malcolm Fraser. Never again was Australia to have any policy that reflected in any way upon race. But it did not just take a move to have migration from countries we were familiar with such as those in Europe, from people with backgrounds that we had more cultural affinity with, such as the Christian refugees post-war; it took Malcolm Fraser to make the White Australia policy something about which we teach our students in a textbook by allowing in thousands and thousands of Indochinese refugees that have made our country so much richer, and who have blessed us with their passion for this new nation that they have adopted.

I had the privilege to meet Mr Fraser both via the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation, as mentioned by my leader here in the Senate earlier, Senator Abetz, and also through the Liberal Party and most recently after the book he released—the joint publication he released with Margaret Simons. The member for Higgins and I, with the cooperation of David Kemp, held a function for Malcolm Fraser to talk about his book and his reflections in 2010. Dozens and dozens of Liberal Party members from around Melbourne turned up. They turned up because they wanted to actually meet the person who in many cases had inspired them to join the Liberal Party—a person who they still believed, as they spoke about with passion, had saved the country from the ruin of the Whitlam government. I would also say that Mr Fraser lived up to his reputation and did not pull his punches on other opinions, including those of the Liberal Party of its time, to those people. And many arguments were held. People had arguments with him about everything from what happened in Zimbabwe to asylum seeker policy. But it was a measure of the person that, at that age—and he was then in his late 70s—he would still turn up to a Liberal Party event and have the argument. It was actually subsequent to his resignation from the party but prior to it becoming public, which I think also says something about his turning up.

I did have to, at the end of that evening, speak to a former Prime Minister in a way that I had never thought I would speak. This was at a church hall in Toorak Road, Melbourne, and Malcolm Fraser, at 79 years of age—strong, but showing the frailty of someone that age—did his absolute best to insist on walking 2½ kilometres home down Toorak Road, past not a notorious night strip but a place with a few hotels and nightclubs. I insisted with all my might that, no, I was not going to allow a former Prime Minister to walk home in the very dark streets of Toorak on his own. It got a little bit willing—polite, but willing—but he did, in the end, allow me to give him a lift home. He did enjoy the evening, but I had to plead with him that I could not cope with my name being on the front page as someone that had allowed a Prime Minister to walk home if he had slipped or if something had happened to him.

Malcolm Fraser was not always the easiest person to get along with, but, truthfully, I do not think any of us in politics are. The Prime Minister’s reference in the other place earlier today to his own experience with David Kemp is similar to one I had where, upon the odd criticism that a Liberal Party member of the eighties or nineties might have made of Malcolm Fraser, David Kemp made the point: ‘You cannot disown your past without diminishing your future.’ And I think today is a particular reflection upon that.

Malcolm Fraser left office at the phenomenally young age of 52; that was too young in many ways, but he made the most of every year after that. It is a challenge for our country, because I do not think we use our ex-politicians, and particularly our ex-Prime Ministers, as well as we could. Malcolm Fraser is a reminder of how much they have to contribute to public debate, to public life and to affairs of the nation and internationally. To all those members of the Liberal Party, and there are thousands who knew Malcolm Fraser and who joined for him, but particularly to his family and those close to him, we mourn your loss.


Author: senatorryan

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