Our Ted Heath
For more than a decade, Malcolm Fraser has won plaudits from everyone: everyone except those who respect John Howard, that is, which is to say a clear majority of Australians. Whether it's Tampa, or Iraq, or the republic, or Pauline Hanson, or Aboriginal affairs, or detention centres, or the US alliance, or David Hicks, or anti- terror laws, Fraser has stood side by side with those Labor icons Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating in condemning his fellow Liberal. And the Fourth Estate has egged him on. Just this week on the ABC1's 7.30 Report, former Whitlam adviser Kerry O'Brien could not help but encourage the sophisticates' former bogeyman to pour scorn on his former treasurer.
But Fraser's criticisms have in many respects backfired, antagonising and alienating his Liberal brethren. ‘How is it that the tough conservative of 1975 has become such a trendy,' asks former Fraser minister Neil Brown. He's ‘a geriatric grenade- lobber' who should be expelled from the party, cries a Young Liberal national conference leader. He's a ‘frothing-at-the-mouth lefty', guilty of ‘nauseating acts of political sycophancy' and ‘hypocrisy', laments federal Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella. In British parlance, Fraser is our Ted Heath: a paternalistic Tory, a bitter and twisted critic of his more successful successor who has promoted a bewildering array of politically correct causes that do not register with mainstream society.
In fairness, the charge that Fraser has oscillated from hard man on the Right in the 1970s to the darling of the Left more recently is a tad implausible. As Fraser highlights in his memoirs, co-authored with Margaret Simons, he has not changed so much as the nation has changed. Indeed, look at his record in government from 1975 to 1983 - SBS, apartheid, Vietnamese refugees, multiculturalism, the Third World, family allowances, Aboriginal land rights, import tariffs - and you will detect a remarkably consistent, at times admirable, record of small-l liberal governance. True, in recent times, he's flip-flopped on the monarchy, the Vietnam War and US alliance. Still, as prime minister, Fraser represented the progressive spirit of the times: he remains a creature of his culture. Conservatives should bear this in mind before they slam their former hero for his alleged road-to-Damascus conversion to every dripping wet cause favoured by the inner-city elite.
John Gorton and John Kerr are unfairly attacked in the book, but the chief villain remains one John Winston Howard. In Fraser's telling, Howard is a boo-word, shorthand for racist, traitor and do-nothing treasurer.
Start with race. ‘For the first time since Billy Hughes,' he says, ‘Australia had a prime minister who was prepared to use issues of ethnicity and religion for political advantage.' Fraser pinpoints the root cause of Howard's attitudes towards immigration, Hansonism and multiculturalism to an incident that allegedly took place after a cabinet meeting over the fate of the Vietnamese refugees in May 1977. According to Fraser, Howard ‘sidled up to me afterwards in the corridor and said "We're not going to take too many of these people, are we?"' . Howard denies the story: he was not even in cabinet at the time. There is, moreover, plenty of evidence to indicate that Howard strongly supported Fraser's decision to accommodate the Vietnamese refugees after the fall of anti-communist Saigon. In arguably his greatest parliamentary performance, for example, in August 1984 Howard attacked Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke over their hostility to boat people in 1977. ‘It was the Liberal administration under Malcolm Fraser which introduced and conducted the humanitarian refugee program whereby Australia took on a per capita basis a larger number of refugees from war-afflicted Indo-China than any other country in the world,' he told the House. ‘With those kind of credentials, what earthly right has any member of the Australian Labor Party, with its record and the contradictions that lie in its historic past, to come into this House and lecture us about racism?'
While it is true that Howard, by his own admission, was wrong to call for reduced Asian immigration in 1988, his response to Hanson and Tampa was justified. To have demonised the Queensland populist, who merely represented a backlash against decades of dramatic socio-economic change, would have inflamed One Nation's supporters. And to have lost control of the nation's borders to a people-smuggling racket would have reduced public confidence in a large-scale non-discriminatory immigration policy. Fraser ‘was deeply disturbed at seeing the Howard government take so many backward steps' on immigration and refugee policy. But he forgets that Howard doubled the annual migration intake from 1996 to 2007 while maintaining an orderly refugee program, which on a per capita basis meant Australia took a larger number of asylum-seekers under the UN humanitarian program than most nations.
Fraser also says he was ‘shocked' by Howard's ‘naked evidence of disloyalty' to then Liberal leader Andrew Peacock. In early 1985, Howard allegedly told a New York businessman that ‘my people will get rid of him before the end of the year'. Fraser says: ‘I told [Howard] I thought Peacock had done well enough against Hawke to deserve loyalty and another go.' This is the same Fraser who told Howard only a few months earlier that Howard must challenge Peacock. The same Fraser who undermined not only Liberal leader Bill Snedden in 1974-75, but also Liberal prime minister John Gorton in 1971. The same Fraser who has no qualms about other ambitious politicians - Turnbull, Rudd, Hawke, McMahon and so on - doing the very thing that he accuses Howard of doing: namely, wanting the top job.
In perhaps the most astonishing charge, Fraser says he was the real free marketeer and that Howard dragged his feet in the economic reform push in 1981-83. Never mind that Howard, as treasurer, established the Campbell Committee for financial deregulation, approved the entry of foreign banks, removed all controls on bank deposit rates, liberalised foreign investment guidelines and relaxed foreign exchange controls and banking regulations. Never mind that John Hewson, no friend of Howard, has acknowledged that ‘most of the credit for financial sector deregulation in this country must go to [Howard]. It was [Howard] who fought the vested interests in the middle 1970s that were so strongly in favour of a continuation of regulation. It was [Howard who] took the task to Cabinet.' Indeed, when Labor floated the dollar, Fraser, by then out of the arena, opposed it, whereas Howard, as shadow treasurer, strongly supported it.
All of this is a shame. As former National party leader and deputy prime minister Doug Anthony said of his old friend and leader at the release of the 1971 Cabinet documents: ‘Party loyalty: he certainly hasn't shown that in recent times to John Howard and I'm very sad about that. I wish he'd mend his ways.' Alas, eight years later, Fraser's memoirs suggest he has far from mended his ways.