Eight and a half years ago, after I had inadvertently become a centre of public controversy through writing a chapter on the Fraser government, I said: ‘Its deeds are a matter of public record. It is time for them to be written about as history, not as current political events.’
The publication this month of Malcolm Fraser’s memoirs, co-written with Margaret Simons, provides an occasion to reassess how close we are to achieving that detachment, and how far our historical knowledge of the Fraser government has advanced.
It has often been pointed out that the literature of Australian politics tends to neglect the non-Labor side, whether from the biases of the authorial class or from publishers’ belief that books about the Right don’t sell. One can now see that the neglect extends to the participants themselves: while Bob Hawke and several of his senior ministers wrote memoirs, this is the first substantial volume to emerge from the Fraser government.
Despite this shortage of material, there is unlikely to be much of importance that we don’t know about the period. Government in modern Australia takes place under intense public scrutiny; its main players give their versions of events as they happen, on or off the record. It’s a mistake to think that more digging in the archives or tracking down a reclusive veteran would unearth some crucial fact and revolutionise our understanding of events.
Sure enough, most outstanding factual disagreements turn out to be trivial. For example, there is the question of whether John Kerr spoke to Fraser himself on the morning of 11 November 1975. Fraser again asserts that he did, and there is evidence to back him up, but even if his memory on this point is clouded it doesn’t alter the substance of what was agreed between the two, whether directly or indirectly.
Or take the more serious question of the cabinet discussions on financial deregulation in the last years of the Fraser government. Fraser again paints himself as the stronger proponent of deregulation, and blames the lack of progress on his then treasurer, John Howard. Howard maintains the opposite position. But there is clearly enough blame to go around; neither of them could have been very keen on the idea, or more would have happened.
Another issue is the so-called ‘legitimacy problem’ — that the controversial way the Fraser government came to power hampered its ability to implement reforms. Howard among others has advanced this notion; Fraser still rejects it. But when questioned about it at a public event this month in Melbourne, the examples that he gave of strong, reforming government — such as Freedom of Information and Aboriginal land rights — were all things that were likely to upset the Right rather than the Left. If anything, that tends to support the point rather than refute it.
Interpretation can be argued about endlessly even after all the facts are in, and Fraser’s reputation has gone through more varied interpretations than most. Once taken for an archetypal right-wing reactionary, with the ‘s’ in his name replaced on placards by a swastika, he has lived to be described, in Sophie Mirabella’s words, as a ‘frothing-at-the-mouth lefty’.
Neither description fits. Fraser’s conservatism was always temperamental rather than ideological, and there is no reason to doubt his contention that philosophically he always saw himself as a liberal. He governed as a moderate in the tradition of Robert Menzies, for whom he still avows the greatest of respect. In economics he was a nationalist, not a free-marketeer; in foreign policy he was an anti-communist but not an imperialist; constitutionally he was a pragmatist, not wedded to either centralism or federalism.
In Liberal party terms, Fraser was a man of the Right. Although other prominent Victorian Liberals — John Gorton, Bill Snedden, Don Chipp, Andrew Peacock — were identified with the Left, the memoirs tend to present his differences with them as personality-based, ignoring the factional dimension. No doubt Fraser could be a difficult person to deal with, as he frankly acknowledges; he lacked what we now call ‘people skills’. But reducing things to the level of personalities makes it much harder to understand what was going on in the Liberal party of the 1970s. The allegations of betrayal that Fraser has had to contend with since have been tribal as much as philosophical.
Fraser claims the virtue of consistency, maintaining that it is the world that has changed, not he, and while no doubt he exaggerates his fealty to his ideals (most of us do), the point is well taken. Times have changed since the Fraser years; ideas that were new and radical then, such as privatisation, now seem commonplace, while other issues — most obviously, the struggle against international communism — have simply vanished from the landscape. Much criticism of Fraser’s record has been ahistorical, failing to appreciate the context of the times.
But consistency is not an unlimited virtue. When it involves a failure to accept new evidence and adapt to new circumstances, it can be condemned as stubbornness. The problems of the 1970s and early 1980s convinced many people that Keynesianism and protection, hitherto the pillars of Australian economic management, had to be abandoned. Fraser, although he claims to be a free trader at heart, never made that switch.
Or consider communism: in the 1980s, events in the Soviet Bloc showed that the choice was no longer simply between containment and detente, but that rollback and the liberation of eastern Europe were possible. Ronald Reagan embraced the new situation; true conservatives like Fraser lagged behind.
In the 1990s things changed again, and a resurgent ‘movement’ conservatism in America, imitated here, set off down the road that ultimately led to xenophobia, torture and the madness of Iraq. In my view, it is to Fraser’s credit that he failed to follow this new tack, but others would see it differently. One person’s consistent attachment to principle is another person’s short-sightedness.
Fraser’s condemnation of racism and defence of his policies in relation to refugees, apartheid and multiculturalism is clearly heartfelt. Not unreasonably, they are the things he would most like to be remembered for. At the time they seemed peripheral rather than central to his government; they loom larger now since the controversies of the Howard years. But history is never settled, because our priorities will change again, and our interpretation of the past will change with them.