Australia’s 22nd prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, died in the early hours of Friday, March 20th, only a few months after his once-rival and the man he pushed out of office, Gough Whitlam.
Fraser came to office in 1975 in one of the great political dramas in Australia history, which saw a democratically elected prime minister dismissed from office by an unelected representative of the Queen of England. Gough Whitlam, who died late last year, was ousted less than three years after taking office as Australia’s first Labor prime minister in more than 20 years. Yet his real enemy was not the Governor General Sir John Kerr, but his political rival and ultimate successor Malcolm Fraser.
Fraser’s tactics in opposition of blocking every move of the Whitlam government through the Senate were so aggressive that Australia’s two major parties have since agreed they would never do it again. But for all the public outrage after Fraser took the helm of a caretaker government, he was voted in later that year and would hold office until 1983, finally losing to Labor leader Bob Hawke.
How Australians see Malcolm Fraser depends very much on when they were born. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher pointed out, those over 55 in Australia “particularly on the left” will remember Fraser as a “wrecker” who brought down a government.
However, the younger generation remember a left-of-center Liberal – or at least a moderate conservative – who finally resigned from the Party in 2009 after Tony Abbott took leadership, saying then it was “no longer a liberal party but a conservative party.” One could debate whether Fraser really moved left, or whether his party simply moved more to the right. Fraser was until the end a small-l liberal and never the kind of neocon his former protégé John Howard became during his years in office. “(There are) two very different Malcolm Frasers, depending upon when you experienced him politically,” said Harcher.
In fact, Fraser spent years criticizing the then-government of John Howard and more recently endorsed Sarah Hansen Young, an outspoken Green. Even while he was prime minister, Fraser processed thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon, created the Federal Court, and recognized Aboriginal land rights. He was also strongly anti-apartheid. In fact, looking at his policies, it’s easy to see similarities to Whitlam, another reformer. And indeed the man who Whitlam once called “Kerr’s cur” became his friend later in life. But as an Ayn Rand fan and anti-unionist, Fraser was no leftist.
Both sides of the political spectrum have honored the former Liberal leader. Prime Minister Tony Abbott led a number of tributes in Parliament today. Both current Opposition leader Bill Shorten and former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard wrote warmly of Fraser. “Labor salutes the life of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser… who gave six decades of tireless service to our nation,” wrote Shorten on his Facebook page. Attorney General George Brandis said, “(he was) perhaps even more fondly thought of by the left than by the right, in his early days he was actually a divisive and rebarbative figure.”
“There were always two Malcolm Frasers. One was the moody, spoiled rich kid with an unquestioning belief in his own righteousness and an unscrupulous determination to put it into practice. But there was another more complex character as well: a lonely and driven individual with an acute sense of social justice which transcended class, creed, and most particularly race,” wrote political correspondent Mungo MacCallum in The Australian. Fraser may have been well-liked by the left but he was, by all accounts, sometimes difficult, “prickly” or distant and did not tend to exude warmth. As MacCallum noted, Fraser had never even had a job when he entered parliament at the age of 26.
But had Whitlam survived him, what might he have said of the man who brought down his government almost 40 years ago? Who knows, but the two became unlikely friends, seeing eye-to-eye on many issues. In 2005 Whitlam said, “I’ve said on many occasions that I find it difficult to think of any matter in foreign affairs where I don’t agree with the views he expresses these days.”
Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), Time, The Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press.