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May 26, 2010

The inside story on Fraser's resignation

Both Tony Abbott and former staffer David Kemp appealed to Malcolm Fraser not to leave the Liberal Party, reveals his biographer Margaret Simons.

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As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we’ve trawled through the archives to bring you some of the best, weirdest and most salacious articles published on Crikey since our launch on February 14, 2000.

*This article was originally published on May 26, 2010.

Three weeks ago, Malcolm Fraser and I were signing books outside a tent in the tiny town of Clunes, two hours’ drive north-west of Melbourne, when one of the people queued up for our signatures asked him if he was still a member of the Liberal Party.

I held my breath. Was this when the story would break? We had been on a two-month publicity tour together to promote our book, and I had been sure that the news of his resignation would come out in the first five minutes.

After all, he had been interviewed by some of the best political journalists in the country, and done dozens of public events. He had even done the Canberra Press Club. “It can’t possibly remain a secret,” I had told him in February as we awaited the book launch. But I was wrong.

Fraser had told me he would not lie if asked a direct question, but nor would he do anything to publicise his decision. Not one of the nation’s journalists had asked that direct question.

Was this it? Would the news break in tiny Clunes, thanks to a question from an ordinary member of the public? And would I, at last, be at liberty to write the story I had been restrained from writing?

Fraser was silent for a beat, and then replied as he signed his name: “I’m still a liberal.” And the queue moved on. He turned to me with a grin and a raised eyebrow.

Damn it.

Fraser resigned from the Liberal Party shortly after Tony Abbott came to the leadership. He told me about it early this year, in confidence, as his co-author. Naturally I wanted to break the story, but he held me to the confidence. The deal was that when the news broke, I would be at liberty to write as I chose. But not until then.

Over the following weeks I heard news of his negotiations with his former staffer David Kemp, now the President of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, and with Tony Abbott himself. Both wanted him to sort out his disagreements with the party internally, or by writing articles and by arguing, rather than taking this final step.

But the decision was made. It was not sudden, and it was not personal. But it had been coming for a very long while.

Why did Fraser want to keep the resignation quiet? Largely, it was his old-fashioned sense of honour. Leaving the party was a painful decision. He had nearly left in 2001, during the Howard government’s handling of the Tampa affair.

He and Tamie stayed at that time by the skin of their teeth, partly out of loyalty to the liberal-minded members of the party who were battling within, and partly out of hope that the party would one day return to what Fraser saw as its true liberal roots.

The decision to leave, after Malcolm Turnbull was ousted as leader, represented the death of that hope.

Fraser, and even more particularly Tamie, felt that it would be indecent to publicise the decision, although they accepted that it would eventually come out. They particularly did not want to be seen as using the move as part of a publicity campaign for the book.

“Do you think it would really be that big a story?” he asked me. I told him I thought it would be on the front pages, and he winced.

Yesterday, The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle, having apparently heard some gossip, rang Fraser to ask if it was true he had left the party. He confirmed it, and then rang to release me from my obligation.

But today his telephones are all on divert, and he is uncontactable.

Leaving the party which he led, and which for so many years had seemed to him to be the best political expression of his ideals, was not a sudden move.

When Fraser first entered politics in the 1950s, he was a vehement anti-Communist. He had come of age intellectually in idealistic post-war Oxford, through his study of the core philosophers of Liberalism, including John Stuart Mill, and John Locke.

Communism seemed to Fraser, and many others, the main threat to freedom. Menzies’ Liberal Party — founded, as Fraser saw it, not as a conservative force but as a progressive party committed to defending freedom and the rule of law — seemed the best embodiment of his own ideals.

He remained of that view for the next 40 years.

People often ask if Fraser has changed, without fully taking account of how much the world has changed around him over that time.

By the early 1990s the Berlin wall had fallen and the Communist threat was no more. This, in Fraser’s view, made a realignment necessary. It was now not only possible, but necessary, to combat other threats to freedom.

In the eight years immediately following the defeat of his government in 1983, Fraser spoke only sparingly on domestic politics. Inside the party he urged Peacock and Howard to stop fighting and start cooperating. The party and the country needed both of them, he believed. He respected Howard’s political abilities, and Peacock’s liberal instincts. But these discussions remained mostly internal to the party.His relative abstinence on commenting about domestic politics came to an end in the early 1990s, when Australia was deep in recession and unemployment was in double digits. One of the keys to understanding Fraser’s character is that he is an activist. Faced with a crisis, real or perceived, he almost never concludes that the right option is to do nothing. He feels a sense of duty and obligation to act.

In this case, he began regular newspaper columns, with the first saying he was too concerned about Australia’s future to remain silent. He saw a new threat that he believed was in many ways the mirror image of the Communist menace that had first motivated him to enter politics. The new threat was an unreasoning faith in free markets as an organising principle in human affairs.

In the following years, he was a frequent critic of the free market ideology of both the Liberal and Labor parties. Nevertheless, he was enough of a loyal party member to support the election of Hewson in 1993, after the notorious Fightback policy, which Fraser had vehemently criticised, was softened.

Fraser sought the federal presidency of the Liberal Party in the mid 1990s — against Tamie’s advice. He withdrew when it became clear he could not win. By this time, a vote for Fraser could only mean a vote against Hewson, and the prevailing direction of the party.

In 1994, when Hewson announced a ballot for the leadership, Fraser supported the team of Alexander Downer and Peter Costello against the other contender, John Howard. He thought Howard had had his chance, and had brought only division. Fraser had been close to Downer’s father, and regarded him as “a conservative in the best sense of the word”. The son he thought largely untried, but he chose to hope.

When Downer became leader, he wrote that he would give the party “direction, conviction, enthusiasm and victory … for the first time in several years I am enthusiastic about the prospects for the future of the Party.”

He was wrong, of course. The untried son was soon floundering, and the party turned one last time to John Howard.

Fraser chose to be hopeful. He wrote that Howard had “broadened his vision and understanding” since the 1980s, and that his experience would equip him well to respond to the challenges facing the party.

But he had many private misgivings.

They were confirmed, in his mind, when Pauline Hanson became a political force in 1996, and Howard failed to condemn her. Fraser was appalled. In 1997, he wrote to the party president, Tony Staley, urging him to use all his influence to prevent the Liberal Party from directing preferences to One Nation ahead of the Labor Party.

“I regard Pauline Hanson, the ideas and policies implicit in her statements, as of extraordinary danger to the unity and cohesion of a fair-minded, democratic Australia … It is vitally important that the Liberal Party remove itself as far as possible from the politics of Pauline Hanson,” he wrote. But he was unsuccessful.

From this point on, if not before, Fraser’s relationship with his party was under enormous strain. Over the next three years came Howard’s failure to apologise to the stolen generations, the Tampa crisis and the inhumanity of the immigration detention camps. Fraser spoke out on all these issues.

During the Tampa crisis, Fraser and Tamie sat up late debating whether they should leave the party. They stayed largely out of loyalty to other members who shared their ideals. Chief amongst these in the Fraser mindset was Petro Georgiou, formerly a staff member of Fraser’s who remained in Parliament and challenged the Howard line on asylum seekers.

But in November, 2008, as Fraser and I worked on the book together, Georgiou announced that he would retire at the next federal election.

Fraser considered Malcolm Turnbull, whatever his political talents, as a true liberal. The way in which Turnbull was treated by the party room was not so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as the final confirmation that the party would not return to liberalism in Malcolm Fraser’s lifetime.

To anyone who had been watching, his resignation should not have come as a surprise.

Nor should the fact that, for the moment at least, he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Fraser turned 80 last Friday. He celebrated with a quiet day at home, followed by dinner with his family.

He has seen the political advertising the Liberal Party has used, playing up the supposed “menace” of boat people. It confirms him in his views.

He is at terms with his sad and painful decision.

Margaret Simons co-wrote the recently released Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs with the former prime minister.

Margaret Simons —

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

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151 thoughts on “The inside story on Fraser’s resignation

  1. Callum

    @jenauthor 1.34pm and @socrates, LMAO, my god, you two are really full of it. Even worse, you have just been caught out. Fraser re-phrases a question from Paul Sherrington on quanda, where Sherrington asks Fraser which government, out of Rudd and Whitlam government’s, is better. Fraser rephrases the questions and says ‘least worst’.

    He then goes on to describe many of the failings of the current government as being worse than Whitlam in administering policies. Specifically, he says “and the administrative failures are as great, if not greater, than the administrative failures in Gough Whitlam’s government”. This says a heck of a lot. The transcript is below, but before we go there, two things strike me as very amusing about those two comments:
    1) @jenauthor and @socrates have not tried to say the Rudd government is good (or Whitlam for that matter), rather they tried to say Rudd is not as bad as Whitlam
    2) How desperate are the left wing staffers on here to deliberately and blatantly misrepresent what was clearly said, but then, the left wing don’t lie. In fact, the only people with a pre-disposition to lie in politics are apparently people on the right, according Joooolia, Waaaayne, Krudd, and now @ jenauthor and @socrates lol


    Enjoy below – clowns!

    “PAUL SHERRINGTON: Thanks, Tony. Controversial Melbourne columnists like Andrew Bolt and others have declared the Rudd Government to be the worst and most wasteful government in living memory, perhaps unfairly. Given a choice between the Whitlam Government, as you intimately know it, Mr Fraser, and the Rudd Government so far, which do you think is better?

    MALCOLM FRASER: Oh, you’ve got to say – I’d use different terms: “least worst”. The Rudd Government so far, but you didn’t take a very good – I don’t want to criticise journalists, because, you know, some journalists have very extreme views and generally only report one side of a question, as we’ve heard, perhaps. The administrative failures of the current government, whether it’s in delivering houses to indigenous people, or whether it’s in putting insulation in roofs or building classrooms for schools with government schools costing several times what it costs private schools, or what other things have they sought to administer? They’re going to muck up the hospitals next. The administrative failures are gross and half of them aren’t pursued by the opposition and the administrative failures are as great, if not greater, than the administrative failures in Gough Whitlam’s government. But Gough’s failures were of a different kind, of a different quality, and I don’t want to go into those now. It wasn’t straight out of administering what should have been a plain, straightforward program, which for some reason this government seems totally incapable of doing.”

  2. Liz45

    Jonathan Maddox
    Posted Wednesday, 26 May 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    @John James : “Pilger’s public defense of the Khymer Rouge” —  — WHAT?

    @JONATHAN – I agree. The first documentary of John Pilger’s that I recall was what happened to the people of Cambodia – I can still see all those skulls piled up, and I was transfixed with horror while I watched. The very idea that John Pilger supported the horrors that the people endured is repudiated in this article below. these are not the words of someone who agreed or even excused what happened. It certainly was not my impression via that documentary called,” Year Zero;The Silent Death of Cambodia”.


    I’m also anti-American with good reason. The US has either interfered with or invaded over 45 countries since the end of WW2 – some of them more than once, like Haiti and Iraq. You appear to be on the side of anyone who killed alleged communists, regardless. I suggest you read ‘American Torture’ and take another look at the numbers of Vietnamese killed, assassinated and tortured by the US. Look no further than Central and South America, and speak to the many from Chile and El Salvador that I have spoken to. John Pilger’s “War on Democracy” is also worth watching.

    SHEPHERDMARILYN – While I acknowledge the ‘softening’ of Malcolm Fraser re asylum seekers and aboriginal issues in recent years, I am still angry over the Whitlam sacking. My vote was torn up, and I’m not convinced that the whole thing was a deliberate ploy to get rid of him, because of international bodies who, above other things wanted our uranium. Where’s Khemlani for instance? Funny how he conveniently just vaporised after 11th November ’75?

    @TOMBOY – Gough was entitled to forgive and forget if he wished, but it was more than just his sacking – it was all of us who voted for him, who voted full stop!

    I’d have more time for Malcolm Fraser if he’d been honest at the time of his resignation.

  3. paps9

    Dear Mr Fraser,
    I admit although not old enough at the time to vote I do remeber you vividly, and probably would not have voted for you if I was at the time. However I would like to state that your comments today regarding your resignation from the party (to whom I take you stood steadfastly with) has betrayed the very fundamental principals to which you yourself stood for. Whilst im not a Liberal voter… a swinging one I will state, I have to admire the stance you have taken. For my part and oppinion, Mr Howard and Abbott in thier participation together with the H R Nicholls Society hurt me and my family greatly with Workchoices. This is something I will never forget. I have never really been pollitically awakened, however since then have beeen. I have had a thirst to read and dig and inform myself beyond the casual crap dished out in the media and look deeper into the largely may i say lies and misdirections that both howard and now abbott and bishop are feeding the public. I do agree on your comment with one thing, in years gone past prior to Howard ,the Liberal party was at least equitable and stood for some eqitable values. Today however since Howard and now Abbott and Bishop stands for nothing other than extremeism.I do also concur with you that I find the undertones of Mr Abbott and Bishop as disgraceful towards ethnic minorities. At least to your credit Mr Fraser you never did that. Credit where credit needs to be given sir, you have gone up highly in my estimation as a man with at least some moal fibre, not the muppets of the liberal party that have now become the elitist extremists thanks to Howard and Kroger with blinkers and a pole up thier backside.

    Bravo Mr Fraser

  4. Liz45

    Posted Wednesday, 26 May 2010 at 10:22 pm”Frankly, if I could ban anyone it would be the hysterical blot on the blogosphere, Marilyn Shepherd, even though I mostly share her political views.”

    Not engaging in a little bit of sexism are you? Referring to Marilyn Shepherd as being “hysterical”? What’s wrong with passionate?

    SHEPHERDMARILYN – I’ve also read about the forged passports. These illegal and serious methods were used to remove asylum seekers to other countries when a)the person was fearful of being killed if they returened – but were not believed, or b)the govt via Immigration wanted to get rid of them and had to ‘fabricate’ a ‘new character’? People must remember the bloke who was sent around the world(by Australia) as no country would take him?
    ” The documents used to deport Vivian Alvarez were completely bogus and we all saw them.”
    I agree with you. I’ve also heard via documentary(ABC I think?4 Corners) and read, that it was known BEFORE Vivien Alvarez was removed(in horrific pain and in a wheelchair)that she was a permanent resident. Dept of Immig. In Brisbane office knew that. The Dept of Immig. acknowledged in Canberra a couple of yrs later, that she was a permanent resident, and yet did nothing to bring her back to Australia. As with Cornelia Rau, the treatment of Vivien Alvarez was both racist and sexist. One look at CentreLink records would’ve solved Vivien’s issue immediately. To remove her as they did, and dump her at Phillipines airport was horrendous and inhumane.

    If people find what Marilyn has to say ‘hysterical’ , how many go and do some research? I suggest very few to none. It’s not palatable to want to believe, that even Howard was capable of doing the most inhumane and even criminal things – like justifying or allowing false passports? But it’s true. Of course, he’d hold a stack of bibles in any court and state his innocence – as happened with AWB – although he didn’t swear to that evidence, did he? What about the holes allegedly punched in the bottom of boats in Indonesia – how many asylum seekers just conveniently disappeared?
    There was also a woman on a boat around the time of the Tampa – her name was Fatima, who gave birth to a baby girl who she & her husband named Ashmore due to where she was born(near Ashmore Reef).Sshe heomorragged, and word came from the ‘top’ (read Howard)that she was not to be allowed at Darwin or Christmas Island hospital. There are more examples! All of them horrific, and they include members of the Navy who left due to the inhumane acts they were ordered to commit, which included, never referring to kids by name, and in fact not even being kind or smiling at them. What sort of monsters order such things? “Hysterical” people like Marilyn do not! Sane, calm and responsible people like Howard and Ruddock did it!

    Read ‘Dark Victory’ by David Marr & Marianne Wilkinson, ‘Seeking Asylum’ ‘Following them Home’ ‘From Nothing to Zero’ and another by Heather Tyler??? Then there’s the speeches by Julian Burnside QC, and the book surrounding the story of the little boy in Villawood, who Ruddock referred to as “it” 4 times in one interview – Margo? a journalist from 7.30 Report and Lateline – I think it’s called ‘Broken Shore’? The more I read, listened and watched documentaries etc, the more I came to believe, that the Howard govt broke almost every law and convention, etc that they’d boasted about being a signatory to, including the UN Rights of the Child! Read about how many pregnant women were handcuffed, under MALE guard while they gave birth – even though their husbands were refused permission to attend. Mrs Baktieri and her baby were kept under police guard for about 10 months – it was only due to public outcry that she wasn’t sent back to Baxter – her husband was denied permission to be with her, even at the birth? Those who died on SIEV X, when the ‘family man’ Howard, refused permission for those men(they were in Indonesia- earlier boat I believe) to be with their wives, even though they may have lost their child or children. Sadly, I think we’ll be hearing a lot about the Rudd govt too! What’s the total number of deaths, just in recent months – 8? or more?

    You keep it up Marilyn – I’ll further my own education, even if others prefer ignorance, and hurling accusations of “hysterical” at you! I feel as passionate and angry by these incidences as you do, and I’m finding out more all the time! Ignorance should be a ‘capital’ offence? There’s no excuse. I have heaps of video tapes of news items, documentaries etc from at least the Tampa incident.Tthe information is out there – laziness means other peoples’ cruel demise!
    Good for you. I’ll passionately defend you, and the label “hysterical” doesn’t faze me at all. At least asylum seekers, alive and dead have one loud voice – YOU!

  5. Elan

    “Err, who wants all right-wing posters to be banned? I’m asking for one, specific poster to be banned, John James. It’s not because he’s not left-wing or because he claims to be Catholic or anything to do with his personal beliefs, it’s because he doesn’t back up his claims, consistently ruins comment threads and just throws around garbage terms, accusations and smears without any actual thought. He does this in every single thread he’s ever posted in. ……..”

    Really? Give me a break! You’ve just described many posters here (incl).

    “Don’t worry, Daniel. That’s the last we’ll see of John James in this thread.”

    Well now, that’s interesting. IF that is so,-then let’s not get worked up about censorship eh? After all it comes in handy sometimes doesn’t it?

    “The abuse and calls for banning of right-wing posters is ridiculous and counterproductive.”

    I agree Sancho. Given my political philosophies-it doesn’t sit well with me to protect the rights of the Right. I don’t give a toss for them, but I’d far rather have them where I can see them..

    “Actually I do have the documents. Plus false Pakistani documents used to turn Afghan refugees into Pakistanis.”

    A la Bakhtiari!

    Dear ol’ Amanda was up to her eyes in this vile deception. ANY Afghan OR Pakistani could ID this family as Afghans. I have roots in both countries,…it was a no-brainer.

    The Howard Government knew full well that nationals from either country would say nothing to support the family if they themselves were in a vulnerable position.

    This, like the Haneef case, was an ‘in plain sight’ thing. But in the Bakhtiari case it was completely blatant! They were Afghans. Their bone structure made it obvious-to a Pakistani or Afghan at least.

    MS and I have not seen eye to eye in this place on occasion, but MS cuts through the Party loyalty thing and comes up with facts–FACTS, that some of you cannot accept of your Party.

    I like that.

    And now I’m away to a rally on the ‘allegedly’ bent SA election.

  6. Frank Campbell

    James K: you shouldn’t take politicians at face value. Do you really think Ronnie Reagan blew his trumpet and the walls of Jericho tumbled down? A John Wayne fairytale James.

    And arms race bankruptcy? Well after the cold war it was proved the CIA had been wrong for decades: Moscow had far fewer nukes than they thought. Sure, carrying the burden of a vast, miserable under-equipped military weighed the Soviet bloc down (it still burdens Russia). Once again, you’ve taken the propaganda at face value- this time the Soviet’s. They were a lot weaker than they let on. That’s one reason they were not belligerent most of the time- it was all they could do to hang on to Eastern Europe: Stalin bit off more than he could chew. The self-evident (relative) success of western Europe stared the poor sods in the face for 40 years- it gradually dawned on them they were on a slow boat to nowhere. Then there was the fantasy-America that the soviets lusted for- they had no direct experience of that (nor of it’s lunatic, disgusting aspects), but it was a potent dream.

    Now the Russians have Putin and his glove-puppet. Why? Because the transition to capitalism was bungled. The 90s were catastrophic for Russia. Party apparatchiks hijacked the state to get rich. So now the Russians have an ex-KGB officer running the show. Russia seems to have two choices: barbarian capitalism or barbarian neo-stalinism. And because you’re still living in an ideological time-warp James, you’re not likely to have anything constructive to say about the current global fuck-up.

  7. Liz45

    Posted Thursday, 27 May 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    “I know lefties prefer fantasy to reality but its really not necessary to prove the point by making an idiot of yourself Frank.”

    So, JamesK, you idolise people like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagon? Let me remind you, that Margaret Thatcher went public in her defense of Pinnochet? Thought he was a good bloke? I think he was a mass murdering and bloody dictatot?

    As for Reagon – I vividly recall the horrors coming out of first El Salvador and Nicaragua during Reagon’s ‘reign’? I can remember ver clearly, sitting in my car one night in at least, mid 1994 – I’d listened to ABC nightly news at 7pm, and then came the documentary. It was horrific! I listened to people who’d lost (read murdered) sons; whose daughters often ended up on their front step, mutilated, and the obvious sign of torture was, that their breasts had been ‘cut off’? I listened to those mothers; I cried with them, I shared their shock and horror as to the reality they were forced to face! It left a very strong message to me – don’t support the horror, support the people?

    If you want to label it communist – so be it? What’s your grounds that you use to denigrate and humiliate me? Come on, put your money where your mouth is!

    Incidently, tell me that John James is not practising medicine, now, as we speak? I can just imagine – patient one(after he’s posted his daily bile on Crikey) has a complicated partner abuse issue, that is now taking in and affecting the welfare of her 3 kids! What should she do?

    it’s very very sad! And wrong!

  8. James McDonald

    @SBH, I tried googling “Twiggy indigenous housing”, and the very first thing I found was this:Twiggy halfway to 50,000 indigenous jobs

    So your figure is not only old, but also lacking a zero. 25,000 jobs is somewhat better than the federal government’s effort to build 750 Aboriginal houses, with just 11 houses built after two and a half years and $672 million.

    It’s not like you to denigrate someone’s effort without checking.

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