Three weeks ago Malcolm Fraser and I were signing books outside a tent in the tiny town of Clunes, two hour’s 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.
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 forty 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 The 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.