Jim Killen was one of the great communicators of Australian politics. He thrived on it, judged colleagues and foes alike by their communication capacity, and derived great enjoyment in his 24 year retirement from communication with former colleagues, journalists, bishops, lawyers, jockeys and his legion of friends.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the complete absence of “communication” in his retirement with the most influential person in his long political career – John Malcolm Fraser – bewildered and disappointed him to the very end.
We last had lunch just over three weeks ago, shortly before Jim went into hospital for the final time. He raised Kevin Rudd’s election as Labor Leader, the electoral prospects for 2007, continuing divisions within the Anglican Church, and inevitably, Malcolm Fraser.
Communication between Killen and Fraser effectively ceased when the Fraser Government was defeated in the 1983 elections. They had been close, though not always; they entered Parliament on the same day in 1955, and shared an office together for the first couple of terms; they both supported John Gorton when he sought the leadership after Harold Holt’s demise; they fell out over Gorton’s party room defeat in 1971.
But after the 1975 elections, Fraser made Jim Killen Defence Minister, and he remained a senior minister, and reasonably close to Fraser, until 1983. He was among Fraser’s strongest supporters when Andrew Peacock challenged his leadership.
Even though Jim Killen was critical of aspects of Fraser’s leadership and style in his memoirs, Inside Australian Politics, first published in 1985, he believed passionately that friendship should always transcend political differences and personal clashes. Fraser obviously thought otherwise.
As far as Jim could recall, Fraser did not communicate with him once in the last 24 years. They met, perhaps only two or three times, at formal occasions since 1983, and then there was no dialogue of any consequence.
Initially the total break in communication angered Killen. Towards the end it bewildered him and disappointed him, reinforcing the view that Fraser’s greatest failing was his absence of personal skills and his remoteness. It bemused him that Fraser, in retirement, had significant dialogue with Gough Whitlam, but none with one of his own colleagues.
To visit Jim Killen in his home library – which I was privileged to do on numerous occasions over the last 20 years – was to step back into Australian political history. He kept all his letters, notes, exchanges, gathered over half a century. And there were autographed photographs with Menzies, Calwell, Holt, Gorton, George Bush snr, and the former UK Deputy PM, George Brown… all of whom he counted as friends. And the various racehorses he owned!
In retirement he spoke weekly with Gough Whitlam, and regularly with Clyde Cameron, Margaret Guilfoyle, Michael Hodgman and Reg Withers and many more of his political life.
But he never had a substantial conversation with the most influential of them all – John Malcolm Fraser. He died last Friday bewildered by it, and profoundly disappointed by it.