The sudden death of Malcolm Fraser means that in the space of just six months Australia has now lost the two political titans of the 1970s, men who in both cases remained pre-eminent public figures after their exit from the world of politics.
Those born afterward will never fully understand how profoundly divisive a figure Fraser was after 1975. As an opposition leader, he was ruthless in hounding the Whitlam government from power, determined to do whatever it took to force out Labor, even if it pushed the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis and turned Australians against each other.
In power, however, Fraser was one of Australia’s most progressive leaders: he worked hard to facilitate the end of white rule in southern Africa, opened Australia up (against Labor opposition) to large-scale resettlement of Vietnamese refugees, established a number of important civil institutions — such as the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and freedom of information legislation — established SBS and encouraged multiculturalism, and paved the way for financial deregulation with the Campbell Inquiry.
Fraser continued to evolve politically after his 1983 defeat; from a Cold Warrior he became an increasingly staunch critic of our alliance with the United States. In other areas such as refugees, it was Fraser who remained unchanged, while the party that he once led and eventually left shifted its values.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
In the 1980s and 1990s it became fashionable for Liberals to decry the Fraser years as a wasted opportunity. They were no such thing — as a politician, Fraser combined a ferocious drive for power with an ideological agenda based on a genuine liberalism that used to be central to the Liberal Party’s philosophy.