Well, the last Easter Island statue has been toppled. John Malcolm Fraser, 22nd prime minister of Australia, dead at the age of 84, outlasting Gough by a few months. Sheer bloody-mindedness, no doubt, by a man who probably attracted more hate than just about any figure in recent Australian life — if only because he spent the first half of his career getting it from the Left, and the latter half getting it from the Right.
The last Liberal prime minister to have been around as an adult — or young man at least — when the party itself was formed, for decades he had the air of being of that era, all woolen suits and service (Bob Hawke, who is older, looks like a 52-year-old ex-surfer who runs a crystal healing shop on the Sunshine Coast). His death will divide everyone, but in a sort of fourfold fashion: an older generation of the Left will never fully grant him absolution, and will take the veneration he is now receiving from a younger Left as evidence of political amnesia. The remnant Right will take — and have taken — his traitorous later politics as grounds for excommunication, while a younger Right damn him for cowardice during the one period in recent history when a Coalition government had control of both houses and solid electoral backing.
Some would say that Malcolm Fraser smashed any chance the Whitlam government might have had of surviving the supply crisis, and having a chance at refloating themselves before a 1977 election. For those who have come after, however, he missed Australia’s chance to follow Pinochet’s Chile into neoliberalism, and permanently alter Australia’s political character.
That cannot have been a happy situation to live through, since Fraser showed no sign, when one saw him at Leftie/social justice conferences, assemblies, etc, in his final decades, of much liking the people who formed his new-found fanbase. Thousands of wispy-bearded men in “leave it in the ground” T-shirts and Uniting Church ladies in straw hats must have photos of themselves beside Big Mal, straight up and down like a stick of Aberdeen granite, dour and awkward, and not particularly happy.
But then again, there was no sign that he was ever happy for any great length of time. His latter-day politics were not so much a stretch as a tantric dislocation, the awkward position of a man who wished to remain attached to the establishment from which he had come, while at the same time holding a foreign policy worldview that had multiple points of overlap with that of Noam Chomsky. Maybe there was some real guilt in the mix as well: as minister for the army in the Holt government he had been a vociferous supporter of our full involvement in Vietnam, and the implementer of the “lottery of death” conscription program.
He was 35 that year, 1966, having been a Liberal MP since 1955; he was conscripting men close to his age for a war he wouldn’t fight himself. By the time he became defence minister in the ’70s, it was clear that the conflict was a moral and political disaster of the type he would spend his later decades denouncing. But he went with it all the way to the end. Born to a Victorian Western District family, his political career — he had no other job — honoured the desire of his grandfather, a Federation mover-and-shaker and senator, to found a political dynasty. He had an arrogance about him that, at the end, appeared at best aloof, at worst haunted by loneliness. But in its prime it was widely found to be insufferable. It was insufferable even in photos. God knows what it was like up close.
Schooled at Geelong Grammar and then at Melbourne Grammar before going to Oxford, a beneficiary of the Oxford “PPE” (philosophy, politics and economics) program, he was also the last Australian politician to maintain the old British-Australian accent, which added to the otherworldliness, a reminder of a time when social class was not hidden. The accent was itself a trace of the form of liberalism from which he sprang — one that assumed a right to rule, but that the world was moving in a liberal direction. Thus, had the party been founded at the end of the Second World War, and as a continuation of the liberal project that the war had become. Menzies had welcomed the energies of such liberals to help with his new project — and then purged many of them in the late 1940s, before moving on to try to ban “Communists”, by which was meant party members and any Leftists deemed to be so in spirit. Fraser was seen as part of a bumptious and aggressive Right of the party, and — and this may really shock some of his recent converts — was an early enthusiast in Australia of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of virtuous selfishness.
But even that has to be taken into context. The country was quasi-socialist, with the government buying all the wheat and wool, running all the utilities, developing whole cities, controlling every import down to the last detail, and with workplace conditions and much else run by the veiled priesthood of the arbitration courts, the cult of Ayn Rand was a form of mild protest by the Australian bourgeoisie. My first girlfriend, a Brighton honey, was a Randian, ’cause her daddy was. There was a copy of The Fountainhead in the downstairs toilet, as I recall, next to the Sloane Ranger Handbook. She’s a professor of medicine, specialising in obesity, now. Proud to have played a role in her life choices. Where was I? Ah yes, prospering in featherbedded industries and a corporatised economy, bourgeois Randism of the type Fraser espoused was a mild squeak of protest, a plea for the idea of the protean individual in a country whose success appeared to pretty much contradict that mad Russian speed freak’s addled ideology.
Credit where it’s due, though — it may well have played a role in Fraser’s early and thorough alignment against apartheid, and the racist fiefdom of Rhodesia. School did too, since Fraser had been part of a generation of Geelong private/public school students under the tutelage of James Darling, a Fabian (very Fabian) socialist imported to run Geelong Grammar as an academy for an enlightened Australian ruling class. Hahaha, nice try Jim — the alumni included Murdoch, R, and Packer, K, but there were others as well. Manning Clark was the history teacher, and during WWII Darling found a leading member of the Bauhaus School rotting away in the Dunera camp and made him head of the school’s art department, so, y’know. Maybe something happened.
Wherever it came from Fraser’s opposition to apartheid was the bridge to his later, substantially transformed views of the world. Now that the era is consigned to history, it is difficult to reinvoke the degree of acceptance that apartheid had in the mainstream and especially on the Right. Cold War anti-communism masked (barely) a remnant racialism. Fraser was damned from the Left for being too moderate, but assailed from the Right for really screwing up a united front against the anti-apartheid movement that Reagan and Thatcher were trying to build. He has never been forgiven by the latter for his support for simple self-determination, and in that respect, for favouring Robert Mugabe as the only agent by which the white regime of Rhodesia was to be smashed.
That marked him to be undercut, as, through the 1980s, Labor reshaped itself into a post-Whitlamite party, becoming plausible as the agent of modernisation. The move caught Fraser and the Liberals in a bind, for the coup of 1975 they had been a part of had brought the country to the brink of serious division, enough to usher in open social conflict. The selective rollback of Whitlam-era programmes — Medibank (i.e. Medicare) chief among them — was enough to have him denounced as a fascist, but the institutions that balanced power in Australia were left in place. By 1983, bizarrely, it was Fraser who looked like the dour old unionist, and the former ACTU head who presented as the face of a new era. When Fraser, tired and ill, said that under Labor you’d be safer with your money under the bed, Hawke replied that you couldn’t put it there, because that’s where the Reds were. Laughter rolled across the nation. It was all over.
In his final phase — which can only be described as “anti-imperialist” — Fraser, making awkward small talk at some god-awful conference, would invoke Keynes’ dictum that he changed his mind when the facts changed. The Cold War had been a fact, it was gone now, but the American empire had taken that moment as an opportunity to expand into every area of global life. Some on the Right became opponents of the US out of conservative realpolitik, that the US should retreat to its borders, but Fraser’s analysis was not of that type. Increasingly he argued that the US, out of its economic and cultural system, currently had a drive for conquest that made it the most dangerous entity on the planet. That was a left-wing analysis, no matter how reluctant both the Left and Malcolm Fraser were to admit it. He never really squared off that geopolitical analysis with a rethinking of the nature of capitalism altogether. That would have been a step so far beyond the world he had been part of as to be a trip into space.
But then, the world he had been part of was gone. The Australian settlement was gone, the Liberal Party as he knew it was gone, and he had even sold Nareen, the property his forefathers hoped might become the ancestral family pile. Aloof but commanding in an era when he and his like were in command, he was a man whose political journey had no end point it could come to, no new home. His trek from Right to Left was a journey into exile, with all the bitterness that exile is accompanied by. We will know eventually how much he knew — about Vietnam, about Indonesia in ‘65, how much 1975 was a choreographed event from the start. Or maybe we won’t. I’m old enough and to feel a resistance to honouring the old bastard in a way that won’t afflict people who first came to know him as a relentless warrior against his own party on refugees. But whatever limits there are to one’s solidarity with him, there has to be some admiration for a man who will shed his political skin whole and entire, without the guarantee that a new one will grow in its stead.
And even if the old bloke hard and tall and irredeemably distant, never seemed too comfortable in his skin in the first place.