The Last Oz Tory


When Malcolm Fraser gave his concession speech after losing the 1983 election, his bottom lip trembled. Straight away, my mate Jim Kennon was on the blower saying that he had not noticed anything like that on 11 November 1975. Fraser was all very stiff upper lip back then.

Jim was a member of the ALP, and he would later be in government in that party in Victoria. I have never been a member or supporter of that or any other political party, but Jim knew that I admired Gough, and that I was outraged by his dismissal. It may have been the daylight between us politically that led Jim to being so close with me, but I did feel a kind of mordant relief when Fraser got voted out. I did not however take to his successor, and I would not feel the same kind of satisfaction again until Keating removed Hawke.

The stiff upper lip of Fraser stood then for a lot of what I did not like about him or the way that he came to power. Old money, Western District, Oxford University – each tolerable in itself, but not with that born to rule attitude of the Establishment back then. It was beautifully caught by a Tandberg cartoon. When Kerr, the man Gough called the last of the Bourbons, got full at the Melbourne Cup before he presented it, and looked so sadly common, Tandberg had him standing there cross eyed under that silly top hat, saying: ‘I like making presentations in November – like when I presented the nation to its true owners.’

The ineptness of Kerr, and the plain deviousness of Barwick, began the process of the softening of my position on Fraser. He was just a political leader trying to oust a very bad government – the real villains were two smart-arsed Sydney silks who should have known better.

And we should not forget just how inept that ALP government had become – it would be brought home to me every Saturday morning before breakfast at the Prahran Market by the ghastly apparition of Jim Cairns. Here was a former Commonwealth Treasurer selling political pamphlets from a cardboard box on the street – about the complete picture of a typical Australian political tragedy.

Besides, there was other form to consider. The deposition of John Gorton hardly had Melbourne Grammar written all over it, and there were other plots and putsches in the gross Oz manner.  All else paled beside the moral chasm of Vietnam – and Fraser had been in that right up to his neck. Like every member of the government, he was not subject to the ballot that sent our young men overseas to lose a bad war.

The softening up continued when Alcoa was building a huge installation at Portland. This vast project led to my first brief in the High Court. There were lots of dollars and jobs on the table, and some very big egos. The Americans were cutting up rough – until Big Mal called in on them and put them in their boxes. They called him Big Boots, and they were not going to give him any cheek.

I was most impressed – perhaps this aloof, imperious manner had its uses. It then also occurred to me that this kind of man would not find politics easy – it was not just that he was not the affable sort – he was not even prepared to dissemble, and a strong Coriolanus streak told him that chasing votes was vulgar (in the proper sense of that word). He looked out of place with the mob. On the other side, Gough was getting all the cheers – and losing all the elections.

I also changed my mind about the Establishment. For many years I was privileged to act for a number of them while a deluded NCA conducted an inane political witch-hunt. A former of partner of mine, who has authority on this point – ex officio at the moment – said that my guys were not just the Establishment – they were the Australian aristocracy. I came to admire and respect each one of them very much for at least one attribute – courtesy. As I have remarked before, it is like cutlery – it separates us from the apes. We do not put enough value on it, and that now shows in the mannerless nonsense, the plain vulgarity, of the Australian Parliament.

One of my people, Ian McLachlan, held ministerial office in a coalition government. He is as straight a man as I have met, and I was able to see close up how difficult it is for such an establishment man to come to terms with the awful mediocrity of Oz politics. I think that he and Fraser may have had a lot in common – one difference was that Ian got to a point where he could no longer stand the bullshit.

Malcolm Fraser did not leave his job voluntarily. Neither did Gough. Fraser was eventually voted out, and the slight tremble of the bottom lip may have presaged the humanity that he showed over the next thirty years, and the principles underlying which we can now see in his government. It has been a remarkable journey for a man who came under the influence of superior conflict-endorsers like Bob Santamaria and Ayn Rand – although the latter was reported to be unsure of the extent of Fraser’s commitment. She said ‘I don’t think he’s quite selfish enough.’ That statement of Ayn Rand looks to have been true.

A lot of people then and now say that Fraser was a failure as an economic manager in his three terms of office. The present government has blasted for eternity any claim by the Liberal Party to be a superior economic manager, a boast it pathetically made with the reference to the adults being back in charge. Messrs Howard and Costello in their terms of office are now criticised for wasting the mining boom by buying votes by showering dollars on a comfortable middle class in a very successful attempt to prove to them that there is such a thing as a free lunch, and that life was meant to be easy. The present government is finding out how hard it is to withdraw that largesse, either decently, or at all. If the Fraser government was a failure too, the late Dr Cairns is the only one they can beat in my adulthood.

There is a lot of blather about how Fraser moved from Right to Left, whatever that means, or whether he left the Liberal Part or it left him, as if this split was some observable event like the transit of Venus. Fred Chaney is a very decent man. As a politician, he is about my cup of tea. He said that Malcolm Fraser ‘was a very big man in every respect, and to be honest, I loved him.’ He went on to say that the two major parties are no longer recognisable. That is obviously true – the Liberal Party and Labor party are no more now in anything but name – but it is the profession of love that strikes you. Australian politicians do not talk like that, and it is hard to imagine that statement being made of any of the current crop.

Malcolm Fraser now looks like an old fashioned Tory with an old fashioned conscience. It is little wonder that the hard-liners who hunger after unelectability think that he was a wimp, and that the scrabbling vote-seekers who make up the Liberal Party now would rather not think of him at all.

There is something to be said for the Tory view that those who have a stake in the country have a duty to see that it is well administered. It used to be called noblesse oblige. That is just about dead in this country, as, sadly, is the involvement of the Establishment in the governance of the nation. It would of course be as wrong as it would be absurd to revert to the old Tory view that the government should be controlled by the biggest stake-holders, but if you want to know how bleak it gets when they are driven out of government altogether, just look again at the frightful motley that we have in Canberra now.

If not in government, then certainly after it, Malcolm Fraser stood for bringing people in from the cold rather than locking them out. This frightfully exclusive member of the Melbourne Club was far more inclusive than his weasel successors who would hardly be invited in as guests.

What I detect in the public mood in the nation is that they could see in Malcolm Fraser a political leader who was prepared to announce and stand for a position, and, just as importantly, who was a man of both integrity and compassion. In other words, they could see some of the makings of a statesman, and God only knows, there is not much of that about now. It was, I think, not issues of economic management or political ideology that came between people like Fraser and Chaney, and people like Howard and Abbott, but issues of conscience and compassion for people for whom life is not so easy, like refugees and blackfellas. This is what I see so many people are missing in our politics now.

Two things caught my eye in the press reaction, apart from a few matters mentioned above. (I might say that my Kyneton wine merchant and I had a long chat yesterday along the lines above.) One of those expressing his sadness on the TV last night – I do not remember if it was the SBS that Fraser set up – was the Governor of South Australia. That gentleman was born in Vietnam. This was a very moving moment. His Excellency the Honourable Hieu Van Le AO arrived by boat with his wife as refugees in 1977, when Fraser was Prime Minister. They started life here at a migrant hostel. Their two sons are named after Australian cricketers, Bradman and Kim Hughes. His Excellency and his wife were boat people and they may have got a different reception from other prime ministers of Australia.

The other item in the press today is one of the greatest political cartoons of all time. It is by Bill Leak in The Saturday Australian. Gough and Malcolm are in heaven, seated on a cloud. Gough is seated on Malcolm’s right hand reading The Australian. The caption is ‘Seated at left hand of Gough.’ With that ineffable and lofty ease, Gough says: ‘They’re all still at each other’s throats I see.’ To which Malcolm knowingly replies: ‘Don’t bother with that, Comrade – death was meant to be easy.’