By Mungo MacCallum
If Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser had to die, it seemed only appropriate that they should do so within a few months of each other.
Fraser was the younger by some 12 years, but the two venerable politicians were forever yoked as the twin towering infernos of 1975 – arguably the most bitter and divisive confrontation in Australian political history. But the final battle was not quite as it seemed.
The immediate outcome was an easy win for Fraser, with more than a little help from John Kerr. Endorsed by the vice-regal imprimatur, he crushed Whitlam not once but twice, driving him out of the Lodge, the leadership and the parliament. And he went on to become his country’s second longest serving prime minister, holding office for more than seven years.
And there were legacies: Aboriginal land rights, a huge intake of refugees, including a generous welcome for boat people, the implementation of multiculturalism with the institution of SBS, serious environmental protection with the saving of Fraser Island and the abolition of whaling, unyielding opposition to racism, especially in South Africa and the then Rhodesia.
It was a proud and impressive record. But the problem was that it was a record for a Labor government – even a Green one. It was not what his Liberal colleagues either wanted or expected.
True, there was some progress: an attempt to dismantle Whitlam’s fledgling Medicare, an emphasis on private rather than public education and a relentless war on the trades unions. But this was more about restoring some of the shibboleths of the conservative past rather than getting on with the right-wing agenda he had foreshadowed and which his supporters craved.
Almost as soon as he was gone, there was talk of the wasted years, a failure of nerve, even betrayal. And as the years drew on, Fraser, in his rebuilding role as a humanitarian, drifted further away from the Liberal mainstream just as it drifted further towards the neo-conservative right. He was derided as a bleeding heart, a do-gooder; and when John Howard assumed office in 1996 things came to a head.
Fraser had, he said later, always had his doubts about Howard; he believed that the then neophyte Treasurer he had promoted had opposed his cabinet over such matters as accepting asylum seekers and taking action against apartheid. His wife Tamie openly described the new Liberal prime minster as ‘that ghastly little racist’.
Fraser’s criticism of the new government became open and more strident, and he yearned for the days when he had been a member of what he called a genuine liberal Party. But the conservative tide rolled on.
When Howard finally left, Fraser had a moment of hope; he believed that the party could redeem itself, and he saw Malcolm Turnbull as a potential saviour. But when he was replaced by Tony Abbott, a man Fraser despised and loathed, it was the last straw. He resigned from the party he had espoused for more than sixty years. He always said that the he had not left the party, the party had left him; but for the overwhelming mass of the new right who had become Abbott’s constituents, it hardly mattered. Good riddance, they said. Fraser was now an exile, a pariah. Life wasn’t meant to be easy.
Whitlam, on the other hand, flourished in his new roles. In much of his time in Canberra he had been treated with suspicion of many of his colleagues, who saw him as a blow-in, an outsider, perhaps not a real Labor man. But as the heroic martyr he was revered, even idolised, a Labor icon to be cherished and burnished. When the two men were reconciled, their positions were reversed: suddenly Whitlam was seen as the ultimate winner. And such the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.
Fraser, it has been said, was widely misunderstood, and this is probably true. But the misunderstandings only point up to what have, in fact, been steadfast principles. On the economic bedrock principles – initiative, hard work and reward – he has always been adamant: he always despised any form of socialism and collectivism and favoured an unquestioning adherence to the private over the public. But on the tenets of true Liberalism – racial equality, belief in the universal values of fairness, decency and access for all – he never wavered either.
In that sense he was always something of a loner, and not always a happy man. Reminiscing about his childhood he recalled the funniest incidence as the time when his father let go of the sulky and spilled his mother into the mud, and the scariest when his father abandoned him on a hilltop as floodwaters rose to meet him. Later, his idea of fun was to pop pickled onions into the pockets of his fellow drinkers in the members bar of parliament house.
Unsurprisingly he was not a popular figure, although he strived to be social one; at one drunken party in his office he offered me a job as his speech writer, an offer I somewhat ungraciously declined. But he was, in his way, honest, consistent and even something of a visionary, aloof to the blandishments of rent servers and opinion pollsters.
This almost aristocratic disdain perhaps showed in his dismissal of Tony Abbott, whom he saw as an unprincipled populist willing to move whenever and wherever he saw an advantage, temporary and, in the end, self defeating.
But for all that, there is a similarity between our 22nd prime minister and our 28th. Both, in the end, ducked the big changes necessary for the changed circumstances in which they found themselves. Fraser refused to open the economy when it was needed; the result was stagflation. Abbott, it appears, has settled for near enough is good enough, leaving a long and bleak future of debt and deficit.
Perhaps the difference is that Fraser, in his own way, will be fondly remembered, if not by the Liberal Party, by a very large section of the public for whom they see 1975 as a distant memory, but multiculturalism as a living and vibrant present. Abbott’s memorial, if any, remains far less certain.