Fraser: The right goes all mushy

Thursday, 27 May 2010 

For Labor supporters of a certain age, there was only one real moment of joy over the last few decades: watching Fraser burst into tears when he lost the 1983 election. For years before the Man of Steel arrived, there was one true figure of hate (OK, two including Joh) on the right side of politics, and that was the man who broke all convention to remove from power a popularly elected government (that after being deposed, turned out not to be so popular after all). For the same Labor supporters, the subsequent rehabilitation of Fraser to become the conscience of the Liberal party must be a source of wonder.

According to Fraser, the problem with the Liberal party these days is that it has moved too far to the right. Maybe this blogger has lost perspective, but joining in the mass bombing of a country doing no more than trying to get rid of western powers and run their own affairs does sound fairly right wing. Much is made these days of Fraser’s apparent generosity in letting in Vietnamese refugees when Prime Minister (after doing everything possible to make sure they stayed in camps in South East Asia). What is less discussed, of course, is that as Minister for Defence in the late 1960s, he oversaw Australia’s part in helping the Americans destroy the country those refugees came from.

The idea that the Liberal party has moved to the right since Fraser begun his parliamentary career is a joke. Fraser may not like the way Howard treated asylum seekers, but when he was a government Minister those sort of people wouldn’t have been allowed in legally or otherwise. In the 1950s, when Fraser won Wannon for the Liberals and began pushing his way up the party ladder, the racial politics of the White Australia policy and denial of civil rights to indigenous people was the iron clad consensus on which Australian politics rested.

His biographer in Crikey gets closer to the matter when she notes how much Fraser’s politics were moulded by anti-Communism. It was this that was the glue that held right-wing politics together and could justify the destruction Fraser helped oversee in Vietnam. She describes the sea change to Fraser’s thinking when the Berlin Wall fell and the main prop to right wing politics went with it. With the international angle gone and organised labour no threat at home, there was nothing for a right-winger to be against. Fraser’s gaining of a ‘conscience’ over the last few years is really no more than accepting that the basis of what had been recognisable as right-wing politics had had its day.

Of course, not everyone got the hint. The wrangles between Peacock and Howard in the 1980s as they responded to Hawke’s nobbling of the union movement under the accord, already presaged the later dilemma about how the right could justify its existence. After an Indian summer with the War on Terror trying to create a new Cold War, that dilemma has well and truly come to the surface. The lack of a threat that could define the rule of what is acceptable behaviour for the establishment has been neatly brought out by Bishop’s blooper on spilling the beans of what the security services get up to in this country, a breach of security protocol that would have been unthinkable in the days when there was acceptance of there being a real threat for the security services to be actually dealing with.

For Fraser, Abbott’s election was the last straw. The problem for Fraser is not that the Liberals are moving to the right as such but that there is no real basis for them doing so. To make up for it instead we have the pyrotechnics of Abbott who is getting more shrill by the day in his attempt to create an opposition out of nothing. Abbott’s performance in Parliament yesterday was getting reminiscent of Nelson and his Tarago hysterics, except this time Abbott faces a government that now struggles to even sell a boost to super without calling on outside help. Troubles all round then.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 27 May 2010.

Filed under Political figures

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19 responses to “Fraser: The right goes all mushy”

  1. john Willoughby on 27th May 2010 10:10 am

    vote Mal eat pal….

  2. Tweets that mention Fraser: The right goes all mushy :The Piping Shrike -- on 27th May 2010 12:19 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Jackmanson, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: Fraser just knows there's no point being right wing these days […]

  3. Ricc on 27th May 2010 5:12 pm

    So Fraser was just as much an elastic politician as the rest of them. And the point is while the Soviet threat was real (or at least was under Stalin) there are no real threats to our national security. Hence no reason to be mobilising the population.

    Vietnam was already a miscalculation by the USA, mistaking a local anti-colonial independence war as an extension of the Soviet menace, then treating a local insurgency as an all-out-territorial war.

  4. adamite on 27th May 2010 8:43 pm

    PS – Thanks for the interesting post but I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘right wing’ here.

    As far as I’m aware there has never been a single, universally accepted ‘right wing’ liberal ideology in Australian politics, only more moderate or extreme versions of philosophical individualism(from Mill and co to the Friedmanite economic rationalist position of more recent times).

    The problem for the Liberals is that Howard effectively sold the party’s soul to the market and market individualism and, along with it, any humanist credentials. By contrast, Labor was arguably constrained in its commitment to free market ideology by its connection to the union movement. Its difficult to see how the Liberals can pull themselves back from the free market abyss.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 27th May 2010 9:20 pm

    I think there is a difficulty in categorising right wing as it has tended to be defined by what it is against rather than what it is for. This is especially the case in Australia where the right do not have things like the US or UK right would be able to fall back on such as historical institutions, economic/military power etc., relying at best on a hand me down of anything from those countries.

    It’s why the right heve tended to be weak in Australia. One thing that has been forgotten is that Fraser tried to do a ‘Thatcher’ on government spending and the unions, but never had the political authority to pull it off. Instead we had Everyone’s Mate to do the biz after him.

    Don’t quite get this ‘soul’ thing.

  6. adamite on 27th May 2010 11:15 pm

    ‘Don’t quite get this ’soul’ thing.’

    Its the thing that’s lost when you reduce society (a la neo-liberalism)to simply a bunch of acquistive individuals exchanging commodities in the marketplace (for example, Laver:The Politics of Private Desires). The result is that the Humanist/ethical dimension of traditional liberalism is largely elided.

    More traditional Liberal notions

  7. Larry Buttrose on 28th May 2010 7:22 am

    Of course, adamite, some would say it’s just a matter of how thinly those who own property choose to wear the velvet glove over their iron first.

  8. Brian on 28th May 2010 7:44 am

    The right have seized on the “boat people issue” is the new threat.

  9. Cavitation on 28th May 2010 12:25 pm

    I tend to think it’s more personal. Malcolm Fraser has a strong personal regard for following the correct procedures, and for consulting with other interested parties. These are features entirely absent in Tony Abbott’s character, since Abbott is a loose cannon in an army of one, with a strategy of espousing populism regardless of the longer term consequences, and frequently ignoring the Liberal party’s traditional supporters and policies.

    In 1994 Fraser was interviewed in depth about his life and career – see and his comments are very revealing.

    He said that he should not have supported Gorton as PM, and commented about the alternative, Hasluck, saying “But Hasluck was a man of intellectual quality. He could also be emotional and I’ve seen him walk out of Cabinet meetings when he shouldn’t have. But he was a disciplined person. He had high regard for structures and for the integrity of government.” Fraser precipitated the fall of Gorton as PM by resigning from cabinet and making a speech to parliament – “A fair bit of the speech was about procedure and the need to follow procedure. And the fact that I regarded him as a prime minister who wanted to get his own way and was therefore dangerous and difficult.”

    He goes on to say, when discussing his break with Sneddon who was the leader he eventually defeated that he, “issued a statement … saying that those who denigrated Menzies were only denigrating their own position and damaging the party and destroying its base, because we had nothing else. But that’s a habit of the Liberal Party, to not be particularly proud of its [leaders]- we’ve had too many leaders who believe that they could advance their own positions by distancing themselves from their predecessors…”

    Fraser dislikes Abbott because Abbott lacks judgment and discipline, traits that matter a lot to Fraser, and because Abbott is trashing the Liberal party traditions passed down by past leaders, including Fraser himself.

  10. Graeme on 28th May 2010 3:11 pm

    Yes, for those of us (just) old enough to remember the ‘Give Fraser the Razor’ and ‘Fascist’ chants, it’s all a bit surreal.

    Fraser was in the Heath mould of Tory noblesse oblige, in the context of an Australia where Deakinite Liberalism and the conservative wings of labourism were not so far apart on basic issues in the welfare state and industry protection. The state was there to keep things together; the industrial commission a kind of requital. Yes he had a razor gang, but he was no Thatcherite wanting to tear all that down.

    What surprises people is that the assume the line about ‘not socialist before 30, no heart, not conservative by middle age, no head’, and ignore how many men, freed of the scrabble for power, mellow with age. Judges like Anthony Mason are cases in point, and see how his court remains feted by those extolling bills of rights who forget centuries of judicial reaction rather than ‘liberal’ activism.

    Fraser’s big shift has been on foreign policy from hawk to humanitarian. But I’m not sure any hypocrisy in that shift undermines the case that the 80s-00s saw an undoing of the soft conservatism on economic matters. Tellingly, Simons has Fraser admitting that Labor no more represents his yearnings in that regard than Howard/Abbott.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 31st May 2010 4:48 pm

    Not sure I agree with some of this. I think the analogy between Fraser and Heath is a good one but not for the reasons given. When Heath took over the Tories he was very much outside the mould of the past Tory leaders, not coming from the type of upper class background like his predecessor, the Earl of Home. He represented that turn by taking the Tories to a more confrontational approach with the unions leading him to take on the miners and the three day week in 1974.

    Heath failed, and it had to wait for Labour to fail as well but weaken the union movement until Thatcher could move in for the kill. While Thatcher, like Heath, was about taking on the post war consensus, she had nothing really to replace it,and establishment concerns about that led Heath to reposition himself as a One Nation Tory which in fact his record showed he was not.

    Fraser too was prepared to break with past convention that made some in his own side uneasy in his bid for power and ‘extremism’ when he got it (part of the reason for Chipp’s Democrats). Similarly, Lynch’s Razor Gang and the 1982 wages freeze were all part of a more confrontational approach. To read things today, you would think his choice of Howard as Treasurer was an accident, but they were very much in agreement on the need to ‘fight inflation’ by taking on wage rises and the unions.

    Like Heath, Fraser failed, with a lack of political consensus partly as result of the way he took power. But unfortunately this time Labor succeeded and wages stagnated through the 1980s under Hawke’s accord. Howard didn’t have much to do on the industrial relations front but did oppose the modernising project that brought Fraser and Whitlam together. Like Heath, this allowed Fraser to reposition himself and turn his earlier failure to be a big bastard into a ‘conscience’.

    Fraser v Howard? No choice, I know. But while Howard is a little fraud, the hypocrisy of Fraser is simply mind-boggling.

  12. Tim on 1st June 2010 11:14 am

    Shrike, I have to say this piece is not quite as excellent as your normal weekly fare. I even have to question your objectivity for the first time.

    “but joining in the mass bombing of a country doing no more than trying to get rid of western powers and run their own affairs does sound fairly right wing”

    I wasn’t aware Australian assets were used on air raids in North Vietnam? Or are you referring to the war in South Vietnam where this nation deployed forces “in order to defend an ally under attack from a foreign power”, including some aircraft intended to support ground formations? (see how much more positive that sounds?)

    “What is less discussed, of course, is that as Minster for Defence in the late 1960s, he oversaw Australia’s part in helping the Americans destroy the country those refugees came from.”

    Destroy the country those people came from? See how the implied meaning changes when you us loaded terms like “support an ally” instead of “mass bombing of a country”? What were the Americans doing? Destroying a country or trying to preserve one? The answer to that question will clearly illustrate any bias on this issue and the fact that you used emotive terms like “destroyed a country” instead of “participated in the Vietnam war” plainly indicates your position, which I’m afraid compromises your objectivity.

    Additionally I contest that deploying the Australian military in coalition with the United States – which includes allied air power – is a particularly right wing thing to do. The current deployment in Afghanistan is supported by the mainstream left of Australian politics is it not? You could easily argue that all the Taliban are doing is “no more than trying to get rid of western powers and run their own affairs” and the use of Allied air power in the Afghan theatre, where the ADF is deployed, constitutes the “joining in the mass bombing of a country”. Undoubtedly the ADF have at least called in air strikes in Afghanistan and, if I remember correctly, the RAAF deployed to Diego Garcia in support of the invasion in 2001. Do you think supporting the Afghanistan war makes you pretty right wing? If so then the whole mainstream of Australian politics must deserve that label.

    I’m afraid you may have shown us your political undies here shirke, and given the decline of the right is the fundamental argument put forward by this blog it will force me to question the motives behind some of your conclusions.

  13. Ricc on 1st June 2010 12:51 pm

    Tim, the idea of “North” and “South” Vietnam is an artificial, external creation, hence quickly removed in the mid 70s. I’m not talking about regional differences, but the legal status.

    And to say we were heavily involved in conflict on thr ground, and in the air, in Vietnam (the combination of North and South) is undeniable.

    Is there a ‘mainstream left’ to support or otherwise fighting with the Taliban?

    Whatever support the Taliban might gain from throwing out imperialists they would have lost among leftists over treatment of women and minorities. Like finding support for the Khmer Rouge being “Rouge” or even Mugabe.

    Support changes as circumstances change. If Mugabe was still in the bush fighting Ian Smith then maybe leftists would support him. He isn’t; he’s standing up to western powers but probably doing side deals with them, a bit like Peron, and profiting from the process.

    Piping Shrike is quite right to call on Fraser or Whitlam or whoever over their past and present positions. They were all adult, mature men with large amounts of background briefing from experts when they made their decisions – they can’t argue the naivety of youth, nor lack of information for their wrong calls.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 1st June 2010 5:37 pm

    Tim, I think your comments are fair enough. There is some emotive language as there are two things that make my head hot; Vietnam (or any foreign military venture into a developing country) and the left and right’s hypocrisy on indigenous affairs. Apologies to readers for the indulgence.

    You are of course absolutely right that the left are quite comfortable these days supporting military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq Round I) but that is precisely the point. The left-right lines that were drawn on Vietnam (that really only emerged when the Americans started losing) have largely dissolved. Even on Iraq Round II you had the feeling that if the UN had actually approved the intervention, everything would have been hunky-dory for a lot of the left, even though it would have been basically the same participants.

    Fraser, and the Australian right, had no problem justifying intervention into Vietnam under the guise of anti-Communism. The problem is that that justification has gone. What we have had since is that a lot of the justifications for intervention have now taken on a right on, left wing veneer. So we might be nuking Iran to liberate women, or something. Meanwhile Fraser develops a conscience and we get all his BS.

    The decline of the right is a fundamental premise of what I am arguing, but as Fraser’s change of heart shows, it is predicated on the decline of the left against which they had defined themselves.

  15. Tim on 2nd June 2010 10:56 am


    Although there is and was a shared ethic and cultural Vietnamese identity North and South Vietnam were indeed two very distinct states. Whether they were in your opinion “artificial” or not the fact remains they shared no public institutions whatsoever; in terms of a what defines a state North and South Vietnam were every bit as distinct in 1965 as North and South Korea were in 1953. Look at North and South Korea now, do they look like two vaguely defined “artificial” states? The only reason the terms North and South were dropped from common usage was because the two states were “unified” by force, which inevitably involved the destruction of one by the other. Even if a state is defined by some as “artificial” its destruction at the hands of another power can only be described as an invasion, even if the two share a common heritage or ethnic identity. Again if North Korea attacked South Korea it would be considered an invasion would it not?

    The only time large population centres were attacked “en masse” was during the major air offensives over North Vietnam such as Operation Linebacker & Linebacker 2. As far as I know the ADF played no part in those operations; ADF forces were largely confined to the Phuoc Tuy province and the surrounding area with the RAAF deployed in direct support. At the time of the largest air campaigns over the North the ADF was in a process of withdrawal from Vietnam. By the way I think its important to remember that both the US military and the ADF were deployed to South Vietnam at the invitation of the South Vietnamese government, just as the US military is currently deployed to South Korea at Soul’s invitation.

    Now if you want to say the Frasier government supported the United States in its campaign in Vietnam then I don’t think anyone can argue with that. However I would wager the strategy of forward defence, which Australia’s commitment to South East Asia including Malaya and South Vietnam was a fundamental element, would not have been fundamentally altered had the left gained power in the 60’s. In general fundamental defence strategies, like for arguments sake the U.S. alliance, are not typically significantly altered by partisan politics.

    Regarding the Taliban I was just challenging the notion that Australian military involvement in Vietnam was a particularly “right wing” thing to do, considering Labor governments supported and continue to support major military deployments to “American” wars where, arguably, fewer Australian interests are at stake. I don’t see how Frasiers support for the war in Vietnam puts him well to the right (on par with Tony Abbott) when Rudd’s support for the war in Afghanistan does not. What’s the difference? Are the Taliban bad enough to justify the support of ‘the left’ but the Viet Cong were not? The real “bad guys”? I remember reading of many instances where Viet Cong units would move into rural Villages at night forcing the young men to fight at gunpoint, raping women and killing village elders. This systematic intimidation through indiscriminate rape and killing was not an uncommon tactic for the communists, is that bad enough? Somehow I don’t think the nastiness level of the people we happen to be fighting justifies supporting a US war as being “right wing” or not.

  16. Tim on 2nd June 2010 11:45 am


    I absolutely respect your opinion on Vietnam/interventionism and indigenous affairs. Both would make excellent discussion points on their own, however I think including fundamentally political points in a blog dedicated to a detached analysis of the Australian political system may contaminate what is a unique and excellent blog.

    As to your other points, I see a disconnect here between the premise and the conclusion of your argument. Initially you ridicule the notion that the Liberal party has moved to the right of Frasier, but then go on to argue that the whole spectrum of Australian politics have shifted right, facilitated by the Labor party becoming a centrist institution. If Labor has moved to the right, and the Liberals have also moved to the right in order to remain some differential then the party must have necessarily moved further to the right of Frasier, unless the party moved to the left under Howard?

    In any case I think you make an excellent point on the justification for the Liberal party having hard right policies, or indeed the lack of it. The fact that Frasier had some sort of perceived justification for his policies on Vietnamese refugees (there was actually some “threat” of large movements of people) and Abbott does not illustrates a fundamental difference in ideology in my opinion. Frasier implemented harsh policies on refugees because in his opinion he had to, Abbott does because he thinks it will provide him with an angle in an election year. For me that firmly puts Abbott to the right of Frasier.

    As a post script I have a question regarding your opposition to any intervention in a developing nation. Would you have supported a large scale, western military intervention in Rwanda in 1994? Do “peace enforcement” operations generally fit your notion of military interventions in developing nations?


  17. Ricc on 2nd June 2010 3:43 pm

    Tim, I suppose the key weakness in what you are saying, from my point of view, is to assume “Labor” = “Left” – I don’t. I doubt any position they’ve held this side of WWII could be described as “Left”; in fact, this is part of their hollowness, their ‘pledge’ and other such rubbish.

    And as we know, most wars are late. Too late for the issue the war is supposedly about. The fatal blows to Saddam’s WMD program had been done long before a war supposed to remove it. US adventurism in Vietnam was a response to Soviet tentacles in the area, again long past any real possibility of the Sovs using Vietnam for any global advantage.

    Fraser trading on anti-communism made sense to a world brought up on Stalin, Mao and the crazy ideas of Communist world domination, but when you look at the sedate, lumbering monster of the 1970s Eastern bloc it was hard to see the same monolith that earlier anti-communists saw. The Sovs failure in Afghanistan only confirmed what many suspected.

    I don’t see the point of saying the different bad guys were badder than each other. You probably could rank them if you wanted to; but none deserve their support from where they rank alone. I don’t know which “Left” you think believes the Viet Cong were the good guys. They were just one army fighting another with whatever people and goods they could muster.

    This sort of thinking is what keeps Israel and Palestine appealing to their foreign support bases. If they accepted that both do the wrong thing, and lots of it, we might be on the road to doing something about it. It is not saints that need international law, but sinners.

  18. Cavitation on 3rd June 2010 9:50 am

    The “Right” in Australia is basically not for anything, but rather is anti- whatever the left is following. The Right defines itself by what it opposes instead of what it is for. Anti-communism was the cement that held the Right together in the past, before communism disintegrated. But this tradition has given them big problems when the Australian left has adopted centre or consensus positions. The left is worried about global warming, the right then automatically objects to this, and because they cannot encourage warming, then they can only deny its existence. But this approach leads to confusion when the Labor party adopts a reasonable policy on resource taxes, parental leave, economic stimulus in a recession and so forth.

  19. Ricc on 3rd June 2010 5:27 pm

    So do you think we will ever get a ‘genuine’ Right?

    Either rabid libertarian or rabid conservative or a mixture?

    Will we ever become North Dakota, chasing teenage girls into jail for nicking across the state border for an abortion? What is it we lack that stops us having a ‘genuine’ Right?

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