Monday, 23 March 2015
It’s been said that history shouldn’t be read backwards, but that’s the only way it can be done, and the furious re-writing of Fraser’s government, not least by the man himself, naturally says more about the preoccupations and defensiveness of the political scene today than what happened then.
Take one example, his foreign policy. Much is being made of his human rights record, especially in his role to negotiate a settlement in Zimbabwe and the end of white minority rule. But as expected, there’s been not a single mention of the most contentious foreign policy decision of his Prime Ministership, the one that caused his former Foreign Minister to resign and make Fraser only the third Liberal leader to be challenged while in office.
We are talking here, of course, of the Fraser government persisting with its recognition of Pol Pot after it had been toppled by the Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Fraser’s continuing diplomatic support for one of most murderous regimes of the last fifty years is worth pointing out not just because it is so out of kilter with the image promoted of Fraser in recent years.
It also points to the very different political framework Fraser operated under that makes any sort of clear appraisal of the Fraser years so difficult for the left and right today. In Fraser’s own case it also helps explain, as Greg Sheridan nicely put it, how arguably Australia’s most right-wing occupant of the Lodge became one of the most left-wing when he left it.
The main reason that the government continued to recognise Pol Pot was to contain Vietnam.
Fraser’s career was framed by Vietnam. His first portfolio was as the gung-ho Minister for the Army presiding over the sending of 20 year old conscripts to the Vietnam War and, as Howard noted on Friday night on 7.30, one of its most forceful advocates. As recorded in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, and Sheridan reminded, that advocacy stretched to Fraser, on a trip to Washington in 1964, questioning why the US was so quick to rule out using nuclear weapons to halt the Viet Cong.
By the time the Coalition returned to office under Fraser in 1975, Saigon had fallen and the Americans had been thrown out. Australian and US foreign policy had already been adapting to the defeat, switching from direct military confrontation to containing Vietnam through encirclement. This is what underpinned Whitlam and Nixon’s visits and recognition of China, later repaid through China’s military support of the Khmer Rouge and, following the fall of Phnom Penh to Vietnamese forces, China’s direct invasion of Vietnam itself in 1979.
If Fraser’s diplomatic support of Pol Pot seems incomprehensible now, it is only because the missing element of the time has been long written out, i.e. the pressure that national liberation movements were placing the West under at the time. The Pol Pot regime may have been slaughtering a third of its own population but it was less of a threat than a country that had just given the global superpower its first convincing military defeat. Even the issue of refugees was seen in that context. The Fraser government stopped all aid to Vietnam not only in retaliation for the Cambodian invasion but for the flow of refugees as it tried to contain “illegal” refugees arriving by boat (the first time that term was widely used).
Containing left-wing nationalism was a similar, if less jarring, consideration in the support from Fraser, and Whitlam, for Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975.
This pressure is also the missing element in the sudden involvement of Australian politicians in the dismantling of the white minority governments of Rhodesia and South Africa after ignoring it for decades. Again the missing element was the growing pressure these regimes were under from their own people, often armed and backed opportunistically by the Soviet Union. Those like Thatcher, Hawke and Fraser may have disagreed on the best way to manage it, but they were all reacting to the pressure applied by the black populations and more a concern over the spread of pro-Soviet governments than the purity of their own consciences.
This pressure was the real drive behind the regionalism that was one of the three planks of a new settlement that began under the Holt, McMahon Coalition in the late 1960s, then put into practice by Whitlam and Fraser in the 1970s. The other two planks of this settlement, the new arrangement with indigenous people was again started with the extension of race powers under Holt, the proposal of land rights legislation by Whitlam and later passed and enacted by Fraser. And again for the third plank, multiculturalism, with White Australia abandoned under Holt, the adoption of multiculturalism under Whitlam and then made tangible with the first significant Asian immigration from Vietnam under Fraser.
Now we start to get an idea why Fraser has been a problem for the right now. His role in reinforcing the Whitlam Settlement has put him at odds with a right that has increasingly defined itself against it and looked to roll it back. It is a conflict that the Liberals’ former leader has only been too willing to push back on as he became an increasing critic of the culture war moves by Howard and Abbott over immigration and asylum seekers.
Yet it’s important to note that although Fraser’s support of the Whitlam Settlement may make him seem a left winger now, it certainly didn’t then. The necessity of responding to real pressure at the time made it more a practical policy of necessity than left-wing ideals – and was why it achieved bipartisan support from equally crusty right-wingers like Doug Anthony.
In fact, as Sheridan notes, Fraser was seen at the time as one of the most right wing Prime Ministers in Australian history, comparable to how Thatcher was seen in the UK. Again this may seem difficult to believe today. The reason is that Fraser had at that time several political tools that are now no longer available to the right, and which he used with enthusiasm.
The first was anti-communism. Fraser was a leading proponent of the dangers of communism in his prosecution of the war in Vietnam that had so impressed Howard, and was a sceptic of the détente policy pursued by the US administration when the Coalition returned to office in 1975. Fraser’s hardline policy was set out in his State of the World speech in June 1976, which Whitlam called “one of the most regrettable and reactionary speeches we have heard in this House”.
Despite Fraser placing himself on the hawkish side of the Ford and Carter administrations, he remained a fervent supporter of the US alliance – in sync with the US’s similar support for Pol Pot, for example – and aimed to rectify the damage the Coalition saw to have been done under Whitlam. Fraser’s attitude to the US alliance has often been mis-represented (not least due to the rewriting by Fraser himself). He was not against the US alliance, but rather the opposite, i.e. its perceived erosion from a reduced US commitment to the region since the fall of Vietnam – a position consistent with his hawkishness and scepticism of détente.
Both anti-communism and the reliance on the US alliance had been mainstays of the Liberal party since its founding in the 1940s. It was the glue that held the right together, and was especially important for an Australian right that had to borrow the normal institutions of continuity and authority from overseas. In this, Fraser placed himself firmly in the tradition of past Liberal leaders.
However, there was a third aspect to Fraser’s government that led him to being perceived as not only a conservative administration, but as a certain Paul Kelly noted at the time, an active one at that.
If you read the recent obituaries you would have said the reason for the divisiveness of the Fraser years was “the Dismissal”. Well kinda. The issue however, was not the dismissal itself – it’s not as though there is a deep passion in the Australian electorate for constitutional niceties – but the political context in which it was happening, i.e. of the Coalition’s attack on Labor’s spending and the unions.
It was something that Labor was already giving ground on a few months before with the cuts in the Hayden Budget (which is why Whitlam did campaign on constitutional niceties in the 1975 election). But it was the attack on the unions and spending that defined Fraser’s agenda for his supporters and detractors both before and after 11/11/75. The Dismissal only polarised an already polarised electorate.
Fraser’s willingness to break with precedent over the use of viceregal powers was in line with his break from previous leaders in rolling back the influence of union power and state spending. He started with gusto with the Razor Gang led by Reg “Toecutter” Withers and the first piece of anti-union legislation, undermining closed shop agreements, was introduced in 1976. Whitlam’s Medibank was also undermined with the introduction of private healthcare until it was closed altogether in 1981.
Fraser’s agenda was later to be characterised as the “New Right” and it is no surprise that he caught the attention of Thatcher, who came to visit him in Australia shortly after she was elected, being only the second British Prime Minster at the time to do so. In a memorandum on her meeting with Fraser it noted that:
The British Government had tried to profit from Australia’s experience in introducing an early budget and tackling industrial relations. Her own first budget reflected a determination to make an early start on cutting expenditure and following a different path on incentives and taxation. The budget had not applied sudden brakes; but it was a firm and determined start.
But Thatcher had two important advantages Fraser did not. The first was that she could still rely on the authority and continuity of the right’s institutions that in Fraser’s case were borrowed to start with, and already used, and damaged, by the way he came to power.
More importantly, however, Thatcher faced a union movement that had already been broken and demoralised by its experience under the Social Contract with UK Labour that resulted in deep cuts to government spending and the biggest drop in real wages experienced that century. It ended with the union membership rebelling in the “Winter of Discontent”, and the collapse of the Social Contract and the Labour government.
Fraser on the other hand faced a union movement that had suffered no such defeat. Indeed it had achieved a rather satisfactory wages “break-out” when inflation took off in 1974-75. This was the problem at the core of the Whitlam modernising project, in weakening ties with the unions to increase its electoral appeal, it undermined its ability tor restrain unions when the economy went sour.
But Fraser had no solution either. In a sense, Fraser’s position was more akin to Thatcher’s Conservative predecessor, Ted Heath, who confronted a united mining union, and lost, compared to the demoralised and divided union Thatcher faced, and beat.
It was the inability to confront the unions that created the biggest impasse to Fraser’s agenda. It was this impasse that led to what Fred Chaney summed up on Friday as the emergence of the “Wets” and the “Drys” within the Liberal party – both sides of a dilemma they were unable to resolve for the next twenty years. This social barrier has been misrepresented as a problem of lack of political will by the right ever since. Not least by Howard who, as Fraser’s Treasurer, claimed he never got the support he needed. But this begs the question as to why Howard, a well known “Dry”, was promoted at such an early age to be Fraser’s Treasurer in the first place. It was not for lack of intent.
By 1982, Australia was in the grips of recession, spending cuts had to go in reverse and Fraser was now having to drop the anti-union rhetoric and look to the ACTU for support for a six-month wage freeze, something he had at least reached an agreement with the Premiers in the public sector. At the time, however, the new Shadow Minster for Industrial Relations, Bob Hawke, having arrived in Parliament in the 1980 election, had already got the ACTU to agree in principle to a prices and income policy that would later form the basis of the Accord.
By the time Fraser confronted Hawke in the 1983 election, Fraser’s agenda had run its course. He banged on about the dangers of union control, but his appeal to the ACTU had already undermined that tactic, much as Whitlam’s last Budget had undermined his case against the opposition eight years before. Anti-communism had lost its power. Fraser’s campaign warning that voters should put their money under the beds as they wouldn’t be safe in the banks was met with Hawke’s retort that “that’s where the Reds are”, the last Cold War exchange in Australian politics and burying an issue that had riven Labor for three decades.
The Australian experiment in New Conservatism was over, to be replaced by the real conservatism that underpinned the stability of Australian politics for the last century, that of Labor and the unions. As in the UK, Labor’s accord with the unions resulted in employees experiencing the biggest fall in real wages of the last century, but this time there was no rebellion and it stuck. The end result was much the same, however, with union membership going into terminal decline to become the insignificant social force it is today and Labor’s primary vote slowly drifting down in its wake.
By the time the right returned 13 years later, the job had already been done. Howard did some faux Thatcherite posturing against the dockers and, of course, there was Workchoices, that “vindictive bitchinesss” that employers neither wanted nor needed. Instead, with its real agenda gone, the right now defined its brand by rolling back the Whitlam Settlement it helped set up.
This obviously put them in conflict with Fraser and he had basically two choices. Either join the right and disown the settlement he helped set up, or defend it but as a moral necessity rather than the realpolitik one it was. He chose the latter, and who can blame him? Given that the right like Howard were busy re-writing their own roles in the Fraser government, there’s no reason why Fraser shouldn’t do some re-writing of his own rather than join their sham. And besides, being out of power and in retirement is a perfect time to take up moral positions.
It would have helped that he could be hailed as a hero, with no questions asked, by an equally powerless and rootless left, as it drifted from one moral posture to another, but when it came down to reality, either entering into coalitions with government implementing the policy, as they did with asylum seekers or, as the opposition to closure of indigenous communities shows, having less weight and social impact than AFL players with a social conscience.
As for the rest of the political class, the media continue to taunt them, as George Megalogenis is doing on the ABC right now, with a lack of political will to carry out “reform”. In doing so, they are inadvertently assisted by a right that justifies their own impasse under Fraser in a similar way and a left that would rather see the Hawke/Keating years as a triumph of will rather than the real social sell-out it was. So we are left with the ghost of reform haunting our political class, moving among them, and stopping occasionally to whisper in their ear, “You are not as you once were”.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 23 March 2015.Filed under Political figures