Monday, 23 March 2015 

Greeting the false dawn of Australian conservatism.

Greeting the false dawn of Australian conservatism.

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

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12 responses to “Fraser”

  1. JH on 23rd March 2015 9:50 am

    Fraser was not unique of course. Others whose fierce anti communism had defined them as conservative or ‘right wing’ included B.A. Santamaria and Robert Manne. Santamaria became good friends with former leftie Clyde Cameron and wrote scathing articles about the Hawke Keating economic changes. Robert Manne, released from the communist threat, found that he was actually a small l liberal who also argued against the shift rightwards in economics. Excellent article by the way, though I have a different view of what Hawke Keating did.

  2. Paul Sanderson on 23rd March 2015 10:02 am

    That’s a really good piece. Ta.

  3. Harry the Horse on 23rd March 2015 11:30 am

    Excellent, thank you.

  4. F on 23rd March 2015 11:40 am

    Finished beautifully.

    There’s some irony in the Megalogenis program airing now, as the tide of global prosperity ebbs away from our shores. Not mentioned is the aching desire of the media for Australia’s leaders to be “Great ‘Men'”, striding the global stage.

    If it turns out our leaders are mostly reactionary ho’hums who have just experienced blind luck, then it really shows just how irrelevant the gallery types actually are.

    Canberra ain’t Washington or London, that’s for sure.

    “Making Australia Great” sounds like a slogan for a camping supplies store

  5. Dianne on 24th March 2015 6:05 am

    Thanks Shrike for an interesting piece.

    I was particularly engaged by your observation that we have accepted neo-rationalism as The Way To Go.

    I enjoyed George Megaloginis’ first installment. The old films and interviews were delightful but I was unmoved by his seeming acceptance that anything that the Hawke-Keating ‘reforms’ turned this country from a backwater into a glittering global success story.

    The word ‘reform’ should always be in a cage of quotation marks. I am contemptuous of the manner in which it is used as a mark of approval to describe economic policies which have resulted in social disruption in this country.

    If neo-liberalism is so good for us why do we have such high youth unemployment, a degraded environment, a collapsed manufacturing sector and a yawning wealth divide.

    Why is it that those employed are now working longer hours than ever or finding it difficult to get enough casual hours? Why is it that young couples cannot buy their first home in a real estate market which is selling what are little more than sheds with lacework being worth more than an 18th century chateau in France? Why have we turned our education system into a market geared for profits? The scandalous rorting by some ‘training colleges’ is stomach turning as TAFE is being hobbled.

    Where will we be after another 30 plus years of ‘reforms’?

  6. Riccardo on 26th March 2015 9:29 am

    Great piece of course and Dianne, I understand your frustrations at the ‘reforms’ but they speak to the underlying Australian condition, which is that Australia is fundamentally unviable ‘on its own’ and as TPS is often pointing out, has to borrow everything:
    -its defence
    -its capital
    -its workforce
    -its common culture
    -its political culture

    nothing is indigenous except the people whose ancestors were here pre 1788.

    Mega’s show is ironic indeed, with the “Australian model” he is touting not even getting the 5 minutes of economic sunshine.

    A lot of people cannot see Europe for what it is either. Chris Patten, in his book, gave much of the game away when he noted that Switzerland and Norway, for example, pretend not to be members of the EU, for local consumption. They contribute billions each year, the membership fee they pretend they are not paying.

    Europe is basically an economic and security zone, which struggles for fundamental reasons to provide too much of either, and has yet to find political unity, although paradoxically, finds what unity there is in the opposition to such unity. When Greeks whinge about Angela Merkel, they are bypassing their own leadership and complaining to the German they believe is their real President.

    Politics is always a hall of mirrors, and this is why TPS is so prescient and so few others are, can see past the superficial.

  7. Riccardo on 26th March 2015 9:39 am

    TPS, excellent piece and that’s why a lot of lefties like myself feel oddly uncomfortable commemorating Fraser, because I seem to remember my real feelings about the man from the time.

    The role of an Australian leader is to impose global reality on the Australian population, who, as I am fond of pointing out, are only a ersatz population in any event. The global realities that Fraser had to impose were what you said – Black Africa had every right to assert its real independence after the faux independences the British and other colonists tried to stitch together post WWII.

    Asia was the battle ground between former colonists and liberation movements who in reality were nationalist (and were asserting the first genuine nationalism in centuries, people forget how many were under Chinese suzerainty, or others). Despite being nationalist, they were happy to take what they needed from Soviet generosity, and this is what worried Fraser and his masters (and Whitlam too, despite leftist fantasies to the contrary).

    Asian nationalism and liberation is an ugly thing. Ugly in Indonesia, ugly in Cambodia, ugly everywhere, and Fraser was basically trying to impose the reality when it was clear US attempts to oppose reality had failed.

    Europe in Fraser’s time was split and while Soviet domination had already failed and was evident to most people, the Soviet system had no quick mechanism to wind it up, with everyone else pointing the finger. Like the Russian dolls, Kruschev was half the man Stalin had been, and his successors half again. Genuine western opposition to Stalin gave way to symbolic opposition later.

  8. Riccardo on 26th March 2015 11:00 am

    South Africa had some commonalities with Spain.

    Franco had to turn from his pro-fascist dalliances and recognise the triumph of the Allies in Western Europe and try to accommodate this. By making strong anti-Soviet noises, he tried to legitimise his harsh dictatorship which otherwise would have been logically removed in the washup of Potsdam. It’s not like he was in any position to fight the Allies had it come to that.

    Had Hungary been any further west geographically, it too might have come under the thumb of western allies forced itself to change to accommodate this.

    South Africa too, tried to promote anti-Soviet rhetoric as a way of prolonging what was eventually coming for it.

    It’s not like the West was alone in having awkward allies in the Cold War. You look at the motley crew the Soviet Bloc had on board, from Laos to Angola, and even India on a good day.

    People forget what Sovietism actually was. It started as a genuinely ‘internationalist’ movement that felled the states contiguous with Russia like dominos, saw no limits of race or ethnicity preventing the forced adoption of Leninism. Had it actually worked, it might have been more popular – it’s not like capitalism was covering itself in glory.

    It was only that as an economic model Sovietism didn’t actually work that imposed any limits on its continued expansion, and bizarrely, saw Asian and African countries post-war look to it after the Europeans a generation earlier realised its limits.

  9. Greg on 26th March 2015 9:09 pm

    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”

    That ‘campaign warning’ was dragged from Malcolm Fraser by an act of BLF provocation, several acts in fact. The PM was doing an outdoor lunchtime gig at the National Mutual forecourt on Collins Street. I guess he figured the city workers would give him a bit of support. It was a rowdy meeting but the crowd was generally attentive and fairly good natured.

    The BLF (one of the most maligned unions of the day) were controlling some concrete mixers over the road at Gurner’s Lane as Fraser gave his speech. He would line up his rhetorical points with a view to setting up for his big fist pumping point when the concrete truck would start reversing out of Gurner’s Lane with a klaxon horn blaring at top volume, drowning out the big point and derailing Fraser’s rhetorical rhythm.

    On my count this quotus interruptus happened three times courtesy of the BLF and it was then that a very flustered Malcolm Fraser came up with the under the bed line. It was a wonderful piece of political theatrical sabotage on the day and made Fraser look like a goose for a day or two during the campaign. Which was of course the point of the exercise.

    Sadly, unscripted outdoor political speeches were out of fashion by the end of the 1980’s precisely because of the possibility of this type of sabotage.

    I saw Hayden, Hawke, Fraser and Peacock strut their stuff outdoors and they were all capable of mixing it in a public environment and holding their own, although even then old guys like Killen and Daly were bemoaning the decline of the outdoor meeting.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 27th March 2015 4:43 pm

    Nice story. Fraser usually liked a rowdy outdoor meeting to polarise and show himself up against “rowdy socialists”. By 1983, however, it was just seen as negative and more divisiveness against Hawke’s bringing us together, la-la-lah.

    Such outdoor meetings seem a world away from today where insecure politicians would be terrified of anything Going Wrong and undermining their already tenuous authority – not least that nobody might turn up.

  11. Greg on 27th March 2015 8:12 pm

    Yeah, the Hawke one I saw in ’83 was more in the way of a “Save the Franklin” rally on a Sunday and, as you say, Bob was bringing us all together.
    Here in Melbourne another perception was that the Biblical plagues were upon us as portents of electoral change. We had sandstorms from the Mallee, Black Tuesday and possibly some locusts as well. It just added to the perception that Fraser couldn’t take a trick.

  12. Riccardo on 7th April 2015 2:52 pm

    The new Malcolm is not afraid of the public. Even with the crap they against him on Facebook.

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