|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 14, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Do you think that what you did in South Africa, that group, is a model that might be used elsewhere in the world in trouble spots?
Oh only in the sense that maybe at different times a group can go somewhere and try and analyse the problem or propose means that might get differing parties together. I don't think the solutions that we proposed for South Africa would have any particular relevance because the condition of South Africa, with the imposition of apartheid and all the rest, was really unique in the world. And the problems of South Africa are not in the same form repeated, I think, in any other country. So what we were doing was specifically related to South Africa. But the idea of mediation, the idea of trying to get people into a conference, the idea of trying to get a unified government and those sorts of principles can apply in other parts of the world. But the circumstances are going to be so different that you can't say, 'Well this is what was done in South Africa, let's do that somewhere else'. It wouldn't be appropriate.
Since you ceased to be prime minister, has there been a sort of ... I mean one speculates, you know, because you were young when you left. Has there been a sort of restlessness in you, trying to find something significant to do?
Oh there probably was for a while because - what was I - 53 and I wasn't sure what I was going to do for a while. I've been involved with CARE for about the last six or seven years and I have some business commitments in Japan and the United States which takes you to those places two or three times each year. And then I have the United Nations involvement and the Commonwealth involvement, all of which took quite a bit of time. So it's really been a very busy period and quite apart from that there's a farm to run.
Do you enjoy that?
The farm? Oh very much so, yes.
What is it about it that you like?
Oh I think trying to breed better stock and you know we've just had a record bull sale and with record prices for us and record numbers of bulls sold. And I always like doing practical things and this is a practical thing. We're breeding better sheep, better wool and it's a cattle stud and a ram stud so it's an intensely busy place. We're fairly progressive in the techniques we use and all the cattle are on a computer program for example and this is, I think, essential for modern breeding. And you know for a long time after I became a member of parliament I had the view that what people did sitting down behind a desk wasn't work. I mean work meant getting physically tired, it meant getting dirty, it meant using a crowbar and a shovel to dig a post hole and whatever. And I still think that's work in a different category. But even farms these days you have machines to do a lot of things that used to be done physically.
And you regret that a little bit do you?
No I don't regret it. It obviously makes life a lot easier and people can go on doing things which otherwise bad backs for others would make it impossible or very difficult. But it was whatever it was, it was part of - you know I know sitting behind a desk is work, but for a long while I felt that it wasn't.
Whatever you think of work, life seems for you to have been about achievement, that it's been very important to you to have a sense of achievement. Was that something you think that has come to you from your childhood? Was that something that was expected of you in the household?
No I don't think so. You know I think when I went into politics my parents both believed, 'Really should he be doing this? Will he make an ass of himself? He's very young', and all the rest. But people do achieve things at pretty young ages these days and there's nothing particularly surprising about that. But I've always looked to the future and I suppose I've always wanted to do interesting things. Whether it's positively about achieving or not I don't know.
Did you admire your grandfather, Sir Simon Fraser, more than your father?
No, not at all. I never knew my grandfather.
But you knew about his record. He was a bit of a legend in the family.
Yes but he had a tremendous stimulus to do a great many things because he had come here as an impoverished Canadian with absolutely nothing and clearly he wanted to get away from that condition. I once said to Field Marshall Slim when he was Governor-General, you know, I suppose in a gratuitous way, 'What an achievement, foot soldier to field marshall'. And he just looked at me and he said, 'Obviously you have no [idea of the] condition of a British Private, because if you had you would understand that it is the most powerful motivation to get as far away from that wretched state as possible'. And so I suppose my grandfather had the same kind of motivation. Get away from that state. And he hadn't spent four years in the trenches in France at any time of his life.
So with you - without privation in your early life to stimulate you, what do you think was your goad? What made Malcolm run?
Oh I find that very difficult to answer. I certainly wanted to do interesting things and indicated earlier ,I think, that I really became member for Wannon almost by accident. I'd thought that one day maybe I'd like to go into politics, after all it will fit in well with being a farmer. It's not really true, because being a politician is much more than a full-time job. Some people, in earlier times, had made it fit in well, but they were more leisurely, in that sense more luxurious days I suspect. So maybe I originally became a politician in a certain degree of ignorance.
What about your maternal grandfather? Not many people know that he was actually Jewish. Did you have anything to do with him?
No, I never knew him either.
Do you think there was anything of that background that came through your mother to you?
Well obviously there'd be some blood or genes or whatever through from grandfathers, but I don't know how you can physically be influenced by people that you've never really met or known or been able to talk to.
I mean some people might wonder whether or not it was this background that made what has surprised some people - your attitude to racial issues - softer than people of your general political persuasions have.
What do you mean by softer?
In that you've been very - maybe it's harder in that you've been very critical of anybody who adopts a racist stance.
Well I don't know where that came from, but it's, whatever it is, it's just part of me. And I've made speeches in 1960 or '61 or something - was that the time of Sharpeville - about Sharpeville because when I was prime minister the journalists, who don't do very much homework and certainly wouldn't have been recording what an inconsequential private member was saying in 1960 or '61, they'd start to write: Fraser's taking this view because he thinks it's politically expedient, and whatever. But it was no different from the view I'd been expressing on earlier occasions, years earlier, and so it gets back to the question of stereotypes and the world people expect people to belong to, a certain pattern. And overwhelmingly, for the most part, people do not belong to those patterns. They might conform to some preconception in relation to a narrow area of activity or of interest, but then you shift that to something and you'll find - no, well he doesn't behave like a Western District farmer, he behaves like somebody else. And you shift it again to another area of interest and it's going to shift again, and this is really one of the great problems. If you don't fit a stereotype, Canberra journalists, at least, don't know how to report you and won't report you accurately - they'll just report their own wonderment, their own bemusement, 'We can't understand what ...' I said to - I don't know if we talked about this yesterday - but a meeting of Australian journalists in London on one occasion, and some - in today's world what are you meant to say - female, lady, woman journalist.
Whatever comes naturally to you.
She said to me, if I could ask one thing of journalists what would I ask, and I said, 'That'd be very simple, to report me exactly as I spoke because I use words with precision'. I mean exactly what I said, and if I didn't I'd correct it. But so often I'd find that I'd said this and journalists would say, 'Well Fraser said this, therefore what does he mean?' Instead of just taking the plain meaning of the words that I used, which is what I meant. And this report then appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald - 'Fraser made a special plea to journalists asking to be reported using the exact words that he used, saying, meaning exactly what he'd said. Obviously therefore Fraser had some hidden motive for saying this' and then the rest of the article was speculating about what in the hell I'd meant. You know, I think that just says it all.
When you were at Melbourne Grammar, and later around the sort of Melbourne establishment traps, did you ever encounter anti-Semitism?
Oh occasionally at Melbourne Grammar you would have, amongst some of the kids, yeah.
How did that strike you at the time?
I think I was so naive I didn't know why some of the kids were picking on others, and it's only later that I would have been conscious that the person being bullied or whatever was in fact a Jew. There weren't very many Jews at Melbourne Grammar.
Were you at all conscious of the fact that you had some Jewishness in your own background?
None at all. Never have been.
In relation to the media, over the years you've had a sort of love/hate relationship with the media because you've had to use it, or has it all been hate. I mean what do you think of the media, and what do you feel about its relationship with politics?
Well in many ways it's a very incestuous relationship. A senior journalist, who's now an editor, once said to me that she was taking a great risk on a certain issue because she was going to report certain actions of me and of the government in quite different ways to the rest of the gallery. I said, 'Why is that a risk? You happen to be reporting it accurately'. 'Oh yes, but other people don't think you mean what you're saying.' Same thing all over again. And Canberra really is a most insidious place and it's getting worse. It's getting larger and worse because it's still a public service, political centre and you now have third generation public servants. I was in a Perth Italian club and there are third and fourth generation Italians in it as well as people who've arrived fresh from Italy and who couldn't speak all that much English. And it was a large club, a prosperous club and there would have been probably a couple of hundred people drinking in it. The four journalists with me were mostly senior journalists and they were huddled down in the corner by themselves, speaking to themselves and I went over and said, 'Look, you spend your lives trying to interpret my government to ordinary Australians, and you can't even talk to ordinary Australians. Why don't you come and have a drink and meet a few ordinary Australians?' Fifteen minutes later they were back in their corner talking to themselves and one of them had the honesty to say to me the next morning that they just didn't know how to talk to the people in that club. And yet they had the impertinence every day of their lives to interpret me and the actions of my government to those very same Australians. And to pretend that they knew what was good for Australia. Now that is a total condemnation of Canberra, but it is typical of Canberra, and not only of journalists. It's also typical of - I had a head of a Prime Minister's Department saying to me in relation to correspondence, 'What does it matter? It's only from a member of the public'. And he should have known enough of me because permanent heads meet together and he would have known the permanent head in the army department, where I totally changed the culture of the department in relation to the public and indeed, in relation to the way they treated their own soldiers and members of the force. But to find the attitude repeated to me by the most senior public servant in the Commonwealth, you know, says - if politicians, if ministers don't sit on that attitude through the public service, and it's very hard, then nobody else will. And one of the sad things about it is that as the nature of the career public service has been broken down, the people who go in as political appointments have the same attitude. They're no different. I would much prefer to have a career public service - Paul Keating wouldn't have been led into the mistakes that he's made in Vietnam and Australian veterans, or people who were killed in Vietnam. He would have been properly and well advised by career public servants. It's people that come in with a government, don't know the history, don't know the traditions, who have no corporate memory. If you're advised by somebody who's been advising two or three other Prime Ministers before you, has seen the mistakes they've made, the successes they've made, you're going to be kept out of trouble much better than if you'd bring on your own principal person.
I suppose you can also be placed in trouble, if they want to, more effectively as well.
Yes, but that was not the habit of good public servants.
They took a great pride in keeping ministers out of trouble. They knew quite well that if a minister got into trouble, it rubbed off on the permanent head, it rubbed off on the department. How did the department allow this to happen? And the [lack of a] culture of a permanent public service is something that has, through the years, led to, led very often to very poor quality government in the United States. Six months of every American administration, so six months out of every four years is lost and wasted while the Presidents desperately try and appoint people to a whole multitude of jobs. And in relation to the public service we, unfortunately, are significantly going down the same track.
It's said however that you yourself were often in conflict with your permanent heads in a way that other ministers sometimes weren't. Were you somebody who was critical and analytical of the advice that was offered you by your permanent heads?
Oh people had to be able to justify their advice, but in what way, give me an instance.
Well there was of course your uniformed officer who you later had a big clash with, when you became Minister for Defence, and that was Daly. And then when you went to - there were several heads of departments after that, both at Defence and then at Education where there were specific instances where you disagreed with them.
Look, a disagreement is not a clash, and permanent heads do not expect to be agreed with on every point. But policy advice doesn't just come from permanent heads and the minister who only speaks to a permanent head is just stupid. You've got a whole raft of people in the department who've got knowledge and different levels and different areas of a department's responsibility. So you don't just listen to a permanent head and most permanent heads certainly want to be able to bring in their deputies and first assistant secretaries and all the rest to help argue a particular case with the minister.
It's been suggested that some of those heads that you came into conflict with complained about the fact that you did go below them and they felt that all advice from the department should be channelled through them to you. They felt that you set up lines of communication down into the department which they thought were improper, to use one of your phrases.
Well instead of saying they, who's they?
Some of the permanent heads ...
... that served under you.
The information that I have, that is in some of the books that have been written about you, related to Sir Hugh Ennore, to some of the other people who were in the early days when you first became a minister in the department of defence and ...
... in Education and Science.
I haven't read any of those books and that shows how much I think of them, and I'm surprised that I'm being asked questions on the basis of contemporary stories by journalists who don't do very much homework.
I suppose I was asking ...
Hugh Ennore was a very good permanent head, but he was the first to say, 'Use all the resources of the department'. In the army department it was exactly the same because no permanent head can carry in his mind the total resources of the department, or the arguments needed to support a certain point of view. So really the question that you've asked and the sources from which you've got it just indicate the total degree of ignorance of whoever the authors were.
So what I'm asking you is, in your experience were there ever any difficulties with permanent heads who were concerned about their own position when you reached down into the department to use the other resources within the department? Did you never have any clashes over that?
Any permanent head that I had encouraged me to use the resources of the department.
Right, so ...
And wanted the resources ...
... so those reports are completely wrong?
And indicate the ignorance of the authors.
Right. The reason that I was asking it, was that it did [suggest] an instance in which the question of who was in authority was raised, and of course that's always been a certain tension, hasn't it, between new politicians coming into a position and the tradition of the department, that there's always a settling in period as you ...
Oh well, when any two people have to work together there's probably a settling in period, but you know, a very good example I think is the Prime Minister's Department. I believe they worked harder in my time than they ever did under Mr Whitlam and certainly much harder than they did under Mr Hawke. And a lot of the senior people worked Saturdays and Sundays, or late at night if something was needed. But all felt they were contributing and I never had any sense of complaint. They liked the fact that they were contributing to the government.
They also knew that you were working very hard yourself. Do you think sometimes you've worked too hard for your own good?
Do you think it's possible to work too hard?
Oh if you work yourself into the grave it probably is, yes. But not many people do that. Probably more people who die from not working enough.
So how have you taken care of the fact that you've been in jobs where you really were asked to stretch yourself?
How do you mean, take care of it?
Well how have you taken care of your health and your family and the rest of your life?
Oh I used to come back here as often as possible and you could get back here from Canberra in a light aircraft in an hour and a half, and a lot of weekends we came back and that was fine. The Prime Minister's Department didn't like it much when I did, because generally I'd go back to Canberra with a - in the sort of, out in the paddocks or whatever you'd think of half a dozen things that'd be a good idea to do, so every time I went back they said I'd have six months work for the department in my briefcase. And sometimes that was true, but it was useful things. If I had ideas that the department thought weren't worth - thought not worth pursuing - they'd say so and we'd argue it out and come to a decision one way or another. And that's the sort of relationship that you need to have if you've got senior people and thoughtful people; you need to be able to use them and exchange ideas and see where you come up.
Who was the best public servant you ever worked with?
Probably Arthur Tange.
Because he was principled, able, thoughtful, very tough, very hard working.
Did he give you a good argument?
Oh if he didn't agree with me of course he would, yes. That was ...
And did you enjoy that?
Yes, but it's essential. I mean any - there are two kinds of public servants who are no use to me at all - the person who'd come into my office, make an assertion and not be able to back it, not be able to argue it, not be able to demonstrate that what he was saying had some substance to it. You knew that sort of person was dangerous because they wouldn't do their homework adequately and they could give advice that would be very faulty. And the other sort of person was one who just [said], 'Alright, he's the prime minister, I won't argue with him. I'll just accept what he has to say and that's it'. You needed somebody, who if he had views, would put them forward, would argue. Because nobody's got a monopoly of common sense, nobody's got a monopoly of judgement or wisdom and the only way you could work out the best course is through discussion, through analysis and you have to have public servants who are prepared to stand a bit of a grilling if they're putting forward a point of view and then at the end of that you might well be concluding, 'Yes, right, this chap's got something worth following. We've got to do it'.
Have you ever felt the necessity to soften your manner because you felt that you were intimidating somebody who might have something to tell you that it would be useful to hear, but who became afraid because of the fact that you were so strong?
Well I think permanent heads mostly will have told people in their departments that I expected them to argue, I expected them to stand up and by the time they were senior within the Prime Minister's Department, or for that matter the Department of Education, I'd expect them to be able to stand up and argue their point. And I didn't often find people who weren't willing to do that. I mean the quality public servants welcome that approach because they knew that they'd do a better result.
Are you conscious of the fact that you can be intimidating to people? Is this something that you've been told? And have you tried to moderate that at all?
No I don't think I'm intimidating and I haven't really - occasionally I have but I don't really think I can you know. Public servants are dealing with all sorts of people all the time and if they're too intimidated to put forward their point of view or to be able to argue their point of view, well, they probably haven't got what it takes.
Given the situation you described in which you invited the press to relate to ordinary people in a club and they were unable to do it, do you find it irksome, irritating, that you have had an image, created by the press, of someone who, yourself, is aloof and not able to mix with the general public and is perhaps a little bit removed from the general public?
I think this is one of the, one of the things that started to be promoted after my resignation from the Gorton government. And I was an easy target for it, you know, Melbourne Grammar, Oxford, Western District, how in hell can he possible relate. During one of the elections, I've forgotten which one, the Labor Party or - no, journalists - had people down in the electorate for three or four weeks and after four or five days, I had reports coming back - you've got a few friends around here, they're trying to either find some dirt or they're trying to get people from Wannon to be critical of you as a local member. Trying to say that you're stuck up or aloof or that you don't respond to the needs of the electorate. Anything at all. Anyway, they spent four weeks and I had to spend an awful lot of money and there was never a report out of that visit. They never objectively reported what they found was that people in this electorate found that they were better served than they ever had been before in their lives and that Fraser looked after the local interests of the people of Wannon very carefully and with a great deal of hard work and conscientiousness, which is what they had found.
Given your poor view of the media and journalists generally, their standards ...
Yes, but when journalists do this, they're very often instructed to it by somebody more senior.
It's not necessarily the working journalist's fault. I've had journalists telling me at times that they have been instructed by people on high, from their head office and they say they wished they hadn't got to do it, but they've been given an assignment and they've got to do it. So while some journalists might concentrate on that area, I don't think all do.
But you feel a certain at least ambivalence about the media and the way it goes about its business, and nevertheless you've been forced to use it like all politicians. How have you approached the whole question of relating to the media, who after all are the way you can communicate with a wider public? And how did you deal with the tremendous importance of how you appeared on television and how you presented yourself there? Did you put work into that?
Oh some, but I didn't go to any school. I mean the worst thing is when you're speaking straight down the lens into a camera, you know, in a three or a four or a five minute address to the nation or something. That really is the hardest thing to do and I think I took quite a long while to be reasonably competent at that. But you know, press conferences are not difficult. You go and you say what you want to say. You answer questions the way you want to answer them. I've never been particularly phased by questions and I've generally known how to answer them. On most of the questions that you're asked, on most you're always going to know more about the subject than a journalist. And that puts you at an advantage.
There's been a whole tendency in modern leadership towards personality politics and that means image making. At any stage in your career did you work specifically on changing your image?
No I certainly didn't. I think my press officer might sometimes, and occasionally when I was tired he'd say, 'Why not - we've had an offer to do this, wouldn't you like to do this?' And if I'd been thinking properly I would have said, 'Don't be so silly', and I think they try and ...
What kind of things? What kind of things were suggested to you that you wish you hadn't done?
Well I was down at the ABC one night doing an interview on some sort of political subject and there was a music mixed-up show - what was it called, I've forgotten - anyway they said would I introduce it one night. This was a show for youngsters and people jiving around and it wasn't a thing for me to introduce, and if I'd had any sense I would have just said no.
They wanted to make you look young and with it?
Oh they wanted me to be human and relate to young people. Well it's the wrong way to do it. It just makes you look - well it just shows that you're different from everyone else on that damn program. Because you're older and you're dressed differently and you're doing a different sort of job and inevitably you're going to be different. So if anything, the result is that it sets you apart instead of - and youngsters don't expect prime ministers to be on that sort of thing anyway.
How did you meet your wife, Tammy?
Oh somewhere in Victoria.
Doing what, do you remember?
No. I don't think you're going to get very far with these questions.
No, well I was just really wanting to find out what - how you met her, because I mean it was something important that we need to know. And what, really what I'm leading to is the part that she played in your life - in your political life.
Well in my political life Tammy played a tremendous part and was always enormous encouragement and support and always there when needed. And I suppose, you know, in many ways, was politically very helpful because with her personality people'd say, 'Tammy can put up with him, he can't be all bad'. But - and she was very good with the public. She was very good with demonstrators.
Oh she could bluff demonstrators out of demonstrating sometimes because it'd be very difficult to be nasty to her.
[end of tape]