Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

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When you got married to Tammy, were you conscious of the need to have a wife who would be able to help you in politics?

No, not at all.

Did she know what she was letting herself in for?

Well she didn't and I didn't. I mean I didn't when I became a politician, and I was already a politician when she married me and I suppose I only knew the beginning of it. Initially, you know, we were living here and I was travelling backwards and forwards each week when parliament was sitting. And I very quickly decided that that's a nonsense way of living, so we took a house in Canberra and for the period of the parliamentary session we stayed there and I told the electorate, 'I'm just not going to be available during this time'. Available, certainly if they've got a problem. They can get at me through the telephone, through my office or whatever, but not available to go to RSL smoke nights and not available to go to electoral functions. And I just said, 'It's nonsense going a thousand miles each week'. No, it would have been more, it would have been nearly 1 500 to and from work and that was accepted. My parliamentary colleagues thought - well that's the end of Fraser, he'll be a oncer, he'll lose his seat. But my majority went on rising because instead of going for an overseas trip in the recess, I'd come back to the electorate and I'd go around the electorate and I reported things to the electorate and I built up linkages and networks with different groups and organisations and people, I think probably more effectively than a lot of my colleagues. And the electoral vote seems to confirm that because for several elections, regardless of the swing, to or against the Liberal Party my own majority increased. But it made life a good deal more, or a good deal easier, moving up to Canberra and taking the kids there for the session. But it meant changing house, what, four times a year. Twice to Canberra and twice back here.

And with four children eventually, was this very difficult for Tammy?

Oh it got more difficult. She organised it very well and always seemed to have the kids ready to go to bed and whatever when ... I mean the parliament sat till 6 o'clock and then it resumed at 8 o'clock, so you had two hours for drinks or dinner or, if you were going out to dinner, that was the time in which it was done and if you were having people in to dinner, that's the time in which it was done. 'Eat it and beat it' was the way of it. Of course, it's difficult enough organising children anyway, and I probably didn't realise how effectively and how smoothly it all ran.

You took it a bit for granted you think?

Probably.

What contribution did she make to your political life?

Well the most important part of it would have been encouragement, help to me, especially when things were difficult. When you'd made your speech condemning Gorton, you know, you just really wonder what you're doing and where it's all going or what the future holds. And she was always there when needed or whatever, and later on when I was prime minister, the family were older so it was easier for her to come around and easier to do some political things in her own right or meetings or functions or whatever, and she was always very effective and very, very good at it.

Do you sometimes feel the public gets two for the price of one, when they have a, when you have a wife like Tammy, who has to be so active in things?

Oh they do, I'm sure they do.

Was she always happy that she'd made this choice, or did she sometimes wonder whether or not she'd done the wrong thing getting mixed up with a politician?

Oh, you'd have to ask her that.

Did she ever complain to you?

No, not at all.

Well that's probably unusual in politics I think, to have a wife who doesn't complain about being a politician's wife.

Mm.

So you were lucky to be supported in that way.

I was very lucky.

Did you feel that you were able in the circumstances of your life to be a good father to your children?

Well again, Tammy would probably carry the main burden of it, but I think the important thing was, when you do have time with the kids you make sure that your attention is with them and that you're not diverted or really thinking and talking about other things. Obviously they were going to boarding school when they were old enough and whatever, but you know, you needed to be around if you could be to teach them to ride or to fish or to shoot or whatever. But again, it's something that Tammy would have been carrying the main burden of.

Did you regret that? Did you wish you'd had more contact with them?

Yeah, you know, there were times certainly.

Do you think the children suffered at all because of your political career?

I think a political career's hard on any kiddie. The more senior the politician is, the more difficult it's going to be.

So was there ever any situation in which you felt that you would have liked to have protected them from the consequences, but you weren't able to?

Yes, but they never complained, and never said anything about it. There was one occasion involving one of the boys at Grimwade. During the supply crisis when the Labor Party had those 'Shame, Fraser, Shame' badges and one of the boy's form masters was wearing one of those badges when he was teaching my son. Now I learned about it almost by accident about a year after the event. But if I'd known about it at the time, there would have been a major riot in that school.

Was there anything else that you felt that they suffered with?

Well I think it was probably often difficult for them, but they weren't complaining. They knew I was involved in politics and at that time they knew I was prime minister, so you know, they didn't come home and say this happened or that happened or whatever.

Do you think they were proud of you and that you set them an example of what could be achieved in the world outside?

Well you'd have to ask them that.

Now, you're somebody who has always set yourself very, very high standards and judged yourself quite severely about things. In other words, been a perfectionist in what you set out to achieve, and quite often that goes along with sense, sometimes feelings of futility, even depression about where you're getting. Do you sometimes find it hard to keep enthusiastic about the world when you look around and you see that things aren't measuring up?

Oh I, you know, you don't - if I wasn't enthusiastic I wouldn't be involved with CARE Australia and CARE International. You have to accept the world as it is and it's a very imperfect place and you're never going to be able to - and no government is going to be able to - solve Australia's problems for all time and say, 'Right, now it's all smooth sailing, there're no problems, no difficulties'. All you can do is to handle the problems that inevitably arise as well as possible in your time and try and leave a country as well balanced and in a strong position for whoever your successors are. But if you think you can get out there and solve all problems, no difficulties are going to arise in the future, and have a sense of failure because you haven't succeeded, the task you've set yourself is a quite hopeless one. You know, from the basis of human nature, problems are going to keep on arising and therefore the art of government is how do you handle a situation in a continuum as it were. It's not - so it's not necessarily where you end up, it's the way you behave or it's what you can achieve along the way, because you're never going to end up at a final point. Life's not like that.

Would you describe yourself as an optimist?

Oh I think probably I am because I - if you weren't an optimist, I think you're very stupid being a politician. And probably stupid being involved with a major aid organisation.

But you don't really expect a lot from human beings. I mean you do feel that human beings on the whole are in a fairly imperfect state.

Well they are, but that's not inconsistent with expecting a good deal from people.

Especially yourself?

Well if you don't expect a reasonable amount from yourself, how can you expect anything from anyone else?

You've been critical of some of your colleagues on the grounds that they were emotional. That's been a theme in some of your criticisms.

One.

Well it was Andrew Peacock as well as John Gorton, both people that you said you felt ...

Oh I was thinking while I was in government.

And ...

I don't think, no I don't know that John Gorton was emotional all that much. He certainly wanted to get his own way. I don't think he was emotional in terms of losing control of his emotions.

How do you handle your own emotions? You're very careful about not expressing a lot on your face. It's a fairly inexpressive and guarded aspect that you present to the world.

Well if I lost my temper, politically, it would be because I intended to.

So you were never overtaken by anger?

Yes, but you've got to control it, unless you think it's going to be useful not to control it in a certain set of circumstances. And in private you might really let your hair down and whatever, and I think anyone needs that sort of safety valve from time to time, but it's not really a good thing to blow your top with colleagues or whatever.

What kind of things make you angry?

Oh deception, stupidity, inefficiency, laziness.

And ...

People not doing the job they're meant to do or said they would do.

In terms of emotion, would you be more likely to get angry or to do a Bob Hawke and weep?

Oh I'm more likely to get angry I think.

And if you were feeling yourself getting angry in situations where it wouldn't do you any good, what would you do about that?

Just not get angry.

Not get angry or control it?

Well control it - same thing.

So do you think the mastering of emotion and the use of emotion in a much more calculated and deliberate way is a very important part of leadership?

Well being able to control yourself, in whatever way, is certainly an important part of leadership. You can't have a leader who cannot control himself. How can he lead a team of very diverse people with differing characters, different temperaments, if he can't master himself?

Would you be able to respect yourself, would you be able to respect a leader who showed emotion publicly?

Showing emotion isn't necessarily something that destroys respect, but you really want to make sure or you want to believe or I would anyway, that a person is in control of themselves. I suppose you can always have extreme circumstances if somebody wept once, but if you're going to do it every time you have a press conference ...

Did you feel disappointed with yourself that you showed some emotion on the night that you, that you lost the election, in '83? Not very much but just a little bit showed through.

Some. Probably.

You would have preferred not to show anything?

Yes.

And yet some people say that it's because you're so in control of yourself that others have sometimes found it hard to see you as a sympathetic human being.

Well maybe, I don't know.

Had you ever sort of been advised to let down your guard a little bit more?

Oh I've been given all sorts of advice but I, you know I just, I don't think - it's not normally in my nature to show that sort of emotion publicly. So I prefer not to.

Looking back on your life so far, how would you like to be remembered, from all the things that you've done to this day?

I've never thought of that.

Well you are part of Australian history. You have a place as an individual in the history of the country. Maybe next century, how would you like people to look back on Malcolm Fraser?

I suppose I'd - well one of the things I'd like, and maybe it's not possible, is for them to really look at what I've done, rather than to read contemporary novels purporting to describe what I've done, because most of those contemporary novels are a lot of nonsense. I mean Philip Ayres made a serious attempt, but the first half of Philip's book is much better than the second half. And that was partly a question of time I think. It would have taken another 18 months to make the second half as good as the first half. But most of the other books are - really. And it's not just a view of journalists, but not too many people can write about contemporary events which they themselves have often been caught up with, with any degree of objectivity or even accuracy. You know a minister who writes a book from memory and memories are notoriously inaccurate. This is one of the problems with - if I do write a history of my own government, I can't rely on my memory for anything. Everything has to be checked.

You're thinking of doing this?

Well I might, I don't know.

Is that because you'd like to be remembered for what you've done rather than what you are? Has it meant more to you to actually be a person of action than to develop a certain character?

Well I think the stage has come really when I, I don't only owe it to myself or the record of my government, but I also owe it to some very good ministerial colleagues to try and set the record straight about what we've done, and what we achieved, because they've all been ... You know, when people criticise the Fraser years, it's not just criticising Fraser, it's criticising everyone who was a part of that government, because they all participated in the decisions and some of the latter-day critics, of course, were one of two of the government ministers at the time. But their criticisms don't stand up. They've been made for a different reason and a different purpose, and I think it's time the record was set straight. And none of the contemporary novels about the time have done that.

When you say novels you're actually referring to the biographies, but you think they're a bit fictional.

They're quite fictional in many respects. And I say that with total conviction, even though I haven't read one of them. I've just been told enough about them and I was asked to do a review of a book that somebody did the other day; that was Neil Brown. And I actually read it and I'd - it was for Quadrant - and I said, 'Look I can't write a review of that. You know, I can't find anything reasonable to say about it. It is not worth dignifying with a commentary'. It really wasn't.

So you're in two minds in some ways still, about whether or not you should commit yourself to writing to, in a sense, answer your critics by giving your account of things.

No I'm not really in two minds about it, but I'm - well I'm in two minds about it only for the reason that I'm not sure that I want to spend the amount of time that needs to be spent on it, and therefore I will not embark on the process unless I've got access to a really top research worker, who's prepared to bury him or herself in the matter for probably two years. Now I don't know whether such a person exists. A couple of people are looking, but I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to burrow through 600 yards of archives in Canberra, I really am not.

What are you going to do with the rest of your life, because you're still only in your early sixties.

Well at the moment I'll go on doing what I'm doing, running the farm, trying to look after CARE Australia and CARE International. I've got a few other business commitments.

For you as a human being now, forget the leader, but just as a person, having lived through sixty years of the 20th century, what for you has life been about? I mean what do you think we're put here for, what do you think we're here for?

Well the objective of life or of government I think really has got to be the kind of life people can live out themselves with their friends, their relatives, their families. And the objective of government ought to be as the base, to make sure that Australian families, whatever way you want them to find that, can lead the kind of lives they want to, reasonably, and with a minimum degree of government intrusion. And government ought to be conducting policies that make that possible for a maximum number of Australians. And the modern day acceptance that we have 10% unemployment, another 12% at least working one or at the most two days a week, when they'd like to work full time, I think is a most heathen and pagan acceptance. It's hideous, and the fact that this has seeped into the bureaucracy, it's seeped into the mores of the Labor Party and of the Liberal Party and of the ACTU, I really find very hard to accept. People ought to be outraged by it. But they're not. They accept it, and are we suddenly meant to believe that where we'd gone for 30 years with unemployment basically under 2% and often under 1%, that the bottom 10% of those who were employed, are suddenly, with better education, with better training and all the rest, not capable of being employed. That's a nonsense, it doesn't hold up. Something very serious has gone wrong with the heart of government in Australia.

Do you feel that inflation is less of a worry than unemployment?

Well today it most certainly is, but it's the question of the techniques and the methods and management of an economy and in many ways, the techniques that had evolved over a long period had just been set aside. One of the major deficiencies relates to the way the central bank runs its affairs. We deregulated everything, so credit available in Australia can be inflated by five billion dollars overnight, just by somebody ringing up. A major corporation rings up his New York banker and says I want a five billion dollar line of credit in my Sydney branch. Nobody has to buy any dollars, which is what everyone said, it's what the journalists all repeated when the dollar was floated, 'Ah, this is wonderful, the currency can't be inflated'. More than ever before it can be inflated at the flick of a finger, at a phone call, through a telex or telephonic transfer or whatever and ...

We've lost control.

Yeah we, the government has lost control and you know they're saying that people will be wiser and what happened in the middle '80s won't occur again, but it's like people building city buildings. It can be very sensible to build one city building in Collins Street, and very foolish to build a dozen. But you've got a dozen different corporations all in the building business. They all own vacant sites say, and they're not going to go along to all their competitors and say, 'Are you going to make a decision to build a 50-storey building in Collins Street, starting next month, because if you're not, we might'. That sort of cooperation does not exist.

So government has to take control ...

Well they're not, they're not going to make decisions about what buildings should be built. But they certainly do need to take enough decisions, governments need to, to make sure that credit remains on an even keel, that money flowing across the exchanges isn't going to damage and destroy the economy. And I don't know whether I mentioned it yesterday, I've forgotten, but I was at a banking conference in Paris about five or six years ago and I was the only Australian there, [and] four or five other ex-politicians like myself. And ... bankers and central bankers from North and South America, from Europe, from Japan, from Asia - not from Australia, because they did not regard the Australian central bank as worthy of an invitation after the way they'd behaved in the '80s - and they issued a bit of a statement at the end of the conference and part of it was that smaller economies - you could add in, such as Australia's but that wasn't in the communiqué - smaller economies need to beware in these deregulated days of massive movements of capital that will swamp the economies and currencies in a way that puts their economies totally out of control. Now Australia's just totally unaware of that.

Do you think as a nation we've tended often to be unaware of all kinds of threats, both in terms of threats to our defence, threats to our economy, other threats around the world,

I think threats to our defence I think we've mostly been fairly been aware of, although some people have tried to pretend that they don't exist. But threats to our economy I think also we have been aware of in the past but we've controlled it very much better. Earlier in my political career, or through most of it, if we were running a significantly adverse balance of payments, we would do something about it so that we'd live within our means. It was one of the things that we had to look after. We weren't going to get ourselves into debt and establish a set of circumstances where the economy might be beyond the control of Australians. But today those sorts of issues and those sorts of values are of no account to the government. They're certainly of no account to use in opposition. We just live in one lovely global peaceful capital market, and it is a lot of nonsense. This is our country and you know, you asked me yesterday, was there any virtue in Mr Whitlam. And I pointed to the fact that he was an economic nationalist. He would no more have agreed with - I mean I don't think Gough understood economics at all, or he couldn't have brought in the budgets he did but he is a nationalist - he would no more have agreed to the economic betrayal of Australia than jumping over the moon. And Menzies wouldn't, and McEwen wouldn't have, and Calwell wouldn't, and Evatt wouldn't have, Chifley and Curtin wouldn't have. Why do Hawke and Keating and Howard and Hewson, as I believe, in accepting the total lack of control implicit in their view of one global capital market. To forget that we are an Australian nation. There's a great oddity with the Prime Minister who talks about independence, sense of purpose, sense of identity, he more than any other prime minister, because he was Treasurer in Hawke's time, he more than any other, has sold Australia's capacity to look after its own affairs to economic interests in other parts of the world. What right has he got to talk about an independent course of action when he doesn't care what Australian asset is sold to what foreigner? You know it really is - if there was a political party, if Cheryl Kernot was prepared to understand this issue and do something about it, she might get 30% of the vote in an election. She might get 20% at the next election anyway.

Do you feel pessimistic about where Australia's going?

Well I feel pessimistic about the policies that lead in these directions. But Australians will wake up at some point, whether it's when our external debts hit 300 billion or 400 billion, I don't know. But at some point the international institutions, the international financial markets [will] because the higher that debt goes up, the higher the margin between rates of interest available to Australian businesses and the rates of interest available to American businesses. And when our people have to pay real rates of interest that are, in today's world, say 10% or 11%, probably the highest in the entire OECD area, about four times, three times anyway higher than real rates of interest rates paid by their counterparts in the United States, is it any wonder we have 10% unemployment. Because that real rate of interest, not so much to the BHP's, because they operate globally, can borrow globally, they can hedge their bets, but the smaller business, the farmer, the business in Hamilton or the small businesses in our capital cities, they only operate in the Australian context. So they're saddled with that cost of money. Is it any wonder that private sector investment is in the doldrums and has been for ten years?

Do you think that life is going to be harder or easier for your grandchildren?

Oh I find that difficult to judge. Generally in so many ways life gets easier because you get more devices. When we first came to this house, we had a Coolgardie safe. I don't know what proportion of the Australian [public] know what a Coolgardie safe is, but a great many would not. And then we got a small kerosene refrigerator, an Electrolux. An enormous luxury, you could keep your milk and you could keep a bit of cream or something in the fridge and it wouldn't go bad in 24 hours. But before that it was a Coolgardie safe, which is just a water thing and drip and hessian down over a wire mesh safe, and through evaporation, kept food mildly cool and mildly fresh. And then you compare - and you know, the, not a steam iron but a flat iron made out of iron, no washing machines, wood stoves, hot kitchens and compare that with the sort of kitchen that a modern couple getting married next week will expect from the very first moment they're married. Standards and conditions for ordinary Australians have changed enormously over the last 50 years and very much for the better.

Do you feel your own life has been hard or easy?

I suppose in some ways it's been easy and in some ways it's been tough.

Which ways has it been easy?

Well I haven't had to worry through most of my life about where the next dollar's coming from. But in terms of work hours and effort and problems to be solved it's often been difficult.

What's been the hardest time of your life?

Oh I don't think you can ...

You've had a few crises.

Well, probably the most difficult to master and control in terms of its impact on myself and maybe because it was the first crisis, and maybe because it was also dealing with somebody I'd regarded as a friend, was resigning from Gorton's ministry. When I was prime minister, the hardest issues to deal with were always the personality issues of a minister that you felt might have transgressed standards, and that you had to do something about it. And then you knew there would be charges of disloyalty to the minister. But we spoke yesterday about different kinds of loyalties. Loyalties to values, and loyalties to people and if a prime minister doesn't uphold loyalty to values, to principles, can you expect anyone else in the goddamn country to uphold [them]. And this was at a time also when this didn't touch the government as such, but a large part of the business or wealthy part of the Australian community were indulging all sorts of illicit tax rorts which we had to throw out the window. So while that didn't directly touch the government, if the government was going to expect principled behaviour from other people, even in other areas, it should demonstrate that it was prepared to act in a principled way itself. And so if an individual transgressed, that was sometimes very difficult.

I would have thought in politics too, it would be just difficult overall because the idea of behaving in a principled way is something that must be given enormous lip service in government or in politics, I should say. And yet the way things have to be done it seems in political life, is often really quite different. There seems sometimes as if there are parallel ethics, that there are certain things that you uphold but there are other things that you have to do to survive.

No I don't think that's right. I spoke yesterday about the importance of procedures and the safeguards built into a democratic system. And we have one set of safeguards, the United States has a quite different set of safeguards, and the two systems are very different but in the end the final result is probably not dissimilar in terms of the need for safeguards and the importance of upholding them. I mean all the problems that Mr Clinton is in now - did somebody cheat or not cheat the tax man many long years ago? - which seems to me to be really what it was all about. Or were investors cheated? And he's having to answer questions about it.

[end of tape]

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