Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

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In the course of your life and particularly your political life, have you ever been in a situation where you changed your mind about some major policy area?

Probably not after it's been determined. I've often been in a situation where I wanted to think a long while before making up my mind, and I've often wanted more than one cabinet discussion on a subject before making up my mind. But one of the advantages of due process, of going about policy formation methodically is that when you do make a policy decision, you've probably thought of most considerations.

Over the course of your life though, for example in the area of immigration, you did a fairly major turnaround, because in the early speeches that you wrote when you first went into parliament, you were not as keen on immigration and you also had a very, I suppose for that time, a fairly common view of Asia as possibly threatening. And then by the time you were actually in power, you had very much more liberal policies which, as you were saying, you had to in fact virtually impose on a reluctant department.

Well there are two issues here. I had expressed views, and I think I said in the earlier part of the interview that I had been wrong, but because of economic reasons in Australia, I felt that the size of the immigration program should be modified to some extent. I think we had some discussion, I don't believe I made any comments about the composition of the migrant program. I might have, I'll check the speeches I made at that time, but I don't think I did. So that was an economic issue if you like, not going to migration itself. But I had always believed and indeed in my maiden speech I said I hope to live to see an Australia of 25 million people. That wasn't going to happen without a very substantial and far-reaching immigration program. So there was the view taken temporarily if you like, for economic reasons, which I'm perfectly willing to concede was a mistake and it was probably about 1956 or 1957, somewhere around there.

Very early.

A long while ago. I don't think that ... you know, clearly there's a development in anyone's mind over time. But I don't think I ever made speeches saying that migration should be concentrated from Britain or whatever because that just would have been against - see in 1960-61 I was making speeches about apartheid in South Africa, which are totally consistent with anything I'd done or said later on. So there was no change in that area.

The other area of a change of opinion that we talked about, we've already talked about, but those who heard you on radio during the week have asked me to ask you again about it, to make sure that we're clear, in relation to Vietnam, and our position in relation to Vietnam, you have revised some of your views about that.

Not views that I had at the time. I still believe involvement, participation, was right, that it was principled. The country had been divided by international agreement into a north and south. The north had declared itself to be communist, the south was anti-communist, and almost as soon as the ink was dry on the international agreements, the north set about trying to subvert, disrupt the south. What I have said about it is that the war was lost in Washington, with changing policies, with inconsistent policies, and with restrictions placed upon the military in South Vietnam. And I think it was the policy statements in Washington and the inconsistency of directives to the high command in South Vietnam that really would have sapped the morale, not only of American but also of South Vietnamese troops. And there was never an attempt made to persuade either Hanoi or the Soviet Union that the United States or any part of the West was as serious as they ought to have been over the Vietnamese issue, despite having half a million people under arms, as the Americans did. Now that's not a change of mind, that's ... on my part, circumstances led to a northern victory, then you have to live with that northern victory and forget the divisions of that time and Australia needs to promote the best and most cooperative relationships that it can with Vietnam as a whole. And my own organisation CARE Australia has been to the forefront, because we've been stationed in Hanoi for many years now, operating development programs there, with a very good relationship with the Vietnamese government. We were in advance of the Australian government and years in advance of the American government in relation to our relationship as an aid organisation with Hanoi.

Could you describe to us what you feel would be your ideal society? What would be the characteristics of a society that was really functioning well in your view?

Ideal's the wrong word to use. It's very hard to use terms like 'ideal' when you're dealing with imperfect elements and people are imperfect and always will be. That's not a pessimistic view of nature, I mean the ideal people only exist in the eyes of philosophers or people who fantasise about something. So you need a world, you need a situation that accepts the real world for what it is. But really one in which individuals, groups, families, whatever can work out their own lives and their own futures with minimum interference from authority, minimum interference from government, except that which is necessary to maintain an even balance, equity, justice, fairness within society. One which is egalitarian but at the same time one that does not stifle individual initiative. One of the oddities about the Labor government of the last ten years is that we now have the extremes of wealth in Australia which we'd avoided up to 1983, but which are now as much part of Australian society as they are of the United States or European states. And I think that's a great pity. The extremes of wealth are massive, and one of the members of parliament gave me some figures - if I can get it right - the top 1% ten years ago owned as much as the bottom 10%. They now own as much as the bottom 20%. Now if that trend continues, which it will if the financial rules and the deregulatory procedures of the last 8 or 10 years remain in place, do we get to a stage where the top 1% own as much as the bottom 30%, or the bottom 40%. When does somebody start to say, 'This is entirely offensive to what Australia ought to be about' and the fact that it has gone on - I mean if this had happened under a Liberal government, the Labor Party would have been screaming to high heaven about the unfairness, about the injustice of it. And the unions would probably call nation-wide strikes to protest. But it's the Labor Party that has made the rules, that has made this possible, and it's the union movement that has just accepted it, never a word said. I mean let's try and hide the fact that it's happening. That's the attitude.

Do you think it's inevitable that societies or organisations will always have hierarchies?

Oh of a kind, yes. But in part it is the job of government to make sure that hierarchies do not become dogmatic, that they do not become dictatorial, that they do not become oppressive and that's why you have trade practice legislation, that's why you have all sorts of other rules. That's why you have a police force in a slightly different arena. But - that's why you have a Securities & Exchange Commission, but it would be nice if - or our Australian Securities Commission - but it would be very nice to think that it was as effective as the American SEC. Ours would have about one-tenth the power of the SEC.

Would a society that you saw as functioning well for Australia have a monarch?

Ah, well I think society did function pretty well for Australia for about 30 years, not in the pre-war periods but in the latter '40s, '50s, '60s; then it started to unravel in the 1970s. I think, and I think I said it yesterday, our system is a carefully designed balance. You can't just rub out the word 'monarch' and put in 'president'. You're going to have to alter so many other things because you also, if you do that, you rub out all the conventions that go back to Charles I, which make our monarchical system a reasonable one. And, for example, the prime minister is not even mentioned in our Constitution and yet the prime minister is a very essential part of the functioning of parliament and the functioning of the Constitution. It is there by convention and if you try and put the conventions down in words, I don't know anyone who could do that. You can go to a constitutional lawyer and they won't be able to do it because they won't have practised the art of government in Australia and the conventions are a living thing. They're not the same today as they were forty years ago or fifty years ago. They've modified over time and in a way that is accepted by all parties as circumstances make it desirable. Now that's one of the great advantages of conventions. So ...

But why ...

... whether ...

... why are the conventions dependent on a monarch rather than a president?

Because our present conventions flow from the present system. It mightn't - it wouldn't have had to be a monarch, but it is a monarch. And if you rub out the monarchy in the Australian system, unless you take a whole range of other steps which would include trying to formalise and put those conventions on paper, you would lose their force and the High Court would say that you had lost their - they had lost their force. They no longer applied. So you've got to take other steps, you can't avoid that.


The Turnbull inquiry, for anyone who read it carefully, did one very useful thing, they made it perfectly plain that any simple change to the Constitution from a monarchy to a republic was just not possible. You're going to have to touch a whole range of issues which go to deeply sensitive matters, it includes the powers of the Senate, the right to block supply, the position of the prime minister, a whole range of issues which I suspect Australians could argue about for generations and not necessarily agree on. But if anyone was serious about constitutional change, they would establish an elected constitutional convention, because it was only when that was done in the last century that serious progress was made towards Federation. And it will not happen while it's dealt with on a partisan political basis, as it has been up to this point. But again, those most in favour - I read a document, which was a republican document the other day and it had statements by a number of very prominent republicans and one of the most remarkable things about this document is that it wasn't a positive, forward-looking document, it was a negative one. We had to change because the British had been nasty to the Irish and Thomas Kenneally and others feel that most strongly, much more strongly than the Irish themselves, which is an oddity because the Irish have learnt to live with it, but not Thomas Kenneally. There were issues between Catholic and Protestant which he also felt and which other republican statesmen - ah spokesmen - talked about. But nearly every one of these republican spokesmen was talking about things past with a sense of bitterness and grievance, with a massive chip on his or her shoulder. In other words, with a glorious inferiority complex. 'I'm not myself, I'm not independent, I'm not free, because we have a system that goes back to Britain.' You know, the Prime Minister says that Asians won't understand us till we're a republic. He doesn't really understand Asia because what Asians do not understand, especially for a new country like Australia, is that we have a political leader and other people, who are so determined to cut out the only history we've got. That's what they can't understand. Malaysia is a monarchy, Cambodia is monarchy, you know it's a pretty common system in Asia. They understand it and they understand the linkages. They do not think Australia is not independent because we're a monarchy. And it would be nice to think that one day there could be a debate on this subject which was free of partisan politics and very inaccurate rhetoric.

Yes, I was going to ask you, can you see any arguments for a republic?

Oh not at the moment, no, because - and the strongest argument for the republic is probably the behaviour of some of the young royals. But these things pass and other peoples arrive. I mean we don't remove a democratic system or change it because we have an irresponsible and stupid prime minister; we don't therefore say that democracy is wrong or our constitution must be torn up. We're a little bit more adult than that, and a little bit more sophisticated. We have so many serious problems to undertake, 10% unemployment, $200 billion external debt, how really to make our way, to pay our own way in the world. But how to get 10% or more of the Australian population back with an opportunity for work and dignity and self-esteem, an opportunity that is denied them, and that's an infinitely more serious issue and more important issue than the question of the monarchy and I think if you asked every one of those unemployed, 'Would you sooner have a job or would you sooner be in a republic?' the answer's going to be pretty obvious.

One of the themes of your speeches and of your political stances has been respect for order, for the way things are done, a conservatism about the rule of law and about conventions and proper process, and this position, this conservative position, results in stability in a society, but does it sometimes also result in a failure to embrace new and imaginative possibilities?

No, not at all, and you know to say that respect for the rule of law is a conservative position, well it ought to be a liberal position also because only people who want to cause revolution want to destroy the rule of law. It is the only thing that makes it safe for anyone to walk down Collins Street or Pitt Street. It's the only thing that gives order to society. And one of the great challenges to the rule of law is the total confusion in Australia today amongst many jurists, certainly embraced by the High Court and the Chief Justice - the Chief Justice made a speech in Cambridge saying he could not understand why the English courts were not centres of controversy as his had become. Well of course, any one of those English jurists could have told him the answer, but they were all far, far too polite to do so. The English courts are still courts of law. They interpret the law as it is and the law is something finite, it's a rock. You interpret it. That doesn't mean to say the law is always right. That doesn't mean to say it's meeting the social demands of 1994, but if it is not, it is for parliament to alter the law. Now Garfield Barwick, one of the greatest jurists Australia has known, probably the second best Chief Justice after Dixon that Australia has even known, was often accused by detractors of being on the side of the tax department, because he said that a lot of devices companies were using to reduce tax were legal. And politicians, and Liberal politicians, blamed him for this and they said he shouldn't. But what they were confusing was, and what they, the politicians wanted to avoid, was the fact that if they wanted to change the law in relation to corporate taxation, it was within their capacity to introduce legislation into the parliament at any point. But they didn't want to be held up and accused by some of their business friends perhaps, of being anti-business. So they just blamed Barwick and did nothing. Now Barwick knew what his responsibility was, but the High Court in relation to the Franklin case, which we've not spoken about for example, wasn't a court of law. It was a 4:3 judgement and the judgement was, and it had to conclude to be carried in favour of the Commonwealth, that building a dam in the Franklin would damage our relationships with other states. Because that's the basis of the Foreign Affairs power. Now at the time the High Court made that decision, the property had already been listed by the world heritage people and they had listed that property knowing it was the intention of the state government to build a dam. In other words, building a dam was not going to damage that world heritage property in south-west of Tasmania. And in spite of that plainly known and obvious fact the High Court turns round and says, 'Building a dam will damage our relations with other states'. The High Court was pandering to a clamour in Australia and I made a - you know I made a comment earlier that I was one of those who formed the Australian Conservation Foundation. I got it tax deductibility long before any of these latter-day greenies even knew of the term 'conservation' and that was in about 1960-61. It was not a political issue then. The term 'green' hadn't arisen, environmentalists had hardly arisen, except from serious people who knew what the issues were and were prepared to tackle them seriously, and not make politics about them in a way that is often irresponsible. And so, if a high court is going to do what the American Supreme Court has always done, and that's to make law, or by trying to pander to, or meet changing and differing customs rather than leaving the legislative process to the congress, if our High Court is going to do that, clearly it's going to be a centre of controversy. The law itself will be less stable, and society will be less secure. Because one of the rocks, one of the anchors of a stable and peaceful society is, or has become, unpredictable and insecure. And then the High Court has done the body politic enormous harm in this change of heart and one of the saddest things about it is that Sir John Mason in his Cambridge speech was not even aware of what had happened, or of why it had happened.

In relation to the Franklin, although you disagreed with the way the court behaved over it, what did you think about the issue itself?

I've tramped over a lot of Tasmania, much more than most people. I believe the dam should have been built.


Because in the longer term it's going to be very important to the prosperity, to the livelihood, to the capacity of Tasmanians to get work. Not today, but when they're short of power, when they're short of water. The only reason Tasmanians were able to get some kind of industry in Tasmania was because of cheap, reliable, hydro-electric power. You see I depart from environmentalists completely who want to shut up an area and deny access of it even to people. I think the purpose of existence is the enjoyment of happiness and people. The idea of a planet with abundant wildlife and flowers and trees and ferns and whatever, but no people, doesn't enchant me greatly. But some environmentalists seem to talk as though it's people [that] should be eradicated.

Because you're a man who's taken such a firm position about principle in politics, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the whole business of matching what you feel is right in a political situation and what you feel is possible, or necessary tactically in politics. And in situations where, in the course of your career there've been a few times where you had to conceal what you were going to do and go against the principle of being open and direct about it, in order to achieve some goal. Were those times when it was difficult for you to decide what you should do?

Well, when have I concealed what I was going to do?

Well, for example, we've already talked about this, but I'm raising it in this context of principle in practice in politics. For example when you decided to resign from the Gorton government and you'd agonised over that decision, was part of it the fact that you had decided you were not going to be able to be frank with your prime minister?

It's not a question of not being frank. You decide on a course of action, you also decide at what time you're going to advise the prime minister. That's not - I'd be giving a policy submission to cabinet, I choose the timing of bringing it to cabinet. Just because I'm working on something which I may or may not bring to my colleagues, and I don't tell them that I'm working on it till I make up my own mind and all the rest and think it through, that's not not being frank.

Well ...

You're confusing a necessary course in human behaviour with principle and they're two quite different things.

I suppose what would have been lost if you'd been sacked rather than been able to resign?

I made a judgement that I didn't want to be sacked. I wanted to resign and so I was going to make sure that I did.

But that was to protect yourself. Was there any principle being ...

No it wasn't just to protect to myself. It was also to be able to make some points to protect the institution of government and the processes of government.

And you couldn't have done that if you'd been sacked?

Much less effectively.

Later, in 1975, when you were asked about whether or not you would block supply, you said that if you were going to block it you wouldn't let Whitlam know because you wanted to catch him with his pants down, if you moved in that direction. Did you, did you worry about that or was that something that you felt was just a straightforward matter? I mean if you had told him in advance that you would do this, he ...

He knew we may. He knew we may. And also it was perfectly plain that, even when we were talking about it they said that Rex Connor's resignation was the last straw. And it was, and pretty soon after that Mr Whitlam and everyone else knew. But before that I didn't know. So how could I let Mr Whitlam know. There was no secret once we'd made the decision, it was done, it was announced. There was no secret about that.

So you have never really experienced a difficulty about tactics in politics and principle?

I don't think I've ever experienced any serious conflict, no, about tactics and principle.

Changing direction somewhat, what religion did your parents raise you in?


Was that important in your young life, as you grew?

Oh, Presbyterian or Anglican, it depended which church was the nearest.

And was religion something that was important in the home where you grew up?

Oh moderately I suppose.

Do you now believe in God? I mean is this something - is a spiritual life something that's important to you as a person?

Um, well nobody can ever know really whether God exists or not in a philosophical sense. But if God did not exits, I think for the well-being of the human race, it would be necessary to invent him.

So you think that it's an important part of human affairs, to keep religion in the life of ordinary people?

Yes I do.

Do you feel that that's been something that has been maintained in Australia?

Some churches have been much better at it than others. I think Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, whatever, Uniting Church, have not been good at it. Catholics, Lutherans, and numbers of others have been much better at it.

Is it something that plays much of a part in your life?

Not a major part, no.

Is there any particular reason for that?

Well I never decided I wanted to become a priest or a parson I suppose.

So that, is it something that you thought about a lot for example? Often people when they're undergraduates think about religion and make up their minds which direction they're going to go. Was that an issue for you at all or is it something that's just been part of ...

I don't think it was an issue for anyone I was at university with.

Going back to those days at Oxford, did you take part in ... sorry I'll ask that again. When you were at Oxford were you active in the political life of the ...

Not at all.

Why was that?

I didn't want to be.


I was probably terrified of making a speech, or having to make a speech.

When did you get over that?

Oh, 20 years later.

So you didn't find the life of the Union at Oxford attractive? Did you go? Did you ...

I went once.

What were they debating?

Something to do with Australia and something to do with groundnuts in the Northern Territory.

And did you find it edifying?

I found the debate stupid. The people speaking knew absolutely nothing about Australia or groundnuts in the Northern Territory. You probably don't know but there was a major British scheme of some kind to grow vast quantities of groundnuts in the Northern Territory. I'm not quite sure how, why or whatever, but it clearly failed and for some reason it became part of a debate in the Oxford Union.

[end of tape]

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