Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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As we speak now, they're preparing for an election in South Africa. What do you see as the future for that country that you've taken such a close interest in?

I'm more optimistic than not. It's going to be extraordinarily difficult. They've come a long way over the last three or four years. I mean every time something's gone wrong, a conference gets broken or there are riots between Inkatha and ANC and whatever, there are a lot of people who just say, 'Well it won't work, it's going to be a bloodbath'. But they have in fact overall, or at least the government and the ANC, have shown a singular capacity to overcome their problems and to negotiate a situation in which they can go to an election. They know the result's going to be a black majority, but - and it'll be a black president - but the President, de Klerk, and apparently a majority of the whites, probably a very significant majority, recognises that that's the only course they can take. They're going to have terrible problems, worse problems than most countries. Not just for a year or two, but probably for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. They've got to get a hundred billion dollar economy working in the interests of all the people, instead of the interests of five extraordinary centralised conglomerates and families, or groups of families. Because the South African economy is more centralised in its economic control and power than any other in the world. There are some - I don't expect the ANC to nationalise anything, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they adopt a good old-fashioned American tradition and broke up some of those large corporations and made them establish separate entities. But the Americans have done this with Standard Oil, with AT & T, and that breaks up accumulations of economic power. They haven't yet begun to talk about probably the most difficult problem and that will be the ownership of land, because there are a lot of members of the families of those who have got chucked off the land since 1948 under apartheid. The land was made available to Afrikaners and whatever and if blacks wanted a good bit of land and some Afrikaner wanted it, well then they were dispossessed. Now those same people, or their descendants, are going to want their land back. The Afrikaners if that happens are going to want compensation. But the blacks didn't get any compensation initially, so why should those who took the land and who've occupied it for the last twenty, thirty, forty years get any compensation. Now these are massively difficult issues because nearly all the good, or known to be good arable land is used in South Africa. It's not as it was in Zimbabwe where the - at the time there was excess land and a lot of unused land which could be made available. And of course land is a very sensitive issue, and it will be a very sensitive issue if the farmers of Transvaal or in different parts of the country ... Chief Buthelezi presents a major problem, but he always did. His equation really of earlier policies of the government where they wanted people, organisations who would break up the unity of the blacks and would therefore lend substance to the view that there was no single black view about anything and that they all had different views and all the rest, and Chief Buthelezi has been, over the years, most skilful in pandering to Western opinion. He was anti-communist, he was anti-violence, he was anti-sanctions - three things that, say, Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan desperately wanted to hear. This was wonderful music to their ears, especially since they could point to a communist or two in the ranks of the ANC. But that didn't make the ANC communist. It was nationalist and fiercely independent and South African and on verdicts of major security organisations around the world, not really communist in its orientation at all. In 1947 Nelson Mandela moved for the expulsion of all communists from the ANC and I might have mentioned this yesterday, but he got defeated on the good, democratic grounds that a democratic organisation argues against a bad idea, it does not prescribe it. And if Menzies had known a little more of Mandela and the ANC, he mightn't have pursued his referendum.

Which you disagreed with?

Yeah, and I suspect Mr Menzies disagreed with it too. He didn't try and win that referendum. No way. I think he felt he was being pushed by the right-wing of the Liberal Party, by some returned servicemen who desperately wanted this kind of action taken. But you look at his schedule during the referendum, and it wasn't a very active one in making speeches in its support. He just let it lie and let it take its course. But there will be great problems in South Africa, but I expect the election to go ahead. It would be too much to hope that there will not be problems in Natal or in Zulu areas, but - see one of the problems is that Buthelezi's got nowhere to go. The latest polls indicate that he has the support of only 20% of Zulus. And that of that 20%, 52% want to participate in the election. So he's really running out of support, and I think now is held up worldwide to be pretty irresponsible. But if he submits to the ballot, he probably ends up very quickly with nothing, because he's most unlikely to get enough electoral support to win anything. And with - you can't predict the future of a country like South Africa with any real accuracy. But I know a lot of people there and a lot of very good people in both the ANC and people like de Klerk and some of his colleagues who really do understand what has to be done. There are a very, very large number of whites throughout South Africa who desperately know what has to be done and are working to achieve a productive result. So I think they deserve all the support and encouragement that they can be given.

Very many people in this world seek power, the power to control, the power to make decisions. A lot of young people, who might be watching this, think that being in power and having power over others and their destinies is a very desirable thing. You're somebody who's exercised power over quite a period of your life, in taking a lead and controlling what happens to many people. What's it like as an experience? How did you experience the exercise of power?

Well the whole purpose of a democratic society, of course, and a democratic government, is to make sure that whoever's president or prime minister, that he doesn't have too much power. You have power while you can carry your cabinet. You have power while you can carry your party room, while you can carry the parliament. So there are restraints all along the way. I've mentioned throughout these discussions the procedures of government which are important for good government, and which are critical in preventing irresponsible, hasty, foolish, ill-advised, ill-thought actions and if you take all those things into account, they are massive restraints on the exercise of power. But at the same time, those restraints are not really difficult to live with. There are other kinds of restraints, if you want to govern a country well, the physical resources that are available to you, the environment that you're in, the problems the country faces, the time it's going to take to overcome those problems, and you see, Gough Whitlam and I would have a totally different view of this. He just had a bundle of wonderful, good things that, he thought anyway, that he wanted to do. So he was going to implement them all forthwith, regardless of the consequences on the country, regardless of the consequences for the budget, whether we could afford it or not, he didn't think any of it mattered. Just let's do these great bundle of good things. Well you do that without regard for the consequences and you end up doing much more harm, or more harm than good. But the exercise of power really ought to be, and I think for me it was, a sobering experience, because you realise that what you're doing can affect the lives of some millions of people, for better or for worse. And there are two - I think there are two different kinds of politicians. There are those who want power because they have a particular purpose, they want to achieve something or they want to improve society or contribute to Australia. But we can't also deny the fact that there are some people who want power, just because they like to exercise power, and the purpose, the objective of power is secondary. I think it's up to voters if they can, to distinguish which politician is which.

What kind do you think our present Prime Minister, Mr Keating, is?

Oh I think he's got some things that he wants to do. Much more so than Mr Hawke.

Mr Hawke, you feel, liked power for its own sake?

Oh I think he was the object of it. I really do. And his own party did on the day. And the person who was pushed out by his own party, by the people who'd known him best, by his own cabinet, you know they've got to have some substantial reasons for that, especially the Labor Party, because they've got a tradition of loyalty to their leaders, far more than, far deeper than the Liberal Party has. They don't move against a leader unless they have, what they call, just cause.

Well Paul Keating moved against his leader.

I know.

Watching that from outside ...

But he didn't do that - he couldn't do that unless he had a whole host of people supporting him. He had to have a majority of Caucus supporting him.

Watching it from outside, did you think that was a good thing for the country?

I thought it would make Labor harder to beat. I think Mr Hawke was getting very easy to beat.

When you were in power did you ever find it, at a personal level, at a human level, a burden?

Oh not, no not in that sense. I mean the problem in government and I think it's difficult always to avoid it, is to prevent yourself getting too tired, or your colleagues getting too tired. And you can't - sometimes you just cannot avoid that. I was in this room on one occasion when Peter Nixon rang me up and said that he was going to have to resign. There was a Royal Commission into the Dairy Corporation that had made some critical remarks about him, and so, being an honourable minister, he felt there was only one course. The Royal Commission the government had established, he'd established, ended up being quite critical of the minister. So I said, 'Well, you can't do that until I've got to have look at it, and people have got to make up their minds on a basis of knowledge. I know nothing about this report.' So I'd had a pretty full schedule but then I had to get a plane and go straight back to Canberra and you start reading a Royal Commission report of several hundred pages, and I thought that there were serious flaws - I'm not sure who it was but I think it might have been Ted Woodward, for whom I actually have a very high regard. But I'd also known Peter much more, and better than I knew Ted Woodward and he wasn't the sort of minister that Ted was trying to say he was, if it was Ted Woodward, in the conclusions. And I knew I was going to have to say something about this on Tuesday or Wednesday in the parliament. Public servants aren't always very good when ministers get into trouble through something like this, in finding ways and means of defending them or trying to see whether indeed they are in a defensible position. But there were two or three people in Peter's department and one legal officer in my own, who were very good. And they started reading the documents and we started reading the evidence, and in the end, after probably about 36 hours work, I concluded that Peter in fact had no case to answer, and that the judge had come to some conclusions without even taking notice of evidence that had been given to him. And anyway, I ended up making a speech in the parliament which rebutted the judge's conclusions in relation to Peter Nixon point by point. And you know, even the Age who wouldn't have been a friend of mine, was only able to come out with a pretty half-baked editorial, some of this, some of that, you know, something on each side of the barbed wire fence. Their natural inclination would have been to try to tear me to bits because I'd rebutted the judge's conclusions. Well they couldn't because I'd not only read the report, I had read the evidence, or the necessary evidence on which it was based. But then you suddenly have an enormous amount of additional work which has to be done in a given time frame, on top of all the other work that was scheduled to be done within that time frame, and so, it's not always possible to prevent yourself getting tireder than you should let yourself get. That's something that a prime minister or an active prime minister, who's fairly busy, has got to guard against. Actually I was told by Sir John Bunting on one occasion that when the second Menzies government began in 1949, they were talking around the table at the first cabinet meeting and Menzies was saying, 'One of the most important things is to make sure that we never allow ourselves to get tired'. And it is because judgement goes and you don't perform as well and you don't make decisions that are as good. So you know, if there's a burden, it's that sort of burden; how do you, how do you make sure that you stay fresh and lively.

And what did you do about that?

Oh I probably came back here for a couple of days or a day or something.

What did you like most about being prime minister?

Oh, being able to do things that were useful. Being able to get the economy moving, to get investment moving and to get jobs growing. Being able to do something imaginative, unique, I think, in the world in the multicultural policies. Still slightly controversial, but much less so than they used to be.

You would point to that as perhaps the most original and different thing that you did?

Well it was certainly different for Australia and nobody else had embarked in policies in that direction. No other country that I'm aware of and - but you know, you can't really compare that issue with the question of family allowances for low income families. They're two different kinds of things.

And paying them to the woman of the family.

Oh yes. I mean that was just as much a initiative if you like and you know that might have been the most important social welfare initiative of the last 50 years, who knows. It would have affected more people than any other specific initiative.

And what did you dislike about it?

Oh, the only part I think I really disliked was when colleagues got into trouble and I had to take some action. I mean people would often come along and say, 'Look Prime Minister. If I'm ever an embarrassment to the government or if you think that I've transgressed I'll stand aside'. Then you go to them and say, 'Well I think it's time to stand aside', and then they don't want to stand aside. Now Ian Sinclair, who was one when he had some problems, stood aside without any problem at all. He said, 'You tell me if it comes to that stage'. So because he was National Party I would have discussed it with Anthony and kept in touch with him about it, and when we thought the time had come for the good of Ian himself and of the government, because he had to clear up the issues, which he did, but he did it in the right way. Other people might try and hang on and hang on.

Reg Withers?

Well if Reg had ever said to me, 'Look this is a difficulty, there's a Royal Commission report that's really critical, I don't think it's a major issue, but that's for you to decide Prime Minister', and handed me his resignation, I never would have accepted it. But I could never, because it wasn't a matter of that consequence, but at the same time I couldn't ignore what was in the report and I could not say to Reg Withers or to anyone who might repeat it to him, 'If you hand Fraser your resignation, he will not accept it'. He had to do that, knowing that there might be consequences. But he just never did it.

I have a question to ask about something that Joh Bjelke-Petersen claimed in his, one of his biographies. Joh Bjelke-Petersen said that he had persuaded you to press forward with the blocking of supply at a stage where you were uncertain whether or not you should do it, and that he felt - he was claiming some responsibility for that decision. What actually happened with Joh at that time?

Oh we would have talked occasionally but I would never have consulted with him whether I was going to block supply or not. I mean Joh would ring you up about all sorts of things, you know, later on; in other words, there was nothing in that claim at all. The last straw was Rex Connor and very shortly after that I had talks with my senior colleagues and we decided that if we were going to conduct ourselves with any sense of obligation or pride in what we were doing, and not come to be regarded with total contempt, we would give Australians what Australians plainly wanted. And that's the right to vote and relief from the Whitlam government. If that was their judgement, but it was to be their judgement, and you know, one of the odd things about some of the papers, not all of them but because I was Victorian I suppose I'd see the Age more than the others - the only time when a country is really democratic is the single day on which they put a vote into a ballot box. It's the only moment when you're democratic in the ancient Greek sense, if you like, because you all can't vote on each piece of legislation, so you have to delegate that to somebody else. And at those times people don't have much influence over events. It's only when they themselves vote. How can anyone say that political actions designed to achieve that most democratic of all moments, are themselves undemocratic? It's an absolute nonsense. If you are trying to prevent people having the right to vote, that's undemocratic. Actions designed to achieve a vote for people cannot be regarded as undemocratic. Joh didn't, he didn't have a part in it. But he liked to think that he influenced a lot of things. He influenced some but they were mostly in Queensland.

Do you think that it was fate, God, destiny, luck, that made you prime minister, or do you think that it was qualities that were intrinsic to you that meant your rise was inevitable?

Oh it's time and circumstance. If there'd been somebody else that the party thought was better than I, then they would have picked somebody else. And you see, Billy Sneddon would have been a more garrulous person, a more outgoing person, he would have drunk beer with the boys to a greater extent and stayed up later at night, and for while that won him support, but at the end of the day it's performance that counts. Whether you can do the job and at the end of the day, that's what the Party was going to make their judgement on.

Do you think it's possible for somebody to be a good prime minister without a very strong intellect?

Well if you have the capacity to pick a great many good people around you and the good sense to respect their judgement and their opinions, yes it would be possible. I mean Henry Bolte may not have had a great intellect but he certainly had a great capacity for judgement. He had good people around him. His own judgement itself, on many issues, was absolutely first class. So judgement and intellect don't necessarily go hand in hand. If you've got judgement, wisdom, capacity to understand what Australians want, what the country needs, then great intellect you don't have to have.

Has your intellectual life been important to you throughout your life? Is grappling with ideas something that you need to do, enjoy doing?

Well I did more grappling with ideas at university than I have since, because you don't - you get some new ideas about policy, whether it's family allowances or Galbally programs and whatever. But these don't require enormous feats of intellectual effort to understand their consequences and what they mean. Some of the mental exercises that you do in university are, especially if you're trying to follow lectures from somebody like Isiah Berlin, especially if he's a lecturer in modern logic or other people like Strawson, who wrote and spoke in difficult to understand symbols, then that does require a fair bit of intellectual effort. But when you've understood - and perhaps it was the training I'd had that helped make so much of it easier, because I understood what the concepts of economics were about, at least so far as government was concerned, and the Reserve Bank. And I can read legislation and understand that. And I knew a bit about the theory and practice of government, so the course I did was not a bad training ground. But none of it was essential. A good practical person with sound common sense, a capacity for judgement would be able to do the job quite well.

So did you ever have to deal in politics with people that you felt were intellectually poorly equipped for the work, or was the standard ...

Oh I met some people who intellectually were as bright as a button, but as silly as a wheel. Had absolutely no judgement at all.

Can you give me an example?

Yes but it would be offensive. They're in positions at the moment. I met a lot of others that were good. The first kind might have got into my office once. Permanent heads generally had the good sense not to let them in twice.

What do you enjoy doing most? What gives you the most human pleasure?

Oh it's difficult to judge, because so many things give me human pleasure, at different times it's different things. It might be doing something with your family, might be going fishing, might be catching a fish and it might be drinking a bottle of wine. Generally fairly simple things not complex things.

If you were able to pursue these things that just give you simple pleasure all the time, would you get bored?

You'd probably want to do some other things also. Doing, having too much time to do too much of anything that you really enjoy - I mean sometimes you just run out of physical capacity, you can't go on drinking wine for breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. Or at least not very much of it.

Not without fairly serious consequences.

Well even if, you know, as you get older you can't - you should drink better wine as you get older, because your capacity reduces and the total quantity of wine you can have is probably finite, so you shouldn't therefore waste it on plonk.

Is boredom an issue for you?

No I don't think I've ever been bored.


Not for long. I've been doing things I don't like like sitting in an aeroplane from Melbourne to London. That's boring I suppose but you're doing it for a purpose. I've never lived in a state of boredom and wondered what I'm going to be doing next to get out of the state of boredom or something.

What would you like your epitaph to be?

I haven't even thought of it. I don't know.

How would you like people to think of you?

Well maybe they could use that quotation from the Old Man.

Life wasn't meant to be easy.

But take courage child, it can be delightful.

[end of interview]