Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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What sort of reports did you get from Tudor House?

Oh, reasonably good.

Good academically?


Where did you used to come in the class?

Oh, somewhere in the best three or four.

And what about the personality characteristics that were beginning to emerge in the young Malcolm. Did anybody detect any signs of leadership or other qualities in you then that later came out?

Oh I've got no idea really. I mean they would have, I suppose, said hard working, serious, participates in school activities. You had ...

I think they also detected a certain independence of mind and a willingness to take a lead, didn't they?

I haven't read my school reports for a long while.

Well I have, and they do say that.

Well where did you get them?

Out of your biography.

Oh Philip Ayres saw them did he? Yeah.

So they were already detecting a certain willingness to take an independent line and to be a strong character within the school.

If you say so.

You felt a constraint at Tudor House. What happened then when you went to Melbourne Grammar? Was that freer?

Well it was because I wasn't a boarder at Melbourne Grammar. That was one of the things I'd pressed on my parents because they had a flat in Melbourne and I said I don't want to be a boarder. I was sick of being a boarder and whatever. And that did give me more time and whatever to do whatever [I] wanted to do I suppose. It may have been better if I had been a boarder, I don't know.

What about the atmosphere of the school? Was that welcoming? Did that make you feel at home?

The ... well I think just like any other school probably. The - you had - you know, everyone was divided into houses and schoolwork just went on and sport went on and you had to go to the cadets and cadet camps and that was more discipline. Melbourne Grammar is a strange school and you know, it's a great pity I think that the council and the old boys prevented the coming up, not just a boys' school, opening the place up, because I think it might have made the school.

To have some girls in it?

Yeah, I think so, very definitely. I think there are traditions in Melbourne Grammar which are not particularly good for a lot of kids. You know, if you're good academically that's fine. They do everything for you. If you can play sport reasonably well, that's fine. They'll do everything for you. If you're one of the duller variety, I think they used to just, in many ways, wash their hands of you. The people who weren't so good academically got the worst teachers and - or I thought they were the worst. I don't suppose I saw all that much of them, but in many ways the duller kids needed the best teachers. Or certainly teachers with significant skills, but different. And people at school are probably pretty harsh in their judgements of teachers, you know who's good and you know who's not and you don't think much of the ones that aren't.

So the school was a very elitist school in that sense.

I think so yeah.

It said, 'If you're outstanding we approve of you, if you're not we don't'.


As a boy, did you just accept that or did you see that there was something not perhaps quite right about it?

Well I probably rebelled against the sporting side of it, because you know, I'd been quite good at cricket and reasonably good at rugby, but I thought, well I'm not going to bother to learn to kick a football all that well, so that got me out of having to play football on Saturdays during the winter.

I would have thought you'd probably be good at sport because you have certain natural advantages.

Well I was but I just, it was part of the discipline against which I think I did rebel, and as a day boy I was able to avoid as much sport as otherwise I might or should have played.

Is that ...

I played more tennis because that was less regimented and less whatever. I played some cricket but again, I could have played a lot more I guess.

Tennis was less regimented in what sense?

Well I just felt it was less regimented, that it was more individualistic, and whatever.

And you've been quoted as saying in cricket if you made a mistake, you were out, in tennis you had a chance to make up for it in ...

Oh yes, well you certainly did, unless it was a mistake on match point against you.

You said that it might have been better if you'd been a boarder. What did you mean by that?

Well I, you know, it might have been - if you were a boarder you couldn't have avoided playing more cricket and probably couldn't have avoided learning to kick a football as you have to on Australian Rules, but which is quite unnecessary and redundant for rugby. But anyway, it's one of those ... you never really know. You can't relive it.

So where did you live while you went to the school?

Oh, for a while we had a tiny flat at the top of Collins Street, in a place called Alcaston House. I think it's mostly doctors' rooms now, but it really was very small. And then we moved to a small house, which years ago had been somebody's converted stables, in Caroline Street, in South Yarra. And sometime later moved to a larger place in Domain Road, Aintree House where my mother still lives.

Now about the time that you'd gone to Melbourne Grammar, your father had sold out in the Riverina and moved to Nareen.

No, I was still at Tudor House.



So by the time you were in high school your father was here at Nareen and your mother lived in town with you?

Well no, my parents really moved backwards and forwards a fair bit. And I suppose because I was at school and a day boy, she tended to stay in Melbourne a bit more.

So you saw a lot more of your mother at that time than you had when you were away at boarding school and she was there for you when you came home at the end of the day?


Can you tell me a little bit more about your mother and about her personality. What sort of a person she is.

Well very determined, very strong willed, very strong views about the sort of people she wants to be with or not be with.

What kind of people are they?

Well that would depend upon her, whether you're asking now or 10 years ago, or 20 or 30 years ago.

I think when she was having her biggest influence on you.

Because, because that, you know it's changed enormously. I mean she's changed enormously. She probably wouldn't admit it, but people she used to see a lot of would bore her today. Some of them are still alive and she never sees them at all.

Why's that? Why has she changed?

Her interests have changed.

From what to what?

Well I suppose she was involved with family and all that sort of thing, and then she developed interests more in music and art and paintings and theatre. And therefore developed interests in different sorts of people, and earlier she might have been more social and later she was much less social and wanted to associate with people who shared her other interests. So the conversation would be different.

So during the time that you were living together in Melbourne and you were going to school, what sort of people came. What sort of people did you see with her then? And was she interested in the arts then, and did she communicate any of that to you?

Oh certainly starting to be, yes. Yeah.

Did she communicate any of that to you? Were you at all interested in the arts?

Probably - well to some extent, but not enormously. I was interested in the theatre and whatever. My sister worked, or studied, at RMIT for a while, but then she got married. Her husband - well they were in beekeeping. Then when I was at Oxford they went across to England because my sister wanted to study and to paint or to sculpt, which she was originally, and thought that Europe was more accommodating to young artists than Australia. And she's lived in either England or Rome for the last 35 years. Since the middle '50s, she's lived in Rome or close to Rome. So she - once they left, they never came back.

Have you always associated those sorts of activities more with women's activities than men? Would you have seen it then, as a boy growing up, as slightly wimpish and even effeminate to be interested in the arts?

No, I wouldn't have thought about those things. I probably would have - you know, I was either going to go on the land or I was going to be a lawyer or a something or other. And life was busy enough and [they] probably just didn't cross my path very much.

Now you had a nickname at Melbourne Grammar of 'Freezer' and some people have said that that was more to do with the personality that you showed as a young boy and growing into a young man there than the way that you pronounced your name, Fraser. What do you think earned you the nickname?

I don't really know.

You don't know. Were you - did you find it difficult to relate to other boys at that time?

Well some I suppose but not others. Depends.

Which ones did you find it difficult to relate to?

Well, I just don't really know what sort of - you either relate to people or you don't. I don't know that there's a reason for it.

So I suppose I'm asking you what kind of boys did you find yourself drawn to and did you spend time with? And what kinds did you avoid?

I don't think I specifically avoided any.

Who were your friends?

You know, this is nearly 40, well it's 50 years ago. And Melbourne Grammar being what it was and my interest being what it is, you know, most of the people I knew at Melbourne Grammar I haven't seen for a very, very long while. Their paths have gone in different directions.

I suppose I'm just asking you to go back mentally in time and think about the sorts of influences that were being brought to bear on you as you went through high school at that period of time, which was in the '40s, and what kind of a place it was and how you as an individual reacted to it.

I doubt if Melbourne Grammar influenced me at all. I hate to say that.


Mm. They'd hate to hear me say it.

They would. They felt that they shaped people.

Yeah, well I don't think they did.

So you went there and you did what you had to do.


But you were playing a waiting game?

If you like.

Well I'm asking you, is that how it felt to you?

Maybe it was. You know, even when I was at Tudor House, which was much [more] of a fun school, I still thought I was going to be able to do what I liked and I'd be much freer when I left school. But it seems that - Melbourne Grammar is a very mixed school and about 80% of the kids will have had some sort of scholarship probably. It wasn't in that sense an elitist school at all. It might have been elitist in terms of academic ability, or in terms of sporting ability, but neither of those worried me, because I could compete in those areas when I wanted to compete. But, so it was an egalitarian society and that's not the general perception I think of Melbourne Grammar at all.

You mean there were some poor boys there, boys from poor homes.

Oh a lot, a great many. If they were good enough academically, or good enough for sport, the school had quite large scholarship funds and they would be actively seeking people each year. And that made it much more of an egalitarian school than Geelong Grammar for example, which in any case was all boarding school and therefore fees were very high for everyone and day school fees weren't all that high at Melbourne Grammar. So you know, probably with other main public schools in - or private schools in Melbourne, Melbourne Grammar was not elitist in the normal social wealth sense at all. Although it might have had a reputation for being.

Did you work hard there?



Oh, well, you just needed to. You knew you were going to have exams that you had to pass, so you better learn what you had to learn.

Now you were there till you were 18 and these are years in which you would expect to be having some fun as an adolescent, enjoying yourself. What sort of things did you do for enjoyment?

Oh you played cricket and you played tennis and you mucked around. Just the normal things that people do.

So you don't remember that there was anything about which you felt enormously enthusiastic at that time. That you'd feel, when you were doing that, you know, this is when you really felt at home and you felt good.

Oh I think a lot of things. Well you see I've always been somebody who looks to the future and not to the past. And I haven't asked myself what I've done at Melbourne Grammar for probably 40 years. And as for Saturdays and Sundays if it wasn't playing sport, well what were you doing? Either woodworking shop, which was one of the things I'd learnt to do at Tudor House and so I made some things out of wood. But otherwise I guess you just do the normal things that young people do.

But at the end of this period you had the feeling that the school itself had really not left much of a mark on you?

No the headmaster did, but the school went and sacked that headmaster later, because he was too much of a disciplinarian. But the school in fact had needed a disciplinarian. A man called Sutcliffe, and I thought he was a good headmaster.

Because you believed in discipline?

I believed that school needed discipline. There were some people, before he came to it, there were some people who were out of control and mostly people in the boarding house. And they really did get the school a bad name and it got into print and got into the newspapers. But then the council at some point felt that he'd gone too far. And it might have all been done politely and decently but in effect they got rid of him.

And what impression did he make on you?

Well I just thought he was somebody doing his job and doing it effectively.

And that he was being unfairly judged?

Yeah, but that was later in the day. I've forgotten whether - it was probably after I left the school that that happened.

He said that - he's been quoted as saying that he thought you were a very nice boy but you were always on your - he always felt he had to be on his best behaviour with you. That you set such a high standard and I found that interesting because it's usually the other way round.

Well I must ... I didn't know that I intimidated him, you know, he would have intimidated most of the boys at the school I think.

But you respected him?

Yes I did. And there were other masters there, I can't, I find it difficult to recall their names, that I certainly would have respected. But I was in, you see, I was in the top classes in whatever subjects I was taking, so I got the best teachers. I wasn't amongst the duller kids who in my view got some of the worst teachers.

So he was a man that commanded respect rather than love?

Oh yeah. Mm.

And you felt that that was a better way to be than someone who people were fond of, but didn't respect?

If you're running a school of 600 kids, you had to be respected.

Do you think that's true?

You couldn't run a large school like that on love. You really couldn't.

And so that's a principle that you've carried forward really.

It's not a principle. I think it's just too large a school and again, having regard to the need for discipline in Melbourne Grammar, the people who needed the discipline wouldn't have respected love ...

So you think ...

... they would have regarded it as weakness. They really would have.

So you think that it is very difficult to be both respected and loved at the same time?

No, it depends in what environment it is. Parents, hopefully, are respected and loved.

But in larger organisations?

It depends very often what sort of organisation it is.

But you think a school is a place where it would be difficult to do both?

Difficult, not impossible, but difficult. It would depend both on the headmaster and on the school itself.

And in that context you saw him dealing with a difficult situation by making sure that his word was respected ...


... rather than looking for affection from the boys.

Mm. And he wouldn't have succeeded. Knowing some of the people around, he just wouldn't have succeeded if he hadn't insisted on respect, and conducted himself in a way which earned that. And maybe it's a pretty rare character who can achieve both.

Now you left Melbourne Grammar having done quite well academically in your final results.


And went immediately off to Oxford. Was that your decision?


Most Australians did an undergraduate degree before going off to Oxford.

I didn't want to do that.

Why not?

Well I didn't want to do seven or eight years at a university. And I suppose I wanted to do what I was going to do and get on with it. In the event, I wish I'd also taken a law degree which I could have done with an extra two years at Oxford.


I think, you know, I would have enjoyed practising law.

Mm. You did PPE - Philosophy, Politics and Economics.


What do you think - why did you choose that instead of law? Your father had done law, hadn't he?

He'd done law and so the choice was between the two, and the college I was going to, had probably the best schools in Oxford, in both.

That was Magdalen?

Yeah. They certainly had the best law tutors in the university, and tutors in PPE were as good as any, if not better. Better than most, so that didn't influence the decision. I suppose at the end of the day, it might have been Bob Southey who'd come back from Oxford; he'd studied PPE and he thought it was a good course and whatever. But if I'd - it would have been very easy to stay on for an extra couple of years and add law to it.

And you didn't.

No I didn't. I wanted to get back.

So you set off probably feeling, I imagine, fairly confident from your good results, to go to Oxford. Did you find when you got there that you were as well prepared as you maybe thought you were?

No, I think somebody coming out of secondary school in Australia was probably a year behind his counterparts in Britain.

And how did that affect you?

Well it made the first year fairly difficult; not impossible, but difficult. My first assignment was to read Keynes' General Theory and write a 2 000 word essay about it. Now that was just an exercise in knowing whether you understood anything or not. And I'm sure I understood none of it.

Was that your first introduction in your life to economics?


To economic theory?


It was quite an induction.

Quite an induction, yes.

So how did you get on with reading it?

I read it three times and understood none of it I suspect. I mean you don't even understand the terms. None of these terms had been taught at Melbourne Grammar. Economics as a subject was only taught in the crudest forms to duller children. Not in forms that would have enabled you to understand any part of the General Theory.

So what effect did this have on you and your confidence?

Well it wasn't anything to do with that. It was a question of some sort of test for tutors obviously, you know, how much have these kids been taught and what do they know? Or how much can they understand? So they'd make a judgement about the task ahead of them in bringing people up to scratch.

And so they would have assessed you as a rather difficult task, but not impossible.

Quite probably, yeah.

So out of that Oxford period, looking back now, what did you get from that?

Well a great deal I think of the Modern Greats, which PPE is, is not about teaching any line or any view, it's about giving people a capacity for judgement. And knowing what they're doing when they're exercising a judgement. And the philosophy and the politics and the economics do all come together at the end of the day because they're all intimately related. You can have a philosophy, that's fine, but it's a good idea to know whether or how you can apply it. And you learn I think, and the philosophy that we did in PPE is mostly the development of modern philosophy - sorting out what's possible, what's real, what's metaphysical. A lot of politicians use statements that are purely metaphysical. They haven't a clue what they're talking about and how it all relates to the practical application of politics, to constitutional systems and to practical economics. Economics would have been very much Keynesian, which economics ought still to be.

You say that with great confidence, although a lot of people disagree with that now and Keynes has become very unfashionable.

Well this is one of the great contradictions and it's also one of the deficiencies in people who make those sorts of judgements because Keynes wrote mostly for the 1930s and he was writing, to the extent that he was writing prescriptions, he was writing prescriptions for the 1930s, and then he was doing a lot of things in the immediate post-war years, but the principles were consistent. What the latter-day critics of Keynes have - I suspect deliberately, because I can't think that they're as ignorant as what they say proclaims them to be, I can't believe people are that ignorant - they say that because Keynes postulated spending more money to get governments out of trouble, or countries out of trouble, that theory has been proved to be wrong. But you know, Keynes never said that. He said that in certain circumstances, such as the circumstances of the 1930s, if governments were not too indebted you can get an economy moving again by some carefully chosen and discretionary government expenditures, more effectively and more efficiently than by merely lowering interest rates, because, in his term, you can take a horse to water but you can't make him drink. And lowering interest rates is just taking a horse to water and it can be a very ineffective weapon, either in encouraging an economy to move forward or in discouraging it. Now the fashion is that because governments got too indebted, they blame Keynes for that. But Keynes never advocated that. So these latter day critics are really criticising governments that got too indebted and then they say, because if they spend more money, they'll get into even more trouble, therefore Keynes himself was wrong. Which is a total non sequitur. It's a nonsense and I think they know it's a nonsense, because they've got another agenda.

So although you were bewildered by Keynes when you first encountered him, by the time you left Oxford you'd grasped the basic principles that he was enunciating.

Oh yeah, fairly well before I left Oxford, yeah.

As an individual, as a developing mind and personality when you were there, in relation to the theoretical material that you were encountering, did you find it most interesting because of its theoretical side, or were you always looking for pragmatic outcomes, for how you could put these ideas into practice in the real world?

No, I don't think in the early stages I was looking to see how you could put them into practice in the real world. But the - well both were interesting, and we were taught quite early on in the piece, especially in relation to economics, that the theoretically most advantageous solution may not be the best. And I can remember one particular example - in an industrialising India do you use antiquated cotton mills and whatever from Lancashire, or do you get the best and most modern machinery. The best and most modern machinery in the Indian context won't enable you to produce a cheaper product because the capital cost is greater, and it will employ only a tenth of the people that the old-fashioned Lancashire mills will employ. So which way do you go? There's a real decision to be made. In today's world people would say there's no decision to be made, you forget unemployment, and you just buy the best equipment that you possible can. But the judgements being made in the immediate post-war years, I think were more sophisticated judgements. And taking into consideration values which are no longer considered to be of any importance.

So it was at Oxford that you began to see with these three arms really, to the study that you were doing, that the picture that you had to look at in government was quite a broad one?

Yeah, I'm sure it was.

Were you intellectually excited by the ideas you were encountering?

Some of them.

Do you remember, was there any particular tutor or any particular line of argument that, for you, was a bit of a revelation?

Well the whole business was an exploratory process, so there's not just one revelation, there were a whole number I think. And this is in the philosophical as well as in the - in the philosophical elements of the course as well as in politics and economics. And you know the exciting thing about it was probably when you can begin to understand that you're exercising your own judgement and coming to reasonably sensible conclusions. When you can pick out the metaphysical from the real and practical. When, you know, one of the things we studied very briefly, because there wasn't all that much to it, was Machiavelli. Now the conventional wisdom of Machiavelli is that he was a terrible person, advocating terrible things. But the truth of it is that he never advocated anything. All he did was to describe what you needed to do in medieval Italy if you wanted to be a power and stay in power.

Well some of that still applies, doesn't it?

Well it all applies. I mean you could rewrite Machiavelli in today's terms and the sorts of things that he said rulers did, he just observed. This is what successful rulers do to stay in power. This is what unsuccessful rulers fail to do and they get defeated or poisoned or stabbed in the back.

So tell me.

And you know, all, the actual techniques and whatever are probably different, but there's no reason why you couldn't translate Machiavelli into a democratic state and say what you needed to do to stay in power in democracy. But he was not writing a philosophy, he was describing events. And he was not making any moral judgement about those events.

So later on, when you yourself were in a position of power, did you sometimes catch yourself behaving in a way that would make you think this is as described by Machiavelli? Or did you actually ever consciously put into effect some of the systems that he described?

No, I don't think ever.

You never actually ...

Well ...

... consciously were, as they say, Machiavellian in what you did?

But he, he was - I mean one of the simple things that he would have said, in a democratic state you've got to win an election. Well, I won some elections. But I wouldn't have thought this is what Machiavelli would have described. But I wouldn't have thought - I mean whatever you were, became part of your own consciousness and you wouldn't have said this is what Locke prescribed or Descartes or anyone else for that matter. You are what you are, you make your own judgements. You're not applying somebody else's rules, somebody else's prescriptions. If we brought down a budget, I didn't say, 'This is a bit of Keynes', or something. You're just exercising your own judgement, and doing what you think you need to do.

But often on the basis of what you've absorbed.

Well of course, how else can you exercise judgement? You can't exercise a judgement out in the air. I mean that's true metaphysics ...

Clearly ...

... you're influenced by what you are.

And what you are in your case began being shaped, not at Melbourne Grammar, where they didn't have much effect on you intellectually, but at Oxford, where you came ...

I think so, yeah.

So you had a little bit of a sense of intellectual awakening there?


To the world of ideas and ...

Well, very much to the world of ideas.

And at what point did you start thinking of that, as I say, in more practical terms, thinking that some of these ideas had a place in the affairs of a nation, for example.

But a great deal of Modern Greats at Oxford was about nations and how they, how they survive, how they're governed. There's a very long and complex book by a man called Finer, I've probably got the name wrong but it might be The Theory & Practice of Modern Government or something. And he describes - Finer anyway describes all the constitutions of different countries around the world and their differences, and the Westminster system, or the British system, the American system, and why the American system evolved and what they had in front of them when they decided to have a constitution of the kind that they have, and he points out that they wanted something different because they wanted to get as far away from the monarchical system which they had regarded as undemocratic, and for them it had been. They weren't given the right to vote or to be represented. So they wanted something different, and therefore they looked to Europe.

[end of tape]

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