Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

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You found yourself intellectually quite stimulated by Oxford and a whole world of ideas were opened up to you there that enabled you to develop your own thoughts. Were you disappointed with your Thirds?

With my ...

Thirds; the results that you got.

Oh I suppose so, but it was my, it was my own fault I think. I worked very hard on the first year, because I wasn't sure that I could master anything or everything and by the end of the second term you had to do exams which decided whether you stayed in the place or didn't stay in the place, or if you failed you'd be given a bit of a second chance and a supplementary. Well I got through that quite well, and in the second year I probably worked reasonably hard, and in the third year I worked less hard than ... so, and then I was, I did the cardinal thing. I was - you had a verbal examination after you'd done the written examination and you were only really given a verbal examination - or the purpose of the verbal examination is to see whether somebody should be shifted from a certain degree to a higher degree. And I'd been told that and therefore I needed to understand that if somebody was asking me questions, he was asking questions as a friend and not as an enemy. And I don't think I handled that very well. I think I thought the questioner was asking me questions, which I thought I'd covered in the written papers, and so instead of going through it again, I said on a couple of occasions, 'Well I thought I'd answered that adequately in the written papers', where clearly he was wanting ...

So ...

... you know, further explanation and whatever. So I stuck with the Third.

So, and you therefore found it difficult to see somebody as a friend that was ... it would have been easier if he'd been more like an adversary?

No, I just wasn't thinking carefully enough or whatever.

You also were ill in your last year too, weren't you? Didn't you?

No. I had a cartilage operation at some point, and that had me out of action for a while.

And it's also said that you also did the classic thing that students sometimes do in their final year, in that you fell in love.

For a while, yeah. That certainly distracted me from more serious things.

So during the time that you were at Oxford you hadn't only been pursuing ideas, you'd been active with a social life and other things that are part of the Oxford experience.

Oh yes, very much so. You know, we had a good time. I had cousins in Wiltshire and we used to spend some time with them, and I did a very small amount of hunting or shooting and ... But then on some of the occasions, I had a car and we took it across to the Continent, and took a - four of us had a camping trip. The three weeks cost us, for getting the car across, living, grog, petrol, everything - £22 a head - which even in those days was pretty economical. We'd eat uncooked porridge, rolled oats in the morning for breakfast, because as you digested it, it went on expanding you see, and you didn't feel hungry.

It wasn't just the Scottish ancestry that made you do this?

And we found a place on, I think, Lake Annecy where you could buy, it was vin du pays, it was 1/6 a bottle and even 1/6 a bottle was pretty good value in those days. And it was just so good we just drank it all afternoon.

So you didn't eat dinner?

No, we probably had dinner, probably needed dinner then.

So the car that you had, how did you acquire that?

Well my father provided the money as my father provided money for everything in those days.

So in fact you shared this then with your friends, the car that you'd got from your father, but you were somebody who had a fairly ready supply of things when you needed them from your parents. Do you think that gave you a sense of ease or did you not have a sense of ease as you were growing up?

Well I didn't have a sense of concern about the future or wondering what kind of future, you know, I really wanted to be a farmer and to run this place when my father stopped and whatever. But I also wanted to have other interests beyond farming, and that's one of the reasons why whatever I was doing at Oxford was about as far removed from farming as you could get. I mean the other way would be to do an agricultural course or you know, some sort of science-based course, and it was a very deliberate choice not to do that.

And why do you think that was? Did you already have a sense that you would find great interest in these things when you went off to Oxford?

No, but I wanted to have broader interests than just farming. So farming was there as something that I thought I'd probably be doing, but I wanted some other interests, therefore what should it be. Now law seemed reasonable. I was always a bit terrified of higher mathematics and of science and all the equations and whatever, so I don't think I had a natural inclination as a scientist. And therefore law, philosophy, politics, whatever.

Why do you regret not having done the law?

Oh for one rather silly reason I think, and quite apart from the fact, because if I had had a law degree I think I would like to have a go at practising, because I think I could cross-examine people well, and I had some experience of that in cabinet meetings and whatever at different times. And I think I would have enjoyed it. But lawyers always regard themselves as superior beings. They are a most arrogant race, they really are - or breed. But the college I was in, lawyers regarded themselves as superior to every other group. They certainly had the best tutors in the whole of Oxford, they got more Firsts than any other school in the whole of Oxford, and maybe more, you know, more than 50% of all the Firsts out of the whole of Oxford came out of Magdalen. But the course that I was in was equally well served and lawyers, whether at Oxford or in politics, always regarded themselves as better able to understand what legislation was about or better able to do this or better able to do that. And it just wasn't true, and if I'd had a law degree I could have fronted them earlier than I did. Later in my political life I wasn't intimidated by lawyers. But earlier on I perhaps was.

So you think if you'd done a law degree you might have learnt how to be arrogant?

I never particularly regarded that as a sin in politics.

Being arrogant?

Menzies was always regarded as arrogant. I don't, it's one of those epithets that your political enemies hurl at you - Melbourne Grammar, Oxford, Western District, arrogant automatically.

But if they'd been able to add law to it they might have really had something to accuse you of, do you think?

They might have, but one of - arrogance, it depends how it's meant. But if you're called arrogant because you know what you're about, where you want to go, you know what you think the right solution to a problem is, you've listened to other people's arguments against your course of action and have dismissed them, now if that's arrogant, it's a capacity that people need to have. You need to be able to make up your mind where you're going, you need to have a sense of confidence, you need to be able to impart that to other people and to your electors as well as your political colleagues.

I think that some ...

If it's arrogance that just says I'm right and to hell with all the rest of you, I won't listen to an argument, that's another matter. But Menzies and I think I, if we were arrogant, were arrogant in the sense of being able to make up our own minds, having listened to the arguments, listened to the facts, and then being able to express a sense of total confidence - this is the right course, this is what we, or the country, or the Party, whatever, ought to do. Now if that's arrogance I can't see anything wrong with it.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to go into politics?

Well that was all an accident. I'd come back from Oxford, I was here, and one or two friends said well you've done philosophy, politics and economics, the Labor Party held this seat, one or two of them didn't like ...

That's the seat of Wannon?

Wannon. The ex-president of the Liberal Party, Magnus Cormack was going to stand and they were saying, 'Well you know you won't get preselection, but why don't you throw your hat into the ring and it'll at least make it a more interesting preselection'. And that sort of conversation went on for a little while with a few people. This was I suppose, was in late in 1953 or 1954, and I threw my hat into the ring and shortly after I'd done that I thought well to hell with it. No point throwing your hat into the ring and not winning. So I started to work at it, and won.

What did you do?

Oh I just went round to branches and made myself known to people, whatever. And in the preselection my opponent made some mistakes. He got some friendly supporters to ask what he thought were difficult and obtuse questions which would leave me flummoxed and asked questions about the anti-trust laws in the United States, and part of the practical element to what I'd been studying at Oxford was the rationale and the purpose and whatever of the anti-trust laws in the United States. And of course, we had no anti-trust laws in Australia at the time. It was a Liberal Government that introduced them, not a Labor Government, and so the question was easy meat and there were a couple of other questions which had clearly been cooked up to make me appear a young ass or whatever. But questions never terrified me.

And so ...

I got preselection.

You got preselection. How old were you?

I was 23. I didn't win that election, but Wannon was the only seat in 1954 in which there was a swing to the Liberal Party.

Now your ...

That was the election that meant that 300 votes against Menzies in two or three seats and he would have lost that election. It was a very, very close thing.

And to what do you attribute that swing?

Hard work. I just travelled around there, went to all the little places where no candidate or member had ever been, and I drank in the pubs. I think my record was going into about 14 or 15 pubs a day, and I'm glad we didn't have today's drink driving laws, because I wouldn't have qualified at any point.

And towards the end of the day you seemed like a really friendly fellow.

Oh I probably did. But you know, you're always in the public side of the pub. You're never in the saloon bar of the pub, and the, often it was the only place you could meet people, and when the election came around Ron Mack who was one-eyed, not because he was, you know it's not a characteristic, he'd had one eye shot out in Tripoli in - was it Tripoli, the rats of Tobruk - where was it? Anyway in North Africa. He was a member of the Victorian Upper House and he said, he rang up and he got the Warrnambool booth and the big centres are always harder to influence than the small, because they've got their own life and they do in fact get visited by members of parliament, or they can, but it's ... visiting Warrnambool was not a strange occurrence, they were used to it. But visiting Durgam and Pelagoro and Apsley and Nancoop, places that people have never heard of, or Panmure and Kirkstall and Killarney, they appreciated it. And anyway, the Warrnambool booth came in and Ron said, 'I'm sorry, it's no good Malcolm, there's a trend against the government and Warrnambool's gone against you, so you're not going to win'. And I said, 'Well you know, let's just wait a bit', and then all the small booths started coming in, and in the end I lost by 17. It was a vote that could have been challenged, because they'd built the Rocklands Dam over here at Cavendish and Balmoral, and there were 150 workers who'd left 18 months before, who'd been left on the Wannon roll, and they shouldn't be on the Wannon roll, they were building another dam somewhere up in New South Wales, and I was, I got ahead for 48 hours and then 150 votes came in from somewhere up in New South Wales, which were overwhelmingly Labor and reversed it again and put Donny Macleod ahead. So he, in the end, won by 17 and we took a tactical decision not to challenge those votes, or a strategic decision not to challenge those votes.

Now your motivation at the time to be a politician, to enter politics, was it just to give you this other interest, apart from farming, or were you motivated by other considerations?

No, there were other considerations, because there are a lot of other things you can do apart from politics. Although if, you know, if a young man of 23 was told what he'd be getting into politics along the track, I'm not sure that you'd ever embark on it.


Oh there are a lot more peaceful activities than politics and you know, there were a lot of arguments with colleagues and all sorts of things.

Wasn't that some of it's appeal for you though?

Not necessarily, not ...

Didn't you think there'd be a certain amount of enjoyment in the combat?

Combat with a political enemy, yes. Combat with your own people is quite a - the sort of combat I ended up having with John Gorton was not something that I think anyone would really enjoy. I'm sure he didn't and I didn't. But the motivation at the time would have been that I really had seen the total mess that socialism had made of Britain, and just - it wasn't just the war, but five years after the war they still had the most massive controls, the most massive regulation, the normal food that was available for normal people was miserable. Rowers had to eat whale meat to keep up their strength and develop some stamina because nothing better was available. In some countries they might like whale meat but I think it's terrible stuff. I wasn't a rower so I didn't have to eat it. And they really had made a mess of Britain, and five years after the end of the war there wasn't an enormous sign of recovery. So I thought ... and philosophically I believe that the regimentation of socialism was pure hell, and the uniformity which they sought to impose would be hell. And we had a Labor Party in Australia trying to nationalise the banks, trying to do very much the same sorts of things here, but in a different way, and so, if you like, the training from Oxford and Modern Greats and the experience of England and what people were trying to do here, you had the positive side to it, because the Keynesian dream was that you - which I thought was a reality and I still think would be a reality but people have rejected it in latter days - that you knew how to manage a country so you could overcome the problems of unemployment and that you wouldn't have to face the conditions of the '30s again. We knew if we were sensible how to manage our affairs and keep them on a balanced and sensible path, and people'd be able to have jobs and work for their families and whatever. I never, in those early years, thought we'd ... that the clock would be reversed and that modern theory - even embraced by the Labor Party, the only difference being the Liberals say you should have more of it - tries to rub out 100 years of humanising capitalism. And capitalism is a brutal and inhuman system. The marketplace does not maximise employment, it does not maximise productivity. It will maximise wealth to the most powerful if it's left just to the market place, and sensible countries spent a long period of years making an inhuman system the best system of economic management that the world has yet devised. Other people have tried socialism or they've tried communism and they've both been most horrible and ghastly failures. But capitalism in its pure form is not really very acceptable either. It was just a more easily tamed system than - I mean I don't think there is any way of humanising socialism or communism.

At 23, when you first became a politician, were you conscious of this, or were you at that stage mostly concerned with trying to avoid a situation in Australia where the socialist principles won?

I think it would have been both. I mightn't have been able to articulate it in the same way, but the positive side of it always was the belief that economies could be managed in a way that made sense, and in the way that maximised opportunity to the maximum number of people, and so it was a really a belief about society that producers and consumers in their larger numbers mattered, and it was maximising their freedom that was important.

So you saw government as really having a stronger role to play than a lot of people now would feel?

Oh much. The government should hold the ring and maximise freedom for the great majority. If governments don't hold the ring, you maximise freedom for the economically very powerful, but then it's harder for new players to enter a particular market, consumers start to have less choice because there are more monopolies and even if there appears to be a choice on the surface, very often there are agreements behind the - I mean what's the choice between a Toyota and Lexcen? I mean a Commodore and a Lexcen, it's the same car with a different badge. That's not a choice. And I don't think it's meant to be a choice. It just suits the companies. But capitalism left to itself is not necessarily, and probably won't, provide all that much choice for consumers.

Now, at 23, why did you choose the Liberal Party rather than the Country Party - now the National Party of course, but in those days the Country Party?

Yeah, but I suppose the - I would have wanted a party that quite clearly embraced and represented everyone, and not a party that only represented a specific or a narrow interest. The National Party at the time was reasonably strong in western Victoria but the Liberal Party would have been stronger and it is probably the one state, or I suppose South Australia also, where the Liberal Party quite deliberately went out in a very vigorous way and established itself state wide. I mean in Queensland it was a Brisbane party and never did much across the state and that's why the National Party has been so strong. In New South Wales today, the Liberal Party has 11 000 membership, the National Party about 28 000; in Victoria we would have more numbers than the National Party.

So it was a practical decision. There was a very strong organisation here in the area for you to be part of.

Well it was a strong organisation, but also the Liberal claim under Menzies was that we represent all Australians, and he introduced policies and philosophies within the party and made quite sure that, you know, the words of the forgotten people weren't then being repeated by people who didn't know what they meant. They were his words and he knew what they meant, and they were designed to make sure that all sections, all groups had their voice, and it's not just a question of - I mean we couldn't win government, the Liberal Party couldn't, unless we had 40% of the union vote, and the union membership was stronger in those days than it is now. So the unions were by no means monolithic in their attitude. I mean the membership wasn't. And a lot of people might have supported their unions in terms of union affairs, working conditions and all the rest if you like. But in terms of the larger things which they wanted for themselves and their families, and the way Australia was run, they didn't look to the union. They didn't look to the Labor Party. They looked to the Liberal Party because they thought, well for whatever reason, it was more balanced or would give them and their families a better opportunity to prosper in the way they wanted to prosper.

Now the electorate of Wannon, which you were setting yourself up to win, and then to hold ever since and build on, has certain particular characteristics, hasn't it, which perhaps gave you an idea of some of the problems that were on a broader scale in the country. Could you describe the electorate and what particular concerns you had to be sensitive to as its representative?

Well it was a very diverse electorate, nearly all rural industries were represented in some form. It had a very strong Irish and Catholic element, especially around Warrnambool - Allansford, Keystal, Koroit and those areas, and the Catholic Church would have been very strong and I think today would be by far the strongest church across Wannon. Most of the Catholic part of the electorate would have been Labor originally. A lot of it would have come from Ireland and so would have been influenced by the Irish tradition within Australia, which in spite of 1975 ... I mean people don't know what division was like within Australia unless they understand the first referendums that Billy Hughes had about conscription and the role of Archbishop Mannix, and the role of the Catholic Church during the period of the troubles of Ireland. It was Billy Hughes who turned the conscription vote into [an] anti-Irish, anti-Catholic vote, very, very deliberately, believing he'd make it easier to win. And so Mannix in my view behaved with proprietary and Billy Hughes should have been shot. But Australia didn't recover from that probably until the Labor Party split in the middle '50s, and the fabric of Australian Federation nearly failed round 1920-21, all because of the Irish question. And people don't read their history or understand what this country's about very often. But ...

So how ...

So that sort of background was important in Wannon.

So how did you win that Irish vote? You yourself being a sort of Scots descent Presbyterian.

Well Labor - the seat had been held by a decent bloke, but I don't think he contributed all that much. There were a lot of other interests in Wannon, small business interests, municipal interests. There was a Port of Portland that was meant to be built, and meant not to be built and when I first became member there was nothing there at all. I lost by 17 in 1954, and won - but the Labor Party had split, but I would have won anyway the second time round because Donny Macleod had retired. He wasn't standing again and I think I'd demonstrated that my ... [INTERRUPTION]

So what year did you win the seat?

I won in 1955 and that was after the Labor Party split. But I think I would have won anyway because the margin was small and there was going to, I think, be a swing back to the Menzies government because there'd been economic problems leading up to 1954. There'd been high inflation which they'd brought under control and they'd had to take, therefore, some unpopular things. Well the economic cycle was starting to move in the government's way, and I'd done some more work in Wannon, and if there was going to be a swing to the Liberals anyway, I ought to have been able to close the gap of 17, because it had moved my way when there was a swing against the Liberal Party in most of the rest of Australia. But with the split it was easy, because the DLP or the Anti-Communist Labor Party were going to shove their preferences in my direction, and I won by - oh I've forgotten, five or six, seven thousand.

Do you remember the feeling?


You were young. Did you feel excited?

Yeah, and, but suddenly you realise that you're representing forty-odd thousand people, and one of the things we used to teach members of parliament, that if you think you need to do something to advance the interests of your electorate, that's your primary responsibility. If it means bucking the Party, it's still your responsibility to do it. People don't understand that today, and I had the most, or the strongest arguments with Henry Bolte about - well there were a couple of things, they passed a bill to establish the Portland Harbour Trust Commissioners and Portland was central, people thought, to prosperity in this district, because everything got sucked into Melbourne or to Adelaide and they didn't like it and they thought that economic wealth got drained out, and these arguments were very strong. But anyway Keith Anderson was made Harbour Trust Commissioner and he told me he'd been appointed to the job, they wanted him to fail, they'd appointed him just to shut him up and to shut up others; but to demonstrate once and for all that it wouldn't work. And he said to me he wasn't going to fail, and anyway I probably did some things to help and whatever, and later on there was an effort to establish wool sales at Portland and the first sale got boycotted by the brokers, the buyers and everyone. So I had to break down this, which meant attacking the brokers, attacking the buyers, attacking the state government for sitting by and doing nothing about it, and I was elected by a meeting of about 5 000 growers that were there for the opening sale, when it was meant to take place but didn't because there weren't any buyers there, to lead a delegation and to do what we could. And I had Bob McClure who was the state member, if not then, later - oh, he was in and out at different times as Member for Dundas, which was part of Wannon and he was a shearer and he was a good bloke, from the old-fashioned Labor mould, AWU, right-wing Labor I suppose, and there were three or four others. And we had to get a meeting with Bolte, and Bolte - this was some years later - picked it at a time when he knew the federal parliament was sitting, we knew we had majority of one and that I might not be able to get a pair. So other people could go along but I couldn't. I'm sure Henry Bolte picked the meeting at that time knowing that. I went to our Whips to try and get a pair and they wouldn't give me a pair, because we had a philosophy of no pairs. Everyone had to be there. We only had a majority - this was 1961 I suppose - and anyway I wasn't going to be put off by the Whips, I went to Menzies and said I needed a pair and what's it all about and he said can't I get a pair, and I said, 'They won't give me one'. He said he'd talk to Arthur Calwell. So I got - I had all the rural organisations getting onto Menzies and Calwell to get Fraser a pair. I got a pair, whereupon our Whip nearly resigned - it was Fred Chaney Senior - because his authority had been overridden, I'd gone to higher authority and he wasn't - you know, he was rather silly about it. Anyway Menzies said, 'Malcolm you go off to your meeting with Henry, I'll fix Fred', and he ate a bit of crow and he apologised to the Whip, and he didn't mind apologising occasionally because he never really meant it, but he could act well. And anyway we had the meeting with Bolte. He said, 'How did you get here?', I said, 'Menzies got me a pair'. Anyway, out of that we got an inquiry into wool sales in Portland and then wool sales were established at Portland as a result of the inquiry and the state threatened legislation that would have made it illegal for brokers or the buyers to boycott the sale. Now those sorts of things build up an allegiance within - I suppose that's the most outstanding example. But people ... I deliberately sought work. I'd go around the electorate and advertise I'm going to be here, so people could come and see me and a lot of the things were about telephones or Commonwealth issues but an awful lot were about state issues or other issues or arguments with their solicitor or their neighbour or whatever.

And if you could fix it you would?

I never said, 'This isn't my business'. I mean I even went along to see people, accompany them to see their lawyer sometimes, because they were terrified of their lawyers.

So this is sort the social work aspect of being an MP really.

If you want to win a seat and hold it. You can write all of those into Machiavelli's rules too. Just how to win a seat and how to hold it. Work hard and represent your people, represent their interests and make sure that they get a fair hearing. You don't have to win every case, you can't. But if you can convince people, 'Well Fraser argued for me as hard as he could. He put all the arguments and we still didn't win. Well all right you can't win them all'. People expect, you know, accept that. But they knew that if they were in trouble for some reason, they could come to me and I'd do something about it. -[INTERRUPTION]

Over the years you've also had, been seen as quite sympathetic in the days of the DLP, to that cause. Was that also affected by the presence of the Irish Catholics in your own electorate?

Well it might have been a bit but going around the electorate, I met a great many people who I thought had a point. It was before the days of state aid and they'd put their point of view to me. But there was a Bishop O'Collins, Bishop of Ballarat, who was a tremendous Australian-Irish bishop, but felt passionately about causes that were important to the church and state aid was one of them, and Menzies brought in state aid, probably as early as it could have been without too much division. 'But we pay our taxes, why shouldn't the Commonwealth make some contribution to the education of our children.' The freedom, providing standards are met, to educate your children the way you want, is a basic freedom.

And later when you were Minister for Education you did more.

I did a lot more. But I can remember at Koroit where they were making an appeal for funds, which was for the local hall or something, the bishop made a speech about state aid. They quite specifically did not ask me to speak on that occasion because if I had, a lot of the constituents would have expected me to speak about state aid and they knew that would have been embarrassing for me and difficult for me because government policy hadn't been provided. So there was a real effort to make sure that I was not embarrassed. They knew I had a view towards family values and issues which were sympathetic I suppose to the Catholic view.

An anti-abortion stance as well, didn't you take?

Well not totally, but if necessary for the health and mother or the child or - not the child - the health of the mother, yes. But in days of fairly freely available contraceptives, why should abortion also be very freely available? I mean it depends on the circumstances.

[end of tape]

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