|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: April 13, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You were ten years as a backbencher. Why did it take you so long, given your background, your qualifications, and your interests, to get into a ministry?
I didn't it regard it as so long. I certainly regarded it as long enough and probably had some hopes that I might have got into the ministry before I did. But there were a lot of experienced people in the parliament. It was a much older parliament than it has been in more recent years. I probably annoyed some of my ministerial colleagues by pointing out that if I stayed in parliament - in my maiden speech - for 25 years, I wouldn't reach the average age of Cabinet. And I was younger than most of the other new members of parliament who'd come in in 1955. I think there's probably a reason though why I was a little longer on the backbenches than some others. Some people, you know, quite deliberately, set about getting in good books with people who might be regarded as patrons and being prepared to do whatever they wanted and arguing causes that they wanted argued. And part of the background and inclination I suppose that made me want the freedom that I didn't feel I had at school or whatever, meant that I just wasn't going to do that. I wasn't calculating a career path. I was just going to treat issues as they were and as I saw them. And that sometimes pleased people, but sometimes it didn't please people. If I took a course of action that the hierarchy of the Party didn't like, [such as] during the Suez or what was an impending Suez crisis, and I had raised grave reservations about the Anglo-French involvement, and then there were reports and suggestions that Australia might support that involvement. At least that was running around Parliament House at the time. And I can remember telling Eric Harrison, who was Leader of the Government in the Representatives, and very close to Menzies and whatever, that I thought that would be a wrong course of action and that we shouldn't do it. There were a few others of us who'd done the same thing. That would be more expedient in terms of a career path just to shut up on those occasions. But it wasn't in my nature.
Did you learn later to shut up when you should?
Well when should I? No, I don't think I ever did. You know, as Prime Minister I probably, I learned to exercise political tact, but if you had to do something you had to do it. If there was a course of action that should be pursued, you weren't deterred from that simply because it was going to alienate somebody or a group or whatever. And if you're a prime minister, all the more in my view, you had to take that view, because if you weren't prepared to stand for a principle or an idea, who else would.
How did you get on with Menzies?
I got on with him well. I always regretted that I hadn't been in one of his ministries, but I think it was probably Harold Holt who in the end made me a minister, who had argued, 'Oh young Malcolm's not ready yet'. And Harold, I mean I'd been, contrary to the views I now hold, I'd argued against the size of the immigration program at one point during the 1950s. I happen to think that I was wrong at the time. Certainly from this perspective; but that was arguing against something that was dear and close to Harold Holt's heart. You know, but still, I felt it at the time so I argued it.
You'd argued also against the form that it was taking. You were concerned about a balance between immigrants from British backgrounds and other immigrants at the time. Is that something else that you've changed your mind on?
I'm not - did I argue that at the time?
You did make reference to the fact that you felt there should be a better balance between those coming from Britain and those coming from elsewhere.
But there were very few coming from elsewhere at the time.
Yes, but you were concerned about the increase.
Well if I was, I'd forgotten that completely.
Yes, and it isn't a view you'd hold now?
No. Not for a minute. Was that in the speech I made?
I understand so, yes.
I'd like to check it.
Yes, all right, well we'll do that later.
Because I think it may not be right. You give me the reference.
Right, okay, we'll find it later.
But anyway I didn't really want to take up - you were, you had a difference of opinion with Harold Holt over immigration and you weren't particularly tactful in the way you put it?
I just would have argued the case. I wrote an article in the papers about it I think. But you know, that's what a lot of it was about, as I thought.
Was the system very much set up so that you did need a senior sponsor to get your toe in?
Well you obviously needed to - no, a system wasn't set up like that I don't think. But Harold Holt would have been looking to who might succeed Menzies and who was going to support him and who wasn't. But if Barwick had still been in the Parliament and had stood, I would have voted for Barwick and not for Holt. I wasn't sure that Harold was strong enough. He was a good man, but - Barwick wasn't in the Parliament, so I would have voted for Holt. It depends who it was and what it was. I mean Harold tried to build support from all points of view and he was certainly powerful and influential in the Party, and to be regarded well by him and to be supported by him was certainly a big help. But I don't think it was a general proposition or a tactic that people really embraced.
There's always been two sorts of strands to the Liberal Party in Australia - one that could be characterised as more traditional and conservative and perhaps closer to the Country Party, and another group which tended to be more associated with business, but also much softer on social issues, much more concerned with the redistribution of wealth and the protection, the welfare side of things. Did you feel that you belonged in either one of those camps?
No, but I - those camps, you see, didn't exist.
They didn't exist then at all?
Well, not camps in that sense. There were no factions in the Liberal Party and that was positively frowned upon by Menzies.
I understand that structurally, I was really talking more philosophically.
No, even philosophically, because people have different views on different issues, and it's nonsense to say that there was a rural traditional view. I mean I don't fit, I never have fitted, the press's conventional view of, of the sort of Liberal I ought to be having regard to the background I have. They're puzzled by a whole range of things about my attitude to race, my attitude to [the] environment, a whole vast range of issues, where they'd say that Fraser must be doing that because he thinks it's politically expedient, not because - out of conviction, because how could somebody with his background have that kind of conviction. Now this is a very common journalists', press's view.
Oh yes, and they attribute it in the end to noblesse oblige.
Well to all sorts of things which, whose meaning they didn't know. But in the Liberal Party, there were very few, if any, permanent groupings. It would depend upon the issue, upon the circumstances, and upon the argument, which is the way it ought to be. I would have been conservative on some issues, but I suppose radical on other issues and the same could have been said - I mean Wentworth, who would have been very conservative on some issues was extraordinarily radical on others, and he came from the city ...
But there were ...
... so that there was no, there were very few stereotypes and the stereotyping - I mean if the press can't stereotype people or groups, they get worried, because they can't understand it. But stereotyping really didn't work in the Liberal Party in the '50s and '60s.
On the other hand, within the Party, there were times when you were seen as being - it was suggested that you were too close to the Country Party, wasn't it? That was sometimes ... you were sometimes accused of that from within your own Party.
Well a lot of things were said about me after I resigned from the Gorton Ministry. There were some people who quite deliberately said, 'How can we destroy Fraser and make sure that he never rises again within the Liberal Party? Now what are the arguments we can use against Fraser?' and they started putting these arguments around and you know, one of them [said], 'He's too close to the Country Party'; another one, 'He's too conservative'. I've forgotten what half of them were but they started. Well I sent up the send-uppers on one occasion because I got hold of a photographer who remains a good friend of mine in Melbourne and somebody organised a couple of girls out of the rag trade and oh, they'd started issuing some t-shirts, 'Vote 1 Fraser - Relieve Mafeking' and with other equally contemporary slogans on them you see. So we dressed up these couple of girls from the rag trade in these t-shirts and they were put into rather extravagant or unusual poses and the photographer got on the ceiling and then photographed them from the ceiling. The photograph ended up over most of the front page of the Melbourne Age and I was just saying, 'I think these t-shirts are wonderful. I'm going to send half a dozen to this person and half a dozen to that person', and mostly naming my detractors and whatever. In other words the spoof was spoofed, but this was all ...
In a very contemporary image?
This was, in a more contemporary image than the one they'd tried to portray. But this was all a - you know there was a deliberate campaign and these things, if you look at the history, or the timing of it, none of these things were said about Fraser before I resigned from the Gorton Government. They all had their genesis - I'm not going to name names, but there would have been two or three close friends of Gorton who would have - and some of these tags lived on and the Labor Party tried to pick them up. I don't think with any great effect.
So what did finally give you your first chance at a ministry?
Well I went to Harold Holt at some point. I had a talk with a couple of people I knew were close to Harold in the business world, and said I'd been there ten years. 'I think that's long enough. I just want to know whether I've got a future in this place or not, because if I'm going to stay a private member forever I'll get out and make way for somebody else'. No sour grapes about it and whatever, but I knew that the government would have been slightly reluctant to have me get out because the seat was consolidated and it was regarded very much as a Fraser seat, and they weren't quite sure whether it was a Liberal seat. I mean the National Party could easily have taken it at that time if I wasn't involved in the contest. Anyway, I went to Harold Holt, it was in his office in Sydney and he was trying to put his government together and I said I'd just like to know you know where I stood. I wanted to know if I had any future in his government or whatever, because if not, I wouldn't stand at the next election and there were no sour grapes about it but I'd go off and do some other things. I'd had ten useful and interesting years in the Parliament, but I didn't want to be a private member forever; other people could fulfil, if they had the will, that role just as well as I could. And we talked about it for a bit and he expressed appreciation for the attitude that I was expressing, because I think most people, with these conversations, would have tried to threaten or demand or whatever, and I wasn't doing any of that. And anyway he said he'd let me know in two or three days and I was down on the farm. The telephone then was out in the hall. We didn't have a Commander system with a phone in nearly every room, and he rang me up and he offered me the portfolio that I was most terrified of being offered and that was Army. Terrified because I knew nothing about army or army organisation. I hardly even knew what the badges of rank meant, so I had to start really at the bottom and I had some diffidence about it, because I would have been the first non-soldier, or non-serviceman to be in a service portfolio post-war. But anyway, those problems were overcome and I joined his ministry and came to have a high regard - well I always had a high regard for Harold Holt, but he had a very human side to him, which people didn't always understand.
Well some people felt that all his side was human and that there was an element of authority missing.
Well maybe. He certainly liked to please people, but he also had great courage, because he strongly believed that the Vietnam commitment was right. But at the same time I think he suffered a great deal because he was Prime Minister when Australian servicemen were being sent to Vietnam, and conscripts sent to Vietnam. And I think he felt that very personally and if you'd asked him, if he was ever Prime Minister, what political act would he most want to have to avoid, and I suppose most prime ministers would answer in the same way, but he felt it, I think, very strongly; it would have been sending people into conflict.
As Army Minister you presided over the period when they were in conflict.
Did you have that same feeling?
Yes I did, but at the same time I believed that the commitment was right. I still believe it was right.
Do you? You've had no revision of that with hindsight?
The only revision I've had of it is that - and this was something that I came to feel quite shortly after being in the job - that if we were going to be involved with an ally, we should have a say and an influence on the strategies and tactics and the conduct of the war. Which would have meant having somebody permanently in Washington, where the strategies and tactics were determined; and it was Washington that lost the war. It really was. I was in Laos in 1966 on my way to Vietnam and on my way to see our build-up in process in the Phuoc Tuy Province and Prince Souvanna Phouma, Prime Minister of Laos in 1966, said in his own home, or asked me, he said, 'Why are the Americans starting a war they're determined to lose?', I said, 'What do you mean?', and he said, 'Well every day the American President's making speeches saying that they're at peace, but he's going to have half a million men under arms at war. There'll be casualties in every town and city of the United States. He's telling the North Vietnamese and the Soviet Union that he offers no threat to North Vietnam or anyone else, but, he said, 'if you're going to win in a contest with North Vietnam, you're going to have to have them believe that you might really clobber them so hard that they can't conduct a war. You don't have to do it you just have to have them believe it'. And the great ... apart from the changes of tactics and the restraints put upon the American military by Washington decisions in the early days, and it was this as much as anything else that destroyed the morale of American fighting men. They weren't allowed to do their job because of political rules. That might sound odd because often people think of Vietnam as the war without rules, but I visited General Walt who later became the Supreme Marine Commander in the United States and he was commanding the marine army then, south of the demilitarised zone. He was being attacked from the north by a hundred thousand strong Vietnamese Army, and they'd attack and withdraw to the demilitarised zone and then he couldn't touch them. But if he'd been allowed to send some troops around and some boats around behind them, he could have locked them in a pincer movement and, in his terms, 'chewed them up and spat them out' and the Vietnamese war effort would have been significantly weakened. He wasn't allowed to do any of that. He even had people from Treasury coming out to him because the President kept saying that they weren't at war, and trying to audit his use of fuel and ammunition on the basis that he was exceeding peace time rations. You know, how absurd can you be? And there's an analogy: in 1948 the West ran a blockade, ran the gauntlet of a blockade into West Berlin, and maintained the independence and integrity of West Berlin, not because of that blockade, but because the Soviet Union knew that the West would use all the power at its command, including, if necessary, nuclear weapons to prevent Russian tanks going into West Berlin. And therefore they never gave any audit to their tanks, they didn't and it was that determination and the knowledge of that determination, on the part of the West and of NATO as it was emerging, that stopped, or maintained the freedom of West Berlin - nothing else. Now, in relation to Vietnam, people forget that you had an internationally agreed division of the country between the North and South, by international agreement in Paris. Those who wanted to live in the communist North were allowed to do so, and 100 000 went north. Those who wanted to live in a non-communist South were allowed to do so and over a million went South. But that agreement was broken because the North commenced the war again. There's some interesting sidelines to this history. The South Vietnamese Ambassador to Australia, and later Ambassador to Washington, where he still lives, was a battalion commander with the Viet Min Army fighting the French, because one of the stupid things that the allies did after the war was to allow some powers to try and reimpose a colonial empire, and the Viet Min were fighting against the reimposition of a French empire in Vietnam. And so the Communists, the Nationalists, were on side. The Viet Min decided to purge their army of the nationalists ... non-communist elements, and this chap was sent out on an operation against the French, but the French had a copy of his battle orders. Three people out of his whole battalion escaped. He was one of them. So he went South. He wasn't a Communist and didn't want to be, but at the age of 23, he had a pretty long record of fighting the French on a Nationalist cause. Now with all the divisions in countries like Australia and America, we forget all of this. We had medical teams operating in a place at Bien Hoa long before there was any military involvement. And the doctors often went up there for two or three or four terms, because they thought it was something of value that they were doing. And if somebody came in with an ear cut off or a hand cut off or a tongue cut out, they knew the Viet Cong had been recruiting, and that girl would have had a brother or a father unwilling to be recruited. When you're fighting a massive terror and when you have people committed enough to use any force at all to achieve an objective, it's extraordinarily hard to combat it. And in the end, of course, lack of morale in the United States, decisions on Vietnamisation, the knowledge that the United States and West were never going to do enough to knock Vietnam out of the war, or for that matter to prevent the Russians providing all the sophisticated weaponries. It wasn't Chinese support for Vietnam that won the day, it was sophisticated Russian support for Vietnam. All of that was too much, and the loss of morale within the United States of course, and ... or required American withdrawal at a very critical time in Vietnam and that demoralised the South Vietnamese forces and so it all started to crumble. But the Australian troops in the Phuoc Tuy Province succeeded in their mission absolutely until it started to crumble all around them, when everything fell apart. But you know, the Americans never once attempted to persuade the Russians or the Chinese that they were serious in the sense they were serious about West Berlin.
So they showed weakness to the enemy?
Oh, inconsistency. Whether that's weakness or not. It probably is weakness because Johnson was saying, 'We are at peace, we are not at war, we offer no threat to North Vietnam. We just want them to be good boys'. You know, that's ludicrous. We had half a million men under arms.
You believed that it was a just war and that we were right to be there.
Also, one of the things that was said a lot at the time and I believe by yourself, related to the fact that it had to be stopped in Vietnam because of the idea of the 'domino theory' that other areas in Asia would fall to communism if America were defeated in Vietnam. In fact America was, in a sense, defeated, and yet that wasn't a consequence. Why do you think that was so?
Well, I never believed there was anything inevitable in the so-called domino theory and people tried to argue against it on the basis that there was an inevitability. But the most there was [was] an increased likelihood and well, Cambodia was a consequence of Vietnam. And Cambodia is still suffering as a consequence of that. It's difficult probably to isolate and analyse where all the blame may or may not lie but in so many players, Cambodian players and their scene, who damaged their own circumstances very, very seriously. But people like Harry Lee, Lee Kwan Yew, he would have believed not in the inevitability but the likelihood of the domino theory. You see, we forget today some earlier history, because it goes back too far and people can't remember. They weren't born and I'm sure the schools don't teach it. Or if they do they'll do it in a probably pretty perverted and odd way. We fought with Malaya for ten years against a communist insurgency. Nobody doubted that it was a communist insurgency. But we had battalions in Malaya as the British did, as the New Zealanders did, and it took a troop ratio of about 14 to 1, government forces including Malayan forces, 14 to one terrorist to be able to defeat them. And that's in a long, narrow peninsula where you could, through your surveillance, see what's happening down the coastlines. That preceded Vietnam of course, but that was successful. Then there was an attempted communist coup in Indonesia which, but for the grace of God and General Nasution and being able to get out through a bathroom window when he was meant to be assassinated, failed. But it might not have failed. And communism remained a threat. It's one of the reasons why Indonesia has exhibited a concern about communism in all the years since. Not so much today, but certainly up until quite recent years. They got very near to the brink. Then there was confrontation between Sukharno and Malaya or Malaysia, where we were fighting, with everyone's agreement, alongside Malaysia against Indonesia and in one of the truly remarkable diplomatic feats under a Liberal Government, maintained close relationships with Indonesia at the same time. We were the only country able to do that. The British couldn't do it. But we Australians could. Now you've got to look at Vietnam in the larger context. They were trying to form ASEAN to overcome these difficulties, the disputes, to establish a degree of political cohesion in a region that had been full of fighting and bitterness and difficulty over the previous ten or fifteen years, where there had been two major communist insurgencies: one that went on for over ten years in Malaya, one which was short and sharp but equally bloody in Indonesia. Now ASEAN needed time. They would not be able to confront another threat if there was no defence of South Vietnam and if the Vietnamese Army was to prove imperial in its ambitions, ASEAN wouldn't have been, in those earlier years, they wouldn't have had the political cohesion, they wouldn't have had the internal strength and confidence to do anything about it. So people like Lee Kwan Yew were amongst the first to say that the Vietnamese war bought time for ASEAN in a very constructive way. And I think it's hard to argue against that. Certainly, in terms of the objectives of the war it failed. But unfortunately, you know, failing in an enterprise does not make the attempt dishonourable or wrong.
You were concerned about taking on this job as a minister. In the event, what kind of a minister were you? Some people say that you were a very hard taskmaster, that you drove yourself hard but you also drove your department hard. Was this a policy? Did you decide on that?
Well I had to drive myself hard because I had to learn about the Army Ministry and what made it tick. And I think very soon I had to learn that I'd have to drive the department as hard as I did. You know, the first few days of briefings, what the Army's about, what it means, what the Adjutant-General does, what somebody else does, what this person does, and what the General's staff do and - it was all from scratch - what people in uniform do, what the civilians did. Then I suppose at about the fourth day, a whole bundle of letters came in. 'These are the letters to sign today, we'll collect them in ten minutes.'
[end of tape]