Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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As a minister, you had a reputation of being hard on yourself as well as hard on those who worked for you. Do you think you were a tough taskmaster?

Well I had to be hard on myself because I knew nothing about the army and I had to learn what different people did, what the Adjutant-General did. I had to learn what the badges of rank meant and I had to learn how important Warrant Officers are to the strength and structure of any good army. And I had to learn what the civilians in the department did, alongside their uniformed counterparts. And you know, I can recall the first few days. I was being given so-called in-depth briefings and all of this, and you'd try and remember some of it. But there was administrative work that had to be done and people wrote to ministers obviously and I was given, on about the fourth day, a whole bundle of letters and I started to look at these letters and they said, 'Dear Mr Smith, We have examined you complaint and there is no substance in it whatsoever. Thank you for your letter.' - well there probably wasn't a 'thank you' there - 'Yours sincerely, Malcolm Fraser, Minister for the Army.' And all the letters were in the same vein. Everything being dismissed. I said, 'Here are 80 letters, every person who's written has written for no reason'. 'What do you mean?' 'Well, every letter is saying there was no substance in the complaint. Have you really looked at these? Have you really examined these?' 'Oh yes, they're examined most thoroughly.' I said, 'Fine, well then bring in all the files and I'll have a look at them'. They said, 'We can't do that'. 'Why not?' 'Well they're too bulky.' They said, 'Some of these people just go on writing letters month after month'. 'Well', I said, 'let me see, we'll have a look at the files'. And I suppose a stack of files came in that high off the floor, and I set about having to look at them. I don't think in a single case had there been an honest examination, so I would have looked at a dozen or 15 of them and seen that there'd been no examination and said, 'Take them all away, examine them all thoroughly and bring them back in a week'. They would have come back with a slightly more verbose letter but again, I said, 'Where's the evidence of the examination?'. They said, 'You aren't serious about ...', I said, 'I am serious and you better take all letters written to me as a matter of seriousness, requiring a serious, considered, factual, thoughtful answer - and we'll get on a lot better'. And the Adjutant-General was the sort of personnel - uniformed personnel person - and I said, 'I want to get this message', because I was speaking to the Secretary of the Department, 'get the Adjutant-General along here, I want to tell him because the uniform people have obviously got a role in this'. 'Well, he's not in the building at the moment, he's on some other duties.' 'Where is he? Is he on the telephone?' 'No, he's not on the telephone.' 'Where is he?' 'Well it's Wednesday.' 'Well, what's Wednesday got to do with it?' 'Well most people play golf on Wednesday. In fact, normally I play golf on Wednesday too', the Secretary talking to me. I said, 'Isn't Wednesday a normal working day? Do other ranks get Wednesday off?' 'No, but it's been a habit.' Well', I said, 'that's one habit that will end. Get out, get the Adjutant-General, and tell him that the Minister wants him in his office within 15 minutes. And you haul him off the golf course.' But I thought that sort of message just had to be got. It was a sloppy, bad administration in relation to these matters. There were some things in which the Army has always been very good, in terms of training people, fighting people, and to the extent that you can, looking after the health and welfare of your military people. When I say to the extent that you can, because if it's Vietnam, there's obviously a limit to what you can do. You're in an area of extreme and acute danger. And [in] those things, the Australian Army is second to none at. But...

In stopping their Wednesday golf you illustrated fairly effectively that you were more interested in a job being done than in popularity then.

Yes. And if I hadn't done something slightly dramatic, they wouldn't have taken - they wouldn't have been serious about making an examination of all of these complaints. And they learnt quite a lot about their own structures when they started to examine the complaints. And they learnt some things that needed altering and changing. And in the end, I think they all believed that it was a better, more efficient, better organised, more thoughtful, more caring organisation than it had been when I went to it.

After Harold Holt drowned, there was a change of leader. Who did you support?

I supported John Gorton and shouldn't have.

Why did you support him at the time?

I thought he could handle Whitlam. He couldn't really, and Hasluck might have. But Hasluck was a man of intellectual quality. He could also be emotional and I've seen him walk out of Cabinet meetings when he shouldn't have. But he was a disciplined person. He had high regard for structures and for the integrity of government. John Gorton was a Prime Minister who had it all at his feet, and kicked it all away.

At the beginning though, from your own personal point of view, it looked as if you'd done the right thing, because he promoted you and seemed to respect you.

But Hasluck would have too. There was nothing in that.

So what went wrong between you and Gorton?

Well you've got to understand your attitude to government. I believed that the Cabinet procedures were important because certainly in significant issues, you've got to discuss them, you want a variety of minds paying attention to an issue, so you know what it's consequences will be. The more serious the issue, the more important that there be a Cabinet discussion. There are other safeguards built into the Australian system; the Executive Council is a very significant safeguard. It's not entirely a red herring, but you cannot use any part of the military forces as an aid to the civil power unless there is a request from the state government concerned, unless that is sanctioned by a Cabinet decision and approved by the Governor-General in Council. So three safeguards against somebody getting up and saying, 'I'm going to use the military to capture Bendigo'. Or to do anything else. Gareth Evans, as Attorney-General, used air force planes to take photographs to be used in a High Court case against a state. Every part of that was totally illegal, totally in defiance of the systems and structures. If you're going to use that - you need a request from the state, which of course you wouldn't get because it was a case against the state and it was over the state's territory. You needed a Cabinet decision and an Executive Council decision before you could give a lawful order to that F1-11 aircraft to take those photographs. None of those procedures were followed. Now that's not irrelevant in this context, because John Gorton believed that if he felt strongly enough about something as prime minister, he should be able to do what he believed to be right. And even if I agreed with what he wanted to do, that it was right, I still believed equally passionately that the matter should be properly considered by Cabinet. I mean if he and I believed something was right and ten other people in Cabinet believed it was wrong, then I'd say those ten others should have the day.

So when you were prime minister yourself, did you ever concede to the rest of Cabinet something that you felt passionately was wrong?

But, if I couldn't persuade them that I was right, there was something wrong in my case. If I felt that passionately about something I was probably able to persuade them. But you have to be able to give them a chance, an opportunity to put their view, if you're just saying, 'This is what's going to be done'. And there was a famous case - or not case, it received very little publicity - but there were disturbances in Papua New Guinea [and] either the Administrator or the minister or somebody anyway, felt that the military forces ought to be called out. Now I was Minister for Defence at the time and the reports I was getting from Defence personnel in Papua New Guinea were that there was absolutely no cause at all for a call out of the troops, which would have meant those troops were available to the civil power, which meant the administrator [could] say, 'Go and capture this village', or 'do that', or 'put down these dissidents', or whatever. But if there was going to be that kind of decision by government, it should go through the Defence Council, which was the service chiefs - the Chief of Defence Staff, Heads of Treasury, Foreign Affairs, in this case Territories, maybe one or two others, but all officials. Then it would go to Cabinet, then it would go to the Executive Council. Without going through any of those processes, there was an attempt to take it through the Executive Council. I, in effect, rang up the Governor-General of the day and warned him that somebody was going to ask for him to sign an Executive Council order for the call-out of troops, which did not have my approval and had not been discussed in Cabinet. Without revealing or indicating that he knew that, the Governor-General just said, 'Well has Cabinet considered this matter? Has the Defence Council, the Defence Committee considered this matter?' And the answers of course had to be 'no'. So he said well he wasn't going to take it into Executive Council until it had been properly considered.

So you were very conscious of the powers that the Governor-General legitimately had?

Yes, but he was a safeguard in relation to that. In relation to military personnel, he was also the final court of appeal for many soldiers, if I'd knocked back a soldier who'd written with a request or a complaint or something, had a final court of appeal to the Governor-General in Council. And that was exercised occasionally, not often, but occasionally. But it was not an independent exercise of power by the Governor-General, it was simply that he was part of a set of procedures to make sure that rational, thoughtful decisions, in accordance with the law and the constitution, were taken. As opposed to impetuous decisions, not necessarily well thought out and which could therefore be dangerous. And an absolutely essential part of good government, to follow the procedures that have been laid down and built up over a long time. Because, you know, an arbitrary Prime Minister, not subject to the restraint of those procedures, can be just as damaging to a country as an arbitrary, absolutist monarch. There's no difference.

So did you become aware of this style in Gorton that you didn't like from the moment that you were in his Cabinet?

Oh I'd become fearful of it from about day two.

And ...

... because I could see the arguments he was having with the Prime Minister's Department and I could also see who was going to [be made] head of the Prime Minister's Department. And that really spelt the end of John Gorton because - I suppose some lawyer looks at this tape to see how much of it's defamatory or not, but they'd better. When I was made Education Minister, Len Hewitt was head of the Australian Universities Commission and he was meant to tell me what the Universities Commission did and all the rest, and he gave me a one page piece of paper and he said, 'Minister, that is all you need to know about the Universities Commission'. He said he would look after the rest. And I said well in time I hoped to learn a little more of his work than just that single sheet of paper with a couple of figures on it. And then he spent 45 minutes trying to tell me what a terrible rogue, and how, inevitably, the head of my department - Hugh Ennore who in many ways was a dear old person and a scientist, he was a good man - what a terrible person he was and how he would let me down and deliberately plot to get me into trouble. One senior public servant to another. And this was the man, because he'd worked with John Gorton when John Gorton was in Education, this was the man John Gorton was making head of the Prime Minister's Department. It wasn't encouraging.

So you, did you go to Gorton with your, with your fears? I mean what did you do about it?

I didn't, I don't think I did anything about that. I knew Gorton knew Hewitt. Gorton was ...

I'm talking about your general, your general concerns about Gorton and his style.

Oh, well as those developed over time, of course I did. But I was always I suppose in a degree of awe with people in high office and I was a lowly minister, even if I was Defence Minister. And he was Prime Minister and there was an enormous difference. And you don't willingly go in and tell the Prime Minister that the people he's got around him are giving him bad advice and going to get into trouble, because what you're probably going to do is to end up in damaging your own capacity to influence events without achieving anything.

But ...

You see, if he doesn't know from his own knowledge and experience that he's got a bad Head of the Prime Minister's Department, whatever I can tell him's not going to influence him.

But in the end in your view, Gorton did make mistakes and got himself into trouble in his own right, quite independently of what advice he was getting.

Oh yeah, it was his nature. He believed he should get his own way in terms of policy. Now that led him to major conflict with the Liberal Party and confrontation with the states because he thought the states were a nuisance and that Canberra should determine everything. Which at the time, when John Gorton [was] determining most things, led to major conflicts with people like Charlie Court and most other state premiers. So he was challenging the whole basis on which the Liberal Party had been formed; a fight therefore with the Liberal Party.

So you felt that the public should know about some of the problems that were occurring and you did in fact leak some information to the press at the time. Is that correct?

Not about any of that, no.

No, I mean about a specific issue that arose in the defence area.

There was nothing leaked to anyone. What had happened at the time was that there were some problems in Vietnam and I thought it was in the public interest that they should be known. So as Minister for the Army I followed a practice that was common in government then and is common in government now, and briefed on the problems that we were having and what was being done and the good work that the army was doing. If you like, you can almost say that that was an earlier example of more open government. It might have been wiser to make a formal statement about it instead of just briefing one particular journalist, but it was other people's reactions to that. You see, the problem with - the army knew I had certain views of civic action in Vietnam, [which] I wanted to have left behind, because we had - you know, the military problem had been overcome in Phuoc Tuy Province, so in my view, the image that we could and should leave behind was of the army helping villagers putting in water supply, doing this, and a whole lot of things that we were doing very well. And I wanted this side of activities built up. The army, believing that they were going to withdraw, wanted this side of activities run down. And I had some indication that orders had been given from Canberra, by the Chief of the General Staff, to run down civic action activities. That was denied, but I still believed and people were writing from Vietnam - journalists were writing from Vietnam - that it was so. I denied that it was so on advice that I'd had from Canberra. The journalist writing from Vietnam was in fact right. And it was after I resigned that an army officer gave me a copy of an order from Canberra to Vietnam. So not from Vietnam, but from Canberra, there was a degree of deception of the minister, which if I'd known about at the time, I would have had the General's head. And it was [the] Chief of the General Staff, somebody I regarded as a good friend. But he was very tense and upright, his total love and passion was the army, and he thought the emphasis I was putting on civic action was doing the army great damage or running into significant problems. Instead of being open about it and being prepared to debate it and all the rest, he took his own action to the officer commanding in Vietnam without telling me, without advising me and I thought that was wrong ...

Now when you decided to resign ...

... and I was Defence Minister at the time, so his specific responsibility was to Peacock. And you know, Andrew began to think that whatever was happening was also being aimed at him, which of course it wasn't ...

Yes it was a beginning of ...

... it had absolutely nothing to do with him at all.

... a problem between you and Andrew.

It had nothing to do with him at all.

Yes. So what happened then when you decided that you would resign?

Well I just resigned.

And did you discuss this with Gorton?

Not beforehand, no.

Why not?

Because he'd have your head chopped off. If I was going to resign, I wasn't going to - if I was to resign I wasn't going to give him the privilege of sacking me.

So who did you give your resignation to?

I took the unusual course and took it straight to the Governor-General.

Legally quite correct of course.

I'm not sure. It was unconventional to put it at best, it was unconventional.

But you always had a great regard for the office of Governor-General.

Well it's, it is a safeguard. It does not make independent decisions. But it makes sure that procedures are followed.

It also meant that Gorton couldn't sack you before he accepted your resignation.

Once he had a piece of paper from me, he couldn't sack me.

It's said that he, or he has said that he asked you whether you were going to resign, and that you assured him that he could sleep well and not worry about it.

He asked me what I was going to do.

Right.

Look, this is one of those occasions ...

Can we have your version of it?

Well, no, he asked me what I was going to do and I said, 'You can sleep' ... look, there had been a quite outrageous television program the night before, which I watched and he watched. But if you've made a decision that you're going to resign, you can't give a warning. It's one of the tough things in politics. I mean John Gorton had been a close friend of mine and here I was going to resign from his government in a way that would probably end his prime ministership. I spoke - the day I made the speech in the parliament I spoke to two people - whether they remember it or not I don't know, but I had a speech written out and I got them both down into my office and I was due to go into the damn parliament. And one was Burt Kelly and one was Tony Street. I said, 'I've got a speech here that will destroy Gorton if I make it. It's a tough speech. Will I make the speech or not?' I said, 'I don't have to'. They didn't have time to read it. But my description of it was accurate and they both said, 'Make it'. I don't know if they want to be on record with that, but they are.

And what did you say about Gorton?

Well it's all in the record in the parliament.

This is the oral version.

A fair bit of the speech was about procedure and the need to follow procedure. And the fact that I regarded him as a prime minister who wanted to get his own way and was therefore dangerous and difficult. One of the things that, the incident over New Guinea had been very much in my mind in relation to that because ... but then ...

Because of his bypassing good rules?

Yes. Good procedures. And then in a different way ...

It didn't have anything to do with ...

... he had had General Daly into his office that week. I was actually in Tasmania doing some things and clearly, the press were being fed and things were being said and he could have stopped some reports with a single word if he'd wanted to, but he allowed those reports to go forward. And I thought in those circumstances that he'd been significantly disloyal to the senior minister in that. And in a sense, on top of all the other things, because I also had the arrogance to believe that if I was not in John Gorton's Cabinet, there was nobody else who [would] put any restraint on him and therefore you would have a leader who would confront the states all the more and damage the Liberal Party all the more and break the procedures of government and not have anyone being prepared to challenge it. And that was, I suppose - and it might have been arrogant, there might have been other people there who would do it, but I didn't believe there were and I didn't see them. So, many people choose a peaceful life rather than embark on that course.

His decision to bypass you and your legitimate authority as minister in relation to getting the orders in Council for the intervention in New Guinea, which you were able to manoeuvre to prevent his doing, was that really a concern about procedure or was it also because you felt that he wasn't respecting your particular authority?

I don't think it was anything personal in it at all. It's sometimes difficult to work out; well if it wasn't me, if it was somebody else, would I be equally concerned. I think in those circumstances I would be. I was equally outraged at Gareth Evans's use of those F1-11s.

So you resigned and then you made probably one of the most scathing speeches that anyone has ever made about any leader, let alone his own leader.

It wasn't scathing. It was - in my view it was objective and balanced and moderate, so I suppose that shows how I was feeling at the time.

Did you feel disloyal?

Well this is one of the problems you've got in government and it's a problem that you have all the more if you're a prime minister. You have loyalties to different things and there are different kinds of loyalties, and this is very, very hard for people to understand; I think totally impossible for the media to understand. Because loyalty is so often described in terms of human relationships. Are you loyal to this person or that person or whatever? But there's also a question of loyalty to values, loyalty to the process of government, to judicial process or whatever. Or to standards of behaviour. I mean should you allow ministers to evade the customs even on a piffling, trifling matter of no real consequence. There is a principle at stake. Once you hear about it, once you know about it, what's your job as prime minister? Do you support the minister and remain loyal personally to him, and do you have the whole country know that the minister and the prime minister are prepared to allow ministers, because they're mates and friends, to evade the normal custom laws that apply to every other Australian? And if every other Australian is caught they can't all appeal to the prime minister. Are they going to get punished and the minister not? So there's a question of loyalty to people, or loyalty to values and principles. And some ...

So ...

... sometimes these loyalties are in total and absolute conflict. And that's the hardest decision.

But you always go for the principle.

Not always, but I think sometimes the principle is only infringed to a very minor extent and then you probably, you'll stay with the person if you can. But if there is a clear breach of an important principle concerning the process of government, or concerning personal integrity in relation to official acts or whatever, or in relation to standards of behaviour in a way which can set a bad example for the Australian body politic as a whole, then you should be loyal to the principle.

Do you feel yourself now, at all in hindsight, disturbed by the times when you decided to break a convention or to break a way of doing things because the circumstances at the time seemed to warrant it?

I don't know a case when I did. What sort of convention?

Well I was thinking that the convention that a Governor-General take advice from his prime minister.

There was no convention broken in relation to that because ...

We will come to this properly later, but I guess what I was really trying to raise was a situation where you might have been confronted with a judgement a call, a close call.

No, I don't think I ever was, because I followed procedures, I insisted matters went before Cabinet, I insisted that Cabinet discuss matters. It wasn't in my nature to take unilateral decisions, simply because no matter how well I knew an issue, I wanted to have other people's view of an issue, because I didn't want to be hit by a whole range of questions on something that I hadn't thought of when it hits the public domain. If you have differing kinds of people in your Cabinet, looking at an issue, or a question, the differing questions will be raised. When I made Chaney a minister, first time round, he said, 'Why are you asking me, you know I didn't support you', I said, 'I know you didn't support me, that's irrelevant. You're a Liberal, and I think you've got a contribution'. 'But why me?' So I said, 'There's one very good, very good reason. I think you look at this, or at a lot of issues rather differently from many other Liberals and many colleagues that I've got in Cabinet. And therefore you'll have a different perspective on issues that come, and policies that come before us. I think it's going to be useful for us to know your view because then we won't be surprised when other people like you say something about a decision of whatever when it hits the public. And you know, that's in part', I said, "the Chaney role in Cabinet'. And he said well he understood that, thank you very much and he was honoured to accept to be in the ministry, and he understood why I was asking, and he agreed with the reasons behind it. If you've got a Cabinet of like-minded people, it's hopeless. You'll make all the decisions and mistakes in the world.

So do you find it puzzling when people talk about you as a loner and as someone who wanted his own way, given that you do have this respect for the views of others?

But not many people who knew me, who knew how the Cabinet operated, have that view. If you're really doing things in politics you're always going to have political enemies. And I'm reminded of something that John McEwen said during the Mr Big arguments, which I never really knew the truth of, but somebody in the Labor side asked him, you know, did he know that so and so had said certain terrible things about John McEwen, did it worry him. And McEwen just got up and he said, 'Before I have to be concerned about an opinion, I have to have some opinion of the person uttering it'. Which is true. You have to respect somebody before they - I suppose anyone in politics, if you're going to get anywhere, has to develop a reasonably thick hide. But that's one good way of doing it, teaching yourself that you do not have to be concerned at all about opinions from people for whom you have no respect. It might be a nuisance but it's just like the flies or the bees out in the garden, you don't have to take much notice of them.

And you certainly don't have to look for them to like you.

But if you don't respect them - if you want to be liked, at least be liked by people you respect - what's the point of like if you don't respect them. It's irrelevant.

So after you'd taken on John Gorton in this way, you'd had quite a few people around who didn't like you.

Well there were - he had a lot of close friends and John Gorton was a very personable person. And he'd been, I had regarded him as a close personal friend of mine. And it was probably asking too much but when we later got into Opposition we were often, again, on the same sides of an argument and I thought maybe that bitternesses would - he'd get rid of them, but he never did. Whitlam was very different in that respect. He never seemed to hold any bitterness against me for - but against some people he did - but against me I don't think he ever did, or if he did, he hid it very well. We meet occasionally in international forums or in airports or at functions or whatever and we always talk and we've even been on the same platform together on some issues.

With Gorton gone, after he fell, in the casting ballot against himself and that famous incident, how did you then stand in relation to your now new leader?

I'd never been very close to McMahon.

And so what happened to you and your career at this point?

Well I stood for Deputy Leader and I got - the vote was a little later. McMahon said that he didn't know whether he wanted me to be in his government or not, and he obviously hoped that he wouldn't have to put me in his government. But he did, because I got enough votes as Deputy Leader for him to think, well Fraser's got 18 or 20 votes, I can't ignore them. I've got to put them in. Billy was always involved in a balancing act and ...

At what point did you start thinking yourself that you might like to be leader?

I never thought I wanted to be leader.

Not from the beginning, because most people when they go into parliament are expecting that they'd like one day to lead their party.

No, I just, when I first got in I thought, well to represent Wannon as well as I could and make it a secure seat if I could, and then when I became a minister, whatever the job was, to do it as well as I could.

I know this is what you're supposed to say, but was this really true?

It really, it certainly was until the time when the arguments came with Gorton and I started - because you know, for a long while as a young man I was in awe of senior politicians. But as I got older, and a lot of the more senior people who I respected greatly left and departed the scene, I suppose I had less respect for some of my contemporaries who I knew better.

And you began to think - I could do better than that.

I was right.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 6