Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

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So when did you decide yourself that you might make a better leader than some?

Oh it was probably about the time of the arguments with John Gorton and my resignation and the subsequent elections and the elevation of Billy McMahon as prime minister and whatever.

Did you do some serious thinking about how you might have to moderate yourself or shape your style or the way you related to your colleagues to get elected to that position?


So at the time there'd been a lot of talk about how you set about relating more effectively to those around you. This wasn't conscious on your part?

Well when we got into Opposition there was a conscious effort to try and say some things about what the Liberal Party stood for and to write some articles about that. And I'd done - it's hard to remember dates exactly - I made one speech to the Alfred Deakin Lecture Trust and Menzies came out of retirement to chair the meeting for me and that sort of thing.

And that's a much quoted speech.

But that was - what was the date - was I in the doldrums then, probably on the backbench?

Yes I think you were in the, on the backbench at the time you made that speech. I think it was around, early '70s.

Because my resignation and John Gorton's fall from grace was separated by quite a while, weren't they?


By some months anyway.

That's right. But the Deakin speech was the first major time that I'm aware of, that you articulated some of the thoughts you'd been drawing together while you were on the backbench.

It was the first speech since Menzies that articulated a philosophical view for the Liberal Party.

Was that a conscious act?

Yes. Oh yes, definitely.

Did you think this is missing, no one else is doing it?

It's missing now, too.

Do you think you might do something about it now?

Oh, I'm too old to do anything about it now. I could write the speech, but I'm not sure who I'd want to give it to, to deliver it.

Would it be the same speech that you gave then?

No. Circumstances are different, time is different.

Would it have ...

The philosophical values would not be different, not for one minute.

And can you sum those up? Of course that speech is the one that contains, I think, the famous line that will probably haunt you to your grave - 'Life wasn't meant to be easy.' I think you used that in that speech.

I'm not sure whether I did or not. I didn't first say it then. I probably first came nearest to saying it, oh, many years ago in the early 1950s, when somebody was pressing me and saying, 'Why are you standing for parliament, you've got a place in Western Victoria you can live on', and I think then I said something like, 'Well life's not meant to be easy'. But people don't know, not many people are well enough read to know that it's a quotation, and also only part of a quotation. It's the old man in George Bernard Shaw's Methuselah. 'Life' - I'm not sure that I've got it exactly right but - 'Life's not meant to be easy, but take courage child for it can be delightful.' And you know, the Labor Party, when they got hold of it they thought, ah, now we can hang Fraser, and if I had some enemies in the Liberal Party they would have thought, ah we can hang Fraser. But most people - which they did not understand, what so many people did not understand, that you don't con the Australian public - for most of them it is not easy. For many it is damn difficult. And the recognition that whether it's meant to be or not, it is just not easy, but it can also be delightful, was a recognition of a truth.

But you didn't say life isn't easy, you said life wasn't meant to be easy.

Well I know, but people relate that to their own circumstances and they say it's not, well maybe it's not meant to be, and they wouldn't know how they could make it easy for themselves. And so it was, in a sense, uttering a thought and so the more my enemies said it, I thought the more they won me some brownie points instead of lost me some.

What was the real essence of the philosophy that you were trying to articulate in that speech?

Look, I haven't read that speech for an awful long while and I sometimes forget what I put in one speech as opposed to another.

I guess really what I'm asking is, you looked around, you saw that no one was finding and expressing a new direction for a contemporary Liberal Party at that time, and you felt that you should do that. What were the things you most wanted to say to people to draw them together behind you?

Well I can only really answer that question now and I don't think I would have answered it much different then, or for that matter in the years since. Because government has got to relate to people and at the bottom line, the individual happiness of individual people ought to be the objective of government policy, and manifest itself in a whole great variety of ways. But it's the way average Australians, ordinary Australians can lead their lives that ought to be, as much as anything else, the determinant of government policy. You know, taking some thoughts from Menzies' use of 'the forgotten people'. You don't need to look after the unions or the great or the powerful or the wealthy or the great corporations because they can all look after themselves. You don't need to go out of your way to determine policy to see that they get a fair go, because they'll make sure that you're aware of the policies needed for that. And in some cases, will press them very strongly and in some cases far too strongly. But in the things the people want for their everyday lives, there's no single advocate, unless it's the advocate of the Liberal Party. The Labor Party still isn't, because it used to be the advocate of the union movement and now it is only one short step removed from being an advocate for peace and well being and profits on the financial markets.

You're not suggesting that the Liberal Party doesn't represent the interests of business are you?

In Menzies time the Liberal Party never represented the interests of business. But the objective of government from 1949 to 1983 was to see that manufacturing, mining and farming remained profitable. Because it's in those three major areas of business that Australia's basic wealth lies, and Australia's greatest employment opportunities will be found. Now the government wouldn't want to enunciate in this way and I don't think the Liberal Party would want to enunciate it either, but the objective of policy is not to keep those basic arms of industry profitable, but to keep the financial markets happy and contented and as even as they possibly can be. And if that means high and debilitating interest rates, so be it. What does that matter? We still have interest rates that are four times the average rate that a small American businessman would - four times the real rate that an American businessman would pay, when our inflation is only 25% of American inflation. Now are we wrong or are they wrong? They encourage their small businesses, we penalise them.

And in this period that McMahon was leading the party ...


... and you were sitting on the backbench.

No, I wasn't on the backbench when he was leading the party. He was deputy leader to Gorton.

That's right. That's right. Yes.


But you were in a situation where you were articulating an idea of support for the productive sections of the community.

Yes, but this had also really been the effect of Menzies' policies, Fadden's policies, McEwen's policies. There's no way any of us would have made the financial markets the dominant feature in every aspect of government policy.

As has happened since?

In the last ten years. No way. And no proposal every came before my government, in spite of the Campbell Market Inquiry that would have pointed in that direction, because we would have wanted a pragmatic, step-by-step look at the elements of deregulation. I mean there were some things that did need deregulating and some things we deregulated or changed significantly in the late 1970s and early '80s, but we weren't going to lose control of the economy. We weren't going to have credit to the private sector grow by 25% a year for six years. A disgrace to the Reserve Bank and a disgrace to the government which did all the damage. That never happened in America or Germany. It in part happened in Britain. It had part of the same disease, but not to the same extent as in Australia. And giving a dominance and a free sway to the financial markets, where there's no trade practice legislation, where there are no government rules for fair play is saying to those with the most dollars, you can buy anything you like, and in the last ten years they've demonstrated that. They'll be selling the ABC next. And it'll only be a foreigner who'll buy it.

What did you think of Bill Sneddon as a leader?

If Bill had been content to be it, he'd be a good deputy. But he wouldn't have been content to be a good deputy. He was a nice man, but he was one who tried to map out a career path and it meant a great deal to him. But as events proved, it's not kind to make somebody leader who hasn't got the qualities to be leader.

And what qualities did he lack?

I suppose at the end of the day judgement, resolution. Much the same qualities that McMahon lacked.

What brought you to be leader of the party?

I guess they thought I might be able to win an election.

Could you describe the events that led up to that?

Well there'd been, there were people in the party who had just said to me, 'Whatever you do, we're going to try and make you leader. You can't stop us', and that is the way it was.

You didn't actually want to stop them though, did you?

No I didn't try and stop them. I thought I could do better at the time, and I thought it was pathetic the way we were going. I can remember on one occasion Sneddon was having talks with, I suppose Andrew Barton was it, of the Australia Party and there were talks in the press there may be going to be unification of the two, and Bill Sneddon had also made one or two statements at the time saying, 'How do we move on from [the] Menzies years?' and how Menzies hadn't really done very much. So I combined two things, I - well I issued two press statements. I issued a press statement pointing out how everything the Australia Party claimed it stood for was absolute anathema to the Liberal Party and only somebody who's a traitor to the Liberal Party - I don't think I used that word, but you know we could never contemplate amalgamation with a party as left wing ...

That wouldn't have been very helpful to the image of your then leader.

Well it was all very much behind the scenes. Not much of it had come out in public. So - but what I was determined to do was to stop any thought of amalgamation before it got any distance. Because the Australia Party really was a kooky way-out, odd-ball outfit. And we were not going to be strengthened by unifying with it. We were only going to be weakened and in terms of the Liberal Party, it was a very left-wing party. This, I suppose, is when there were some arguments between big 'L' Liberals and little 'l' liberals, which in terms of what's happened since is a rather odd and ironic argument. But I also issued a statement about the same time saying that those who denigrated Menzies were only denigrating their own position and damaging the party and destroying its base, because we had nothing else. But that's a habit of the Liberal Party, to not be particularly proud of its - we've had too many leaders who believe that they could advance their own positions by distancing themselves from their predecessors, when the Labor Party have a quite different view. They will make the most wonderful successes out of the most terrible failures. So as a consequence of that, if a current day leader can be seen in Gough's presence, the current leader is built up, and that's - the Labor Party approach to it is much more sensible and much more constructive for the strength and well being of the Labor Party.

Although I do have to point out that apart from Menzies, all the leaders that were your predecessors were ones that you, yourself were not particularly admiring of.

Oh I'd never - I made a speech about John Gorton certainly, but I wouldn't have ever said anything other than praise for Harold Holt. I don't think I've ever said anything critical about Billy McMahon. [INTERRUPTION]

Now very shortly after you became leader you were presented with an opportunity that could take the party back into power. And that was the situation that arose over supply in the Senate. And what I would really like would be to have your account, from your point of view of what were the most significant aspects of that, and how you saw it and how you handled it.

Well, one of the questions I was asked, because Sneddon had blocked supply a year earlier of course, when there wasn't really any reason to do so or cause or justice in doing so.

Had you supported that?

I hadn't opposed it. I mean he was the leader and the majority of those in the shadow cabinet wanted to go along with it. And in any case, Whitlam pre-empted it all by calling an election, and he knew he was going to win an election against Sneddon and that's what happened. But in 1975 I was asked, obviously fairly early in my piece, what my attitude would be and I spelled, you know I spelled it out quite plainly. A power existed. It was a real power. I wouldn't want to use it and basically I believed that governments should be allowed to govern without senates using that power. But if reprehensible circumstances arise then maybe an opposition would have to consider it, if they had the numbers to do so. And all of that was against the background of the loans affair, which we tend to forget, and scandal after scandal after scandal in the Whitlam government. Including the Attorney-General personally raiding ASIO, not following due process of law at all. Attorney-Generals don't go on personal raids of ASIO or any other institution, unless they have a reason for doing so which they're not prepared to make public. The loans affair began when the government, by deliberate and conscious act, deceived the Governor-General about the holding of an Executive Council meeting and remember what I said about procedures, and following those procedures. The Governor-General, or most Governor-Generals regard that as the most important function - chairing the executive council. But there is a capacity for a senior minister to be a vice-president of the executive council if the Governor-General's not present. So John Kerr was in Sydney at the opera or something, but had asked, 'Is there going to be an executive council meeting?' He would come back for it. 'Oh no there won't be an executive council meeting', and was assured on more than one occasion that there would not be. And in the event it was clear that they didn't want him present at that executive council meeting, because as president of the executive council, he would have had the legitimate capacity to say, 'I want further and better legal advice, before I sign this matter into law'. And that was the attempt to raise four billion dollars by loans for purposes that would have been outside the gentlemen's agreement - not the constitution - but the gentlemen's agreement between the Commonwealth and the states. He countersigned that and didn't argue about it at the time, for two reasons - if he had, he would have been sacked there and then, and secondly he knew it was justiciable. In other words, if any monies had been raised under that provision, the states could have taken the Commonwealth to court. But anyway, you know the long saga. It began with a deception, it continued with a deception. Ministers resigned because they'd lied to parliament, or lied to the prime minister, and the government was in a turmoil. The country was in a worse turmoil; 1975 was the only year in which more people left Australia than came to Australia since Arthur Calwell began the migration program. A lot of people from Eastern Europe had been saying to me through that year they'd seen this happen in their own countries and they weren't going to sit around and watch it happen in Australia. They were leaving - and they did. And, so we were the opposition, and if we could have let it all through I suppose we would have. But then when Rex Connor got caught out in the last and latest lies, I just felt that, well this is the last straw. We as an opposition will be held in total contempt if we don't take what actions there are within our party, within our power to give Australians the right to a vote. We weren't asking for anything else. For the right to a vote. And that's probably the only occasion in the life of a people, when they're really democratic, they directly and individually have an opportunity to say what they want. They don't have that opportunity at any other occasion, and then Gough decided to tough it out. We were under a bombardment from papers like the Melbourne Age, which had said 'Gough must go' in editorials, but then opposed the only action available to make him go. It seemed to be - have a certain contradiction in it. It's worth remembering that that government had so defiled normal practices of good government and the law that the treasurer of the day started having his Treasury prepare pieces of paper, certificates, that were going to be given to the banks, requiring the banks to pay government bills. And the banks started coming to us and we held a council of war, or political combat in Melbourne when all the premiers or Liberal premiers, or National Party premiers and opposition leaders gathered and whatever, and issued a statement, saying in blunt terms that this was a major step in the establishment of a dictatorship in Australia. There is only one power available to restrain an executive government - one real power - and that's the power of a parliament to control the money that the executive spends. This is what Charles I found out. and lost his head when he tried to break the power. But the government of the day then, supply having been blocked, was trying to establish the circumstances in which the parliament, parliament as a whole, was irrelevant. You give the banks certificates, the banks will pay our bill, we'll pay the banks back some day. But the banks would have had no legal claim ever to be paid back because an executive, a government, has no power to spend any money unless that money has been previously sanctioned by the parliament.

But this situation had only arisen because they didn't have the numbers in the Senate, had they?

But the Senate is part of the parliament of Australia. It is not a House of Lords. By deliberate act our founding fathers, having looked closely at the constitutions of Britain, of Canada, of France, of America, decided that we wanted a Senate that will be the - represent the states the way the American senate does, that will be a powerful Senate, not parelleling the American senate, but having a number of features. The powers of the Senate were deliberately placed there and it's not - the numbers that one has in a house of parliament are the numbers that you actually have on the day.

But speaking as a matter of principle, do you think that it is correct and proper and right for the Senate to be able to block supply? Setting aside all its other powers, that particular power to bring down a government is the one that's been debated a lot, and there's been discussion, even before 1975, about reforming that, and so on. What do you think about it as someone who's thought a lot about government?

I not only think it's necessary for the Senate to have that power, I think it has also been proved because of the Whitlam experiment, that it's essential. Imagine what would have happened to Australia if there had been no restraint from the Senate. Another 18 months of that government. I mean, expenditure goes up in one year 46%, the second year 26%. How irresponsible can you get? That is just irresponsible and bad government. But then all the lies, all the machinations, all the ministerial misdeeds, having weird characters run around the world trying to raise money, instead of doing it through orthodox, respected channels. I mean it was a government out of Alice in Wonderland or something worse. It was a parody of a government. And one of the ...

Do you still think that? I mean I do know that obviously at the time when you were taking decisions about action on it and you were right in the thick of it, to some extent the characterisation of it in this way was essential to the whole procedure. But looking back now, quietly, and yourself out of power, do you still see it that way?

It's not a characterisation of it. It is the government - look, just look at it coldly. To have a prime minister who lies to the Governor-General, 'No we are not going to have an executive council meeting. No we are not going to have it', three times, a Biblical denial, all the while determined to have it in the Lodge that night, with a minister in the chair, so that the essential questions will not be asked.

But I suppose then in politics you've already told us that, for example, if you're going to resign, you have to be careful that you don't let anybody know that.

But nobody was resigning, this was deception of the Governor-General. It was a defiance of the normal procedures of government. It was a deliberate attempt to make sure that an action was taken and consummated and not questioned by a most distinguished lawyer who would know that it was outside the rules of the executive council.

Do you think that that was the reason - outrage at that - his being excluded from that meeting, that determined Sir John to follow the course of action which he adopted?

It would have been irrelevant. What he did after that meeting, which was somewhere around November or December of 1974, was to countersign the Minute, and I told you why. Because it was justiciable if any monies were ever raised under it, and because he would have been sacked - and then a real puppet of a government that was prepared to defile proper procedure would have been put in place. It's worth noting I think that Dedman, a most distinguished former Labor leader, after he died let it be known that John Kerr had no option to do but what John Kerr had done. Now John Dedman was a very distinguished wartime and post-war Labor politician. Nobody could doubt his loyalty to the labour cause, and you know, there are a number of other people in that category. These powers have got nothing to do with the reserve powers of the Crown. They're deliberately written into the Australian Constitution in the circumstances in which, if you like, your government or a prime minister, goes bananas.

When ...

But there's one difference between our Constitution in this respect, and the position of a prime minister - well two differences - in Britain the House of Lords is hereditary and therefore no longer has the power. And if our Senate were not elected I wouldn't be in favour of it having the power. But it is elected, so power is shared. The Parliament is the two Houses together, not one, not the other. And - but there's another very significant difference between Her Majesty in Britain and the Governor-General in Australia. The Governor-General has no tenure. He is there at call. He can be sacked with a telephone. Now the telephone call won't - Her Majesty would say, 'But Prime Minister I really need to have reasons in writing'. 'Well these reasons will follow Your Majesty, but as from this moment, this man is not to be regarded as your representative in Australia.' 'Well I accept that Prime Minister, but I insist on having coherent, forceful reasons in writing', which will then be made up after the event. So a phone call could destroy the Governor-General's power. Now the Queen has tenure. No prime minister in Britain, who's lost his sense of what government and democracy is about, as Whitlam had at that time - and the brilliance of the Labor Party is the brilliance of being able to make Australians believe that Gough Whitlam is a hero.

So that's ...

Lord Hailsham had it right because he is on public record as saying, 'Mr Whitlam is one of the luckiest prime ministers in the world. He did what Charles I did, but he didn't lose his head'.

I suppose the question that I would like you to answer is why do you think it was - given that the Whitlam government was as you described it - that so many people felt so passionate about it, still do in retrospect and see it as a period of great opening up and excitement and optimism and possibility for the country?

Oh I think if you take a group of children from Siberia and they've been under fairly firm discipline - Siberia might not be the right choice - maybe it should have been some country in Eastern Europe - but let's - all right, Communist Hungary, and they would have been under a fairly rigid discipline. They would have had a reasonable life, but they would have been taught that life's difficult, it's not meant to be easy, you can't have all the sweets all the day, your parents can't have everything they want to have all at once. And we had had a prudent government or governments mostly that husbanded Australia's resources. We paid our own way, we weren't in debt to the world, we had offered Australia a longer period of full employment, with unemployment mostly under 2%, with a rate of growth far better than the OECD average, with inflation much less than the OECD average, rate of investment in new development that far exceeds anything that happens today, and you still say to them, 'You must be restrained, you can't have everything. You can't have everything all at once', and suddenly you have Gough as Father Christmas coming along and saying, 'We're a great wealthy nation, you can have everything you want all at once'. So whether it was childcare centres or more money for schools, or preschools, or a great deal more money for the arts, or more money for everything. 'If you want more money, it doesn't matter, we'll print it if we haven't got it', and so those people on the Labor Left and those people who supported the Labor causes all felt well, this is the millennium, this is Utopia, Gough's giving us everything we want, everything those wretched Liberals denied us all those years, just because of their pure unadulterated meanness. But it was the Liberal Party that built up the social welfare safety net. It was the Liberal Party that had the best health scheme that we have ever had and instead of destroying it, we should have found some way of covering the 3% who weren't covered by it. And much better and more effective public hospitals than we've had since. And so, the great - and Whitlam makes noises about Asia and about China, and all the rest. And capitalism - capitalises on the divisions that occurred over Vietnam after the event, and also on a Liberal Party that had run out of leadership. So you know, it's not surprising that he was a great Labor, left-wing hero. But that does not alter an objective judgement that you would have to make of his government.

Well what do you think of him personally?

Oh he's a nice, entertaining person to have at dinner.

Do you respect him?

Not quite as arrogant as he used to be.

Do you respect him?

I like Gough, but I don't respect his political government.

Do you respect anything about him?

Yes, he's an economic nationalist. He would not sell newspapers, he would not sell things important to Australia's identity as a nation to the highest bidder worldwide just because he could get a bigger dollar. And it's a pity that the Labor - you know but I don't respect the fact that he will no longer argue with his own party that they should have a little economic nationalism in their hearts. You don't have to have too much. It's a question of balance. It's the hardest thing in the world for politicians to find a sense of balance, whatever the issue is, by being prepared to sell any damn thing to the highest bidder. One of the sobering thoughts that we need to have as Australians is that since we're 17 million people with obviously limited resources, in spite of our apparent wealth, somebody overseas will always have more money for anything than we will have. And if you say the highest bidder is going ... then that means everything will one day be sold to a foreigner. And you know, this view is not - if we wanted to buy Le Monde you couldn't do it. If you wanted to buy a major German newspaper, if you wanted to buy the Wall Street Journal you wouldn't be allowed to do it.

Maybe there's an irony in the fact that the loans affair arose out of a desire to buy back Australia. That was part of the thought behind it.

Well it is an irony. The loans affair to buy back Australia and Keating's 1980 economics to sell off every last vestige of Australia's dignity and self-esteem to somebody else, and then to pretend that he's the only prime minister who's prepared to stand for Australian dignity and independence, it is a great - I might do an article for the the Australian on that, thank you. You've given me an idea.

With the ...

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