Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

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You were a hard-working prime minister and you'd achieved quite a lot of what you set out do during the period that you were prime minister. What did it feel like to lose that election?

Oh it was a whole mixture of emotions. I think I said a while ago that I was very concerned about what was going to happen to Australia because Labor policies which they went into the election with, I knew the economy could not afford. Well they moderated a lot of those policies, but still in the first couple of years expenditure went up in ways which began to be reminiscent of Mr Whitlam. There were increases in expenditure of six, seven, eight percent real. The government doesn't have a reputation for those kinds of increases in expenditure but nevertheless they're there in black and white for people to see. They'd hidden a bit because the Labor government was very tough on the expenditure of the states and very lenient on its own expenditure. But the policies they did implement were not as irresponsible as the ones they went to the election with. So I suppose that was some sort of a relief. On a more personal basis you know, I welcomed the thought of not having to, not having the responsibility in the duties of prime minister. Nobody likes being beaten in an election even if you've won three before. But there was obviously greater freedom and all the rest.

But also great loss of opportunity?

Oh loss of opportunity. What ...

Did you miss that?

... I should have done is to take a year's sabbatical and decide what I was going to do after that, instead of resigning from the parliament about the same time.

Why did you, why did you resign?

Well I thought that neither Peacock nor Howard would have a real chance if I was there. People would have, if things started to go wrong, they'd wonder when I was going to make a move and all the rest, and I thought I owed it to my successors to give them a clear run. Well in the event they mucked it up for themselves anyway and so far as the party's concerned if I'd been there, the history of the last ten years might have been quite different.

Was your reason really so altruistic, or was it also partly that you felt somewhat overwhelmed by disappointment?

No, it wasn't a question of being overwhelmed by disappointment, that wouldn't have been part of it.

Was it the only motivation, that you wanted to leave the path clear for the others?

Ah, oh, I think I also probably felt that I'd been in politics for the best part of 30 years and that I'd been there long enough.

You were still young.

And this was separate. Yes I was still young. That's true, I was.

So do you think that your action in resigning then was somewhat impulsive? That if you'd thought a little bit harder you would have taken a year off and stayed in politics longer.

No, if I'd - what I'd - you know I'd had a few people wanting me to stay and some wanting me to take a year off and others saying, 'Yes, resigning's the right thing'. I suspect that after eight years in the job I was tireder than I should have been, and that probably would have influenced my judgement. But I should have taken a year off and made a decision at the end of that year.

And you - that's what you feel now - is that because of, as you say, the others making a bit of muck of the leadership, or was it because you feel for yourself personally, it would have been a better course?

No, it's because - well you know for me maybe it's irrelevant, but it's obvious that the opposition has made a mess of it and is continuing to, and as a consequence we've almost got a one-party state, at least till the opposition can sort itself out. But they're no closer to doing that than they were ten years ago.

And the experience that you'd had, and the qualities that you'd brought to the leadership, could have been used again.

Yeah.

So you feel you did make a mistake in leaving it?

I've already said that.

What did you feel about Andrew Peacock and what was your relationship with him?

Well I had no reason to be particularly friendly to Andrew Peacock. He had not been a good servant or a good member of my government. He was an able Foreign Minister, but he is much too emotional and would get caught up with instances and circumstances, in a very emotional way, which he should have been able to overcome. And he resigned and as a consequence did great damage to the government over an issue that was really quite stupid.

Could you describe that?

Well he had a staff member who made a very public speech, criticising the government. A person called Barry Symon. And I just said to Andrew, 'You going to have to sack Barry Symon because I'm not going to have staff members from any minister making public speeches of that kind'. And Andrew tried to say no he wouldn't and all the rest, but I was quite implacable and if he hadn't, Andrew himself would have been asked to resign. Or if not, would have been sacked. And anyway, in the event the inevitable happened, because everyone was telling Andrew, 'You cannot let this guy do that', nobody liked Barry Symon anyway, and so he told Barry Symon he'd have to move on. And then I was having breakfast the next morning at the Lodge and I saw the cartoon in the Daily Telegraph and the cartoon had a little figure of Barry Symon slinking off into the corner, another figure of Peacock slinking off into another corner, and a figure of me, you know, just having exercised a little authority and they just both wilted. And I can remember saying to Tam, 'I'm going to have a resignation before cabinet meets this morning'. And we, cabinet met about 10 o'clock or something and Peacock wasn't there and somebody probably said, 'Where's Peacock?' I said, 'I don't think he'll be turning up this morning', and an hour later his resignation arrived and he couldn't take that cartoon, and I knew he couldn't. But you know, the day before he'd done what he ought to do. No, it's quite stupid for a senior minister to get himself into a fret about something like that. But a prime minister cannot allow, or is very stupid if he does allow, staff of ministers, senior ministers, any minister to go round making speeches highly critical of the government. You just can't allow that. I'm quite sure Keating wouldn't allow it.

So you didn't feel too hopeful about his qualities as a leader?

No I didn't.

And what about John Howard?

Well John is a very good deputy and if he was content to be a very good deputy he would still be a very good deputy. But he's not.

And what does he lack that would have made him a leader?

That's harder to define really. He had a go in 1987 and there was an appearance of a vacuum. He wasn't able to impart a sense of commitment, a sense of direction, a sense of really being in control of the party's affairs because that's an election we should have won and we went further downhill in 1987. The - I think it was, you know, just the general circumstances. If he'd been a leader, he would have won that year. He didn't.

Well the same has been said, of course, about John Hewson, that he should have won that election. What do you think his problem is?

Well you know, it's obvious and I really just don't want to go into details of that kind.

Perhaps I can approach it in a different way by asking you to be general, because I'm interested, your having experienced being a leader. What you think are the qualities that are needed in a leader for a country?

Well he's got to have an instinct for what the country needs. He's got to have an instinct for what people will accept. You can't drive people in directions they don't want to go, and this is certainly what John Hewson was trying to do with 'Fight Back'. He was trying to drive people in directions in which they did not want to go. Then it just doesn't work. The Labor Party, for 30 years, lost election after election because they were trying to drive people to the left and people in Australia don't want to accept that. When you look at the record of Labor constitutional reforms, they've nearly all failed because they were making it perfectly plain they wanted to do things that they didn't have power to do. All of which would have meant more power for Canberra and Australians just didn't want that. When I had some Constitutional changes I got three out four issues accepted and only lost the fourth by the narrowest of margins in the needed fourth state. We got a majority of people but we did not quite get a majority of states. So you've got to have a judgement for what Australians will accept. You've also got to have an instinct for policy. You know, what is needed for Australia to make the country work, to make the country productive and some understanding of Australia's place in the world. You've got to be pragmatic, you can't be theoretical. And you ought to make the prosperity of manufacturing, mining and farming, as Australia's basic industries, make their profitability a major objective of policy, instead of making stability in the financial markets a major objective of policy.

What about styles of leadership? Do you think there's more than one style of leadership?

Oh of course there is.

What kind of a leader were you?

Oh other people can judge that.

But would you, could you describe the sorts of qualities that you felt you had to manifest as a leader? For example, did you feel that it was up to you as a leader to find the way forward or did you look for a consensus?

Ah, it's up to the government to find the way forward and the prime minister in particular, and to be able to define that in ways that people can understand and accept. Finding a consensus is a remedy for non-government, and that's why Bob Hawke in the end got dumped by his own party. That's the worst way of all to go. The people closest to you, who've worked most with you, including your own cabinet, end up by determining that you've got nothing to offer. That's the greatest condemnation of all of any leader.

So you feel that as a leader what's important is to, as you said, listen to what other people have to say and then make up your own mind and act on that?

Yes.

And in your situation as leader, did you ever find yourself making up your mind and finding it difficult to bring people along behind you?

Oh, not often. Occasionally. There were sometimes issues in which I didn't know where we ought to go and so you'd have a cabinet discussion and say, 'I'm not going to take this to finality today. We'll have an initial discussion, we'll think about it and come back to it'. Because if I didn't know my own mind, I would certainly be very suspicious of a cabinet majority because I'd suspect that a lot of ministers - because except for the minister specifically responsible, I think I probably would know more than any other ministers around the table. And sometimes more than the minister specifically responsible. And if I didn't know my own mind, or felt that I didn't have an adequate basis for knowing my own mind, I would think most of my ministers also did not, and therefore a second go at it would be just prudent common sense. But before coming to your own mind it's obviously very important to listen to people, to make sure that you have a variety of sources of advice - not just advice from one source, because that can be prejudiced or biased advice. It can have a - if you just relied on advice from a specialist department, that advice, well quite often with such departments, had a prejudice that was very obvious. I mean the Immigration Department in our early years had an anti-Asian bias and it took quite a long while to rub that out of the mores of the department. I think we did at the end, but initially they most certainly did, and some government decisions were delayed in their implementation because of that bias in the department in ways that they shouldn't have been. So listening to people and making up your own mind, and then being able to act upon it; and you've got to be able to convince people that you not only know what the right course is, but you're convinced, committed that that is the right course. Because if you don't have a sense of commitment to a certain course, if you don't really believe that it's the right thing for the country, you can't expect other people to believe it either.

Do you feel uncomfortable in situations where you don't feel in control?

Doesn't often exist.

You're in control of most situations?

Well the situations which I'm involved in.

When you were in government, or leading the party, did you ever feel a necessity to act because you felt things were getting out of control? Can you think of ...

Well what sort of things getting out of control?

I'm just thinking that in a situation where, as leader, or as prime minister, you were responsible for things. Did you ever find yourself thinking: look, this whole thing's a mess and I've got to move in and take charge? In other words did you ever find yourself in conflict with others because you were wanting to control a situation they didn't want you to?

Well I don't think so. I mean sometimes there were problems in areas of government or whatever or there could be a problem in relation to a minister, but that doesn't mean that things are out of control. I'm - government is about problem solving very often and quite clearly events are not always going to go the way a government wants. There'll be external things that occur that have an impact on your policies. Well the test of government is how you respond to that, how you react to it. You don't just sit back and say, 'Oh things are out of control. This is hopeless, I can't do anything about it'.

Who were the leaders that you've most admired yourself?

Other leaders that I've met? Oh I suppose Lee Kwan Yew for what he's done for, or had done for Singapore. Tungku Abdul Rahman for what he'd done for Malaya, Malaysia. Soeharto was a very notable leader for Indonesia. When he was in office I thought Helmut Schmidt had a greater capacity to think beyond the narrow confines of conventional European wisdom and I think he's demonstrated more of that since he's ceased being Chancellor. But one of the real problems at the moment is, I think, lack of incisive leadership on the part of the West. I mean at the moment in a number of areas Western policy has been a serious and damaging disaster. In Somalia a military eventually goes forward without any overall planning for the political or diplomatic initiatives needed to bring political reconciliation to that country; the military venture is a success, the other part of it just doesn't get off the ground. In Bosnia there is no united, concerted Western policy. The Serbs still go about their bombing and their shelling and whatever with virtual impunity. With NATO and the United Nations now making one or two very incipient - or taking one or two very, very small steps to try and do something about it. But as soon as they do that, President Yeltsin comes forward and says, 'Hey, you can't do that'. So there is no concerted policy amongst great powers in relation to Bosnia, and certainly no effective concerted policy amongst European states. In the United States you have President Clinton needing China's support over the very serious issue of the nuclear capacity of North Vietnam [sic]. But on the issues of trade and human rights, President Clinton guarantees that he will not have that Chinese support.

For North Korea?

For, for anything.

Yes.

And I mean why would China go along with American policy on anything where America insists on interfering so heavily in Chinese affairs. And what does President Clinton, or what does Mr Keating know of the problems of governing over a billion people when there has not been a strong government in Beijing, there have been massive problems between the differing provinces in China, loss of life running into millions, decay and discord and if, for example, you had the same sort of decay in China as exists in the former Soviet Union today, you would then have about a dozen separate provinces or countries or quasi-countries between the Soviet Union and China with the capacity to control nuclear weapons. It wouldn't be a very safe or secure world for anyone. But that would probably be the consequence of China adopting Western injunctions about policy within China. It may not have been but could have been. And you know, hasn't America got the capacity to judge which is the most important issue - pressing American morality on China, or getting Chinese support for controlling North Korea's nuclear capability? I would have thought put in those terms there is no question which is important. But the American president seems totally incapable of making a judgement between the two.

Do you find that you're often ...

So you know, the more important leaders have not come from the West or Western kinds of civilisations in recent times.

Your admiration has been with the Asian leaders you've known.

I think of leaders that I can name they stand out to a greater extent, yes.

Do you often feel disappointed with people? Do people often fail to measure up to how you would like them to be?

Oh some people do but you can't press people beyond expectations. I mean some ministers would go about their job and you know quite well you wouldn't have to worry about any of it. They'd do the job well, they'd do it effectively. Other ministers would want the reassurance of coming and talking to you about what they were doing and encouragement on the basis that they would want to know that I felt that what they were doing was correct. Some other ministers, not necessarily competent, would blame their private offices or their departments, and they were the ones that you knew you had to watch because you know, a minister's responsible and if his department is inadequate or if his private office is inadequate, the private office especially is a creature of his own appointments. If it's not good enough, he's chosen the wrong people. So you know, it's like - if you've got 25 people in a government, some are going to very good, some average and some not so good.

You set very high standards for yourself. Are you often or ever disappointed in yourself? Do you give yourself a hard time?

Oh sometimes, yes. But I'm not going to start enumerating my own failings.

You're not? I was about to invite you to do so.

Well you might, but the rest of the world has been spending a lifetime doing it and I'm not going to add to the list.

Is there anything though that you really do regret out of things that you've done, that you wish you'd done differently?

Yes, allowing the construction of the new Parliament House to go ahead.

Why do you regret that?

Because the old Parliament had a lot of history in it and it was big enough and large enough and some additional offices built on each side of it would have been adequate, and it would have left the prime minister and members of parliament in a condition more appropriate to their circumstances as parliamentary representatives of the people of Australia. I don't believe - I mean you go into that building and you know, this was one of the things that I suppose you left to a committee. It was captured by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the various clerks and everyone just built into it the absolute maximum. It takes about 2 000 people to run it, more than the old building. It is an example of luxury and extravagance, which ill befits Australia. You go in and you see all those marble columns, I don't think they're real or solid marble, but they're meant to look like it and you might be in a Saudi Arabian palace of some kind and not in Australia's parliament. It is not a building, it is not a parliament building. It is not a building for communication. It is a building for non-communication. Members are able to get in it through secret ways or ways that are protected from the public or the press; so can ministers. The press are shut off from ministers and from the government and you have to get special permission to go to certain places. Members' offices are so large that for a lot of them, they are more luxuriant than anything that they could ever afford or want in their previous private lives. Now, you go into the American Congress and look at the cramped and busy offices of American congressmen and American senators, and then you look at the spacious luxury - I think it's set very bad standards and I don't think people are better represented. There are more people in Australia now - this isn't directly the responsibility of the building but it's - you know, why did people in my electorate come to me about some electoral matters still, ten years after I've left Wannon. I say, 'Have you been to your local member? I suggest you do do'. Ten years after the event they ought to automatically be going to their local member. The - it's ...

Do you think life has got too luxurious for politicians altogether quite apart from the building?

The federal parliamentary building has and I think also if you could really put down in one place the total circumstances of members of parliament, a lot of people would be quite surprised at what they involve, and what the cost ultimately is.

Of course some people think that because you yourself have always been very comfortable because of your private income and so on, that it's probably easy for you to recommend a more spartan existence. Do you think there is something in that?

Oh there may be, but I think that if you look at parliaments around the world, you'd probably find that the condition of Australian federal politicians is now significantly better than a great many. You've also got to take into [account] the non-salary, non-superannuation things. In Britain the position of members of parliament I think would be much more spartan than it is in Australia.

You've declined my invitation to list your faults or mistakes, but could I ask you, when you do ...

I listed my mistake.

The only one? That's the only mistake you've ever made?

The only significant one I can recall.

There must be little ones, you make. Most people make little mistakes ...

Yes, but I forget them. I forget them.

Now that's maybe the answer to my question, because I was going to say do you have a technique for dealing with situations where you do feel disappointed in yourself, where you feel that you have failed your own high standards? How do you handle feelings of disappointment and failure?

Oh well you make up your mind you're not going to do it that way next time.

And then put it out of your mind?

But you're always looking to the future. You don't brood about the past. There's not much point in it.

Was it difficult for you, when you stopped being prime minister, to look to the future because you'd made such a huge contribution, carried such a big weight on your shoulders, suddenly to be relieved of that? What do you do when you're a relatively young man and the, in a sense, apex of your career is behind you?

Well there are a lot of things that you can do. I did a number of things for the United Nations, some for the Commonwealth [of Nations]. I've been involved in some commercial ventures, and I've helped establish a great organisation in CARE Australia and built up CARE International. This is a major organisation with a reach world-wide. A lot of people don't know about but it's very effective and does a great deal of good work.

What kind of work?

Well it's a non-government, non-political, non-profit aid organisation. We would employ about 11 000 people world-wide and 95% of those would be people from the countries in which we're working and we'd spend over half a million - half a billion dollars each year in 60 developing countries. We do any of the work that the Red Cross does in areas of danger, but in addition to that our major commitment is to development, where the Red Cross has no commitment. The Red Cross is much more an emergency organisation. It's a great organisation, but in the last few years we've shown that we're able to deliver aid and help and assistance in areas of danger, I think, just as well as the Red Cross.

Does it take up much of your time?

Quite a lot, yes, quite a lot. I'd be overseas four or five times a year on the business of CARE, maybe more than that, and there wouldn't be a day when there aren't phone calls or faxes or communications that have to be answered and whatever.

Why do you think Bob Hawke chose you - or recommended you - to be part of the Eminent Persons Group to go to South Africa?

Well I would have carried a credibility in that area that a lot of other people would not. I suppose being a conservative politician and also having a credibility in issues of race was a help and it was useful. He would have liked to have an Australian on the group obviously, and the experience I'd had in the Commonwealth on the earlier Rhodesian issue and what I'd done to help in getting the agreement of the Lusaka Commonwealth Conference, all I suppose, established credentials which might have made me an obvious choice for the South African enterprise.

Were you nevertheless surprised that he would recommend you?

No. No, he's not a - in that sense he's not a partisan politician at all, and there wouldn't have been another Australian with the background or experience that I had. Maybe no one from any other Commonwealth country with that background and experience.

Do you think you would have been as willing in office to send somebody from the other side of politics on such an important mission?

If they were qualified, yes.

So tell me about that experience. What do you think that that group achieved?

Well we found that the ANC were certainly ready and willing to negotiate, and the government was also. But at the time the government was only prepared to negotiate on its own terms. They believed that in a negotiation, they would be able to divide the different black groups one from the other and therefore steer a way through with the support of some black groups and say, 'Well this has more support than anything else'. But they would have learnt from our own discussions with the whole variety of black groups within South Africa, they would have learnt just as we did that they were all going to be united behind the ANC and under Mandela. And a united black voice they were not yet ready to deal with. But we went much further than that, because we set out in our negotiating concept, the steps that the ANC would have to take before the government could realistically be expected to sit down with them and also the step that the government would have to take before they could accept or before the ANC would sit down with them. So both sides had to make some substantive moves, decisions, to establish good faith, the basis in which a negotiation could be expected to move forward. And for the ANC for example, it was to suspend - not a promise to end violence for all time - because violence was the only weapon they had and you know, it was Jefferson who said that he would die rather than submit to the dictates of the British parliament. The American settlers weren't going to give up violence when all efforts to talk, to negotiate, to achieve representation in the British parliament had failed. And if the American settlers weren't going to give up that right, it's difficult to see how the ANC and its members should also give up that right completely. But it was reasonable to expect that they would suspend violence as evidence of good faith in wanting a negotiated future. The government, for its part, was going to have to release Mandela, release political prisoners, get troops out of the townships, and one or two other things that we also set down. And it's interesting that, in the time that passed after that Commonwealth report in 1986 to the time when negotiations first began between Mandela and de Klerk, both the government and the ANC had implemented our negotiating concept to the full. In other words we described accurately in 1986 what each would have to do as a precondition for sensible and worthwhile negotiations. So in that sense, I think we made a very real contribution, we exposed the issues, and the analysis that we set down at that time remained valid right through.

[end of tape]

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