I met Malcolm Fraser once. Ironically on the anniversary of the dismissal of Gough Whitlam by Kerr at Malcolm’s behest. An event that shattered my faith in Australia’s political institutions, spurred my republicanism and generated a loathing of the man I held responsible. Malcolm – Kerr’s cur. Of all the obituaries today, this one by Mungo MacCallum best captures the Malcolm Fraser I knew during the seventies and eighties.
To me and my friends, Malcolm was responsible for stopping dead Whitlam’s great modernization project – dragging Australia from being an English colonial outpost to an independent nation. Gough had changed the terminology used to describe our national government from Commonwealth to Australian. Malcolm changed it back. Small but important symbols. He then presided over one of the most divisive (until now) governments in Australia’s history. At the start there were the demonstrations about how he got there. Our outrage at the dismissal of his democratically elected predecessor lasted a long time. It’s sometimes said that this haunted him and his period in office but I’m not persuaded. I’d like to think so. Despite what’s said of him, mostly by conservative commentators, I think he gave implementing a conservative agenda a red hot go. A wages freeze, cuts to social services, assaults on civil liberties. We seem to have forgotten that Hawke was elected on the theme of reconciling a divided nation.
So we rejoiced when Malcolm was finally defeated. Where I was watching on election night a great roar of approval went up when we saw a tear trickling down that chiseled face. At last the great man himself was not only defeated, but humiliated! Our hero Gough had never cried.
Despite it all, I found it impossible to maintain the rage as Gough had exhorted us to do when he spoke on the steps of Parliament House on the 11th of November 1975. After all the demonstrations, including the famous one at Monash when we accidentally but thrillingly managed to lock Malcolm in the toilet#, all the election campaigns and finally electoral victory I found it hard to keep up the personal antipathy. Others didn’t. My brother was was outraged when I was quoted in the press admiring Malcolm’s interest in camellia’s. Something I’ve not seen mentioned today. He actually created a new variety that he named after Tamie. So I was pleased when Gough gave us permission, by befriending Malcolm himself, to let go of any resentment of the man.
And, of course, over the past decade, Malcolm’s public pronouncements have aligned more often than not with my own views. Who knew he was such a progressive on race, equality and human rights. Not us, not during his prime ministership. There were glimmers of course on Native Title and the approach to refugees – all supported by the Opposition which meant they were not publicly contested and controversial at the time. There was a mean spirited and snarky view in the Left, never publicly expressed, that refugees from Vietnam were welcome because they were likely to be conservatives. His long standing opposition to apartheid only got widespread acknowledgement, by my peers at least, when Nelson Mandela named Malcolm as one of his heroes. But clearly his support for equality and human rights for all, his opposition to racism and his support for refugees of all persuasions and in all circumstances was deep seated and longstanding and his efforts in support of these principles are his great legacy.
Lately he’s given voice to these principles through his strong presence on Twitter. What a great platform that is! Allowing us all to engage with him directly – and what we’ve seen has been judicious, pithy, wise and progressive. Retweeting selected articles he agreed with. Sometimes his own carefully argued, beautifully crafted pieces. Astute judgements on current political matters. Not partisan. A liberal Liberal. And then astonishingly not a Liberal at all. I’ve seen references to two Malcolm’s in some of the articles today. And it does seem to me there were. Some have said that he didn’t change but I think he did. Leaving behind the constraints of office and then partisan loyalty he was certainly freer to express himself. I certainly respected this later manifestation of the person and am pleased he remained an active participant in our public life. And I’m pleased this is the Malcolm I met.
It was, as I’ve said, on the 11th of November in around 2003 or 2004. He had an appointment with my boss, the Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks. A person who had for many years led demonstrations bemoaning the loss of democracy on this very day – once, memorably, carrying a coffin up Sturt Street in Ballarat, the home of Australian democracy, in a mock funeral for that very democracy. Malcolm wanted Steve to lobby the then Prime Minister John Howard about the need for a national Human Rights Charter. At one point the Premier and I exchanged a wry smile at the incongruity of our sitting there, with Malcolm Fraser, agreeing with everything he said. On the 11th of November of all days. I wonder what Malcolm thought at finding himself there with us. Did he find us strange bedfellows. Or did he see it as a natural progression. I am left to wonder.
Waiting outside he and I had made small talk. I resorted to my usual standby and asked about the books he was reading. Malcolm recommended Derek Hansen, especially his Lunch With The Generals. I haven’t read it yet, but think that now I will. In memory of a person who I’ve come to recognise as a great Australian.
# Last year Malcolm sat down to lunch with some of the organizers of that demonstration and it was agreed he was the most radical person present. All the others had followed the usual trajectory from left to right. A route not followed by Malcolm.