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Book review: 'Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs'

By Peter Baume - posted Friday, 12 March 2010

There is some doubt about how Tamie Fraser voted in the last three elections. What a sad situation. But even sadder is that she was not alone in her disillusionment and her disgust. Many people would not vote Liberal while John Howard was Prime Minister and some even left the Party. In Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s most recent book, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, co-written with Margaret Simons, there is plenty of criticism of John Howard.

It is the Liberal Party that has changed, not Malcolm Fraser. The Liberal Party was a coalition of liberal and conservative forces: now it just conservative.

This is Malcolm Fraser’s version of events, his notes, his memories, told from his corner, his emphases, his conclusions and his thought processes. Yes - it is co-written with another person, and that stratagem works: but it contains Malcolm’s thoughts and reasons for many events - and some of those things are new to us, for instance, his assertions, his priorities, his reasonings, his justifications, his initialed notes of vital conversations during the “dismissal” period …


The looks belie the man. Many people have concentrated on his background, on his privilege, and not on him. They see his tall austere figure and do not know the liberal influences that made him what he is. What emerges strongly in his book is his long term adherence to small “l” liberal values.

He was once described by a perceptive Premier of Tasmania as a “closet greenie” (p557). He believed in equality, in women’s rights (p81); was against the White Australia Policy; opposed apartheid; was against racism; was in favour of civic action and community building wherever the army was active; helped form the Australian Conservation Foundation; and foreshowed Commonwealth action on the Great Barrier Reef (he had a blazing row with Joh Bjelke-Petersen over this issue) (p178).

As a back-bencher, he pushed through a ban on the export of Australian native birds. He supported land rights for Aborigines; passed the Northern Territory Land Rights Act (which had been introduced by Gough Whitlam); instituted the Australian Institute of Marine Science (p177); set up the Human Rights Commission; introduced freedom of information legislation; set up the Administrative Appeals Tribunal; was the first politician to use the word “multiculturalism”; established the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs; established the Australian Institute of Sport; established the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS); embraced cultural diversity; and appointed the first Ombudsman.

He set up Kakadu National Park; outlawed whaling in Australian waters; declared the Capricornia section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park; saved the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling; and saved Fraser Island from sand mining.

He introduced family allowances (paid to women).

So what people see now is the man who was shaped by his years at Oxford, a man who has always had “liberal” values, and a man who has NOT changed recently - as some think. As one of his Ministers for Aboriginal Affairs, let me assure readers that he never let me down: he supported all initiatives for Australian Aborigines. Just read the text from page 379 to understand why. He learned, first hand, at Papunya, about Aboriginal disadvantage and about the difficulties of self determination as a policy. It is recorded on p391 that the budget cuts made to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs by the Treasury “razor gang” in 1976 were more or less restored by the Fraser Cabinet. The book makes clear that, once again, he was often trying to balance John Stuart Mill with Edmund Burke.


So critics who say he has shifted to the left in recent years do not know the man, his education or his beliefs. He was concerned with social issues from his days at Oxford at least, and possibly before that.

Fraser always believed in Federalism and that economic management was at the centre of government policy. He was always a Keynesian. He had a long and acrimonious fight with the Department of Treasury over advice on a number of economic matters. In December 1979 there was the introduction of a “tap and tender” system for Commonwealth bonds. He instituted the Campbell enquiry into Australia’s financial system, introduced a tender system for Commonwealth bonds, and partially deregulated the dollar.

It is made clear that he liked arguing (another Oxford legacy perhaps) and he liked people who would argue with him. For example, he and Sir Arthur Tange made a formidable team partly because Tange was always ready to argue. He had little time for people who would not discuss and argue what they believed in.

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About the Author

Professor Peter Baume is a former Australian politician. Baume was Professor of Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) from 1991 to 2000 and studied euthanasia, drug policy and evaluation. Since 2000, he has been an honorary research associate with the Social Policy Research Centre at UNSW. He was Chancellor of the Australian National University from 1994 to 2006. He has also been Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Deputy Chair of the Australian National Council on AIDS and Foundation Chair of the Australian Sports Drug Agency. He was appointed a director of Sydney Water in 1998. Baume was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1992 in recognition of service to the Australian Parliament and upgraded to Companion in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University in December 2004. He is also patron of The National Forum, publisher of On Line Opinion.

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