Saturday, March 21, 2015

Malcolm Fraser

I think even hardened Laborites felt some sympathy for Malcolm Fraser when he broke up in his election concession speech in 1983. His continued active role in the matters of human rights and justice then rehabilitated him well and truly from the Left's point of view.

As for how he acquired the top job - if the Whitlam government was happening now, I would certainly  be attuned to the way the Murdoch press was campaigning against him (I was only a teenager at the time!); but despite that, nothing has come out since then to challenge the view that it was (even when viewed from the Cabinet room) a genuinely shambolic government.

While I understand why the Left was so upset with the Dismissal and Kerr's role, I still find it hard to feel that the nation was badly done by, given that it quickly got to express its views at an election.   As far as I can tell, there is little to suggest that the government could have righted itself, given just a bit more time.   And while no one wants to see Governor-General's dismissing governments as a matter of routine, once or twice a century, provided an election is promptly held, is not a great problem for democracy.   It's one of those cases where practicalities trump principles; sorry.

I know that Fraser's period in government is seen by some as a lost opportunity for economic reform and advancement, but really, my impression is that the whole world was in a confused post Vietnam War/oil shock funk.   Criticisms about Fraser based on economic grounds just seem to be made with too much benefit of hindsight.

And I was thinking that yesterday before Fred Chaney turned up on Lateline and, after praising Fraser for all the humanitarian aspects of his leadership and post political career, he said more or less the same thing:
 But, can I say something, Emma, about the economic thing, which is the great criticism that's levelled against Malcolm: he didn't undertake economic reform quickly enough. It seems to me that Malcolm governed at the most difficult time, a time of change between the Federation settlement that ran from 1910, from the time of Deakin, right through to the 1970s when we'd had high protection, we'd had centralised wage fixing, we'd had a sort of certain pillars - what have been described very well by people like Paul Kelly as the standard pillars of Federation up to that point. Malcolm was there when the big debate was on: did we need an entirely different approach to economic management? There was a huge debate in the Liberal Party under Malcolm's leadership. That debate between the wets and the dries was quite a bitterly-contested one, but by the end of Malcolm's prime ministership, the soul of the Liberal Party had moved to a more open economy, the heart and the mind of the Liberal Party had moved. And part of the success of the - the great success of the subsequent government, the Hawke Government - the Hawks and Keating Government, was that we as an opposition understood that we had to have a more open economy in Australia. So, I would say that Malcolm was there at that most awkward of periods, the period of change, he was on the cusp, and I think that his government and the party that he led at that time was an honourable part of moving into that new space.

 EMMA ALBERICI: And yet, Malcolm Fraser was more inclined to allow the budget to - the deficit to blow out, whereas his Treasurer was a much more fiscal conservative-style Liberal, wouldn't you say?

FRED CHANEY: Well I think we see this battle in every government. I went through the papers that were released for the 1978 government, a government that I - I only became a minister at the end of that year, so they were new to me, and all the arguments about debt and how you would deal with the debt, all the arguments about immigration, refugees, are rehearsed in those documents so long ago. These are almost perpetual problems for government. I think that, as you'll see, any government is always having to moderate the pure economic arguments in favour of what the public are prepared to stand. I think that the Fraser Government could have moved the economic changes along more quickly, but that's the wisdom of hindsight. What I can recall is that in 1983, after we'd lost government, I remember reading in The Australian that Malcolm Fraser had been too tough on the unions. History gets rewritten all the time and I think that there was more movement and economic movement at the time of Fraser than is currently being admitted.
Another bit of praise for Fraser, this time from a rather unusual source (about whom I will post more soon) is at Michael Smith's blog.

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