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Malcolm Fraser’s Late Burkeanism

Jimmy Carter and Malcolm Fraser, Prime Minister of Australia, White House photo

For anyone old enough to remember the November 1975 dismissal of Gough Whitlam from Australia’s Prime Ministry, it still seems unbelievable that Whitlam’s opponent and successor (John) Malcolm Fraser—who remained in office until he lost the 1983 federal election, and who died last night—would ever inspire the sort of near-ecstatic obituaries which this week have been his. Whatever happened to the mobs in the streets of Australia’s main cities yelling “Shame, Fraser, Shame”?

Back then, the bien-pensant mindset regarded Fraser as not only an antipodean Franco or Pinochet (we Australian “papists” should be so lucky) but as personally corrupt in the bargain. Ex-historian Manning Clark, demonstrating his habitual allergy to la phrase juste, went so far as to grumble that Fraser’s cabinet was inundating the country with “one unending celebration of the senses.”

Still, in the Southern Hemisphere no less than the Northern, “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” An almost Diana-style display of grief has marked Fraser’s encomiasts in the last 24 hours. “I always thought Malcolm [84 when he died] would be around a lot longer. I must say, I wished he had been”: thus Paul Keating, Labor Prime Minister 1991-1996. From another Labor PM, Kevin Rudd (reigned 2007-2010 and again for part of 2013): “I well remember Malcolm attending the National Apology [to the Aboriginal population] in February 2008 together with prime ministers Whitlam, [Bob] Hawke and Keating as we celebrated another milestone between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.” Fighting back sobs, Helen Pitt—opinion editor at The Sydney Morning Herald—wailed:

In the past few years … I’ve had the honor to edit the man whose political trajectory from hard Right to Green Left has astounded many. I talk to many politicians in the course of my work. Most have huge egos, some are politer than others; he was always only a gentleman.

The chief surprise, in retrospect, about Fraser’s political transformation is how quickly it happened after he had left office. One of his more infatuated apologists, Melbourne academic John Carroll, referred in Quadrant to this ballot-box defeat as “The Tragedy of March 5, 1983.” When that non-tragedy occurred, Australia’s mainstream right-wing thought—insofar as this ever existed—still approvingly interpreted Fraser as a sort of cross between Churchill and Ayn Rand. Within 12 months that consensus had evaporated. The once-respectful Kenneth Minogue dismissively called Fraser, with some justice, “Australia’s Ted Heath.” More dramatic than Minogue’s private condemnation was an essay—again in Quadrant—by that most artful of Australian journalistic dodgers, Gerard “Hendo” Henderson. Particularly incensed at Fraser’s Heath-like failure to curb either welfare spending or trade-union activism, Hendo there reproved Fraser as “really a bit of a bleeding heart.”

Perhaps such attacks on Fraser from his former Liberal Party allies were themselves the chief cause of his sharp left turn, on the “Might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb” principle. Probably not, though. On every topic except the immediate Soviet threat, Fraser’s foreign policy when in office had been standard pink boilerplate: anti-Rhodesia and pro-Zimbabwe; anti-apartheid and pro-ANC; anti-Taipei and pro-Beijing; anti-Thatcher and pro-Commonwealth.

Leading Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey noted in 1994 that during Fraser’s reign, “a strange stability descended on the land.” This finding is accurate enough, but the same point could have been made in less well-mannered terms by saying that Whitlam had preached socialism and Fraser practiced it. Evelyn Waugh’s livid verdict on postwar British Tories suits Fraser’s government—in domestic no less than in foreign affairs—just as well: it “never put the clock back a single second.”

Why, then, bother writing about Fraser in the first place? Because through whatever mix of aristocratic dignity, hurt pride, and genuine intelligence, he ended up opposing the neocons—“neo-Jacobins” remains a more valid term—and thus went some distance during the 21st century to redeem himself for his misjudgments during the 20th. Neither John Howard nor Tony Abbott (the only two Liberal leaders to win federal office since Fraser lost it) has dared utter anything remotely like the acidic criticisms which Fraser again and again leveled at post-9/11 laptop-bombardiers. In May 2014 he released his book Dangerous Allies, as scathing an indictment of mindless War on Terror braggadocio—he actually called Australian placation of neo-Jacobins “insidious” and “a disease”—as can be imagined.

This attitude Fraser combined with a licit, broadly old-fashioned taste for preserving Australia’s natural wonders. In times past he shared such a taste with many another local conservative; early supporters of Australia’s Wilderness Society included former Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick. (A whole book—provisionally entitled Green and Right—could be, but probably won’t be, written on such non-hippie environmentalism.) We know, or should know, what Edmund Burke said about the need for our homeland to be lovely if it is to be loved. Fraser in old age could sound likewise Burkean.

There are worse fates for the reputation of any leader than that he channeled philosophical elements of Ireland’s greatest son. Let future historians bicker over Fraser’s ranking in their tiresome sub-Schlesingerian tables of Best and Worst Prime Ministers. The rest of us, while we continue to deplore the wasted opportunities of Fraser’s administration, can echo Bismarck’s unexpected tribute to the German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle. If it came to fighting a duel against his opponent, Bismarck admitted, he would still be forced in justice to say of Lassalle: “He is a man; and the others are old women.” Or, too often, vicious little street-urchins.

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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