Weekly column for The New Daily.
The tribute, if it could be called that, from Greens leader Christine Milne said it all.
Adding her words to the growing commentary on the death of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, Milne said: “Fraser’s memory will never be free of the controversy and turmoil of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. But then and also in later years he courageously offered leadership in social justice and provided a vision for an Australia that truly embraced a fair go for everyone including refugees.”
In drawing the distinction between Fraser’s actions in opposition and then government (when he was vilified by progressives) and during his twilight years (when he became their darling), Milne attempts to reconcile the right-wing and left-wing philosophies espoused by Fraser as being from different periods of his life.
But is this an accurate characterisation? Can Fraser only be feted as a progressive hero because of what he did in his latter years? Or is the insistence on ignoring his moderate credentials while PM more a refusal to acknowledge that socially progressive views can sit comfortably with conservative economic views, as they once did within the Liberal Party?
Fraser’s political philosophy was always unapologetically of this nature: a lefty on social issues while staunchly right-wing on economic matters.
The Australian Conservation Foundation notes today Fraser was a committed conservationist back in the mid-1960s when he was an early member of their governing council. On coming to government he was able to realise that philosophy, ending sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaiming Kakadu National Park, prohibiting oil exploration and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, and declaring the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
It was also as prime minister that Fraser first put out the welcome mat for refugees, fostered the beginnings of a multicultural Australia, and established the Human Rights Commission. His government introduced the family allowance for low-income families, indexation for pensions and unemployment benefits, and extension of the supporting mothers’ benefit to all sole parents.
However on economic issues, Fraser was a conservative – a protectionist who resisted his colleagues’ inclination to open up Australia’s economy to international markets, and a harsh critic of the trade union movement. He oversaw a period of high unemployment and inflation, and a drop in the real value of welfare payments. He also scrapped the universal healthcare system, known at the time as Medibank.
Milne and others who inhabit the left side of the political spectrum are not alone today in grappling with the allegedly dichotomous nature of Fraser’s politics.
The former PM is the third longest serving Liberal prime minister, yet his former party colleagues are having to tread carefully today to pay fair tribute to the man who brought the party back from the ignomy of defeat by the populist Gough Whitlam, but in recent years also very publicly disowned the Liberal Party as a hollow fraud.
Fraser resigned from the party he once led in late 2009, after arch-conservative Tony Abbott prevailed over the moderate Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in a leadership ballot, due to concerns the party had lost its way and no longer represented traditional liberal values.
Once Fraser’s resignation became known, conservative MP Andrew Robb dismissed it as unimportant, noting, “We’ve become used to Malcolm disagreeing with our positions on many issues for nearly a quarter of a century,” while the progressive Petro Georgiou (and former Fraser staffer) said the former PM’s resignation “should be viewed with a great deal of sadness. It should be viewed as the action of a man who takes his convictions very seriously.”
Fraser’s criticisms of his former party have ramped up since then, particularly on human rights’ issues and the Coalition Government’s treatment of asylum seekers. In recent times he took to the progressives’ favourite medium, Twitter, to share these views. And in his last opinion piece, published just last month, Fraser defended the Chair of the Human Rights Commission against the Government’s attacks on her integrity, saying the HRC is more important than ever to safeguard our existing freedoms.
It would be wrong to characterise these as the words of a former conservative ‘destroyer’ now seeking redemption through progressive utterances. On the contrary, the man who brought down the Whitlam government is the same man who until yesterday railed against the injustices of the Abbott Government. The same man with the same deeply held conservative beliefs on economic issues as well as progressive beliefs on social matters.
Considering the state of today’s political landscape, it would be fair to say most of Abbott’s Liberals are as uncomfortable with a Liberal holding both those views as Christine Milne appears to be.
Former Liberal PM John Howard stuck to the safe territory, quoting political chronicler Paul Kelly on Fraser’s contribution in government:
Fraser was a very good prime minister, much better than people would have suspected in 1975. He ran a government of above average competence by Australian standards with acumen, dedication and professionalism.
On the more thorny question of the former PM’s contribution to political life after government, PM Abbott could only bring himself to note, “In a long and active retirement, he maintained a keen interest in our country’s direction.”
And so, typically, we must revert to the once-great Liberal Party moderates to hear tributes befitting the man.
Fraser government minister Fred Chaney said the former PM’s death had caused the nation to lose “one of its great moral compasses”, while Georgiou noted “he brought into the centre of our life that we were a diverse society and that diversity should be respected”.
It’s no coincidence both Chaney and Georgiou retired as Liberal MPs when they could no longer endure representing a party that refused to accommodate the mix of social progressivism and economic conservatism that Fraser and they believed in.
The death of Malcolm Fraser is a poignant reminder of a time when it was not considered weak or permissive to be a progressive in the Liberal Party; a time when a Liberal politician and a government could be economically as well as socially responsible.
Such a combination should not be a relic of the past to be wistfully remembered, but a feature of today’s politics. The sadness of Fraser’s death is magnified by his loss as a role model for modern Liberal progressives.