Malcolm Fraser: a man of many sides who never vacated the political debate

In his later years, Malcolm Fraser became a strident critic of Liberal Party policy. AAP/Astrid Volzke

Malcolm Fraser – as opposition leader, prime minister and in retirement – was always a polarising figure, a characteristic coming through in some of the assessment of his legacy.

His steely determination in blocking supply in 1975, with all that followed including Gough Whitlam’s equally determined reaction, produced one of the most bitterly divisive periods in federal political history. In his later years, Fraser became a strident critic of Liberal policy (he was never one to put discretion ahead of frankness), quit the party and alienated some former political friends.

Fraser was a complex political figure in office and then he went through a major later-life transformation, making his story even harder to get your head around. His argument that it was the Liberals who had changed rather than him didn’t really hold – they had, but he had changed more.

In this, Fraser was quite different from Whitlam, whose political views and their trajectory into his old age were very consistent.

Malcolm Fraser as prime minister. National Archives

The Fraser government’s record was mixed. With two massive election victories, in 1975 and 1977, he could claim sweeping mandates (regardless of doubts some cast on his “legitimacy”). But as economic rationalists gained ascendancy in the Liberal Party, they looked back at the Fraser years as a “missed opportunity”. Missed for various reasons, but particularly because Fraser himself was fundamentally an economic conservative.

Fraser’s government left important achievements in Indigenous affairs, multiculturalism, the environment, and the acceptance of Vietnamese refugees, and Fraser made a significant footprint internationally.

With a passion for Africa, Fraser helped broker the agreement for majority rule in the new Zimbabwe (he was reticent about it but the disaster that eventually unfolded there had to be a devastating disappointment). The fight against racism anywhere and everywhere was one of his defining issues, although it took observers a while to realise just how central this was for him.

Despite the passions of the time, those on the left no longer focus on 1975 when assessing Fraser. Paying his tribute, Bob Hawke said “we shouldn’t dwell on that”, because Gough and Malcolm had reconciled. Rather, they look to his stand on asylum seekers and human rights, including his recent attack on Tony Abbott for “bully boy” behaviour towards Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs. However the one-time Cold War warrior’s strong warning against the American alliance, spelled out in Dangerous Allies, was a step too radical for Labor.

In retrospect, the day-to-day turbulence of a government long past can be forgotten. There was a fair share of chaos in Fraser’s style and in events of those years. Cabinet sat endlessly; his colleagues were exhausted. Fraser had his hands on everything – his department was omnipresent, ministers were often second-guessed. His years had scandals in which ministers lost their jobs amid drama, anger and political embarrassment. Andrew Peacock stalked him; Fraser brought on a leadership vote and won.

Malcolm Fraser at Oxford in 1951.

In light of the present restless backbench, it’s worth recalling that Fraser’s backbenchers could be very bolshie, criticising measures and even crossing the floor. In 1976, Liberal senators defeated a plan to remove funeral benefits for pensioners.

Fraser had the advantage of a policy-strong office, which was influential with him. His staff included David Kemp, who later went on to be a senior minister in the Howard government, and Petro Georgiou, also subsequently an MP, who had a vital role in shaping multiculturalism, including the establishment of SBS.

In personal terms, “aloof” was a favoured description of Fraser, with pop psychology explanations ranging from it being a product of his height, his isolated childhood or his patrician background. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Bowers’ description of his “Easter Island” face stuck.

Relations with the media in his government’s early days were influenced by the hangover of 1975; later, it’s fair to say, his prime ministership grew on those reporting it (which didn’t preclude sharp criticisms from them).

In Fraser’s time, reporters had rather more of a bird’s-eye view of a PM. Figuratively speaking, there had not been so many bollards erected, the chance for informal contact was greater. Journalists travelled overseas on the prime minister’s plane, and sometimes domestically too, with the prime minister spending a while chatting with them down the back. And they were on the plane for the duration of an election campaign.

Fraser always liked to be in touch and kept up to date. He would ring colleagues at any hour; when abroad he never knew (or chose not to know) the time at home. Then-Liberal director Tony Eggleton recalls being stopped by a policeman when driving through a town on his way from Canberra to Sydney. The cop asked him to come to the station – the prime minister was on the line.

Fraser PM in the mobile phone era would have been a nightmare. No wonder he embraced Twitter with all his usual vigour, his last tweet coming this week.