Malcolm Fraser: ‘we have lost our way’

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is ‘uneasy’ about Liberal leader Tony Abbott because he is unpredictable. AAP

Welcome to our “In Conversation” between former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Melbourne University political scientist Professor Robyn Eckersley.

First elected to Federal parliament in 1955, Fraser is one of the major figures in the history of the Australian Liberal party, famously coming to power as Prime Minister after the dismissal of Gough Whitlam by Governor General John Kerr in 1975.

To many, Fraser has undergone a Damascene political conversion in recent years. To others, he’s sold out the Liberal party and its core values.

Reviled by the left for replacing Whitlam and for some of his policy decisions as prime minister, Fraser has resigned his membership of the Liberal party and become and outspoken critic of many of the party’s policies, notably on refugees and indigenous affairs.

In this conversation, Fraser explores a range of subjects from his earliest political experiences to his most recent interventions in public life:

  • Why Tony Abbott is a “dangerous” politician

  • How the Liberals are now an “extreme right” party

  • Australia’s record on refugees and asylum seekers

  • Why Australia has lost its way in foreign affairs

  • The need to reform the public service

  • Australia’s media and the Murdoch dominance

We hope you enjoy it.

Eckersley: Mr Fraser, you have been a major figure in the Liberal party from when you first entered parliament in 1955 to when you resigned from parliament after you lost the election to Bob Hawke in 1983.

You later chose to resign from the Liberal Party in 2009. Who has changed the most? The Liberal party or you?

Fraser: Oh, the Liberal party.

Eckersley: So you would say you’ve been the same all along and they’ve changed around you?

Fraser: Everyone changes as times and circumstances change around them but I made speeches against apartheid as a backbencher. I adopted totally different policies in regard to refugees than that which was adopted by either of the parties today.

My government established the Human Rights Commission, Freedom of Information legislation, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Ombudsman, one of which was started by Gough Whitlam and the other one of which was put into office by my government.

There is a strong human rights thread running through all of that that nobody paid any attention to at the time. There was a Galbally Report into the post-arrival services for migrants and one of the members of that report was someone who had come in during the very early 50s from Italy and I remember having dinner at The Lodge to celebrate the issuing of the report and he said:

“You know Malcolm, for the first time I don’t feel like I have to look over my shoulder.”

As he had from 1952 to 1977, the time he had been here.

All of those things revolve around issues and attitudes which I think are important to a cohesive society. Most of them seem to be rejected by both the Liberal party and the Labor party.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser at the dispatch box in 1979 AAP