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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

A Liberal party or a Conservative party

Eckersley: Do you see any liberalism left in the Liberal party at this point in history?

Fraser: Not much. I don’t see much in the Labor party either. They are competing at the bottom of the barrel on refugees. Both would vehemently condemn the article I had in The Age on Israel and Palestine supporting a Palestinian state recognised by the United Nations.

They have lost sight of principle in relation to foreign policy.


Eckersley: What are the hallmarks of good leadership and which political leaders to you admire the most in Australia or beyond?

Fraser: Mandela stands out beyond everyone else. Twenty seven years in jail, most of it in Robben Island. If you’ve seen the film Invictus you’ve seen the jail and the room in which he spent most of those years. He told me on one occasion that he could hold the blanket he had – there was no mattress in the room – up to the light and you could see through it. It was that thin in a part of the world that gets bitterly cold in the winter.

To come out of that experience making friends of his jailers, having charity for the world, really believing that only reason and common sense and good neighbourliness could solve the problems of Africa.

If there were six Mandelas around today, a couple in Europe, one in America and in a couple of other places, there wouldn’t be any wars.

Eckersley: The famous German sociologist Max Weber talked about leadership in a lecture he gave on politics as vocation back in 1919.

He said good leadership required ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility, which he understood to mean having policies the consequences of which were in line with your convictions.

Which is the opposite of political leaders bending with the wind.

Fraser: Yes it is, but as you describe it, I would agree with that.

Eckersley: How do you reconcile leadership with a democracy where a leader is supposed to be responsive to public opinion, which suggests politicians should bend. So where does conviction end and responsiveness to the electorate begin?

Fraser: I think you are mixing up somebody who is representative of the people and somebody who is a delegate. If you are a delegate, the people who have delegated power to you tell you what to do, tell you what policies to have.

If you are a representative, you are there to exercise your judgement, to learn about an issue, then make up your mind, that is what a representative is.

Eckersley: In political science we call that the delegate-trustee distinction. So you’re appealing there to the role of the politician as the trustee who makes judgements on behalf of the electorate where the delegate is simply a mouthpiece for those they represent.

So that means a trustee must learn how to stare down opposition?

Fraser: Stare down, maybe. But if your policies are right and you think they are important to the nation then you have got to have enough confidence that you can carry the argument.

All a poll can do, or all a focus group should do, is tell you whether you have got an easy job or a hard job to carry an argument.

We decided we’d export uranium and leave aside whether you thought we should or should not, but it was in a national park, it was on Aboriginal land, the environmentalists weren’t in favour of it.

So we had to, and we did, over 18 months, get everyone onside by the arrangements that were made. The Aboriginal groups, the Northern Land Councils, the environmentalists were happy with the arrangements that had been made because of the Fox Report.

But if we’d just gone baldly ahead, we would have had the world against us and it would have been a total vote loser. In the end, it was probably neutral as far as votes were concerned which is often the best you can hope for.

Ending whaling at Albany, I knew Charlie Court wasn’t going to like that, but it was something that had to be done.

A dangerous politician

Eckersley: You recently declared that Tony Abbott is a dangerous politician, perhaps one of the most dangerous in Australia’s history. What did you mean by that?

Fraser: [He’s] unpredictable. He says what jumps into his mind. Let me give an example. When farmers were complaining about miners searching for coal or for gas on farms, he spoke almost as though he did not understand that under British law, Australian law, the Crown owns the minerals and the wealth under the ground and if a mining company can get a right to mine or investigate over your farm then that has always been in a sense too bad for the farmer.

You can try and oppose it but that is what the law has always said. Now Tony, in encouraging the farmers, really spoke as though he was quite unaware of that current and historic position. But it was expedient at the time to get the support of the farmers. It might be a bit harsh but I think in a month’s time he will have forgotten he said that.

Eckersley: Is the unpredictability the main reason you called him dangerous?

Fraser: The unpredictability.

Eckersley: Any other reasons?

Fraser: I think the whole party is very much on the extreme right. I happen to believe that the Minchin/Abbott duo to get rid of Malcolm Turnbull – who had actually won a couple of party room votes, even though narrowly – but then they said we’re not going to work with you anyway, we’ll walk out.

The minority was saying we won’t accept the majority and the majority just accepted it. It was an extraordinary occurrence and I believe that rather than being on the emissions trading scheme, it was because Malcolm was showing some significant signs of being a liberal and they didn’t want a liberal in charge of the Liberal party, they wanted a conservative in charge of the Liberal party.

Defending universities

Former Prime Minister and co-founder of the Liberal Party Robert Menzies. AAP

Fraser: If you had called Menzies a conservative he would have been vastly offended

He had two significant acts.

[One was] signing the Refugee Convention of 1954 quietly and without fanfare. But that meant the end of the White Australia Policy. You couldn’t meet obligations under that Convention and maintain the White Australia Policy.

The other thing he did within Australia was to make the Commonwealth the major funder of universities. He said at the time that because we are going to be the major funder, we have to make sure that successive education ministers can’t get their sticky fingers onto policy of higher education or fundamental research and therefore we need a body of the highest possible intellectual standard to stand between government and universities and that will advise government, state and federal, on the future development of universities.

That endured, that system, until Dawkins came along with sticky fingers. The Liberals also had sticky fingers at that time so they abolished the Universities Commission and it seems to me that universities never spoke in their own defence, or found somebody to speak in their defence.

They needed somebody to speak in their defence because since that time, you’ve gone from a situation where government put out about 5% of expenditure for universities and cut it down to 2%.

Eckersley: Government funding has been declining in real terms and universities have had to scrabble around to find other ways of making money.

Fraser: Declining in real terms yes, but this has been a deliberate act of policy. Before the last financial breakdown in Europe, European countries were all putting more money into universities and higher education.

China is, Asian countries certainly are. Singapore wants medical facilities that will be better than those in Melbourne and we find government in Australia extracting money from these areas, which for a country like Australia, are probably the most significant areas for investment and they force universities to go to overseas students because of total mismanagement.

Imagine paying agents on the basis of the more students you produce, the more money you will get. It was a terrible system but because it brought in overseas dollars people accepted it. It wasn’t a reliable source of finance, especially when America, Canada and Britain would all be ahead of Australia as a destination for education.

That I think is rather sad.

Eckersley: What proportion of GDP do you think Australia should be investing in higher education?

Fraser: Probably what it used to be.

Eckersley: And a re-institutionalisation of a Universities Commission? Would that be your public policy for the higher education and research sector?

Fraser: The terms of reference might need to be a bit better defined because you don’t want to make all universities the same, they need to specialise in one thing or another. I think that was really encouraged to a much greater degree.

In those days we didn’t have to steal doctors from the Third World to fill country hospitals because we had planned to establish sufficient medical schools. It is only in the last year or two that something is being done about that but we went through a long period of decline.

We are not doing enough in relation to fundamental research through a period where universities were accused of being ivory towers.

Eckersley: Do you think that is a sign of anti-intellectualism among the political elite in this country? How else would you explain this?

Fraser: An effort to stifle criticism. It did not only apply to universities. There was a piece of legislation which didn’t actually become law but was designed to say that if any non-government organisation such as World Vision or Care, if they spoke against government policy, they would not be entitled to grants from the government.

The sector was frightened into silence.

The media in Australia

James and Rupert Murdoch undergo questioning from a House of Commons committee over phone hacking allegations. AAP

Eckersley: This brings us to the Fourth Estate. What opportunities should Australia seize out of the Murdoch hacking affair and what are your general views on the state of the press in this country?

Is there a role for government shaking it up a little?

Fraser: Something needs to be shaken up. I don’t know how long Fairfax is going to survive. I don’t know if anyone will come forward to invest in Fairfax and that might leave us with a Murdoch monopoly if News International can avoid the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Actin the United States.

That is by no means guaranteed. If police in Britain are convicted of taking bribes to try and advance News of the World circulation that act makes it a crime for any American headquartered company to bribe anyone in the world in pursuit of market share.

I think we know that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that has not necessarily prevailed. Pretty well every Democrat would hate News Corporation in America.

You have only got to look at Fox News and some of the things they gone about there and the things they have done and the support they have given to the Tea Party which is hardly objective journalism.

Eckersley: You may have heard of the Fox Geezer Syndrome in the US which is when retirees have Fox News on all day and they become converts and when their children ring them up they are permanently angry.

Fraser: That must be a very unhappy state to live in. But we desperately need more players in the media market. With the internet there is a possibility of that but at the moment they are all small beer. They don’t carry a great deal of influence. We don’t have anything with the kind of influence that Project Syndicate does, mostly run by Americans, but extraordinarily good articles and if you want to be well informed on any subject [you should read it]

I think there is still a gap between Project Syndicate and The Conversation.

Eckersley: We will take that on the chin.

Fraser: They have been going much longer than you.

The climate change debate

Eckersley: I raise that issue as a prequel to a question on the state of the climate change debate in this country. I’d be interested in your opinion on that and if you were in the hot seat how you would lead this debate.

Fraser: I believe that climate change is a reality. The scientists I respect believe it is a reality. Some of the most vigorous opponents of climate change in this country quote people as having written – scientists – as having written against climate change.

One of my friends knew one of the people quoted quite well as a personal friend and said “That is not their view, they believe in the science, they believe the science is accurate.”

And if the science is accurate we are very foolish not to act and we are very foolish to say we are not going to act until China and India. China has in fact done a great deal in relation to climate change but a developing country which for all its wealth and sophistication, China is still, they are going to take different sorts of measures to the measures you would expect from America or Australia or Europe.

This to me was the gap in Copenhagen. To me a fairly obvious situation was not recognised, everyone has got to act along the same way, and that is not reality.

I believe Australia ought to act. We would have had agreement and no still rancorous debate, if Malcolm Turnbull had stayed in charge.

There was an agreement but it was overturned. I think Malcolm is highly intelligent and I don’t think he would have gone down that track unless he had been convinced.

There is nothing wrong with a country like Australia being a leader and strengthening our voice with other countries. We miss an opportunity in international affairs because middle ranking countries like Australia can have far more influence if they can combine with other countries like some of the Nordic countries perhaps, or Canada, and if you can get a group that will argue together for appropriate policies, then in the wider world that can be really quite influential.

We have forsaken our role. One of the things which stand in the way of a better relationship, I’m not saying the relationship is bad, but it could be much better and one of the things that certainly raises questions, and in some minds a degree of contempt, is the extent to which we seem to do whatever America wants.

That even earns contempt within America. I have had very senior Americans… an American vice president say to me “You know Malcolm, Australia is becoming known as one of our worst allies.”

Of course this person was a Democrat.

I said: “I think I know what you are going to say, but tell me why.”

He replied: “You go along and encourage the worst attributes of the worst President we have ever had.”

Even assuming that is a partisan political comment from an American, he was somebody who was very influential. America is an openly combative society and if somebody has got a view which is different from their official government view, if it is well argued, well presented, then they respect that. They don’t hold it against you if you put that.

I worked with others – Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria – and had a small role in helping to get Congress to overturn a Presidential veto on sanctions against South Africa.

There were Republicans like Senator Richard Lugar and Senator Nancy Kesselbaum, highly regarded, who also believed there ought to be sanctions on South Africa, so it was a cross party thing.

But to get a sufficient majority to overturn a presidential veto on sanctions was quite an achievement for the US Congress. It doesn’t happen very often. Even the administration didn’t resent that.

Politics 101

Eckersley: If you were a young aspiring politician today, which party would you join?

Fraser: I wouldn’t want to join either of them as presently constructed.

Eckersley: Either of the major parties?

Fraser: I wouldn’t want to join the Greens because they’re still too narrow in their total outlook, especially in the states. I think they have some very wild policies.

Eckersley: Do you see that changing over time?

Fraser: It could, it could. It will be interesting to see Tony Abbott as prime minister with the Greens controlling the Senate. He might try for a double dissolution.

Eckersley: That would only increase their numbers in the Senate. It would certainly play into minority party hands.

Fraser: I think it would. What are the causes of Tony Abbott’s popularity in the leadership stakes? There are a lot of questions about these issues.

Politicians today are not highly regarded and maybe they never have been highly regarded but there seem to be people young and old and in the middle saying that they have never heard such wretched debates.

I think the political parties are significantly responsible for this because independent people are no longer elected to the parliament. However good she is, to have only one credible candidate standing for the seat of Higgins was an absolute disgrace for the Liberal party.

But when you know three or four or five other people have been run off the track because there was a preferred candidate… in the old days the organisation would have said “It is Higgins, for gosh sakes we have to have at least a dozen candidates there, there has to be a contest, we know so-and-so will get it.”

But the person they think is going to get it doesn’t necessarily get it.

Eckersley: You’re talking about the pre-selection process.

Fraser: If you want to become a politician today, it is easy. You go to university – and this is for either party – you do a relevant course, economics or politics or something related to or assumed to of some use in politics.

Then you say “Who do I know?” That Liberal, that Labor, who is the most senior. Oh, he is the most senior. I’ll see if I can get a job through him. And that I think is about the level of conviction.

That might be a little tough but there are quite a few people you could look at and say, well, you could belong to either party. And in any case, what is the difference between the two parties?

The Labor party has run away – or did run away, now they are having a fight on climate change – but they have run away from everything else they thought was important. They refused to fight for a better policy for Aboriginals which they should have, they allowed a military style intervention to go forward and from what I hear from people in many parts of Australia, there are many places going backwards.

That is not to say there isn’t progress in some areas.

Eckersley: What sort of examples of progress can you highlight?

Fraser: I can’t highlight them. I’m told there are some. Attendances at school are not increasing though.

Asylum policy

Asylum seekers intercepted off the northern Australian coast. AAP

Eckersley: Let’s turn to refugees because you have a really strong record there. There were massive numbers of Vietnamese boat people which Australia comfortably accommodated. We now have much smaller numbers of boat people, many from war torn areas we are involved in, just like Vietnam.

The Cabinet documents that have been revealed from your time show that the same items were on the menu: offshore processing, mandatory detention and so forth but you were able to resist that.

How did you manage to persuade your colleagues?

Fraser: I said we had an ethical responsibility to do what we could to help. Those other arguments might have had three minutes of Cabinet time over the years. They weren’t even considered. They were in departmental papers.

The department won with Gerry Hand, who introduced mandatory detention in 1992, and the Liberal party supported it.

Politicians have done more to distort facts on this issue than almost any other. Over 80% of those who come by boat have been proven be genuine refugees by fairly harsh judgement standards.

Of those who come by air, which is a very much larger number, 15, maybe 20%, are found to be genuine refugees. These are all people who have had money, who have had money, they have had papers certainly, but they have also lied to get the visa.

They generally come on an education visa or a visitor’s visa. The Refugee Convention recognises that genuine refugees often travel without papers, often travel in unorthodox means because if you haven’t got papers you can’t travel by orthodox means.

If you ask refugees who fled out of Eastern Europe or from the Soviet Union after the war, a lot of them would have paid today’s people smugglers for some part of the journey. There is a minister of the crown in one of the states whose parents were refugees and I said “Do you know if they had to pay for any part of the journey to get to Australia”. He said yes, they had to pay for a boat to get across to Italy.

Eckersley: How do you deal with the argument about the folk left in the refugee camps who don’t have the resources to pay? How does one deal with that?

Fraser: There are two questions to this. The international community ought to do much more. We have had a refugee intake of around 12,000, that is an official intake. Amongst official intakes worldwide, that is relatively high.

But if you want to make an honest judgement about what a country does, you look at the official and the unofficial intake. Some time ago, in the 90s, Australia made a decision to reduce the official intake by the number of boat people who came here. So there was a cap of about 14,000 on humanitarian intake overall.

But Britain on an official intake would come much lower down the scale than Australia. But on an unofficial intake, has been huge. At the time of Tampa when we were complaining about 4/5000 boat people from South Asia and the Middle East, about 100,000 went to Britain.

Since their unofficial intake is so high you can see why there is no imperative for them to increase their official intake. If we were genuine in having a real humanitarian view of these issues, we would again join with other countries that are far more generous than we are like America, Canada, the Nordic countries and argue for all recipient countries to take more refugees out of UNHCR camps and we would also argue for more countries to become recipient countries and try and reduce those numbers.

I think the number is a false one.

Look at examples of people who come by boat. If you’re in Afghanistan there’s no Australian queue you can join because there is no Australian office you can approach. You could go over the border with the prospect of spending five or six or seven years in a UNHCR camp in Pakistan.

If you had a couple of young kids and wanted them to be educated, that wasn’t really much of an offer. If you could get together any resources at all, and I knew of one family that had a very small house, it would more than fit into this office, a small business, what is it all worth, not enough to get to Europe but enough to get on one of those wretched boats to Australia, is it worth risking our lives and the lives of our kids?

You have to balance that with the risk of an upbringing for six or seven years in a UNHCR camp. So if you are a parent and wanted a decent future for your kids, which option are you going to take? I know which option I’d take.

Eckersley: How do you psychoanalyse the two leaders, what is going on here [with refugees]?

Fraser: They believe that playing to the rednecked people in the Australian community will get them votes.

Eckersley: What about the deeper invasion anxiety, or notion of fortress Australia, which underpinned our old White Australia Policy which has officially gone but not fully disappeared. Is there something going on here apart from a crude grab for votes?

Fraser: There is some sort of throwback to the pre-war years, the White Australia years and people don’t recognise the total unreality of that. You only have to walk down any street in Melbourne or Sydney to know that if they want to fight that battle they lost it a long, long time ago and they cannot possibly win it ever again, thanks goodness.

People believe that Howard won the Tampa election by appealing in the crudest and most dishonest way to the rednecks in Australian society.

I remember getting letters after that election when I said the government had appealed to the worst of our natures not the best. The letters said: “How dare you say the government has appealed to the worst of my nature. For the first time we have a government just what I believe the government ought to do.”

Such people would have turned the boats or shot them on the beaches. You know the story of Sir Thomas White who was then a minister of the crown and there was a refugee conference in Evian in France and there were 31 countries involved.

What can the world do, what can we do, as relatively wealthy nations about the Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany and people then knew what they were trying to do.

Sir Thomas White, speaking on behalf of Australia, said in language only slightly more elegant than this, “Well, we would love to be able to help but we cannot. We have no racism in Australia and we have no intention of importing it.”

Eckersley: That is extraordinary.

Fraser: That was ’38. The change from then to 1946 when Calwell got the ACTU to agree to an immigration programme. Sure, he said most were going to come from Britain, that was never going to be possible with all the turmoil throughout Europe.

But one major difference, a quite significant difference between the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and even into the 80s was that no noticeable politician played politics with race or religion with the lives of vulnerable people.

Gough Whitlam had made a decision not to take people from Vietnam except for a boatload of kids. When my government reversed that, he didn’t reverse it, it was still a bi-partisan policy and if in the 50s or 60s you’d had one or other of the political parties trying to play politics and win votes on the issue, the migration that has been so important to Australia and to the well-being of all of us, it probably would have been cut off at the knees.

I can remember an occasion where some people made a mistake and some Croatians and Serbs were put in neighbouring motels in Cooma all working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. And they got at each other and there was a bit of riot.

Now instead, and the media included, of building it up into a great cataclysmic event, the efforts of everyone were designed to try and make sure that “Alright, an administrative error has been made” and the people were moved further apart and whatever. There was no censoring over it, it was all reported but it was overcome.

Indigenous Australia

Two indigenous Australians in Canberra prior to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. AAP

Eckersley: You alluded earlier to indigenous politics. The Rudd apology to the Stolen Generation marked the beginning of that new Labor government and was followed by an intervention which you have already been critical of.

Why do you think it has been so hard to make progress in removing the various forms of disadvantage facing indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders?

Fraser: Because nobody has had the patience really to sit down on their ground and talk with community after community. This is the only way it can be done. Different communities need ownership of the programs that are put in place to help them.

Now, if something is worked out in Canberra and consultation consists of persuading people that what has been worked out and decided in Canberra is good for them, then they are not going to have ownership of it.

Eckersley: You gave control of indigenous lands to indigenous people in the Northern Territory, but consistent with your policy of cooperative federalism you didn’t impose that on the states even though the federal government does have powers to make laws with respect to indigenous affairs.

Do you think that was a mistake looking back?

Fraser: When you looked at the personalities of Charles Court and Joh Bjelke Pietersen, confronting them head on with Commonwealth laws might well have made the position of indigenous people in those states worse.

We had a process for dealing with Joh. There was somebody in the Prime Minister’s Department who got on very well with some people in the Premiers Department and so when an argument was looming he’d be sent north to talk quietly and there’d be thunder from the Premier and all the rest but it didn’t always result in total frustration.

Certainly there were some difficult times. But even Russ Hinze, the most unlikely person you might think, was helpful in taking some of the rougher edges off Joh’s policies and I’d seen that in the Cabinet room.

Dealing with the states

Eckersley: Did that also persuade you to pursue a co-operative Federalism approach with the Franklin Dam affair. You of course were the government that listed that wilderness area on the World Heritage List which made it possible for the Hawke Government to use its External Affairs Power to protect the Franklin from the hydroelectricity scheme.

Fraser: I believe that High Court decision was a very bad one.

Eckersley: 4-3… it was a very close one. Why was it a bad decision?

Fraser: The property had been listed knowing it was the intention of the state government to build a dam and because it had been listed by the relevant UNESCO committee it was very difficult to argue with validity that it would affect our relations with any other country or state. Quite simple.

I would have belted that argument and belted that argument and I do think the foreign affairs power has been used by the Commonwealth too often to whittle away the power of the states.

It is like saying you will take over hospitals, which both parties have at different times. John Howard did, then Kevin Rudd did and neither of them did. Do you really want Canberra to have total power in a country as large as Australia?

Do you want the fate of everyone in Broome to be determined by a decision made as far away as Canberra? Or for Thursday Island or Cairns?

I think that is a frightening thought because we still have a hereditary monarchy and the Queen has won enormous respect and one of her grandsons is showing signs of winning enormous respect but hereditary public service is much more dangerous than a hereditary monarchy.

I know third generation public servants in Canberra. They’ve never known anything outside the place.

There was a time when alright, you had to bring government to Canberra because that’s where the capital was but that was before iPads and the internet and modern communications.

One of the best policies we could possibly have done would be to move large numbers of public servants to Brisbane, to Perth, maybe to more remote places, so they had to live as other people live, in major cities, in major populations and even the most senior people. The minister could have a button on his desk giving him direct access and a video link to the head of his department.

That would save both people time. At the moment they get the head of the department to waste time coming over to the minister’s office. It is an enormous waste of time.

A new politics for Australia

Canberra politicians need to pay attention to their public service role. Flickr/Str1ke

Eckersley: Would this shake up be part of your vision for a new republic given you have been a supporter of the republican movement?

Fraser: I would want to see that as major part of policy. There’s a Canberra attitude. The Prime Minister’s Department was a bit late in delivering a paper I’d wanted on something and the head of the department said “but Prime Minister you’re wasting a great deal of the department’s time otherwise you would have had your paper.”

I said: “Well, that might be, but tell me how, I’m not aware of wasting the department’s time.”

He replied: “You’re insisting all these letters be properly answered. And there are a great many of them.”

“And why should not these letter be properly answered?”

“But Prime Minister, you don’t understand, they are only from members of the public.”

Eckersley: Very Sir Humphrey.

Fraser: This person would have out Sir Humpreheyed Sir Humphrey totally. Sir Humphrey was a minor example of a Canberra attitude.

Eckersley: We are running out of time so I only have the luxury of one more question. But I will follow this line. I think your vignettes tell us a great deal about the difficulty of the convention of ministerial responsibility.

Has it outgrown its usefulness? How can we devise a new way of exercising that convention and maintaining the accountability of not only government but also the bureaucracy?

Fraser: It is a question of integrity, it is a question of honour, it is a question of people being there for the sense of public service and not there for the sense of personal power. It really is.

One of the things that has made it more difficult for governments, and the current government has had administrative failures, I don’t believe they are all necessarily the fault of the government because since my time my impression is that the quality of the public service has fallen greatly.

Let me give a couple of reasons. Perhaps the hereditary nature of the public service, perhaps the growing strength of the Canberra attitude, but above anything else because the heads of departments are now politically appointed.

So a bright young man can’t join a department and aspire to be its head. He will need to be a political appointment and to be a political appointment from within the department is very difficult if not impossible.

And what happens when the political person is given a five year contract and he displeases the prime minister or his minister? The PM can sack him, no cause, no redress. That is in the contract.

If he has got a five year contract, most people are appointed when they’d still be looking for another job after five years, so they are going to want a good tick from the prime minister, they are going to want a good tick from their minister, are they going to tell the PM or minister what they ought to hear or what they want to hear.

The old heads of department, the good ones and the bad ones, were not fearful of the future. And people under contract, I think it is the very worst way of going about business.

Even the American system where, sure they are political appointees, but political appointees know that a Republican will look after the Republican appointees and a Democrat will look after the Democratic appointees, the way we’ve done it, if somebody wants to go into business and they get a bad mark, they won’t get the job they want.

Eckersley: We were supposed to end here, but would you consider another round as PM?

Fraser: Gladstone was 84 when he resigned as British PM.

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