Memory is the smoothest of liars. Indeed, recent research shows that experience restructures our earlier memories: it brings to the fore certain previously forgotten aspects and represses others. This phenomenon probably goes a long way to explaining attitudes towards the death of Malcolm Fraser.
For those with progressive instincts, his latter advocacy for human rights and refugees is likely to colour our attitude towards him. Indeed, in recent days, many on the left have lauded the former prime minister, but we’d do well to have a more circumspect attitude. His career was divided into several chapters – the latest one was by no means the most historically important.
Just how should we judge Malcolm Fraser?
On the one side, we can point towards his origins in the landed aristocracy, his graduation from private school to Oxford student to representative in the conservative governments of the 1960s. Then he was army minister and an ardent supporter of the brutish imperial intervention in Vietnam, and a Cold War warrior for the right. He later became the decisive figure behind the dismissal of the reformist Whitlam government, which had begun the modernisation of Australia by introducing free education and ending the war in Vietnam, among other less salutary policies.
After the ‘coup’, Fraser set about reversing many of these reforms. He restructured education, introduced cuts to the public sector, and abolished Medibank, though even he was by no means as radical as his treasurer, John Howard, who was pushing neoliberalism even then.
Some have emphasised his international statesmanship, his opposition to apartheid in South Africa, his relatively enlightened attitude to Indigenous land rights and his liberal attitudes towards refugees, in particular Vietnamese boat people. However, all of these, we should note, were within a certain framework and limits. In this narrative, Fraser continued the modernising program of his great foe Whitlam – they agreed, so the story goes, on a vision of Australia, if not on the methods to achieve it. After he was defeated in the 1983 election, he went on to support the rights of refugees, and became a significant opponent of the Howard government, which he saw as reactionary and a betrayal of liberal values.
Both narratives, of course, contain some truth. The former is more important in terms of Fraser’s real historical impact, but it’s the latter Fraser that people seem intent to remember. The latter Fraser, we are told, stands closer to our current concerns. That this should be the case is as much a sign of the seachange that has come across international politics as it was of Fraser’s shifting allegiances. The truth is, as a Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser stood on the very borders of a changing epoch. He was the last in many ways: the last of the ‘classical liberals’, the last politician to speak with a British accent, the last to represent the old world of ‘civilisation’. Fraser’s passing – along with Whitlam’s – signals the end of an epoch. Some would say Malcolm Turnbull is his natural successor, but the political context has changed so much that this seems unlikely.
Indeed, Fraser looked on with disbelief at the era that succeeded him. First, it was the Hawke government that implemented the neoliberalism that was sweeping the globe. It was the ALP that accomplished many of the reforms associated with the political right as demonstrated by their fees for students, attacks on the unions (nurses, pilots, builders), and, the design of a wages and incomes accord that trapped the compliant unions into a structured wage compression. Indeed, this sharp jag to the right by the former social democratic party opened up the first possibilities of a party to the left of the ALP – first with the Nuclear Disarmament Party, then the New Left Party, and finally ending up with the Greens.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Party restructured itself even further to the right, from Fraser’s liberalism to the neo-conservatism of Howard and now Abbott. The Howard and Abbott governments have run roughshod over practically every international convention and traditional liberal principle and have jettisoned the liberal notions of freedom and the rule of law, implemented market mechanisms into every social sphere, and, relied again and again on cultural wars and ‘wedge’ politics. In their view, it seems, people no longer have rights. Rather, we live in a state of perpetual war, a clash of civilisations to which the only responses are repressive measures and a fairly open racism, especially towards refugees, Muslims and, with a separate logic, Indigenous people. That the ALP itself accepts and champions so many of these policies is a measure of its own degradation.
Neither Fraser nor Whitlam belonged in the world where both major parties have increasingly come to resemble each other. Although the argument has been around for thirty years, it is what Tariq Ali calls ‘the extreme centre’. There were deeper sources to this shift too. One was certainly the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s, which began to bite in the 80s and 90s, but finally came home to roost in 2008. Neoliberalism and its associated neo-conservatism were the elite’s responses to this downturn, an attempt to strip away the social gains of the long boom, improve profitability and repress any and every form of resistance. If that meant breaking apart democracy and its associated liberal principles, then so be it. To this degree, Fraser was a man not of yesterday’s epoch – the downturn from the late seventies onwards – but of the time before. It’s a measure of how far we stand from those days that Fraser should end up an ally of the left.
But if his recent positions stick in our minds, it doesn’t mean we should forget the role he played as a Cold War warrior of yesteryear or as the deposer of the Whitlam government. That would mean memory has made a liar of us. To my mind, that he ended up a hero for some on the left signals the vast changes that have swept Australian politics. It’s less a measure of his greatness than a measure of our defeats.