I remember the day so vividly—11 November 1975. It was a Tuesday. By coincidence, I was sitting in a constitutional law exam in the Bonython Hall at the University of Adelaide when an excited young exam monitor suddenly burst in to exclaim that Whitlam had been dismissed by the Governor-General. The theoretical matters we had been studying immediately took on a much more serious tenor, as we tried to come to terms with the constitutional implications of the news for our exam papers.
Malcolm Fraser's role in the events leading up to the dismissal have been more than thoroughly scrutinised. However, it reveals a defining aspect of his character. He was driven by strong principles and deeply-held values. To paraphrase one of his global contemporaries, Malcolm was not one for ‘turning’ once he had set his mind upon a course of action.
I found Malcolm Fraser, as I suspect many Australians did, to be an enigmatic and complex political figure. My encounters with Malcolm Fraser ranged from observing his legendary inability to suffer fools to receiving his advice from time to time, and to witnessing his great pride in being awarded in 2011 the Papua New Guinean Grand Companion of the Order of Logohu, which carries the honorary title of 'Chief'.
This award was recognition for his support during the early years of Papua New Guinean independence when, as Prime Minister, he ignored Treasury advice to maintain ongoing direct budgetary support for the fledgling government.
As a Defence Minister, Education Minister, Prime Minister, Commonwealth Eminent Person, through CARE Australia and CARE International, and as a refugee advocate and a public intellectual, Malcolm Fraser had a major impact both on our own thinking as a nation and on our global standing.
One of Malcolm Fraser's enduring legacies was in the environmental sphere, including his proclamation of Kakadu National Park in 1979, his banning of the whaling industry and his strong support of environmental management in general. He once stated: “Conservation of the natural resources of this earth is emerging as one of the basic challenges to mankind”.
As Minister for Education, Malcolm Fraser performed with great energy and distinction under Prime Ministers John Gorton and Billy McMahon. Characteristically, he had clear views and married them with Liberal values. He believed there should be broad choice in education and he reformed the funding of non-government schools to ensure parents had the widest possible choice for the education of their children.
His impact on foreign policy was profound. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger complimented Malcolm Fraser on his pragmatic approach to relations with China and the Soviet Union. Malcolm Fraser had a deep understanding of the complex aspects of our engagement with Japan and demonstrated a far-sighted approach to South-East Asia. More recently, he expressed concerns about elements of the Australia-US alliance—not concerns I share, but he was not afraid to initiate discussion on issues that should be openly and strongly debated and challenged, to ensure that all our international engagements are in our ongoing national interest.
Malcolm Fraser was not afraid of controversy, particularly when his moral compass had established a point of principle in his mind. He took on the issue of apartheid, much to the reported initial discomfort of Margaret Thatcher and many of the more conservative elements of Australian society. The Gleneagles Agreement and the subsequent agreement forged at the Lusaka Commonwealth Conference, opposing apartheid and gaining the independence of Zimbabwe, were landmark events where Malcolm Fraser led Australia into an alignment with the countries of the new Commonwealth.
He supported strong defence spending and strong alliances. He always sought alliances and partnerships that not only defended Australia's independence but gave us added strength. As Minister for Defence in 1971, he was one of the architects of the Five Power Defence Arrangements that established a mutual defence pact in our region. This has been an important but often overlooked element of what was initially motivated by a desire for regional stability and which today helps underpin regional prosperity.
Over his long and many-faceted political career and public life, he touched many areas of foreign policy. He always brought to it a relentless intellectual curiosity and a restless drive to get solutions and outcomes. This took many forms—articles, books, speeches, interviews phone calls. He was not satisfied with just stating a view, as he wanted action and outcomes, or a good argument as to why not.
In one of his first foreign policy actions as Prime Minister, he said there was a need to involve non-government organisations in foreign policy. He saw their value in support for aid programs but also the different perspective they could bring to situations from the diplomats and other channels, through their insights and on-the-ground experience. Perhaps earlier than many others, he saw the limits of government and the capacity of others to contribute to the often challenging problems in the world.
It was the experience of his government's engagement of the then US-based aid agency CARE to deliver aid to Uganda, struggling under Idi Amin's regime, that caused him to accept the role as founding chair of CARE Australia in 1987. With his characteristic energy and determination, he established CARE Australia as a freestanding body from CARE International. Malcolm Fraser's exacting demands for action and outcomes, characteristic of all his endeavours, helped make CARE one of the most effective emergency aid organisations in Bangladesh, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. He took a hands-on approach to this role and was not there just to raise money and chair meetings. This extended to putting himself on the front line of aid delivery, frequently ignoring the advice of security experts by taking the view that, if the CARE workers were in the field and at risk, he could be there too. He worked tirelessly and against the odds to win the freedom of CARE workers Pratt and Wallace, held hostage in then Yugoslavia, including spending days in Belgrade while it was under bombardment by NATO.
One of the signature decisions of his government was to reverse the refusal to take refugees from the wars of Indochina. This was one of the first signs of the deeply-held humanity and compassion that drove Malcolm Fraser throughout his life, and which caused his later self-imposed estrangement from the Liberal Party. Malcolm Fraser worked hard to build social capital in our community so the influx of Vietnamese refugees was accepted and embraced. This was a significant achievement in terms of social harmony, and the extraordinary benefit these refugees were to our society—their energy, creativity and commitment to Australia—brought significant change to the betterment of our community.
The enduring legacy of Malcolm Fraser's life is in the example he set of strong and practical action across so many fields, of big thinking; of intellectual rigor not complacency; and of boundless ambition for this country, all informed by the deepest liberal principles of equality of opportunity and an abhorrence of prejudice.
Malcolm Fraser never accepted the status quo and always sought to advance humanity by challenging the norms and by not allowing society to turn the blind eye to social challenges. He could make life uncomfortable for those of us making current policy and laws, but we will be the poorer as a nation for the loss of his oversight.
I extend my sympathies to Tammy Fraser, one of our most gracious first ladies, and to the Fraser family.
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