Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Essay - short reflections on the death of Malcolm Fraser

Today's post combines my usual Saturday and Sunday posts.

Listening to or reading the coverage of Malcolm Fraser's death was another reminder of the way that time changes our perceptions of people.

During the Fraser period, I was promoted to Chief Finance Officer (section head) in the Commonwealth Treasury's Foreign Investment Division and then to Assistant Secretary in charge of the Economic Analysis Branch in the Department of Industry and Commerce. Towards the end of the Fraser times I spent two years in Armidale trying to complete my PhD, returning to Canberra for the last months of the Fraser Government. My first task on return was working with Noel Benjamin on a Bureau of Industry Economics Research paper commissioned by Doug Anthony examining the possible economic benefits of a Pacific Free Trade Agreement.

Our views of people are formed by our own values and our responses to things considered to be important. I was still a Country Party activist at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. For obvious reasons I didn't share the angst of those on the Labor side who saw the dismissal as a betrayal; the Whitlam period had been chaotic and the final ending was great political theater that delivered the right results.

While I had opposed Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, I had registered as a conscientious objector, I regarded Mr Whitlam's refusal to help those South Vietnamese who had worked with Australia as a betrayal. For that reason, I strongly supported Mr Fraser's willingness to admit Vietnamese refugees and indeed took pride in it.

As a policy adviser working in an economic sphere, I saw Mr Fraser as a sometimes authoritarian and indeed inconsistent decision maker. I didn't see the Government as necessarily bad in economic policy terms, simply lacking consistent direction. I gave one brief example in Confessions of a Policy Adviser -1- Setting the Scene.

I was in back in Armidale at UNE when the report of the Lynch Razor gang was released. I couldn't believe it. How could a Government manage to alienate so many groups via a series of small and often inconsequential spending cuts? It was screwy, a case of maximising pain without achieving overall gain. Mmm, Joe Hockey?

I said that time changes perspectives. At the time, I didn't see Mr Fraser's decisions on Vietnamese boat people as politically brave. I don't think that it was, although today the equivalent would, I suspect, be seen as political suicide if, indeed, it was even considered.

I think, however, that what stands out now is the way Mr Fraser seems to have had a consistent moral compass that guided certain of his actions over a very long period. It was that compass that guided some of his actions during his ministry, actions that I wasn't necessarily aware of at the time or did not regard as important, that are now seen as considerable achievements.

We have seen the same process with Mr Whitlam. Time has expunged some, not all, of his failings, allowing successes to be more clearly seen. I said some. There is a common feature here with both men. They were interesting people; some of their failures will survive on the historical record just for that fact alone.

 Time presses on. As it does, individual achievement becomes more compressed; perceptions of what is important shift and shift again as the world changes; events such as the dismissal become paragraphs or even just footnotes. With Mr Fraser, I suspect that it will be those decisions and arguments based on his perceptions of what is just that will be his most enduring memorial.


Evan said...

There is an interesting symmetry in the memorials to Fraser and Whitlam.

Whitlam's focuses on social policy and doesn't mention foreign policy much.

Fraser the focus is on refugees etc and doesn't mention his domestic policy much. I don't think much of a 'moral compass' that includes trashing democratic process I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

Evan, look up Kemlani and the attempted bypassing of the Loans Council if you want 4Bn reasons why your objection is a nonsense.

As I recall, there was no objection to Fraser's actions upon the specific grounds they were unconstitutional - either written or implied.


Evan said...

Feel free to indulge in non sequiturs kvd. I think you believe I am defending Whitlam.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Evan. I took your "trashing democratic process" as your comment upon Fraser's actions at the time of the dismissal. If I'm wrong in that then, apologies.

But no - I didn't think you were defending Whitlam.


Dr Purva Pius said...
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