Looking Back: The View From Here

Friday, 20 March, 2015

Australians from a range of backgrounds are mourning former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s death. In 2013, Farrago’s Derrick Krusche secured an exclusive interview with the often controversial figure.

I walk into Malcolm Fraser’s office high up in 101 Collins Street and look down to the banks of the Yarra. A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. I turn back and reflect on two types of public figure, celebrity and elder statesman. I also reflect that not only is Fraser physically higher than Ellen but that he also has more elevated things to say.

At 83, Fraser is in a peculiar position. Just three years ago he left the Liberal Party, the Party in which he was Prime Minister from 1975-83. At this stage in his life there is less that he can do, so I ask him how he would act politically if he were my age—21—again.

Fraser pauses and replies, “I’d get together with some other people who believed hopefully as I did and see whether or not we shouldn’t do something on our own account. Because I would say neither party fits the bill. It will be hard. It will be difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you had a bunch of young people, let’s say under 40s mostly, saying ‘enough is enough we’re sick of this, this is what we’re going to do’—I think there’d be a sigh of relief and they could get much greater support than they would’ve dreamt of”.

Fraser’s list of reservations with the current state of politics is long. After many years of doubt he finally decided to resign from the Liberals after Howard’s handling of the Tampa Affair and his post 9/11 decision to increase ASIO’s powers. He agrees that some elements of the Liberal Party resemble the Tea Party in America and mentions that they label themselves conservative instead of liberal, a name which Menzies chose for the party deliberately and meaningfully. However, he stresses that one of the major factors hampering the quality of politics is the preselection process of both parties.

Fraser is cynical about younger people going straight into the parliamentary process without having demonstrated the ability to achieve something other than in politics. He thinks that by the time someone is preselected, they owe too many people favours and have built up too many allegiances and therefore lack a sense of independence.

“I know a very senior Labor QC in Sydney who’s twice failed to get preselection for Labor. I said, ‘for Christ’s sake George, why can’t you be the winner?’ ‘Oh Malcolm, I guess they thought I’d be too independent. The winner was going to do what he was told’.”

He laments the fact that not enough people get the chance to run for preselection. Fraser mentions the recent preselection for the blue ribbon Liberal seat, Higgins, which Kelly O’Dwyer won. Unsurprisingly, O’Dwyer had worked for Peter Costello, the previous member. According to Fraser, in the old days the party would’ve said, “it doesn’t matter how good that one person is, we’re going to have 15 or 20 candidates and see if there’s a bit of enthusiasm around”.

With September’s election fast approaching, Fraser is curiously coy about who he will support. He pauses and twitches his fingers. “Oh I’ll probably, I don’t know. I’ll look at the individuals who are standing. Is there an individual who will stand up on difficult issues?” Fraser hints, but does not say, that he would vote for Malcolm Turnbull “if he could persuade or impose upon the party the values which I believe he has. I think he is a true liberal”. He adds that there are some advantages in voting for the Greens to offset the “extremism” of the two major parties but he is quick to point out they are not a fully rounded party.

Indeed Fraser portrays a jaded picture of current politics but says it’s not the worst Australia has seen. He exclaims “if there hadn’t been a settlement of the Irish Question in 1922 I really do believe there could have been armed conflict in Australia between Catholics and Protestants. This is such a different world from the one your generation knows”. Just as in his maiden speech to parliament in 1956, Fraser still advocates for a ‘Big Australia’ so we can rely solely on ourselves for defence.

His convictions are inspiring. Often we dismiss public debate as too heavy or deep, yet here is Fraser in his 80s using Twitter daily. “I’m interested in the reactions. Some people can hold quite intelligent conversations on Twitter. Some people are very uncouth and not really intelligent at all. But it’s a means of getting a message across, I suppose”.

Music bursts up from the scenes of Ellen below. I’m distracted and look down again, yet Malcolm holds his gaze. He is focused. It is symbolic of rising above the trivial. I leave his office, thinking about that yet-to-be founded party of young people.