The meaning of Malcolm: Rejecting the easy life

Tony Smith

Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Carlton, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, 2010 (853 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-579-1 (hard cover) RRP $59.99.

Malcolm Fraser was striving to have some workers for the aid organisation CARE freed from custody in Yugoslavia during the NATO bombings of 1999. He was desperate for any kind of leverage he might apply and, hearing of an Australian woman who knew the wife of Serbian leader Milosevic, he sought her advice. The woman said that she would not help as she did not respect Fraser since his role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. Although shocked, Fraser was polite and said that he understood the woman’s position (Fraser & Simons 2010, pp. 695–696). In writing of this memoir, Fraser told biographer Margaret Simons that if people were interested only in another angle on the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, the book would be a failure. Readers might also find the book a failure if it ignored those events likely to embarrass Fraser or presented his positions exclusively.

Memoirs by former politicians tend to be attempts at self-justification. Sometimes such works are of dubious reliability. Certainly Fraser aims to correct misapprehensions about his ‘misunderstood and misrepresented’ government. In this case, however, Margaret Simons’ position as co-author adds credibility to most of Fraser’s claims. She writes that:

repeatedly he declined to rely on his memory alone. He would proceed only when he knew the documentary proof was available. Although Fraser often protested in our interviews that his memory for details was poor, it became common for him to say something that seemed doubtful to me, only to be proved correct when I found it independently confirmed by the archival record. (p. 6)

As a result of this thorough checking, the endnotes occupy close to 100 pages. Simons also appears to have been an insistent biographer. Their ‘interactions were not always easy. There were topics that he had to be persuaded to talk about’ (p. 7). It would not be true to say that there was a creative tension in the relationship; the rapport is too obvious. On balance however, it appears that this memoir owes much to Simons’ work in ‘curating the material’ and that her skills have ensured that the book shares many of the advantages of a biography. It is less self-indulgent than many political memoirs, less anecdotal and more reliable. The pattern of most chapters is that Simons provides a framework, general introduction and key questions. Fraser freely follows themes, however, and while Simons might make observations about Fraser’s claims and sometimes his demeanour, she does not contradict them. She notes that ‘there is nothing between these covers that he has not authorised’ (p. 7).

Being heard and learning the value of freedom

Simons says that the book’s thematic organisation makes it difficult to convey ‘a sense of the crushing work of prime ministerial office. Everything happens at once’ (p. 601). Despite this warning, there is little repetition to irritate the reader and the work has a chronological spine with three main parts: ‘Being heard’, ‘Governing’ and ‘Changing the world’. The story begins with Fraser’s birth in 1930 and describes his family background, formative influences and career to 1975. Here, Fraser is keen to explain the intellectual framework he acquired during his education, particularly while studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. He was interested in big ideas and was stimulated by historians Arnold Toynbee and A.J.P. Taylor and economist J.M. Keynes. Economists will be interested in Fraser’s defence of Keynes and consistent reference to his theories. Fraser describes Keynes as ‘the best economist of the last century’ but also as ‘maligned and misunderstood’ (p. 51). He found Keynes’ theories perfectly consistent with Menzies’ liberalism and argued that Keynes would have advocated restraint in times of high inflation. While Fraser’s early years in government were characterised as a severe reaction to the over-spending of the Whitlam era, he says that his last budget in 1982 was a ‘Keynesian response to a downturn’ with ‘modest pump priming’ (p. 372). Fraser’s time at Oxford was the age of Orwell and Europe was steeped in the Cold War. Fraser emerged a firm anti-communist but also imbued with optimism. He was ‘caught up in the notion that it was a time for hope. A time for doing things. I was caught up in the belief that a better world should be built’ (p. 59).

Memoirs by former politicians tend to be attempts at self-justification.

Readers will identify and follow themes of their own. Despite the importance of the world changing events Fraser describes, by far the most interesting aspect of this memoir is the human story. Partly because of his comparatively privileged background and partly because of statements and actions while in parliament, Fraser has always had a reputation of being a hard man, lacking in compassion and out of touch with ordinary Australians. More lately, by speaking out against some of the harsher policies of the Howard Coalition Government (1996–2007) such as those on asylum seekers and Aboriginal affairs, Fraser has shown that a more complex private man exists within this forbidding public image (pp. 439–443). Some reviewers of this book have asked whether Fraser has changed (for example, Baume 2010). Despite giving serious consideration to resigning from the Liberal Party and voting against its candidates during the Howard years, Fraser thinks that he has not changed but that the Party has. It has become politically conservative, economically dry, disdainful of due process in government, and lacking in concern for human rights. Fraser thinks that to rebuild in the 1980s, the Party needed the ‘complementary talents’ of both Andrew Peacock and John Howard, but he thought Peacock was more committed to ‘core liberal values’. As Howard came to dominate, those values were abandoned and replaced with conservatism (pp. 616–617).

Simons suggests that Fraser’s family history partly explains his career in public life, but not his ‘abiding concerns with human rights, equality and anti-racism’ (p. 30). His parents were subject to the prejudices of the time, including sectarianism. Fraser was conscious of hostility to Irish Catholics and suggests that the social divisions caused by the 1975 constitutional drama, an event for which he bore some responsibility, were insignificant in comparison with the entrenched anti-Catholicism caused by the conscription referenda of Prime Minister W.M. Hughes during the First World War (pp. 264–265). Fear of sectarianism influenced Fraser as Minister for Education and Science in the Gorton Government, when he was determined that state aid for Catholic schools should not become a divisive issue (pp. 175–176) and as prime minister when he defended the importance of ethnic diversity (p. 427). Fraser developed earlier than many Australians an abhorrence of apartheid, both in theory and in its practice in South Africa. At home his government emphasised a non-discriminatory immigration policy and multiculturalism, appropriate treatment of asylum seekers and the need to address Aboriginal disadvantage. Senior bureaucrat Charlie Perkins recalled being daunted by Fraser’s image but found him ‘absolutely A-1. He was tops’ (p. 401). Perkins said that Gough thought he started everything, but that Fraser ‘produced the goods’.

Fraser’s critics have depicted him as aloof. They have pointed to his hard decisions while in government and to his wealthy background. His height reinforces a perception that he tends to look down his nose at people—literally and metaphorically. In fact, Fraser’s childhood was anything but easy and invites sympathy rather than scorn. Because his mother found his sister rebellious, she was sent away to school early, making Fraser in effect an only child. Young Malcolm’s parents clearly believed that children were to be seen but not heard and Malcolm too was packed off to Tudor House and then Melbourne Grammar. He clearly missed the freedom of the lifestyle he enjoyed on the parents’ property. In fact, his childhood was not spent in Victoria’s prosperous western districts, but in the dry far west of New South Wales. Fraser loved being able to ride around the bush exploring. It was a cruel blow to him when his father, tired of battling in an area of marginal rainfall, sold the property while Malcolm was away at school. Perhaps these experiences explain why Fraser seems so well able to live within his own head, driven by ideals which he considered deeply and often. They taught him the importance of self-reliance and determination and gave him a strong sense of justice.

By far the most interesting aspect of this memoir is the human story.

Fraser’s wife Tamie provides some significant insights into Malcolm’s personality. Tamie is not a person who is impressed with posturing and was clearly invaluable to Malcolm when his thinking was most rigid. Tamie rejects the idea that she was a power behind the throne. Rather she was a patient listener and tried to help Malcolm understand how ordinary people might react to his decisions and pronouncements. Between the dismissal in November 1975 and the December election, the Frasers were driving away from a function when Tamie noticed the flag on the vehicle. When told they were in the prime minister’s car, she told Malcolm quite plainly that this seemed wrong because he was only the caretaker (p. 309). Tamie’s sense of humour must have been an invaluable asset for Fraser, whose stern countenance was likened by cartoonists to the stone statues on Easter Island. (The book does not include any cartoons.)

Fraser tried to enter parliament in 1954 but had to wait until 1955 to become the Member for Wannon. He admired Prime Minister Robert Menzies but had to wait for a ministry until Menzies’ successor Harold Holt appointed him to Defence in 1966. For the next ten years, the Liberal Party underwent dramatic changes in leadership. Holt disappeared in 1966, John Gorton voted himself out of office in 1971, and William McMahon lost the 1972 election. The party began to modernise but when Billy Snedden lost the 1974 election, Fraser saw that the party was inhibited by a ‘born-to-rule mentality, naked for all to see’ (p. 258). In November 1974, Tony Staley organised a challenge, which Fraser lost. In March 1975 there was a second vote and Fraser became leader. Among those to send congratulations were establishment figures, business tycoons, media mogul Kerry Packer, and right wing activist Bob Santamaria. A former nanny reminded him that when he was eight that she had given him a specific instruction. In obeying reluctantly, young Malcolm had told her that when he was prime minister, she would obey him (p. 270). Fraser’s own image and his determination to remove the Labor Government in 1975 suggest that while he might have believed that the Liberal Party had to work harder to regain power, he too might have been driven by a belief in the natural superiority of the Liberal Party.

Many older Australians retain strong feelings about 1975 and the issue is difficult to escape. Fraser remains adamant that he had a responsibility to take action against the Whitlam Government, which he considered was behaving reprehensibly. He believes that he dealt honestly with the Governor General during the crisis but admits behaving opportunistically in one respect. Anti-Labor premiers in Queensland and New South Wales broke with convention by refusing to appoint Labor’s nominees, thus altering the balance in the Senate and creating a precondition for the blocking of supply. Fraser says ‘I would have thought at the time it was wrong. But I took the advantage’ (p. 287). This is as close as Fraser comes to an explicit expression of regret; generally he argues that he had to take action to restore the integrity of government.

In this memoir Fraser attempts to give people a broader understanding of his political role and of the human considerations informing his decisions. When the 1975 constitutional crisis is seen within the context of Fraser’s eight decades, mostly in public life, it becomes easier to put aside entrenched bitterness. More than thirty photographs illustrate the book and two show Whitlam and Fraser together. In one, they share a platform in a campaign for media diversity. The second shows former prime ministers attending the national apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008 and Whitlam has one hand on a walking stick and the other on Fraser’s shoulder for support.

Governing: principle tinged with pragmatism

Many older Australians retain strong feelings
about 1975.

It is natural to read Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs with a view to forming a judgment about the public persona. Readers will emphasise those parts of the story that reinforce their own preconceptions. There is evidence for those who maintain the rage over 1975, for those who have always been Fraser fans and for those who maintain open minds. It is difficult not to be judgmental when the book aims to convince the reader of Fraser’s integrity. It is more productive, however, to acknowledge the wealth of material the book provides about post war domestic and international politics. Fraser witnessed great events including the Labor split during the mid-1950s, the dramas over the Menzies succession, the dismissal, the rise of free market ideology, the growing sophistication of information technology, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There were so many events that a chronology might have been a useful appendix. Between late 1975 and early 1983, the environment grew as an issue and economic rationalism became popular. The world got Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, while Australia experienced the Hilton bombing, the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, the royal commission into the Painters and Dockers Union, bottom of the harbour tax schemes, currency devaluation, an Aboriginal Land Rights Act for the Northern Territory, the arrival of Indo-Chinese ‘boat people’ and the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service to cater for a multicultural Australia.

Fraser offers insights about his thinking at the time and reflections with the benefit of hindsight. He is careful to be fair to history in this regard by thinking back to the decisions he made at the time. Generally, he invites readers to make their own judgments about his positions (p. 750). On the Vietnam War, however, he pleads that ‘we didn’t have the luxury of historians’ (p. 183). Yet numerous historians were placing the conflict into perspectives that should have created doubts about the wisdom of the enterprise at the time. For example, anti-war ‘teach-ins’ at university campuses were addressed by historians such as Professor C.P. Fitzgerald (Curthoys 1992, p. 91). Fraser is arguing that the government of the day did not have the benefit of hindsight possessed by later critics, but this argument does not counter contemporary criticisms. It also tends to give some comfort to those who committed Australia to later military conflicts. For Fraser, as for many Australians, the Cold War dominated his thinking and perhaps blinded him to criticisms of the Vietnam commitment. It is interesting that one of the strongest themes of his thoughts for the future is the need to stand up to the United States more (p. 435). With the Cold War over, Fraser was aghast that the Howard Government made Australia follow the United States in an invasion of Iraq in 2003, ending all possibility of the dawn of a new age of enlightenment and protection of human rights and freedoms universally (p. 734).

Fraser set an example for hard work, wide consultation and integrity.

The middle section of the book, ‘Governing’, is perhaps the least personal. As Fraser and Simons point out, a prime minister’s memoir ‘is also about his ministers, his advisers and the nation’ (p. 324). Fraser’s style demanded that advice be sought from a wide range of sources. This meant that cabinet meetings could be long and that some senior public servants, particularly those in Treasury, could be offended by not having their advice accepted automatically. Treasury, according to Fraser, ‘could be bullies’ (p. 353). This section of the book will provide both policy specialists and scholars of machinery of government with some challenging observations. As well as the broad area of bringing the budget under control, specific policy issues given prominence include Aboriginal affairs, immigration and refugees, foreign policy, the British Commonwealth, and federal-state relations. In the area of the environment, the Fraser Government over-ruled a state government to protect Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef from mining. In the case of the Franklin River, however, it would not act. Fraser argues that acts of parliament gave the federal government appropriate power but the use of the External Affairs power in the Constitution could not be justified (p. 579).

Fraser says that he was determined to restore integrity to government processes after the scandals of the Whitlam years. It might also be the case that he was determined to overcome the aura of illegitimacy around his government because of the controversy over its rise to power. He set an example for hard work, wide consultation and integrity. His attitudes to the public service were realistic—he tried to ensure that heads of departments had permanent employment unless they were political appointments, strengthened sections of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to offset weaknesses in other departments and sought to change the ‘assimilationist’ culture prevailing in the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (pp. 331–332, 431–432).

Perhaps the most politically interesting chapter is ‘Loyalty and loss’. Despite the necessity of coping with immense amounts of administrative detail, a leader must remain aware of developments both within the government party and beyond. By 1982 there were signs that the Fraser era was ending. Dry, conservative factions within the party were critical of his style. Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock resigned to contest the leadership. Peacock pointedly made his resignation statement echo the speech made by Fraser in March 1971 when he resigned from the Gorton cabinet and questioned the leader’s loyalty. Interestingly, one rumour doing the rounds then was that Peacock as Minister for the Army was plotting against Fraser, who was Defence Minister. The immediate result of Fraser’s accusations against Gorton was a leadership spill and the instalment of Billy McMahon as prime minister. These events helped to alter the course of history as McMahon was clearly no match for opposition leader Whitlam (pp. 208–225).

Having attained power while lamenting the behaviour of Whitlam’s ministers, Fraser was determined that his government would have the utmost integrity. Without the highest standards, a government gives ‘the worst possible leadership message to the community at large’. The memory of having to sack colleagues is painful: ‘It is not that I didn’t feel the tug of loyalty. But as leader, loyalty to values has to come first’ (p. 590). He winces at the memory of Treasurer Philip Lynch, who was named in judicial inquiries into land speculations in Victoria. As this was during an election campaign, Fraser removed Lynch, although allegations against him were later found to be insubstantial. Lynch, hospitalised at the time with a kidney complaint, was particularly hurt that Fraser did not ask for his resignation personally.

Fraser always sought respect rather than love.

Staffer David Kemp describes Fraser as a very rational person. Not everyone could stand Fraser’s style: ‘the all-out arguments, the lack of praise, small talk and those small emblems of personal warmth that can make a leader loved’ (p. 325). When Fraser lost the 1983 election, an election he thinks Tamie, with her greater understanding of popular moods, could have won, something appears to have changed (p. 603). During his 1983 concession speech Fraser shocked many observers by displaying some emotion. Indeed, the man who emerged after leaving his position as the national focus of political power seems to have been a more balanced person. It is possible that had Fraser chosen to make a comeback he could have been a better prime minister than he was between 1975 and 1983. While the needs of office might have affected his decisions, Fraser later devoted time and energy to the Reconciliation process and to the needs of the Stolen Generations. He contacted opposition leader Brendan Nelson to persuade him to second Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology. With genuinely bipartisan leadership on such vital issues, Australians might well have accepted the reality of our history.

Changing the world as an eminent person

Fraser became prime minister because he was the right man in the right place at the right time. It is difficult for others to completely appreciate the positions he took because he really was a unique individual. Regardless of how much he might have agonised over decisions at the time, once they were taken, he had the great knack of being able to move on regardless of criticisms and cries of distress. Inevitably, he justifies his actions by referring to principles and ideals.

Readers with a psycho-biographical bent will no doubt ponder Fraser’s innermost needs. At several points Fraser distinguishes between respect and affection for political leaders. He says of Whitlam for example: ‘Many people will always love him. But how many people really respect his record in government?’ (p. 266). Fraser always sought respect rather than love. To some readers this might seem to be a plea for understanding. Perhaps Fraser thought that affection and respect were mutually exclusive and that doing what was correct was the only way to retain respect and could bring respect only. Some readers might find this distinction to be post hoc justification by a man who did not know how to balance the two. Others again will look to Fraser’s solitary, perhaps lonely childhood and find there the roots of the coolness they regard as a flaw in the man’s personality. Inevitably some will contrast Fraser and his Labor successor Bob Hawke, who was hugely popular and widely regarded as a good bloke.

The distinction between respect and affection for leaders reinforces Fraser’s continual references to ideals and principles. Curiously, when pressed about why he did not include the highly active and outspoken Senator Alan Missen in his Cabinet, Fraser implies that Missen’s strong adherence to principle excluded him from consideration: ‘in cabinet you can’t make everything an issue of high principle. You’ve got to be selective’ (p. 330). This is hardly sound advice because not everyone makes the same selections and some politicians might make none. A leader is entitled to make such a judgment but it does not encourage principled behaviour.

He worked to ensure that his view prevailed despite significant personal costs.

After leaving office, Fraser suffered from the customary relevance deprivation syndrome that affects many ex-politicians. Having been in parliament for almost thirty years from 1955 to 1983, he had difficulties adjusting to what Tamie called the ‘normal world’. Operating telephones and making ticket bookings were skills he had to learn (p. 620). It is probably worse for former prime ministers. Australia has not worked out what to do with them. Fraser was aged only 53 and wanted to contribute more. He had been an activist minister, demanding information from the bureaucracy, and an active prime minister. His chance to be publicly active again came in 1985 when Prime Minister Hawke nominated him as Australia’s ‘eminent person’ on a Commonwealth panel to conduct dialogue with the South African regime to facilitate change and avoid a violent revolution that would destabilise the region (p. 636). Fraser not only achieved a great deal in helping to end apartheid, but enhanced Australia’s reputation internationally. Fraser needed a great deal of courage to deal calmly with the South African government while insisting on free access to the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela and other political groups.

When in government Fraser promoted the North-South dialogue between the rich industrialised nations and the developing world. In the 1990s he became president of CARE Australia and CARE worldwide and typically, took a ‘hands on’ approach to the roles and responsibilities (p. 670). The period spent trying to free the CARE workers in Yugoslavia shows a man who can be both loyal and discreet. He campaigned for their release constantly for some five months and one of the workers recalls the boost Fraser’s presence provided on their release. They saw ‘the towering figure of Malcolm Fraser … He is a bloody sight for sore eyes’ (p. 705). Fraser’s experiences in South Africa and in Yugoslavia were more dramatic and compelling than the plots of most thrillers.

Mature reflections

Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs is a highly readable work. This aspect of the book is attributable to Fraser’s determination to be as fair as possible to the people he encountered during his career and to Simons’ ability to organise a huge mass of material. Clearly, Fraser was a man destined to influence the course of history in that he held a firm belief that when his sincerely held views clashed with the views of others, his view was correct. He worked to ensure that his view prevailed despite significant personal costs. He says: ‘It’s a funny business, in politics, you know. Because it is not about friendships, but it is about relationships’ (p. 329). Fraser did not suffer fools gladly and was well able to cope with the loneliness of life at the top.

When I interviewed members of the New South Wales Parliament during the mid-1990s, I asked whether there was something they would do differently in hindsight. One female Liberal of long experience said, very wisely, that dwelling on the past is unproductive because if you had your time again, you would make a different set of mistakes (Smith 2003). Inevitably, Simons tempted Fraser to reflect on his career and there are times when he wishes he had proceeded differently. Generally, however, his philosophy is that it is more important to look to the future: ‘I don’t see the point of a lot of “what ifs”. What happened happened’ (p. 612). Fraser was driven by ideals that he found inescapable at the time. Humbly enough, he says that ‘I don’t want to claim that I always lived up to my ideals. That is for others to judge’ (p. 326). Australia has had 26 prime ministers and Australians have a natural tendency to find fault with the powerful. We have applied to prime ministers terms such as drunkard, playboy, traitor, narcissist, cynical opportunist and intellectual pygmy. Amongst such an unflattering range of traits, the idealism of Malcolm Fraser has much to recommend it.


Baume, P. 2010, ‘Book Review: “Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs”’, Online Opinion, 12 March [Online], Available: [2010, Apr 28].

Curthoys, A. 1992, ‘The anti-war movements’, in Vietnam: War, Myth and Memory, eds J. Grey & J. Doyle, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.

Smith, A.R. 2003, Gender in the Fifty-first New South Wales Parliament, PhD thesis, The University of Sydney [Online], Available: [2010, Apr 28].

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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