Condolence Motion: The Right Honourable John Malcolm Fraser

I too would like to contribute to this condolence debate on the passing of the Rt. Hon. Malcolm John Fraser. It is the first condolence debate which I have contributed to, and I made a decision to do so because I have always been fascinated by the very challenging views that Malcolm Fraser held throughout his life.

Sometimes I feel it is a bit of Rorschach test for people when you ask them what they think about Malcolm Fraser. You can pretty clearly determine what side of politics they are on and what they think about a range of other issues, because he had views across such a wide range of policy areas that challenged people, were quite controversial and inspired people to want to respond to them. I think we should celebrate that. Perhaps in this corner of the chamber, though, we are a little bit different. I think Malcolm Fraser was probably associated with or endorsed by candidates from all political parties, except probably The Nationals and Country parties. He was probably a bit like Billy Hughes in that regard. He was a member of six political parties, but not the Country Party. As Billy Hughes said when someone pointed this out: a man has to draw a line somewhere.

Malcolm Fraser is a great demonstration of the diversity of what being a conservative means at times. There is no guide book, ideology, Bible or gospel for conservatism. It is a principle and a cause that responds to the events of the time and seeks to protect and cherish different aspects of our society, depending on the time. We should always remember that Malcolm and his generation grew up either fighting in the Second World War or, in Malcolm Fraser's case, living in the shadows of the Second World War. I think many of his views on individual freedom, on the protection of our country and society and on the need to defend those freedoms flow from that experience. While many on our side of politics are challenged by many of his views, I think we should always celebrate that. He brought a considered and contemplative approach to public policy issues, and he was still contributing to those issues right up to his passing last week. His passing was too soon, because clearly he was still a very vibrant contributor to our public debate, and it is a sad loss to the wider debate which we are part of that he is no longer here.

I want to spend a brief time, though, going back to the formative years of Malcolm's life and to put his wider views in the context of the experience of the Second World War and the environment of Australia at the time—right back to the beginning of Malcolm's political career. He was only 25 years old when he headed down to Hamilton, on the southern coast of Australia, to participate in a preselection for the Liberal and Country Party of Victoria, as it was then called. It was a happy coincidence that it was 22 years to the day from when he was made Prime Minister in 1975 that this preselection took place on 11 November 1953. At that preselection, Malcolm gave a speech from his heart, and I just want to quote a little bit from that. He said:

Each man from the street cleaner to the industrialist behind a rich desk has an equal right to a full and happy life. Each one has an equal right to go his own way, unhampered so long as he does not harm our precious social framework. The wish that men may continue to enjoy this right is the real reason that urges me to enter a lifelong fight against socialism, and I feel that this fight is worthwhile because of the unique and individual characteristics I find in every person.

That is something which speaks to my heart as well. I just want to note a couple of amusing anecdotes. On that night, Malcolm faced a fierce opponent, a former senator of this place. Senator Magnus Cormack was his main opponent. After giving his speech, which was clearly quite captivating, a supporter of Senator Cormack decided to ask Malcolm a very tough question about US antitrust law. He thought he would flummox the young Malcolm; but, unfortunately for him, Malcolm had just finished a stint at Oxford and had just finished writing an assignment on that very topic—so he expanded for five minutes. He was very knowledgeable on it, and he succeeded.

Later on, he started campaigning, as we all do for our seats. And I just love this story. During that campaign, he went to a small town called Dergholm.

When he arrived in the town during the campaign there was meant to be a political meeting. Only one person had turned up—I think we can all appreciate how that feels. Malcolm proposed to this one person, his audience of one, that instead of having a meeting as was planned why didn't the two of them just go to the pub and have a beer. His audience of one, however, had different ideas. He said, 'I came here to hear your policy, and if your only policy is to buy a beer I'm not going to vote for you.' Fraser told him that that was absurd: 'How can I make a speech to an audience of one?', but the man insisted, and said, 'You get up there on that platform and give me a policy.' So Malcolm did. He got up on the platform and started speaking. He gave a speech of almost 10 minutes to this audience of one. Then, in the middle of a sentence, his audience got to his feet and started for the door, calling over his shoulder, 'If that's all the policy you've got, we may as well just go have a beer.' I love that story. It is a very Australian one and it is probably something that is familiar to all of us.

I will cut my remarks short, because I know there are other speakers still, but I will go back to the points I made about Malcolm's focus on defending Australia. We, and particularly my generation, take for granted the security and peace that we benefit from, but we are still a rather sparsely populated continent on the edge of a very volatile world. That was obviously very clear and present for Malcolm's generation. It was still present in the 1960s, when he came to the Australian parliament. Others have noted in this debate that he was a strong, ardent and vigorous supporter of the Vietnam War at the time. I note that he was influenced in this regard not just by the Second World War but by his study at Oxford of the historian Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee's principles of sacrifice, discipline and survival come through all of Malcolm's speeches, particularly his early ones. After he went to Vietnam and the US in 1964 he said in a debate in parliament:

In the past, civilisations have been destroyed and peoples have disappeared from the earth because they could not withstand the dangers that beset them. I cannot assume that Australia's survival is inevitable any more than was the survival of past civilisations that did not and would not accept the challenge that confronted them. Our survival requires courage, a sense of duty and direction, and some greater sacrifice from every one of us.

During that debate on the Vietnam War Malcolm also forcefully advocated that the United States should not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. That is something that I think has been forgotten in our debate. Indeed, as late as the 1980s Malcolm said to his biographer, Philip Ayers:

It is not a question of advocating the use of nuclear weapons, but unless the enemy knows you are prepared to you are hamstrung.

Clearly, whether it was on the topic of nuclear weapons, apartheid, the defence of Australia or the rights of the individual, Malcolm had challenging and interesting views on all of these topics.

I will conclude on something that is more important to this chamber. One of Malcolm's key initiatives was to encourage the development of better parliamentary committees. In 1965 he was involved in producing a report entitled Parliamentary committees: a comparison between the United Kingdom and Australian practice. He argued for the committee system in Australia to be expanded. This was carried through in the 1970s under him as Prime Minister, making it one of his earliest initiatives. That is something that all of us senators should be thankful for, as we now have a committee system that is the envy of most parliaments around the world.

I extend my condolences to Mr Fraser's family and friends and thank him for being so actively involved in public life for over six decades.


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