After years of being hated by the ALP and those on the Left of the political spectrum, Malcolm Fraser’s public persona underwent a significant change during the 1990s.
Fraser was a supporter of a Republic, a critic of globalisation, and urged scepticism towards our alliance with the United States. He joined with Gough Whitlam to oppose media ownership regulations.
Most notably, he became an active supporter of Aboriginal Reconciliation and Native Title, and a critic of the Howard government over issues such as Manadatory Sentencing, the Stolen Generations and Refugees.
Pilita Clark, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, analysed the changes in perceptions of Fraser.
[Extracts from “The Winter Of My Malcontent”, by Pilita Clark, January 5, 2002, Sydney Morning Herald.]
..We grew up amid the bucolic charms of south-west Victoria and for all of my formative years our local member was Malcolm Fraser.
I was reminded of this when I returned at Christmas to the family home, where one of my brothers was waiting to give me a highly singular gift.
“Here,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket and producing with a flourish a small, red plastic identification tag, the sort that local sheep farmers like to stick in the ears of their flock. It had a set of numbers on one side and on the other, just one evocative word: Nareen, the name of the old Fraser farm, or “property”, as they say in those parts.
Someone had plucked it from the rich fertiliser waste (poo is the word for it) below the shearing shed floor at Nareen, and now it was mine to treasure.
And to my surprise, I realised that in a way, I would. Because somehow, the politician I first regarded as a local celebrity, then as a vile figure of loathing, appears to have become one of the few Australian leaders with a genuine sense of moral purpose and principle.
I say “appears” because, frankly, the idea of treasuring anything about Malcolm Fraser is not especially comforting.
..To us, he was not just a prime minister but a neighbour, albeit an improbable one in a part of the country more inclined to produce wool and potatoes than prime ministers.
We tended to regard Malcolm – he was always Malcolm, never Fraser – with a very Australian mixture of resentment and pride. We envied his fame, even as we prayed he didn’t do anything to bugger up it and by extension us as he trod the distant national stage.
..My brothers and I only dimly grasped the significance of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, but we knew Malcolm was in the thick of it, which was only to be expected.
As the years went by, however, and we started to seek jobs amid a souring economic climate, our views on Malcolm changed.
By the time I hit university, graffitists were spelling his name Frazer, with a swastika instead of a “z”. We hated him for saying life wasn’t meant to be easy and for his apparent disdain of the victims of what seemed a ruthless campaign against inflation rather than unemployment.
When he lost the 1983 election, we hooted at his trembling lip and watched with satisfaction as he retreated home to Nareen.
When he materialised in a towel in a Memphis hotel lobby in 1986, his humiliation seemed gratifyingly complete. “Poor Tamie,” we said.
Precisely how he managed to transform himself from this sad ignominy into the leader he is today is still hard to comprehend.
It wasn’t just his appointment to the South African eminent persons group or the CARE aid agency.
Perhaps it was later, when he began to call for a republic and a federal government apology to Aborigines, then attacked the “hell-hole” of the Woomera detention camp.
For many, I suspect the moment came at the last federal election when he emerged as the most articulate and passionate opponent of the Labor and Coalition stance on the farce of the Tampa affair.
Unsurprisingly, the conservative commentariat that bleats endlessly about being locked out of the public discourse by the politically correct orthodoxy now bays for Fraser’s silence.
..Just before Christmas, The Australian reported that the official Liberal debunking of Fraser, the party’s second longest-serving prime minister, was now “on in earnest”. “Senior and powerful” party figures were declaring Fraser’s prime ministership a time when “we did nothing”, it was revealed.
Some Liberal rotters had even tried to drown out tributes to Fraser at a dinner at the party’s last national conference by rudely clattering their cutlery.
And really, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for them. After all, it takes the rarest of men to evoke such bitterness from both ends of his nation’s political spectrum in the course of his own lifetime.
But at the end of the day, a disconcerting question still lingers: is it Malcolm who has changed, or is it us?