When you change the prime minister, you change the country. I don't know if Paul Keating was the first to say this – in beseeching Australians not to vote in John Howard at his expense – but he wasn't the last. Nor was he (Keating) the first, or the last, to discover that generally voters marked their ballots as a judgment of the government of the day, not of the alternative. Last time Tony Abbott benefited, and, assuming (as I do not) Abbott is still there next year, so will Bill Shorten.
Malcolm Fraser, prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983, did change Australia, if, apparently not as much as many modern Liberals claimed to have hoped at the time. Like most leaders, even successful ones, he ultimately exhausted the electorate's patience and was consciously thrown out in favour of another leader, from another party.
But he had never, quite, been elected, re-elected and re-elected again because he was popular, liked by the public, or somehow represented the national mood or sense of itself. Respected, yes. Admired, perhaps. Preferred, certainly – he had record majorities and, for a good period, control of the Senate as well as the House of Representatives. Success bought its own power in the party, even among colleagues who feared and disliked him, personally or philosophically. The Liberal Party, under him, was a broad church. Fraser had no charisma, but voters certainly preferred him (twice) to Whitlam. But, as the present government may learn, there is only so long one can campaign against the last government. As Whitlamism faded in the Labor Party, not being Labor began to matter less and less, until it, and (it is now often forgotten) John Howard's economic management, took the Liberals over the cliff.
Soon after his fall, Fraser was asked about his greatest achievements, and nominated, somewhat to my surprise, the passage of the FOI Act. Planned by Whitlam, its cause had languished through most of the Fraser years until it came into effect on the eve of his departure. Fraser was also proud of a string of administrative and legal reforms that had put into effect Whitlamite dreams about an Ombudsman, judicial review, an administrative appeals tribunal and the institutionalisation of requirements for natural justice and fairness in government decision-making.
That stable of Fraser achievement embraced the development of the Federal Court, the conscientious, if not quite enthusiastic, implementation of the Family Law Act, and some inspired judicial appointments. Human rights, anti-discrimination and environmental legislation. the implementation of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, and the appointment and support of an array of able and effective Aboriginal affairs ministers, especially Ian Viner and Fred Chaney.
So did the development of multiculturalism, and of SBS, a major intake of refugees, including the welcoming (rather than the repulse) of boat people from Indochina, and a development of our economic and cultural ties with China, a communist country with which Fraser was always more comfortable than the Soviet Union.
There's a big lasting legacy, perhaps the more noticeable for the manner of his becoming prime minister, after the sacking of Whitlam, and some lasting strain and bitterness about it. As I remarked in my column yesterday, Fraser was hated by a significant minority in Australia to an extent that even Howard and Tony Abbott, no strangers to demonisation, never experienced. Only Julia Gillard has, in my lifetime, faced an audience (if, from the other side of politics) so determined to be critical, so uninclined to find a word of praise, or give even grudging respect. If one could get a concession about some achievement, it was seen as overpowered by pussyfooting against Sir Charles Court or Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, or the effective dismantling of Medibank.
There were many, while he had and was exercising power, who could never forgive his demolition of the Whitlam government, and who saw every evidence of his political effectiveness, including his ruthlessness, opportunism, firmness and courage, as something compounding his wickedness. Even good deeds, most probably, were part of some undisclosed evil plan.
Just as interesting, however, was the fact that few of his colleagues, and relatively few of those who regularly voted for him, ever warmed to him much as an individual. Someone once said that he represented, in politics, the "stern father" – the person whom you knew to be wise, and right, and prudent, but whose somewhat Calvinistic lack of warmth, humanity and small talk separated him from any capacity to be loved, at the political level at least. He was big, tall, aloof, stand-offish, perhaps patrician, and he was shy, lonely and many of his passions – fishing and photography for example – were individualistic, rather than social ones. He was rarely relaxed, and did not know how to relax others. To a writer who suggested that he had once played and enjoyed football (no code described) Fraser responded that he had never played team sports, but if he had been involved in football it would have been as a goalpost. He was, without doubt, the first and last rev-head prime minister, but that was a private, not a public, passion.
The shrewd, and sometimes frugal, stewardship of the nation's finances is critically important to the nation's prosperity, and no politician who cannot manage the economy can prosper. But – modern politicians too often forget this – it is only a means to an end, which is about creating, nurturing and sustaining an environment focused at the betterment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A hundred years from now, no prime minister will have on his gravestone that he balanced a budget.
Fraser seized power, as he saw it, to rescue Australian from economic ruin. His three terms in government saw cautious, if hardly inspiring efforts, to get the balance sheets back in order. But those judging Fraser, like those judging Menzies, or Holt, or Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard or Abbott, will never judge him according to the financial accounts, or his adherence to some economic dogma or nostrum. It is what was done withthe power, or with the Budget that matters, not the mere mathematics. And a core test is, as ever, whether the nation was, as a whole, better off for the service rendered by a person who was, after all, at all times a volunteer.
After Fraser lost power, he changed. He became more human. More publicly compassionate, even if he had always been, in his personal cups, a bleeding heart. He ultimately reconciled with bitter enemies, at least from the Labor side of politics. He embraced new forms of public citizenship, including in overseas aid programs and the dismantlement of apartheid. He was a loud champion of Aborigines and refugees. A man once seen (in Manning Clark terminology) as a straitener and narrower became an enlarger and an apostle of public generosity and human dignity. He even became loveable, if still a little bit too stiff and awkward for anyone to want to physically embrace.
He sometimes claimed that he did not shift as much as his party did. But well before the end of his days, there was no longer any place in his old party for people of his outlook or philosophy. He continued to detest left-of-centre economic theories but, increasingly, his philosophical bedmates seemed to be of the left, even in an increasingly strident anti-Americanism, or, at the very least, a deep skepticism about the merits of the old alliance.
It is, even now, too early to form a judgment about his place in history, though it is certain that he has one. Of post-war prime ministers, his is not yet a place as secure as those of Ben Chifley, Bob Menzies and Gough Whitlam, but in political longevity and public achievement, he easily eclipses Holt, McEwen, Gorton and McMahon. That he was thought, in power, a tough and unyielding bastard, and, later, a forlorn man left dripping wet after the Liberal Party umbrella shifted to the right is only a part of the story. It's about character, faith, hope and charity and courage, persistence, respect for human dignity and embracement of the human condition.