Friday, March 20, 2015
The Death of a Statesman
This is one of those posts that may mean little to my overseas readers, put perhaps they will understand its relevance if they read through to the end.
Yesterday a former prime minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, died at the age of eighty-four. In the middle of the nineteen seventies, Fraser was a key mover in a political event that rocked Australia. In 1972, after decades of right wing Australian governments, a reformist Labor (this is how the Australian Labor Party spells it) government was elected under the leadership of prime minister, Gough Whitlam (who died last year). In hindsight it can be seen that this government tried to do too much too quickly, and that some of its measures were unwise. Nevertheless, to a fifteen-year-old, just becoming politically aware, this signalled the dawning of a new age.
Over time this government managed to get itself into a mess and, in 1975, the upper house of parliament (here called the Senate) blocked supply, making it very difficult for Whitlam to govern. Eventually, the Governor-General stepped in, dismissed the government, and set up Malcolm Fraser and his Liberal Party as the caretaker government, until an election could be hastily arranged. Malcolm Fraser won this election very convincingly.
This Governor-General... Who was he? In our archaic political system he is the Queen’s representative—that’s the monarch of the United Kingdom, of course. In many ways he is like the president of a country in which that role is largely ceremonial—who nevertheless officially appoints (and can dismiss) the government.
At the time, to a raving red like myself, the dismissal of Whitlam was like a coup, and it remains forever engraved in the nation’s memory: 11 December 1975, now Remembrance Day for another reason. The election following this dismissal was the first at which I was old enough to vote. This is all very memorable for me for so many reasons.
Over the years, Malcolm Fraser established himself as an elder statesman in world politics. He was a champion of civil rights, and particularly of refugees. I came to admire him. Later in life, he left the Liberal Party, following the election to the party’s leadership of Tony Abbott (our current Prime Minister).
Recently I posted on Facebook that Malcolm Fraser had ‘seen the error of his ways’ in later years. I am pleased to be corrected by those who knew him personally, and by those with greater insight into Australia’s political history. For you see, it wasn’t Malcolm Fraser who changed. He had been an advocate for human rights even in his earlier years. He had never moved to the left. What actually happened was that the Australian political ‘centre’ moved so far to the right in ensuing years that Malcolm Fraser now appeared as a ‘radical lefty’, left even of the Labor Party. To my overseas readers, it would be as though Reagan was suddenly considered too left wing for the Democrats (let alone the Republicans), or Thatcher too left wing for the British Labour (yes, they spell it correctly) Party (let alone the Conservative Party).
Fraser left the Liberal Party because, he said, they were no longer the liberal party but the conservative party. There is no meaningful sense in which today’s Liberal Party is ‘liberal’, even to the extent that they are the champions of civil liberties vis-a-vis government: Witness the draconian laws they continue to introduce in the name of ‘security’; witness their opposition to gay marriage. The party is socially and economically conservative, and in no sense liberal. At least the British Conservative Party is honest about this, although it seems to me, as a distant observer, that the British ‘conservative’ government is progressive compared to ours.
From a broader historical and political perspective it is astonishing that many people in Australia today (including myself) can regard Malcolm Fraser as a closet lefty. Where does that leave us today? I dread to think.