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Malcolm Fraser – the complexity of human beings

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Nick G.

Malcolm Fraser, 22nd Prime Minister of Australia has died.

How does one make an all-round evaluation of such a complex individual?

Born into a wealthy landed family he enjoyed all the privileges of his class, developed a patrician contempt for working people, and entered politics as an avowed conservative.

Appointed to the Cabinet in 1966 as Minister for the Army under Harold Holt, he was a leading advocate of the US war of aggression against Vietnam and implemented the conscription of randomly selected 20-year old males into the army for service in Vietnam.
In 1968 he was given the education portfolio under Gorton, but late in 1969 was put back in charge of the armed forces as Minister for Defence.   That again placed him in the position of lead authority for Australian complicity in the US imperialist war against Vietnam.  He later fell out with Gorton and resigned from the Cabinet.

Fraser was eventually to gain leadership of the Liberal Party.  It was at a time when the contention and rivalry between the two superpowers, US imperialism and Soviet social-imperialism, was at its height.  A reformist Labor government under Gough Whitlam had shown a certain independence in foreign policy and various of its decisions (support for an Indian Ocean zone of peace, ending Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, threatened takeover of the US spy base at Pine Gap) were seen by senior US policy-makers as supportive of their Soviet rival.

A US-instigated coup brought Whitlam down and government office was handed to Fraser.

He immediately went on the attack against the working class and the unemployed.  The so-called “independent” Arbitration Commission was attacked in an effort to drive down wages and lower living standards.  Attempts were made to dictate its decisions.  There was an insistence on secret ballots in unions.

Attacks were also made on the “independent” broadcaster, the ABC for its alleged “left-wing bias”. 

Fraser’s government also set about to systematically dismantle Medibank which had been established by Whitlam as a free and universal health care service. Private hospitals were encouraged to expand at the same time as funding was withdrawn from community health care centres.

In 1977 Fraser amended the Trade Practices Act so that it could be used against unions which were now defined as corporations; he set up the Industrial Relations Bureau as its enforcer.  This laid the groundwork for later successful ruling class attacks on workers in the Dollar Sweets, Mudginberri, SEQEB and other disputes.  Unions found themselves, courtesy of Fraser, under a regime that revived the penal powers of the industrial relations system after their virtual disappearance in the wake of the O’Shea campaign.

At the same time as he attacked the working class and its unions, Fraser departed from his conservative colleagues both at home and abroad on a number of broadly humanitarian issues.  He felt a moral obligation to facilitate the escape of anti-communist Vietnamese and accepted them as refugees into Australia. He became particularly active in Commonwealth efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, and played a leadership role in the transition from white minority rule in Zimbabwe to black rule under Robert Mugabe.  He also supported land rights for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Fraser’s government was defeated in the 1983 election.  It was the worst defeat for a conservative government since Federation - a measure of the detestation felt by ordinary Australians for a man seen as an aloof and arrogant silvertail.  Fraser left parliament soon after.

In retirement Fraser became increasingly critical of first, John Howard and then Tony Abbott, as conservative Prime Ministers.  He took issue with them – and Labor governments too – over the draconian measures used to prevent asylum seekers from entering Australia.
He also began to question what he saw as counter-productive actions taken by US imperialism and supported by Australia.  These included the so-called “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq.  He was particularly scathing of the Bush Administration and called for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq.  For this he was attacked as a “frothing at the mouth leftie” by many in the Liberal Party.

So complete was his estrangement from the Party he had led that Fraser resigned from it in December 2009.  He tackled with renewed vigour the criticism of blind obedience to the dictates of the US imperialists and became a strong and activist advocate of an independent stance in foreign policy.  He opposed Labor’s decision to permit the export of uranium to US ally India, a country which has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and he also opposed Labor’s decision to open a US marine base outside Darwin.

In 2014 he published Dangerous Allies, a history of Australia’s strategic dependence on Britain and the United States.  His argument was that this was necessary and desirable up to the point at which the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed.  After that, he wrote “…our continued strategic dependence on America led us to make policy choices that ostracised us from the region, cast us as a deputy sheriff to Washington and a willing participant in US strategic aims, both in the region and around the world.”

 “We must turn,” he wrote, “to an option of strategic independence to avoid complicity in America’s future military operations and to secure a future that best serves Australia’s interests.”  To that end, he called for the closure of the US base at Pine Gap – known to be directing US drone attacks in Pakistan and the Middle East – and for the closure of the US marine base at Darwin.  He also called for an end to the integration of Australian frigates and naval personnel into the US strike force fleet in the Pacific.

Fraser called for an Australian republic and continued his advocacy for human rights, especially in relation to asylum seekers and refugees.  In the 2013 election he endorsed Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for her championing of the rights of asylum seekers.
Whilst we can never forgive nor forget Fraser’s despicable role in the semi-fascist coup of November 1975, his role in the conscription and Vietnam War era, and his attacks on working people and unions as Prime Minister, we can and should acknowledge and celebrate his important later stand against what he said had now become a dangerous ally, the United States. 

Whether a person comes sooner or later to a position of advocating Australian independence from imperialism is of course important.  We would prefer it to be sooner.  But no matter how late a person enlists in the great cause of anti-imperialist independence, that commitment will always be honoured and valued.

A complex individual has passed away, but the cause to which he made such a great contribution in his final years remains for us to further develop and lead in a direction that serves the working class and the socialist future for our country.


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