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Remembering the Man Who Moved Left

Former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, has died at the age of 84
March 20, 2015, 3:00am

Former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, has died at the age of 84.

A statement released by his office reads, "It is with deep sadness that we inform you that after a brief illness John Malcolm Fraser died peacefully in the early hours of the morning of 20 March 2015."

Sworn in as a caretaker prime minister in 1975 after the constitutional crisis caused by Sir John Kerr's dismissal of the Whitlam government, Fraser would go on to handily win the subsequent election and serve as Australia's 22nd prime minister until losing to Bob Hawke in 1983.

To younger generations he's better known as the former leader of the Liberal Party that was also one of its most high profile critics. Indeed, he resigned from the party in 2009 after Tony Abbott became leader. He later explained, "the party was no longer a liberal party but a conservative party."

On some issues his party moved away from him. It was under a Fraser government that SBS TV began transmissions, and he surprised many with his progressive approach to immigration, which focused on resettlement and multiculturalism. From 1975 to 1982 some 200,000 migrants arrived from Asian countries, including nearly 56,000 Vietnamese people who applied as refugees.

These policies are in contrast to PM John Howard's Pacific solution or the current Coalition government's position on reducing funding for public broadcasters and maintaining detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru to act as deterrents to potential asylum seekers.

However, on other issues it was Fraser that moved away from the party. A Cold War Prime Minister, Fraser was a firm supporter of the USA. He defended their boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and backed the incorporation of East Timor into Indonesia, during a time when the US gave Indonesia, by some estimates, over $250 million in military assistance for the invasion and subsequent occupation of the smaller country. It was only after his retirement that Fraser began to disapprove of many aspects of Australia's relationship with the USA.

Specifically critical of many US policies, and particularly scathing of President George W. Bush, Fraser phrased his opinion more generally in an interview last year with VICE News. "In the old days… if Britain declared war we were automatically at war," he said. "Now we have grown into the same relationship with the United States. And I don't think the United States should have that power."

His views could not have been more against the grain of Liberal party policy in the early 2000's and during the War on Terror, where total support of the US extended to two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It's surprising, or at least it seems surprising, for any ageing Australian to move leftward on any of their political views.

Highlighting this was the verbal assault he received in 2008 from Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella after a speech he gave at Melbourne University, which argued the Bush administration was reversing 60 years of steady progress in the development of international law. She claimed his views "left him open to the caricature as a frothing-at-the-mouth leftie".

It's surprising, or at least it seems surprising, for any ageing Australian to move leftward on any of their political views. But perhaps it shouldn't. Australia may have a conservative streak, a national wariness of change and an aversion to drama, but unlike the USA, we are not puritans. We do not demand ideological consistency nor do we rush to punish people for every slip in their private life. That's not our history or our character.

So when our national leaders, whether before they've served or after, get drunk in a New York city strip club, die of a heart attack while having sex with their girlfriend in a Sydney motel, or, like Fraser, are found in a Memphis hotel foyer (a hotel known to be frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers) with nothing on but a towel and a complete denial of any knowledge of how he got there — we are inclined to grin and look the other way.

Fraser, after initial explaining that he blanked out, steadfastly refused to comment on the incident. Many years later his wife, Tamie, insisted it was a practical joke played on him by fellow delegates of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group. "They were setting him up. Poor old boy. It's really horrible. He was so embarrassed. And still is."

This post-prime ministerial affair is a footnote; dwarfed by the legacy of a person who owns partial responsibility for the fall of two sitting Prime Ministers, first John Gorton then, more famously, Gough Whitlam. His strategy of capitalising on a series of minor scandals by delaying the Labor government's budget bills, and thereby amplifying in the public mind the idea that the Whitlam government was unstable, still infuriates those who view the Whitlam years as a golden era of our political history.

Which is to say he lived long enough to be a hero and a villain to both sides of Australian politics. Whatever else he may have been, the man wasn't boring.

Follow Girard on Twitter: @GirardDorney

Illustration by Ben Thompson