Sure, the Christmas-New Year period may be what some like to call the media’s silly season. But recent months suggest that a lack of historical awareness contributes significantly to the foolishness involved.
On Boxing Day, Nine’s newspapers gave page one coverage to a letter written by one-time star cricketer Sir Donald Bradman to prime minister Malcolm Fraser on December 15, 1975 – almost a half-century ago – about the economy.
It turned out that Verity Archer, a lecturer in sociology at Federation University Australia, came across the correspondence when undertaking research in the National Archives. The story was reported by Daniel Brettig, The Age’s chief cricket writer.
In late 1975, Bradman (aged 67) was, among other things, a company director in Adelaide. Two days after the December 13 election, Bradman wrote to Fraser. He congratulated him on the defeat of Gough Whitlam’s Labor government. And, while stating that he was a “non-political person”, proffered some advice on economic policy.
Bradman was incensed about the high level of inflation and also the power of trade unions, which had led to a situation in South Australia where individuals “are compelled to lose employment unless they are unionists”.
Fraser wrote a polite reply stating that he was interested in the points Bradman had made and was “very much aware of the difficulties facing private enterprise”.
A glance at their online profiles suggests that neither Archer nor Brettig has worked in government broadly defined (as political staff, public servants or reporters). Anyone with a first-hand understanding of the democratic process would know that in 1975-76 Fraser would have received many thousands of letters advising of what they expected from a Fraser government.
Staff in the PM’s office or in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would sort out inward correspondence. Most correspondents would receive a brief reply, while well-known Australians would be sent a personally signed response. Bradman was in the latter category.
In short, there was nothing “extraordinary” in the correspondence – but this is how the story is introduced in Nine’s online edition. Moreover, Brettig reported that Bradman had “personally intervened at the most explosive juncture of Australian political history, stridently advising the then new prime minister Malcolm Fraser on how to dismantle the platform of his predecessor Gough Whitlam”. He also asserted that Bradman “bluntly instructed Fraser to take a stand against socialism, unions, the media and Whitlam’s legacy”.
In the 1970s, Bradman was not a prominent player in Australian politics – he received media coverage mainly due to his role as a cricket administrator. Bradman was not in a position to instruct Fraser on anything and does not rate a mention in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, which the former prime minister wrote with journalist and academic Margaret Simons.
Archer ran a predictable leftist line that Bradman took “that neoliberal perspective that government should only interfere with capital where it is needed to prevent fraud”. But she provides no evidence to support this claim.
Then there was the view from the left-of-centre commentariat. Phillip Adams described Bradman as a “RWNJ” – as in right-wing nut job. Cartoonist Jon Kudelka upped the ante; he was quoted as claiming that Bradman was a “right-wing arsehole”. Meanwhile, former Human Rights commissioner Tim Soutphommasane ran the “neoliberal ideologue” line.
In fact, there was nothing extraordinary about Bradman’s critique of the Whitlam government – former Labor PMs Bob Hawke and Paul Keating came to be even more critical of the Whitlam government’s economic performance a decade after Bradman.
A glimpse at the concern about the Whitlam government’s economic performance circa 1975 can be found in the front page editorial in The Australian Financial Review on January 14, 1975. Titled “Whitlam’s Monster”, it criticised the substantial increase in numbers of, and pay increases for, commonwealth public servants. This occurred at a time of rising unemployment in the private sector.
Max Walsh was the AFR’s editor in 1975. He was no right-wing nut job. Nor was he a neoliberal. The point is that Bradman’s concern about Whitlam’s handling of the economy was widespread at the time. Which explains Labor’s devastating defeat in December 1975, which was confirmed in the December 1977 election.
There has been a tendency in the past to idolise Bradman. After all, like the rest of us, he was an example of the imperfectability of the human race. I have written about this in the past. Bradman the person is well discussed in Brett Hutchins’s Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth and Christine Wallace’s The Private Don as well as in articles by David Nason in The Australian in late November 2001.
As Hutchins puts it, Bradman’s background was that of “an Anglican mason” who spent time growing up in Sydney where the Church of England was Low Church, that is Protestant. He was a teetotaller who did not appear to smoke, gamble or swear. As such, Bradman was different from quite a few of his teammates.
However, Bradman was part of an Australian tradition and by no means a nut job in any sense of the term. Cricket historian Rodney Cavalier was reported in these pages in recent days as rejecting recent claims that Bradman was in any sense a racist. Moreover, it would seem that Bradman was conscious of having some Indigenous background.
It speaks volumes for the lack of genuine political debate in contemporary Australia that Nine newspapers seem to regard it as somehow improper that Bradman should have written a letter to Fraser a half-century earlier in which he criticised Whitlam.
Based on the revelation of a university academic who appears to have scant knowledge about how voters communicate in private with their elected leaders – in the past by letter and now by email. How silly can a story get?