IN the mid-1980s, I asked a prominent figure in the Australian business community why Malcolm Fraser, who led the Coalition to defeat in the March 1983 election, had not been appointed to any significant board seats in the private sector. The answer was immediate: having been subjected to Fraser’s hectoring advice during the seven years he served as prime minister, business leaders were reluctant to pay him board fees to receive more of the same.
Having read Fraser’s Dangerous Allies(MUP), which was written with Melbourne University researcher Cain Roberts, I understand the feeling. Fraser’s reflections on what he terms Australia’s strategic dependence have a constant lecturing tone. Moreover, he is surprisingly repetitive and contradictory.
Fraser keeps banging away on his thesis and the book is laced with advice about what Australia’s political leaders “should” do. His essential and oft-repeated message is that Australia should junk its alliance with the US and adopt “an option of strategic independence”.
In particular, the US Marine Air-Ground Task Force, which rotates through Darwin, should be “asked to leave”. The deployment of a Royal Australian Navy frigate with the US Navy’s 7th Fleet should cease. Australian Defence Force personnel should no longer be appointed to positions of command over US forces on exchange and the key joint intelligence facilities at Pine Gap should be closed “within five years”.
In an extremely sympathetic article in the Good Weekend magazine on April 26, emeritus professor Robert Manne wrote that Fraser’s “reappraisal of US and Australian Cold War behaviour over Vietnam and Afghanistan … involves open and unambiguous self-criticism, a quality of character not to be found in any post-war Australian PM before or after him”.
It doesn’t. Fraser maintains that he was correct to support Australia’s commitment to Vietnam when he was minister for the army in the mid-60s, and he is correct to criticise Australia’s involvement in Vietnam War now. It’s the same with Afghanistan. As prime minister in the early 80s, Fraser was correct to support the US’s opposition to the Soviet Union. And he is correct to re-assess this attitude now. That’s the way he sees it. He now criticises Australia’s political leaders for adopting policies which he reluctantly concedes were correct at the time.
It has been known that Fraser is an opponent of John Howard. The book is also highly critical of Labor prime minister Julia Gillard; her predecessor and successor Kevin Rudd is not mentioned. Fraser’s gripe with Howard centres on his commitment of the ADF to Afghanistan and the second gulf war.
Only four Liberal Party leaders have won elections from opposition. The Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies, Fraser, Howard and Tony Abbott. Until the publication ofDangerous Allies, Fraser used to present himself as the true successor of Menzies, whom he depicted as a “liberal” in the classical sense of the term. Not any more. The political hero of Dangerous Allies is the Labor leader Bert Evatt whom Menzies defeated in the 1954, 1955 and 1958 elections. Fraser concedes that “in his later political career in Australia”, Evatt “made some serious mistakes”. But he praises Evatt’s role as foreign minister between October 1941 and December 1949 since “he showed that Australia could be independent, bowing neither to Britain nor to America”.
Fraser’s sources on Evatt include hagiographic accounts by such left-wing authors as Kylie Tennant and Ken Buckley. But there is no mention of Evatt’s erratic and bullying behaviour when foreign minister, which was condemned by conservative (Paul Hasluck) and social democrat (William Macmahon Ball) commentators alike.
Nor does Fraser refer to the strong influence exerted on Evatt by his young departmental secretary John Burton (1915-2010). Burton’s pamphlet The Alternative(1954) was essentially a left-wing neutralist tract. If Burton’s agenda had been implemented during the Cold War, Australia would have been an isolated nation without allies. Shortly before her death, the respected foreign policy commentator Coral Bell claimed that Burton had been an agent of the Soviet Union when he headed the Department of Foreign Affairs with Evatt as his minister.
There is no criticism of Evatt’s foreign policy in Dangerous Allies. But Fraser maintains that, in the post-war period, Menzies “misjudged the direction in which the world was heading”. Fraser also praises former Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Gough Whitlam along with former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans.
The non-political hero of Dangerous Allies is ANU professor Hugh White. Like White, Fraser seems to have become a “whateverist”. That is, someone who holds that Australia’s foreign policy should be determined by whatever is the attitude of the current leadership in China.
Fraser’s thesis is that the Australian-American Alliance is capable of leading Australia into conflict with China. He overlooks the fact that the security that the US provides in the Pacific region is valued by such diverse nations as Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, and more besides. As historian James Curran points out in the current issue of The Spectator Australia, right now “Asian allies are clamouring for the US to stay, not leave” the region.
Successive Australian governments, Coalition and Labor alike, have supported alliances with Britain and later the US because they have helped maintain security at a price that Australia could afford. Fraser backed this approach during his time as a federal parliamentarian between 1955 and 1983. He has a different attitude today, claiming that the world has changed. Not Fraser.
Now Fraser wants to junk the consistent thread in Australian foreign policy since 1901. He acknowledges “we would clearly have to spend more money on defence” in order to obtain strategic independence. However, Fraser does not say where the money would come from.
Nor does Dangerous Allies even mention militant Islam or the current apparent war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Dangerous Allies is replete with dangerous delusions. But it is likely to win its author many a standing ovation at many a taxpayer-funded left-wing-dominated literary festival. They cater for critics of Menzies, Howard and Abbott as well as the Australian-American Alliance.