Yesterday’s state funeral in Melbourne stands testimony to the fact Malcolm Fraser was one of the most important and influential Australians during the past century. As such, the former Liberal Party prime minister has left a significant legacy. But a contested one.
Most memoirs, including those written by one-time political leaders, are egotistical and self-serving. It goes with the territory. Yet most autobiographies are essentially true. Controversies over them invariably turn on interpretation and judgment, not evidence and facts. Not so with Fraser’s contribution to this literary genre.
Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs was co-written by Fraser and Melbourne-based left-wing academic Margaret Simons. In the co-authored book, Fraser is referred to in the third person.
The only exception turns on the acknowledgments section, which contains an “additional note” by Fraser. It includes the following statement: “Memories can be, as I know of myself, notoriously fallible.”
It is not often that someone engaged in autobiography confesses to having a “notoriously fallible” memory and to not having kept a diary or contemporaneous notes.
For many years, like Paul Keating, Fraser declined to write his memoirs. Then, in his 70s, he agreed to the venture, which was published in 2010. This was at a time when Fraser had become a public critic of Liberal Party leaders such as John Howard and Tony Abbott.
As such, Fraser had developed a substantial fan club among the same leftists who used to detest him from the time he brought down Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in November 1975. As the memoirs record: “At literary festivals, Fraser was applauded by the same kinds of people who had once reviled him for his role in the dismissal of Whitlam.”
Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs attempts to rewrite history in certain significant areas. This, together with Fraser’s refusal even to admit that he changed his positions as he moved from right of centre to left of centre, has led to the contest over his legacy.
One of the many who have been seduced by Fraser’s line is Fairfax Media columnist Peter FitzSimons.
Writing in The Sun Herald last Sunday, FitzSimons recalled that at the Byron Bay Writers Festival about a decade ago he praised Fraser, who was present at the opening dinner of the function.
As FitzSimons remembers the occasion: “The room, filled with literary lefties, exploded in acclaim for the man we once all detested …” He adds: “I believe what he said to me later that night … it was not that he moved left; he stayed the same. It was his party that moved right, making him only look like a leftie.”
Fraser asked Australians to believe that there was no change involved in moving from one of the strongest supporters of the Australian-American alliance between the mid-1950s and the mid-80s to becoming one of the most strident opponents of the alliance in the early years of the 21st century.
FitzSimons, along with many media members of the Fraser fan club, accepted this rationalisation. It’s tosh.
Likewise, many of the Left of Australian politics did not even mention the howlers in Fraser’s The Political Memoirs, which won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2011.
In the book, Fraser claimed that he had won four elections, the same number as Bob Hawke. In fact, Fraser won three elections — one short of both Hawke and Howard. It was not a typographical error.
Fraser maintained that he “retained Medibank as a universal taxpayer-funded means of health insurance”. In response to a leading question from presenter Tony Jones, Fraser repeated this claim on the ABC’s Q&A on May 24, 2010. In fact, Medibank had expired by 1981, which is why the Hawke government set up Medicare in early 1984.
Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs maintains that at Fraser’s urgings, the then US vice-president, George HW Bush, intervened by phone at a meeting of the National Security Council to convince the Reagan administration to support Margaret Thatcher in Britain’s war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. A check of the timings reveals that no such exchange could have taken place at the time Fraser insisted it did.
Then there is the matter of the Dismissal. Fraser’s memoirs contain a photo of what is purported to be the notes he took on the morning of November 11, 1975, following a phone conversation with governor-general John Kerr. This is consistent with the Left’s line that Kerr tipped off Fraser in advance that he was about to dismiss Whitlam. Kerr always said that no such phone conversation ever took place and that guidelines for how Fraser was to act as caretaker prime minister were stated to Fraser at Government House after Whitlam had been dismissed.
The photo in Fraser’s memoirs indicates that the signature, date and time at the bottom of the note are darker and fresher than the handwriting above.
Two explanations present themselves. Fraser’s notoriously fallible memory may have led him to incorrectly time and date the note some years after the event. Or it may have been a deliberate act.
The other problem here — as with so many of Fraser’s recollections — is that to believe what Fraser wrote in his memoirs in 2010 you have to accept that he was not telling the truth on a previous occasion — in this instance, when Fraser told journalist Alan Reid in 1975 that he had no foreknowledge of Kerr’s intention to sack Whitlam.
There are similar contradictions in Fraser’s accounts of his fallout with Liberal Party prime minister John Gorton, his position on the Vietnam war and more besides. Fraser even fudged his familiar George Bernard Shaw reference. Last Saturday, Fairfax Media quoted Fraser as saying “Life wasn’t meant to be easy, my child, but take courage; it can be delightful.”
When Fraser first delivered this line in his 1971 Alfred Deakin Lecture, the quote ended at “easy”. Fraser rewrote the history of his comment following criticism.
Fraser made many positive contributions to Australia during his years in public office.
The problem is that his own memoirs are significantly less than reliable.