STONE THE CROWS! Malcolm Fraser is still trying to tell us what a good job he did. In a new book extracted in The Australian on the weekend the Edward Heath of Australian politics (readers under 40 ask your parents) explains it wasn’t that he was opposed to economic reform, he had not got around to it when he lost office.
Entirely understandable. These things can’t be rushed and Fraser had to be careful not to upset anybody. After all, he only won office in late 1975 with a mandate to do just about anything that occurred to him which would fix the economic mess the Whitlam Government had left. And he was only prime minister for seven or so years.
The fact the eminently forgettable Fraser is still trying to repair his image a generation on demonstrates how much his reputation for choking hurts. But while it is less hard than impossible to feel any sympathy for Fraser, his dismal record is still relevant because his record shows what happens when prime ministers administer rather than lead.
There is no denying Malcolm Fraser worked incredibly hard while prime minister, as Patrick Weller demonstrated in his magisterial 1989 study of his governing style. But he accomplished sod-all in the areas that matter most. That the Howard haters now consider Fraser a bit of a hero (ignoring the way he came to office) thanks to his supportive treatment of Vietnamese asylum seekers demonstrates the way he ducked the real reforms Australia definitely needed.
Fraser did not float the dollar, he did not take the ACTU on and he did not tackle the regulatory regimes so beloved of his National Party protectionist pals, which transferred money from city consumers to rural producers. He talked tough about the dangers of inflation, the deficit and the unions but did nothing substantive about any of them.
And for all the 1400 or so decisions Weller estimates his cabinet made, Australia’s economy was unchanged by his tenure, utterly ill equipped to face a globalising economy. Fraser administered Australia but did not govern. It was as if his only objective was ensuring that proper chaps, people like him, ran the country, that inherited wealth was protected and that the insiders prospered, be they industries which relied on protection or union officials who did well courtesy of their comrades in the Arbitration Commission.
The worrying thing about this new book is that Mr Fraser obviously assumes the time is right to resurrect his reputation. He might be right. The global financial crisis has given advocates of the big spending status-quo supporting state a chance to argue that deregulation is dangerous. But as the Fraser years show, governments that administer atrophy and spending money to keep the insiders happy does not grow economies.
Mr Fraser’s record still offers important lessons – just not the ones he wants us to remember.