FRASER IN OFFICE by Denis White
Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd, 2022
RRP: $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Paul Henderson
Malcolm Fraser is a well-known politician. He was Prime Minister of Australia for over seven years, during which he won three elections (1975, 1977 and 1980). This is something achieved by very few others. After Fraser lost the 1983 election, he resigned from politics. This book is small at only some 52 pages of text, but the author has packed an enormous amount of material into those pages. And it is very easy to read.
The book is different in a few ways. The Foreword by David Kemp goes for 11 pages, which is unusual in a short book. This is no doubt because Kemp, has a lot to say about Fraser. There are also over 20 pages of quotations from Malcolm Fraser. And there are 14 pages of “Timeline” of his life, a number of which are also in the text. Moreover, it is not usual to have the acknowledgements early in the book as they are for this volume.
Views differ about Malcolm Fraser. Former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, described Fraser as …”an uncommonly interesting man”. There were people who supported and others who opposed both Fraser’s support of Asian refugees coming to Australia and his opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. There were also both those who hated and those who supported him for his role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.
Some people sneered at Fraser’s much noted statement that “life was not meant to be easy” but the full comment of this statement shows it in a different context. In some ways, Fraser was an enigma, puzzling and inexplicable.
Author Denis White, throughout the text, shows how Fraser brought out the best in people. He maintains that Fraser was “an outstanding contributor in discussions…” Doug Anthony, National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister in the Fraser Government, said that “if Fraser had a fault, it was that he tried to do too much.” Many in the public service who worked with Fraser appreciated his support.
Denis White emphasises the influence Fraser had as leader of the Opposition after March 1975 and how this prepared him to become a good prime minister. The last stages of the Whitlam Government in 1975 were a mess, and Fraser as leader of the Opposition was very successful.
White writes that Fraser had six steps that would lead him to become a successful prime minister, believing that he had the measure of Whitlam. Fraser showed voters that his direction could be followed and that he was an alternative PM. This was further shown when Fraser’s Liberals won a landslide victory against the ALP in the Tasmanian seat of Bass in a by-election in late June 1975 on Lance Barnard’s retirement.
The controversial events leading up to and following the Dismissal on 11 November 1972 are handled well by White. He outlines what each party was saying and what the main issues were; he does not take sides or discuss what he thinks should have happened. He explains why Fraser and Whitlam took the views they did. He gives a balanced account.
The Liberal National Party thrashed the ALP in the 1975 election and won control of both Houses of Parliament, which rarely occurs. Tactfully, Fraser did not want to undo everything Whitlam had introduced since he was keen to bring the nation closer together.
So much is still discussed about the events of November 1975 that a lot of Fraser’s achievements are overlooked. White writes that this includes Fraser’s desire throughout his term in office to reduce the level of government spending. Fraser tried to keep a cap on economic management. Social achievements include Aboriginal Land Rights. Fraser also encouraged multiculturalism. Family allowances were paid to all who were eligible.
It is easy to forget many of Fraser’s successes, including three changes to the Constitution (which was no mean achievement), a successful plebiscite to change the National Anthem, the decision to build a new Parliament House in Canberra, putting a ban on whaling and supporting environmental protection in places like the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and Fraser Island. On the international scene, Fraser supported refugees from Vietnam coming to Australia. He abhorred Apartheid in South Africa and saw Australia as “a middle ranking power which has influence.” The Fraser Government also established the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Having lost the 1983 federal election, Fraser left parliament but stayed active in world affairs. He remained a strong critic of what was happening in South Africa. He was a founding member of Care Australia and later became the President of Care International.
The book devotes several pages to words spoken by Fraser in a number of speeches on a variety of different occasions. Some are paragraphs while others are just a few lines and would have been better if they had been longer. These give an interesting understanding of Fraser’s views. Several of his thoughts are listed under the headings “Priorities” and “Learning and Education.”
There is a large section towards the end of the book, which provides a timeline of events that involved Fraser. They are divided into different sections, one being “Opposition”. Some are new but others have appeared in earlier parts of the book and some, such as the date of Cyclone Tracey, are of little relevance.
In conclusion, this is a very interesting book and provides a thorough account of Malcolm Fraser’s public life. It is obvious that both the Foreword’s contributor David Kemp and author Denis White have the highest regard for Malcolm Fraser. While titled Fraser in Office the book includes events and activities that happened after Fraser left office. For that reason, given the fact that the book tends to place Fraser on a Liberal Party pedestal, it might have been relevant to note that, some years after Fraser left the Liberal Party, he also became a strong critic of many of its policies and elected members.
Paul Henderson is the author of several books on Australian history and politics.