Partisan eulogies: on Malcolm Fraser

Fraser in June 1977.

Fraser in June 1977. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The moderate bee has no sting.  The moderate lion is a vegan.  The moderate reform leaves things as they were.

Malcolm Fraser is being described as the last of the great conservative moderates not due to any peculiar characteristic of him, but because we are taught, every day, to hate the other side of politics utterly and completely.  By calling him a ‘moderate’, we’ve found a safe space for the left to reconcile themselves with the fact that they didn’t hate everything he did.  He established the Human Rights Commission, passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, founded the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and committed to resettling a few hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees.

The problem with this sort of eulogy is that it sanitises the man.  It reduces him to some kind of easy-to-consume, fast-food political experience where people don’t have to recognise that they can admire, respect, and mourn the loss of a man with whom they fundamentally disagreed.

To most people of my generation, Fraser only appears in the world as the antagonist of the Dismissal.  Good King Whitlam was undone by the scheming schemes of Malcolm Fraser, Sir John Kerr, and the best legal minds in the country.  When you’re taught from an early age that the Dismissal was the definitive moment in Australian politics — because practically all of your teachers are lefties who lived through the hatred for Fraser — it’s hard to see Fraser through any other lens.

Without understanding the mechanics of the Dismissal — or even understanding what the central questions of why something like the Dismissal was needed to deal with Gough — Australian society fractured along tribal lines.   Gough had done so much to engage with broader electorate, to get them emotionally (rather than rationally) engaged with politics, that the Dismissal couldn’t really be understood except in the emotive rhetoric of betrayal.

Despite that, of course, he went on to win the election.

But the Fraser of the 2010s was a man cleansed of his engagement with the Dismissal.  Now, he was championing the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and promoting anti-US policies.  The only way for the Left to reconcile itself with these positions was to reframe Fraser — the man who toppled their idol — as some kind of ‘moderate’ conservative (by which they secretly meant ‘not a conservative’).

This, by the way, only helped the Abbott Government.  Instead of having to acknowledge the broad range of views within conservative Australia, he could easily dismiss (as Gerard Henderson does) Fraser as somebody who defected to the Green-Left.

It’s not a surprise that we have a system of political discussion which neuters diversity.  Look at the way we get Indigenous participation in political debate — never just as some person who has a red hot take that’s of equal merit to anybody else’s, but always as Indigenous qua Indigenous.  What might surprise us is that we have a system of political discussion that works against us being able to show diversity within the major political voices.  Sure, we might have the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’ in the Liberal Party, but what the hell does that really mean?  When Fraser could express fairly solidly conservative views and yet find no place within the social expectation of conservatism, something’s broken.

From the perspective of the agora, the saddest part of the passing of Fraser is that he was so very private and we are left only with the red hot critiques of public life.  What went on behind the patrician facade?  Individuals might have particular memories of him and engagements with him, but there was no public aspect to his individuality.  What was his public personality, beyond seeming stoic and private?

Fraser’s great strength was in showing that something in society was broken.  He was an anvil upon which these issues could be hammered out.  His weakness was not being able to influence once he’d worked out what was broken, and his public support for people like Senator Hanson-Young crippled his ability to land blows in later life.

Don’t expect the Young Liberals to write anything civil or worth reading, but that’s generally good advice regardless of who’s died.

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