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Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs.

Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2010. pp. x + 853. $59.99 cloth.

Malcolm Fraser, reviled by the Left for his role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government and for policies depicted as hard-hearted and reactionary, is now mainly assailed from the Right. Liberal Party critics were there in abundance before and soon after he lost office in 1983. They accused him of failing to implement party policy and of failing to exploit the Senate majorities he held until July 1981. But the early complaints look and sound mild alongside the anger aroused by Fraser's repetitive attacks on the former Howard Government and his very public walk-out from the Liberal Party. If, on occasions, Labor supporters might want Paul Keating to take a vow of silence and wish that Mark Latham would simply stay indoors, Liberals have to deal with calculated and persistent assaults and swipes from the one who apparently finds little, if anything, redeeming about the party he led to three election victories.

Fraser was once regarded by conservatives as their mighty sword carrier, smiting down that maverick 'socialist'--John Gorton--and dispatching 'Whitlamism' from the government benches (though not before Lionel Murphy's dreaded Family Law Act began to destroy Western civilisation as they knew it). Those conservatives who once looked upon him as 'The Deliverer' should be among the first to read this book. Apparently they, along with pretty well everyone else, did not know the real Malcolm Fraser. Everyone understood he was shy and awkward, had very few close friends and was overbearing and interfering. What they had not appreciated was that Fraser did not have the assumed privileged upbringing, that although his academic record was risible he left Oxford with an interest in liberal philosophy and Keynesianism which had turned him into a thinker, and that his commitment to liberalism never wavered even as he became a Cold War warrior.

The book has a distinct and consistent message: Malcolm Fraser was always a liberal; he never left the Liberal Party; rather, the Liberal Party left him. In making these points Fraser and Margaret Simons--the one writing a memoir, the other a biography--are not so much concerned to confront anyone on the Left who still bears a grudge, although many paragraphs are devoted to the defence of Fraser's stand in 1975. Instead, the objective is to show how Fraser was a better prime minister and did more to reform the financial system and to restore the economy than the early and later Liberal critics have allowed, and how those who came after him failed to live up to the principles which Menzies had set and which Fraser had followed. The real enemy turned out not to be Gough Whitlam but John Howard--and his acolyte, Tony Abbott.

It is impossible in a short review to examine the arguments in any detail. But three general points should be made. First, historians and political commentators have every reason to be grateful for Fraser's decision to defend and explain his record. The authors have rightly drawn attention, for instance, to the archival evidence that sustains their claim for Fraser supporting some financial reform. The Liberal Party's case against Fraser is not watertight.

Second, the authors remind readers of the active and many-sided roles Fraser played as prime minister in both international and domestic affairs. They refer to the 'cruel irony' that Australians either did not know or have forgotten about Fraser's role in the attack on apartheid in South Africa in 1986 as a key member of the Eminent Persons Group, yet they know and remember that in the same year he lost his trousers in Memphis. Margaret Thatcher, who ceased to have any respect for Fraser after the 1979 CHOGM in Zambia, certainly knew what was important. She objected to the activities of the Eminent Persons Group, and wrote disparagingly of Fraser 'making a thoroughly "eminent person" of himself'.

Third, it is doubtful whether the Fraser and Simons' interpretation of the more controversial issues will be regarded as anything approaching the last word. At the same time it is to Fraser's great credit that he acknowledges there is another side to many of his arguments. But to take just one example of an unresolved issue: although Fraser makes a better case in this book against John Gorton than he did in his savage denunciation of him in the Parliament when he helped to bring his Prime Minister down, he has not explained why he flagrantly misrepresented Gorton in that speech. Tom Hughes QC was prompted by the misrepresentation to launch his extraordinary attack on Fraser during his eulogy to Gorton in St Andrew's Cathedral in 2002. The full story, when told, will not add to Fraser's stature.

It is a pity that Fraser's memory and Simons' basic knowledge are so deficient. We all make mistakes but the number of errors in this book beggars belief. Again, to give just one example: Fraser and Simons wrote that 'Australia sent peacekeeping troops' to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the ceasefire and before the election of February 1980. Yet Fraser made the decision which expressly excluded any peacekeeping role for the lightly-armed 152 Australian commissioned and non-commissioned officers who were to monitor the ceasefire while camped inside assembly points with thousands of well-armed guerrillas. He left the Australians dreadfully exposed.

No good purpose is served by shoddy scholarship and loose writing--even if it does not preclude winning a prestigious award in a non-fiction category.
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Author:Hancock, Ian
Publication:Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2012
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