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Malcolm Fraser and Papua New Guinea

Already an icon of either adulation or detestation due to his role in the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Government, in his last years of life Malcolm Fraser appeared to forge a new image of himself as a passionate advocate for the marginalised. To many, it seemed that Fraser moved from one end of the political spectrum to the extreme other, and it is through this framework that many public commentators have been doing their best to redefine Fraser’s place in Australia’s history. Some, like the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, have sought to portray him as having turned into ‘a ferociously Left-wing activist’[1] while Bolt’s News Ltd colleague Greg Sheridan has attempted to capture Fraser as both ‘by far the most right-wing and ideological prime minister’ and ‘by far the most left-wing and ideological ex-prime minister Australia ever had’.[2] While the conservative political credentials of both these journalists is widely acknowledged, Labor’s Bill Shorten also tried to see Fraser as one who crossed the divide from Right to Left, in commencing his condolence speech in Parliament with the assessment that ‘for some, Malcolm Fraser was a hero who became a villain. For others, he was a villain who became a hero’.[3]

While Shorten went on to acknowledge that ‘neither of these simple sketches are fair’, there has nevertheless been a marked tendency among many commentators towards such reductionism.[4] The complexities of Fraser’s life and actions seem beyond the capacity of many to describe, at least within the constraints of blogs and online commentary.

Two whose knowledge and appreciation of Fraser developed over many decades are his former Liberal Party colleagues and friends, both of whom held ministerial portfolios during his Prime Ministership: Fred Chaney and Ian Macphee. Chaney, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from 1978 to 1980, describes Fraser as being

utterly consistent in his espousal of human rights, his abhorrence of racism, his support of a decent approach to refugee management, which he did brilliantly – and of course, his treatment of Aboriginal people, which was very supportive and in a way, out of line with many in his generation.[5]

Macphee, whose ministerial responsibilities under Fraser included the Productivity and Immigration portfolios, has written how it was in connection with his additional role as Minister for Women’s Affairs that he

realised how strongly liberal Malcolm was on all socially progressive issues. We had many discussions on racial and gender equality and the need for specific policies that would ensure Australia lived up to its boast as an egalitarian society. Malcolm’s support ensured that many reforms were implemented.[6]

Both Chaney and Macphee write with the benefit of extensive and personal appreciation of Fraser (both were members of the Liberal Party who entered Parliament in 1974). Both have articulated their belief that it was not so much Fraser who changed, but the entire Australian political landscape, seen perhaps most prominently in the Liberal Party’s shift to the Right over subsequent decades.

This short piece has been written in response to some of the critiques and interpretations mentioned here, and aims to affirm Chaney’s and Macphee’s views that what some regard as Fraser’s turn to the left in his later years was consistent with his lifelong promotion of liberal values. In particular, it draws on the coincidence – or is it? – that both former Ministers also, as young lawyers, spent several years in Papua New Guinea during the 1960s, and indeed both regard their period in PNG, Australia’s colonial territory at the time, as instrumental in their later lives and careers.

Fraser’s experience of Papua New Guinea was not nearly as extensive as either of his colleagues. Nevertheless, his parliamentary career did provide numerous opportunities for him to develop his knowledge and to take a position on what should be the most appropriate manner for Australia to respond to PNG as it traversed its path to independent nationhood and beyond.

Malcolm Fraser entered Australia’s Parliament in 1955 at the age of twenty-five, representing the western Victorian electorate of Wannon. Robert Menzies’ Liberal Party-led coalition achieved victory to a large part because of fears of communism and Fraser as the youngest Member of Parliament followed Menzies’ lead in opposing what was regarded in those years as a very real threat. He was also close to Menzies’ Minister for External Affairs Richard Casey, a family friend.

Paul Hasluck was Minister for Australia’s External Territories, which included responsibility for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG), which had been under Australian control since the beginning of the century and, by the late 1950s, was the subject of a United Nations’ Trusteeship arrangement. Australia’s administration was monitored by the UN and in particular its Trusteeship Council and for this reason Hasluck, as well as Casey and Menzies, was sensitive to criticism about the rate of political, economic and social progress in the Territory. Not just from outside: much negative commentary came from within Australia, especially from those who regarded the Government’s rate of progress as too rapid. Hasluck’s approach to the administration of TPNG militated against the decades of slow and paternalistic development; he has described how on his first visit there in 1951 he was ‘revolted at the imitation of British colonial modes and manners’ by some in the Territory’s administration.[7] They had powerful allies in Australia.

Fraser’s attitude to the matter of Australia’s responsibility to its colonial dependency followed that of Hasluck, as he made clear in his press statement of 6 September 1959, which he felt compelled to release following ‘reports in the newspapers which criticised the Minister for External Territories, Paul Hasluck, in the strongest possible terms’ over the introduction of an income tax system into TPNG.[8] He ‘disagree[d] completely with the charges that were made’, so much so that he considered it necessary to issue the statement. It reveals much about the young parliamentarian’s approach to questions of race relations in the Territory, and by extension to other parts of the world, principally in South Africa (with which Fraser was to have a significant role later in his career):

When looking at the problems of New Guinea it should be remembered that there are nearly two million natives and about thirty thousand whites. The two million natives are broken up into many tribes with different languages. The Government’s policy has been, over its term of office, to develop New Guinea for the natives of the area. There is no intention, nor will there ever be any intention of developing New Guinea for a few thousand whites, some of whom regard themselves as a superior type of animal. White people are welcomed in New Guinea if they are of the right kind. The sort of white person who is a hangover from old colonial days and who thinks that a packet of cigarettes is sufficient wages for a weeks work would do much better to stay away.[9]

It could relatively easily be argued that these 1959 sentiments would not appear too far removed from the Fraser of the 21st century, suggesting some degree of consistency of approach spanning six decades. They seem to align closely with Chaney’s assessment of him.

Fraser is highly regarded in contemporary Papua New Guinea, as demonstrated in Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s valedictory comments. He is respected for his more recent contribution to community development, especially through CARE Australia. Importantly, as O’Neill observed,

as Prime Minister, Mr Fraser worked with my predecessors, Sir Michael Somare and Sir Julius Chan, to ensure our bi-lateral relationship was strong and mutually beneficial. The new nation of Papua New Guinea benefited enormously from the generous support arrangements, that the Fraser Government provided to our people.[10]

O’Neill singled out for special mention Fraser’s involvement in the successful negotiation of the Torres Strait Treaty, something which had defied many previous attempts to accomplish, and which when enacted helped to define the new nation of Papua New Guinea.

Throughout his time in politics, as Minister, Opposition Leader, and Prime Minister, Fraser’s support for racial equality and the universality of human rights and dignity was evident in many aspects of his political philosophy, including in foreign policy.[11]

His approach to Papua New Guinea demonstrated a consistency that spanned the length of his experience, from a young backbencher to Prime Minister, and then in his subsequent career in community development. His more recent commentary on PNG, including about its participation in Australia’s asylum seeker problems, should be regarded as entirely in keeping with his outlook, as demonstrated throughout his life.

Those who seek to portray him as having made a radical movement, from the Right to the Left, have misinterpreted Fraser’s liberalism.


[1] Andrew Bolt (2015). Column – How hatred helped drive Malcolm Fraser to the Left’. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/column_how_hatred_helped_drive_malcom_fraser_to_the_left/.

[2] Greg Sheridan (2015). ‘Enter stage right, exit far left after a capricious performance’. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/enter-stage-right-exit-far-left-after-a-capricious-performance/story-e6frg76f-1227272130081.

[3] Bill Shorten (2015). Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Monday, 23 March 2015. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/.

[4] When asked on ABC radio whether such criticisms rang true, the co-author of Fraser’s memoirs, Melbourne University academic Margaret Simons’ blunt reply was a simple ‘No’ (‘Remembering Malcolm Fraser’, ABC Radio National, 22 March 2015. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/905-segment/6336096).

[5] Fred Chaney (2015). ‘Former Liberal deputy leader Fred Chaney remembers his mate Malcolm Fraser’, ABC Radio Perth, 20 March 2015. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-20/fred-chaney-remembers-malcolm-fraser/6336132.

[6] Ian Macphee (2015). ‘Personal memories of Malcolm Fraser’. Pearls and Irritations – John Menadue Web Site, posted 22 March 2015. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=3442.

[7] Paul Hasluck (1976). A time for building: Australian administration in Papua and New Guinea, 1951-1963. Carlton: Melbourne University Press, p. 14.

[8] Malcolm Fraser (1959). ‘Press Statement: Papua & New Guinea: 6 September 1959’. The University of Melbourne Library Digitised Collections. Accessed 24 March 2015 http://hdl.handle.net/11343/40392.

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘O’Neill extends condolences following passing of Malcolm Fraser’. PNG Loop. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.pngloop.com/2015/03/20/oneill-extends-condolences-following-passing-malcolm-fraser/.

[11] See the recent post by James Curran (‘Malcolm Fraser: A man of foreign policy principle’, The Interpreter, 23 March 2015. Accessed 25 March 2015 http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2015/03/23/Malcolm-Fraser-A-man-of-foreign-policy-principle.aspx?COLLCC=2680564374&’.

 

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