Vale Malcolm Fraser

Jan 11, 2016

Repost from 21/03/2015

I am sure that Malcolm Fraser’s concerns for human rights were always there. But as he grew and matured, that concern flourished and became obvious to all. He became our moral compass on human rights.

I was first conscious of Malcolm’s concern for human rights when I listened to his speech in September 1975 at a luncheon in Parliament House Canberra to honour Helen Suzman. She was an anti-apartheid campaigner who for 13 years was the sole opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa’s parliament. For the first time that I can recall, Malcolm Fraser spelled out his opposition to apartheid and white rule in Africa. It surprised me. But, I found it very encouraging. It was the beginning of my better understanding of Malcolm Fraser.

Later he became a firm opponent of white rule, in Africa. Despite Maggie Thatcher he was determined to do what he could to end white rule in Southern Rhodesia.

I next became aware of Malcolm Fraser’s concern for human rights in Africa in the first cabinet meeting of the Fraser government after the dismissal of the Whitlam government.

There had been a lot of media reports in Australia that money raised by the World Council of Churches for humanitarian aid in Southern Rhodesia was being diverted to assist the underground political and military opposition to Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia. In Cabinet the issue was raised by a senior NSW minister. I was really taken by surprise by Malcolm Fraser’s pungent response. He said that Ian Smith was not only politically culpable for racism in Southern Rhodesia, but that he was ‘mad’. To my knowledge this matter was never raised again in Cabinet, or at least while I was there. No Minister dared!

In government from 1975 to 1983, Malcolm Fraser took up many of the human rights issues that Gough Whitlam had put on the agenda. Gough Whitlam started the process to establish land rights for indigenous Australians, but it was Malcolm Fraser who had the first legislation enacted.

From his western Sydney electorate of Werriwa, with migrants from so many countries, Gough Whitlam laid the groundwork  for multiculturalism. The fundamental principle of multiculturalism was that all people deserve dignity and respect regardless of their background. In our white Anglo-Celtic community, that was something quite new. But it was Malcolm Fraser who expanded and entrenched multiculturalism. SBS was established and settlement programs for migrants and refugees were co-ordinated and then well-funded following the Galbally Report.

Following piecemeal reform by Holt, Gorton and McMahon, Gough Whitlam ended White Australia by legislation. But under the Whitlam Government the abolition of White Australia was never put to the test in the community. Migrant and refugee intakes in the Whitlam period were the lowest since the Great Depression.

Malcolm Fraser put the abolition of White Australia to the test by accepting tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees.  Through the policies and programs initiated by the Fraser Government, including later family reunion, we now have 250,000 persons of Indochinese background living in Australia. What a great credit they have been to Australia, to themselves and to Malcolm Fraser’s vision.

He broke the back of White Australia and as an anti-White Australia activist since my university days in the 1950s it was wonderful to see what Malcolm Fraser had achieved. Racism and opposition to foreigners is often a dormant but potent factor in public life, but Malcolm Fraser determined that we had a humanitarian obligation to the people who had fled Indochina.

He didn’t wait for opinion polling or focus groups to decide what we should do. He gave us leadership. It wasn’t easy given our history of White Australia and the knowledge that fear of the foreigner could be so easily exploited. But with leadership, Malcolm Fraser showed that we all have generous instincts and with his leadership we responded because we knew in our heart of hearts that he was right. If only we had that leadership today!.

I am certain that my appointment as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1980 stemmed from Malcolm Fraser’s lively concern about racism. In my posting in Japan, I spoke to scores of community groups about Australia. On almost every occasion I would be asked about White Australia. It irritated me, particularly given Japan’s exclusivist policies on race and migration. As I came to the end of my posting Malcolm Fraser was visiting Japan and he asked me what I wanted to do when I returned.  I mentioned to him how White Australia had followed me all round Japan, so I told him I would like on return to Australia to do what I could to help bury White Australia. His response was instantaneous and to the point – ‘You’re on’!.  Within three months I was back in Canberra as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.

In that role I was able to continue to help expand the Indochina program. But In the department I encountered programs, staff attitudes and a culture  that reflected the old days of White Australia. I set about changing it and was quite public in what I was doing. I know that Liberal Party backbenchers were concerned about my activities. But never did Ian Macphee, my minister, or Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, criticise or ask me to desist. We were all on the same page.

Almost to the day of his death, Malcolm Fraser was in the front line to support asylum seekers and those whose human rights were being attacked. One of his latest projects was  how the community could be galvanised to support Gillian Triggs the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission who had been so unfairly attacked by our Prime Minister and the Attorney General.

He took to twitter with enthusiasm to shed light on dark places in our public life.

It turned out that he and Gough Whitlam had more in common than they knew in those turbulent days of 1975. They were both badly bruised but their personal relations mellowed and healed. The two political titans of our era came to terms.

Gough Whitlam often said that he hadn’t disagreed with Malcolm Fraser for 20 years! Malcolm Fraser delivered the Whitlam Oration in 2012. He opened the oration with ‘Men and Women of Australia’.

At the Sorry Day in Parliament House in 2008, most former Prime Ministers were photographed. together. With a walking stick, or ‘cane’ as Gough would have called it, in one hand – he put his other hand on Malcolm Fraser’s shoulder for support. It was quite moving to see the old combatants so close.

About three months before Gough Whitlam died, Malcolm Fraser called to see him in his Sydney office. He presented Gough  with his latest book ‘Dangerous Allies’. He had inscribed in the book –

“Dear Gough, with great respect and great affection, Malcolm.”

It had been a long and colourful journey for both of them, but there was clear respect and affection at the end.

We will miss Malcolm Fraser’s steadfastness on human rights.

A light has gone out.

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