By Malcolm Mackerras

Since I had an article published on this website following the death of Gough Whitlam (“Musings on Gough”, November 10, 2014) I thought I should write an equivalent piece on Malcolm Fraser who I first met in 1960 when I was a research officer for the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party. As with Whitlam my problem is that everyone else has had their say and all I can do is relate my own personal experiences. I can, however, also note a point or two not noticed by others. 

Whitlam was much older and was, in fact, the oldest ever former Prime Minister. Whitlam was born on July 11, 1916 and Fraser on May 21, 1930. I first met Whitlam in 1955, Fraser in 1960. They died five months apart, leaving only John Howard as a living former Prime Minister from the Liberal Party. Labor has four living former holders of that office, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

The first federal election I studied in detail was held on April 28, 1951. It followed the double dissolution of the federal parliament granted by Governor-General Sir William McKell on the advice of PM Robert Menzies. At that election the Victorian federal seat of Wannon elected a Labor member, Donald McLeod, with a majority of 826 votes.

The next election was held on May 29, 1954. Malcolm Fraser nominated for Wannon at the age of 23 and by polling day he was 24 by a few days. I say something about his electoral success below but, before doing that, I notice Fraser’s life in 1951, 1952 and 1953. In “Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs” written by Fraser with journalist Margaret Simons and published by the Miegunyah press, Fraser was at Oxford university during those years. He was out of touch with Australian affairs.

I do not doubt that statement but I do doubt a detail. The book creates the impressions that, in respect of the referendum to ban the Communist Party held in September 1951, Fraser was on the side of Labor leader Dr Evatt, not on the side of Menzies. See pages 91 to 94. I do not believe so. In my opinion that view, on page 94, is part of his attempt to persuade people that he has been more consistent in his political views than was really the case. It would, I think, have been better for him to say he had changed. I certainly did. As a primary school boy at the time I supported the “Yes” position but I agree with Fraser that, in retrospect, many people quickly conceded that Evatt was right and very courageous. He deserved his win. Clearly John Howard’s mother thought so at the time. She voted “No” – unlike his father who voted “Yes”. 

In 1954 Wannon behaved differently from the rest of Australia. McLeod won against Fraser by a mere 17 votes after a “cliffhanger” count for both candidates. I remember it well. One day McLeod was ahead, the next day Fraser was ahead but anyway McLeod won. In effect Fraser won by going so close to giving Wannon the record of being the only seat to give a Liberal win in 1954 that had been won by Labor in 1951. Fraser’s record was to gain ground at all the elections 1954, 1955 (winning the seat), 1958, 1961, 1963 and 1966. That is a record of electoral success without compare.

I had six conversations with Fraser with whom I got on well. The last was at the book launch in March 2010, which I attended. Both Malcolm and Tamie signed my copy. While I think Howard’s books are better than Fraser’s I do value my copy of the Fraser-Simons work, which is very interesting. It has been criticised as excessive in its alleged re-writing of history and I concur in the case cited above. I do not have enough knowledge to know whether the other accusations against the book are correct. I merely note that such accusations have been made.

While Fraser was prime minister I had only one lengthy man-to-man conversation with him. In 1977 I was more active than at present and I felt it my duty to tell him my attitude to the four referendum proposals put to the people that year. I explained to him that I opposed the first proposal but supported the second, third and fourth proposals. It is very fortunate that the result turned out to be exactly in line with my opinion. The interesting thing about that referendum day (which chanced to be on his birthday, May 21, 1977) is that it was the only occasion on which three proposals were supported by the vote. In that respect Fraser was our most successful Prime Minister. Every Prime Minister wants to be able to say he changed the Constitution. Only Fraser (three times), Deakin (twice) and Bruce, Chifley and Holt (once each) can claim such success. 

When one lives in Canberra (as I have done for fifty years) one learns about the character of a politician from public servants who actually work with that politician. I would say that only three holders of the highest office were disparaged personally. They were Billy McMahon, Malcolm Fraser and Kevin Rudd. All the others were highly regarded by virtually all the public servants who worked with them.

Back in August 2008 I had an article published in the “Inquirer” section of “The Weekend Australian”, a place where I often have articles published. The article was headed “Menzies the top Bob amid the greats, duds and a solid middle order.” There were 26 Prime Ministers at the time and I ranked them in order of greatness. Fraser was placed number 12 and Whitlam number 13. Therefore, both men were in the top half.

Today there are 28 Prime Ministers to be ranked. Fraser is still at 12 and Whitlam is still at 13. My top half is still, in order of greatness, Bob Menzies (1939-41 and 1949-66), John Curtin (1941-45), Alfred Deakin (1903-04, 1905-08 and 1909-10), Andrew Fisher (1908-09, 1910-13 and 1914-15), Bob Hawke (1983-91), Joe Lyons (1932-39), Billy Hughes (1915-23), John Howard (1996-2007), Ben Chifley (1945-49), Stanley Bruce (1923-29), Paul Keating (1991-96), Malcolm Fraser (1975-83), Gough Whitlam (1972-75) and Edmund Barton (1901-03).

I have discussed this ranking with other experts and there is a reasonably high level of agreement, together with some questions: for example, why do I place Fisher ahead of Hawke? Why do I place Hughes ahead of Howard? Unfortunately I lack space here to give my detailed reasoning to such questions but I can easily say why I place Fraser ahead of Whitlam. It is because Fraser won three elections, all of them with bigger votes than Whitlam’s two election wins. Fraser’s term lasted for seven years and four days compared with Whitlam’s two years, eleven months and seven days.

One cannot write about Fraser and Whitlam without discussing the constitutional crisis of 1975. In that event I took the side of Fraser and Sir John Kerr. I had an article published in “The Canberra Times” on the morning of November 11 in which I advised Kerr to sack Whitlam. When asked during the morning on radio whether I predicted that event I replied that Kerr should sack Whitlam and I expected he would. Consequently I was pleased with my day. It was not that I disliked Whitlam. It is just that a commentator gets a great feeling of pleasure to be the only pundit whose prediction is proved correct.

(Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra campus.)