I could count the number of conservative politicians in Australia whom I respect on about two fingers. Tim Fischer is one. Malcolm Fraser is the other.
My feelings about Fraser were much different back in the 1970s. I detested him as a Liberal Prime Minister. I blamed him for back-stabbing his way to the top, having shafted John Gorton and Billy Snedden, and then orchestrating the blocking of supply in 1975 in order to shaft the Labor government of Gough Whitlam. I found his government to be hard-line conservative, and cheered as his bottom lip quivered while conceding the 1983 election to Bob Hawke.
But in more recent times, Fraser has become something of a hero to the Left in this country. A humanitarian, a champion of refugees, a critic of the war in Iraq, indeed a trenchant critic of his former treasurer, John Winston Howard.
"The Life and Times of Malcolm Fraser" is another superb documentary from the SBS Independent stable screening in the Thursday night "Storyline Australia" collection. It paints a personal picture of the septuagenarian former PM, with the backdrop of his political career and home movies from his childhood.
Only Fraser himself, his wife Tammy, and his sister, the Tuscany-based artist Lorri Whiting, are interviewed in this documentary, directed by Luigi Acquisito. Fraser is seen down on the farm in Victoria, fishing in Tasmania, working in the office that all retired Prime Ministers are entitled to, visiting his sister in Italy, addressing a conference in Moscow. He says, as he has done in the past, that he has not moved to the Left, it is everyone else who has moved to the Right. Even though he takes credit for being first to implement the economic policies adopted by Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s (JWH take a bow?).
He defends the decision to block supply in 1975, but admires Gough Whitlam for the ideas he was trying to achieve. He has become good friends with Whitlam in recent years. John Howard's handling of the Tampa situation comes under much criticism from Fraser, while Howard, Blair and the Americans all cop a pasting over Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion, Fraser, Whitlam and Hawke all signed an open letter opposing any non-UN-endorsed military action against Iraq. If you add Paul Keating to that list, not one living former Australian Prime Minister supported Howard over the Iraq war.
It was Fraser who accepted thousands of Vietnamese boat people into this country in the early 1980s, changing the suburban landscape of many Australian cities and enriching our culture. If there is one legacy of Fraser's years as PM that deserve continuing praise, it was his committment to multiculturalism, a committment begun by Whitlam and all but killed off by Howard. Indeed it was Fraser's government which created the Special Broadcasting Service in 1980.
(Something not mentioned in the program is how his government established the Australian Institute of Sport after Australia failed to win a single gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.)
There's footage of the speeches on the steps of Parliament House on 11 November 1975. Whitlam said on that fateful afternoon that Fraser would go down in history as "Kerr's cur". The moniker never stuck. We see colour footage of him as a child dressed up as a Beefeater. Amidst all the footage of his prime ministerial years, I don't recall seeing even one glimpse of his trusted treasurer.
Fraser discusses his infamous 1977 quote, "Life wasn't meant to be easy", explaining its full context as originally written by George Bernard Shaw:
Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.?
The documentary was narrated by Robert Menzies, the actor grandson of Robert Gordon Menzies. If there's any fault I can pick with the program, it is that it leans a little bit towards the reverential. The most bizarre incident of the life and times of Malcolm Fraser, the trouserless night in that Memphis hotel in 1986, is ignored completely.
"The Life and Times of Malcolm Fraser" screened on SBS on Thursday, September 2, 2004. It was not registered on IMdB at the time of this review, however I give it 8 out of 10.
- program description - SBS
- program description - Film Australia (includes PDF file of teachers notes)
- Many sides of Malcolm Fraser - review, The Advertiser, 28.8.04
- Malcolm in the middle - profile, Sydney Morning Herald, 2.9.04