27 May 2010

Entitled to your opinion, too

Update 27 May: Two veteran members of the press gallery demonstrate that if you can't bring your years of experience to bear on a long-term phenomenon like Malcolm Fraser, it's pretty doubtful whether your analysis of anything else has any credibility whatsoever.

First, Tony Wright's flatulent piece. Tony likes things to stay fixed in place so that he can slap his cliches all over them. When something happens that requires Tony to leave lunch early, say around 5pm, he gets very huffy indeed. Like Alan Ramsey, Wright starts his pieces with a tired old anecdote from yesteryear (whereas Ramsey made them crackle with an almost palpable energy, Wright can make even important and unexpected events sound lame). The key flaw in his piece is here:

Now it's Malcolm Fraser who has climbed the fence. In this era of the Abbott, he has quit the party that made him prime minister because, he believes, the Liberals are no longer liberal.

Fraser may as well have said his old party's top rail had been removed. Here was an opportunity to look bigger, his legacy more valuable … and he could clamber out.

He must really dislike Tony Abbott's Liberals ...

Everyone believes the Liberals are no longer liberal, Tony. It's amazing that anyone could have sat so long in the press gallery and missed this key fact. If Fraser was so keen on burnishing his legacy, why didn't he upstage other Liberal leaders (rather than criticise them from the sidelines), why did he wait 27 years after leaving The Lodge to release his memoirs?

The fact that almost nobody in the Liberal Party truly values Fraser's legacy gives the lie to Wright's mis-analysis that the Liberal Party is fixed in place like the fence around a cattle-yard.

Fraser, when he was opposition leader in 1975, thought Whitlam's government was so bad that he was prepared to cripple it, leading to Australia's greatest constitutional showdown and giving him the prime ministership after governor-general Sir John Kerr sacked the Whitlam outfit.

All these years later, Whitlam turns out to be not as bad ...

The reason why that 'turnaround' is confusing is because the first part of the analysis is wrong. Whitlam tried to raise public money in secret, off the budget and away from the accepted public loan process. Fraser saw that Whitlam was afraid of public scrutiny: part of the complexity of the Whitlam myth is that he had a great love for humanity but a disdain of actual people, a flaw that is replicated in other left-of-centre politicians like Gareth Evans, Al Gore and Gordon Brown. Kerr gave Fraser the Prime Ministership on 11 November on the condition that he would call an election, and on 13 December Fraser was rewarded with the greatest majority ever. I've never been a member of the parliamentary press gallery and I was six years old in 1975, but I still know more about it than a so-called senior member of the parliamentary press gallery.

If you're on the political left you can't hate the people for voting, so instead you hate Fraser. When Fraser adopted positions on refugees, civil liberties and Aborigines that made him impossible for lefties to hate him, people like Wright were left flummoxed. Wright lurched for the Labor notion of "rats", not realising that this has no place in Liberal (or even liberal) traditions, ignoring his own quotation from Sophie Mirabella: a single-person rabble who is far more representative of today's Liberal Party than Fraser.

Just because all your anecdotes are (at least) 16 years old, it doesn't make you some sort of sage, Tony Wright. You offer Fairfax readers no real insight into the way we are governed, and you're nothing but a huge superannuation liability for your employer. Get out, and give up your place to a keen young journalist who won't treat parliament like some half-arsed theatre. I suspect the reason why they closed the Non-Members' Bar in Parliament House is because bores like Tony Wright were clogging up the place.

Peter Hartcher's piece is slightly better, even if the whiny theme comes through in the headline. He gets the central idea that it is the Liberal Party that changed:

Fraser could well invoke Ronald Reagan's explanation for why he quit the Democratic Party to join the Republicans: "I didn't leave the party, the party left me."

The Liberal Party has always been an uneasy alliance of two distinct philosophies, liberalism and conservatism. These are such different world views that in some countries they are represented by different political parties ... Malcolm Fraser was not considered a part of the liberal arm of the party - or the "wets" - when he was in power, nor was he a "dry". As the political historian Professor Patrick Weller of Griffith University puts it: "Fraser managed to straddle both."

But in the 27 years since the end of Fraser's prime ministership, the liberal arm of the party has withered and the conservatives have advanced so far Fraser has been left increasingly angry and isolated. Since the Fraser years, the Liberals have moved to the right in every major realm of policy.

It isn't just Fraser who's angry and isolated.

In recent years Fraser has argued he was inclined to move towards free markets and a floating dollar, for instance, but faced the implacable opposition of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank.

This has always been the weakest part of Fraser's self-justification, and if either Hartcher or Wright were any good they'd focus on this. The economic debates since Fraser left office show how inadequate he was as Prime Minister, and how limited he is in criticising contemporary developments in economic policy. He's much stronger on social policy, within Australia and beyond.

Tony Wright is angry because someone he thought of as fixed in place forever has gotten out of place. Lazy people like Wright take umbrage at being taken by surprise, because it dents their fantasy of being in touch with politics and able to report on it in a meaningful way. Hartcher is right in his analysis of how the modern Liberal Party has departed from Fraser and he from it, but he can't see that some aspects of the status quo ("Labor and the Liberals have both become free market parties, both have increasingly tough approaches to boat people, and Kevin Rudd signed up to Howard's anti-terrorism policies") can't be taken as given, despite what a welter of polls and "conventional wisdom" might say.


  1. derrida derider31/5/10 4:25 pm

    Not to open old wounds, but in 1975there was the small matter of paralysing government and bringing on a constitutional crisis by refusing Supply, made possible only by the appointment of Senator Pat Field (as Whitlam said, "the most unfit Senator to hold office since Incitatus" - google it) in place of a dead Labor senator.

    I was 23 then and by no means a Labor partisan, but I can tell you that no-one came out of The Dismissal looking good. We shoulda sacked the lot, Fraser included (his conspiring with Kerr was extremely improper).

  2. Shoulda, coulda ... and yes, I'm aware of Caligula's horse. When you consider that Field was appointed in place of Labor's nominee, Mal Colston, life is indeed full of ironies. Fraser has redeemed himself (by not engaging in Bush-Cheney-Nixon dictatorial powers for a start), Whitlam and Kerr didn't, and we've all moved on.