Malcolm Fraser’s liberalism

Malcolm Fraser’s biography is actually called Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, but according to his biographer (or narrator, as she calls herself) Margaret Simons ‘Enduring Liberal’ was one possible title, perhaps with a question mark. The book makes clear that Fraser has seen himself as following a liberal philosophy through his long political life, though a pragmatic one.

Fraser’s reputation on this is perhaps worse than it should be, because over the last few decades the most contested freedoms have been economic, and his record as an economic liberal isn’t great – though the biography argues persuasively that it is better than many assume.

A chapter on financial deregulation shows that there was a lively internal debate within the government, with Fraser and his office generally pushing for less regulation, while Treasury and the RBA took a more conservative line. By the time Hawke and Keating actually implemented financial deregulation much of the thinking, discussing and planning had already been done. In this sense, Fraser laid the groundwork for what followed.

Though Fraser eventually abandoned a promise to index the tax brackets – ‘bracket creep’ caused by inflation being one of the main de facto ways of increasing taxes (incidentally, another reason to keep inflation low) – his government’s budget discipline was good, not just in an easy comparison with his predecessor Whitlam, but compared to the subsequent ‘economic rationalist’/ ‘neoliberal’ governments.

Several time in his memoirs Fraser offers in-principle support for free trade but, as seems often to be the case, while the principle is sound, any specific case ends up as an exception. Fraser believed that Australia should not lower its trade barriers while other countries did not do the same. While I can see the tactical argument for holding out for a while in the hope of achieving a more general liberalisation, the practical result of the Fraser approach was that Australians paid far too much for far too long for cars, clothes, and many other protected commodities.

On industrial relations too the record is disappointing, though the lack of action is more easibly explicable than in any other area. As Howard found out 30 years later, even a union movement that is much weaker than it was in the late 1970s is still by far the most powerful interest group in the country when it is determined to get its way. As Fraser’s memoirs make clear, the employers of his era were wimps, and unlikely to support reform or be able to deal with union demands if the system was deregulated.

On other issues, Fraser’s record is more clearly liberal. The liberal approach to cultural diversity is tolerance rather than state pressures for assimilation, and Fraser always took this approach. However, here the contrast with the past is stronger than with what came after Fraser. Despite Fraser’s attitude to Howard on this issue, I think their core policies are quite similar. The rhetorical difference was that Fraser concentrated on managing the concerns of cultural minorities, while Howard concentrated on managing Anglo concerns.

On social issues, Fraser was however still a man of his times in some respects. In a radio talk to his Wannon electorate in the 1960s he expressed opposition to abortion on demand and legalising prostitution. In the mid-1970s he was not clear that he supported decriminalising homosexual acts. These weren’t federal issues, and don’t affect his record as Prime Minister, but I think the fairly clear ‘liberal’ position is that while liberals may personally find prostitution or homosexuality unattractive, they should not support banning either.

Fraser had a good record on administrative law, a subject which often bores even law students, but which in giving people grounds for appeal against discretionary decisions by government is an important instrument in balancing the power of the state and individuals. Freedom of information laws, which came in at the end of his government, enable more scrutiny of government decisions.

Fraser was the last Prime Minister who believed in federalism, generally favoured by liberals though in practice its positive relationship to democracy is stronger than its relationship to liberty. But perhaps the idea was already dead: the states did not take up the opportunity Fraser gave them to add or rebate income taxes to their citizens, and the Franklin Dam issue – the politics of which were damaging to the Liberals in the 1983 election campaign – ended up with a High Court case that established the legal power and therefore the political responsibility of the Commonwealth in many areas that were once the jurisdiction of states.

As with any democratic political leader, Fraser’s ideological record is mixed. Some of the critical reaction to his government was a little unfair in that it was retrospectively judging it by reform standards that were not well established when he was in office. On the other hand, out of office he did become – and still is – something of a fellow traveller to the anti ‘economic rationalist’ movement, complaining about deregulation as a ‘religion’. While there are free-market over-enthusiasts, the economic reform movement as a whole was a long way from ‘religious’ in its style. Fraser’s own experience with financial market deregulation was closer to the typical approach, with lots of detailed analysis and strong debate.

Fraser should lose liberal marks for his lack of economic liberalism, even if not quite so many marks as some would penalise him. But he gains marks for his approach to some other issues.

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Melbourne University Press has generally excellent production values. But someone in the production process believes that ‘publicly’ is spelt ‘publically’. It’s not an isolated problem – it’s on pages 199, 294, 331, 446 and 731 (just to prove that I did actually read the whole thing…). Bryan Garner puts this as a stage one error. Reputable publishers should not facilitate its move through the states of language change.

3 Responses to “Malcolm Fraser’s liberalism

  • 1
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    April 8th, 2010 19:57

    On the power of the union movement, it helps if they have a complicated abortion like WorkChoices to argue against.

  • 2
    Baz (the ordinary Aussie)
    April 9th, 2010 09:13

    Malcolm Fraser – the Great Nothing.

    The big story I get from Malcolm Fraser is that he did not or could not over turn the Whitlam era. In more laymans terms, Whitlam came along and introduced some profound changes. Whether is be tax to GDP, single parent child care, no fault divorce – take your pick, he changed society and the role of Government was greatly raised.
    Now Fraser, by not reversing or rolling back Whitlam’s changes, he allowed them to be consolidated and made it impossible to reverse them. I’m not saying its all his fault – once these changes are in they are difficult for anyone to reverse. That’s why policies like ETS or US health care – once they’re in, they’re in. And it changes the society, the state and its citizenry permenantly. And like Chamberlain is seen as the reason to ‘man up’ to agression, Malcom is rightly seen as the reason to ‘man up’ to lefty policies. And I think that is the real story of Malcolm.

  • 3
    Jack Strocchi
    April 9th, 2010 09:42

    Andrew Norton said:

    Fraser was the last Prime Minister who believed in federalism, generally favoured by liberals though in practice its positive relationship to democracy is stronger than its relationship to liberty. But perhaps the idea was already dead:

    Federalism is dead because the L/NP no longer can afford its ideological affection for a political arrangement which gives the lions share of patronage to its political enemies.

    The states are becoming fiefdoms for ALP hacks. Most state governments powers are now about handing out privileges to “wealthfare state” clients (developers) and various welfare state clients (health, education).

    The ALP excels in the artful political distribution of these bounties. Think Brian Burke, Mark Arbib and “Richo” for the “wealthfare” state.

    And of course we the ALP have the reliable support of public sector unions when state government “welfare state” trough is up for grabs.

    Sort of a state government statist Santa Claus to all the political children who have been nice, not naughty, to ALP factional heavy-weights whose job it is to act as bag men for the mates machine.

    Which means a long-term political bias towards the ALP at state government levels, as seen by the past decade or so worth of elections. Voters love ALP Santa, who not surprisingly wears red.

    So it makes perfect sense for the L/NP to support federal centralization of the distribution of privilege. The L/NP have a better chance of winning at federal level, which means their party hands will be on the statist spigot.

    You can just forget about ideological principle, whether as a classical liberal or classical socialist. Its all about the scrabble for power over the scramble for money.

    Who-Whom.