Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party membership, 1952-2009

The Liberal Party has a habit of disappointing its former leaders. BA Santamaria used to claim that Robert Menzies voted for the DLP in his later years. John Gorton hated Malcolm Fraser so much that he quit the Liberals and sat as an independent (though he rejoined the party in later life). While I don’t think John Hewson actually quit the party, his denunciations of John Howard were often fierce. And now comes the unsurprising news that Malcolm Fraser has resigned his party membership.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, to lose one leader may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose four looks like carelessness. Maybe my history is deficient, but I don’t think Labor has had a confirmed lost leader since Billy Hughes the best part of a century ago, though Mark Latham was certainly disillusioned with politics in general.

On conventional understandings of the Liberal Party, this is perhaps not too surprising. More than Labor, the Liberal Party has had an ideologically vague base that has allowed its leaders to shape the party in their own image. As I noted in discussing my own relationship with the party, in the time I’ve been involved it has stood for Australian Settlement minus the White Australia policy (Fraser), vacuous soft-right progressivism (Peacock), suburban conservatism (Howard), free-market liberalism (Hewson), upper-class conservatism with bad jokes (Downer), everything-depending-on-what-day-of-the week-it was (Nelson), market-leaning social liberalism (Turnbull) and now Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism.

It must be very frustrating to former leaders, and especially former Prime Ministers who enjoyed tight control over the party, to see their beliefs discarded by their successors. Arguably Fraser’s experience has been more bruising than most. Long before he publicly turned on the party, it turned on him. In the 1980s, I like many Liberal activists subscribed to the often-made ‘wasted Fraser years’ thesis (while I certainly don’t regard him as a great Prime Minister, I do now think that this criticism was too harsh).

There have been calls over the years to have Fraser expelled from the party. I’ve always opposed this on ‘broad church’ grounds – there are a wide variety of views consistent with the party’s history and support base, and I think Fraser’s opinions fit within this range. On the other hand Fraser hasn’t been an asset to the party for a very long time – for various reasons not since the early 1980s – so his departure is no loss.

31 thoughts on “Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party membership, 1952-2009

  1. Do you count Joe Lyons? He wasn’t PM when he was a member of the ALP, but he was a cabinet minister, and he did end up becoming a non-Labor PM pretty soon after quitting the ALP . . .


  2. Joel – He wasn’t a federal Labor leader prior to defecting, but you are right that he was a Labor minister, and indeed a former Labor premier.


  3. In his mid-80s Gillies Report show, Max Gillies impersonated Bob Menzies singing a song about the Liberal Party titled ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Alive Anymore’.

    Interesting to see that Fraser was on the front cover of the newspapers, with photo, announcing his resignation.

    He could have simply not renewed his membership and gone quietly. I doubt that anyone would have cared.

    Instead, like a primadonna, he rang around the press. Still, I doubt that anyone cares.

    As Basil Fawlty said, ‘I smell the flesh of burning martyr’.


  4. Jeremy, he left the party in December last year. The only reason the AFR ran the story today is because someone finally found out about it. I’d say that’s going quietly.


  5. They were wasted years. He could have been the great reformer thought and talked about in the same way as Reagan and Maggie.

    He’s actually a tragic political figure in so many ways.

    I think he made the right choice in leaving.


  6. I vividly recall that the one reform that would have ushered in all the others with a relative amount of ease was floating the Australian Dollar. If he had done that the currency wouldn’t have been so pressured, rates going sky high and unemployment wouldn’t have risen solidly seeing we had lost our favorable terms of trade due to falling commodity prices.

    He couldn’t even bring himself to float the Aussie and could have saved his political skin.


  7. According to Paul Kelly, Treasury Secretary John Stone was dead against it. It was a fairly radical step to take back then and I doubt Hawke and Keating would have done it if they hadn’t been confronted with a serious capital flight.


  8. Rajat’s right. The chapters in Fraser’s biography on financial deregulation are worth reading. Fraser and his office (particularly his adviser John Rose) were in favour of greater financial deregulation, but this was resisted by Treasury and the RBA. John Stone comes out of this book worse than anyone. I am waiting for his Quadrant rebuttal of Fraser’s analysis.


  9. Andrew:

    To be frank, it was always Fraser’s call, not the RBA nor Treasury if we were to float at the time.

    He was the PM and the buck stops with him. Howard was strongly advising him to float and he refused to.


  10. JC – As I recall the biography, Howard was not strongly advising him to float. Yes, ultimately it was Fraser’s call. But the episode highlights one of the weaknesses in the critique of Fraser. Many of the reforms that in hindsight look like the obvious next steps were not seen that way at the time, and indeed were strongly opposed by key players. Fraser was retrsopectively condemned for not doing things for which there was little demand at the time.


  11. Andrew;

    The only game in town in terms of reform at the time was the float. Every other single economic reform flowed from that.
    Dereg of interests.. the float. Allowing the market to determine interest rate levels within the bounds of RBA short term guidance… the float.
    Even the parts of the the labor market reforms came from the float.

    The fact that he was too timid with those huge majorities means he has only himself to blame and no one else.

    In fact if he had floated in time he may have held government as we wouldn’t have needed to go through that protracted period of very high interests rates as the fixed exchange rate and money leaving the country was casing that.

    While he’s getting all soft and mushy about the boat refugees he may also want to spare a thought for the people of Zimbabwe he helped enslave by installing Mugabe.

    Fraser really has a lot to answer for. In fact it was only because of the goodwill of the party that he was allowed coninued membership. Personally I would have thrown him out on his ear ages ago.

    Nothing good came out of his leadership. Nothing.


  12. Andrew:

    Fraser was always beating Howard across the head over the issue of asylum seekers and immigration suggesting that Howard was racist.

    Have you or do you know anyone else who has done a study to see who allowed in more immigration and political refugees as I’m not altogether certain Fraser wins.


  13. Thanks, that was an excellent potted summary. I don’t know much about him, as I was only a baby. But my extended family hate him! 🙂

    What I find hard to swallow is these people – including (or especiall) Fraser – who self-righteously thinder “The current government is a disgrace. We/this government didn’t do that when we/they were in power 40 years ago.”

    Well of course they didn’t. The facts do have a tendency to change somewhat over the decades. This particularly so with Fraser on Howard’s attitude to race/cultural issues.

    Fraser did not have to deal with the electoral backlash to Keating’s ill-informed culture wars; nor did he have to do with the schmozzle with ATSIC ended up being; nor the fallacious Bringing Them Home Report; nor Sep 11, Bali, 7/7.

    And yet, during the ‘Howard Years’ not only was there record high immigration, but it was explicitly and demonstrably focused on non-white/European people.

    If Fraser says he wouldn’t have responded as Howard did to Muslim boat people, then Fraser would have been booted out government quick smart.

    Did Fraser go on record and slam the Hawke-commissioned Fitzgerald Report, which advised the government to slow Asian immigration? Was Fraser outraged when – partly as a consequence – Keating and Gerry Hand built the desert concentration camps to lock up Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Chinese boat people?

    Did Fraser chastise the Keating government for changing the racial target of the refugee intake to favor family reunions of Lebanese Muslims, who served the ALP’s branch-stacking more than those ‘Vietnamese Balts’ would?

    Perhaps Fraser was outraged that the Howard government tried to liberalize the labor market?

    I think not.


  14. Immigration levels were lower under Fraser, but I have not quickly been able to find the humanitarian component. The only number I found was provision for 17,000 in his last year of office, higher than the standard 13,000 a year during Howard’s term.

    Howard’s policies were not ‘focused’ on ‘non-white people’. However the practical effect of racially neutral policies was that ‘non-white’ migration was much higher under Howard than it had been under Fraser. This is one reason why the ‘race’ explanation of Howard’s policies at best seriously under-explains what was going oin.


  15. The Liberal Party and fellow travellers adore their leaders but always turn on them when they are former leaders. It hasn’t happened to Howard yet, but it will. On the other hand, at least half the Labor Party hates its leaders while they are leaders but thety are adored throughout the party afterwards.
    The one obvious exception is Latham, but there is another one, Bill Hayden.


  16. Yes, you right. The “non-white” thing was a result, not an explicit policy. Still, if Howard really was such a racist monster, he could have done what Keating Labor did.


  17. JC: Fraser was the first PM to not discriminate on the basis of race, in terms of migrants and foreign policy issues. Australia has had an easier time of it in promoting its non-racist character because of Fraser. Had Mugabe left office at the time Fraser did, neither Mugabe nor Zimbabwe would be in the dire state both are now in.
    SOTR: the Liberal Party needs to “turn on” Howard because Abbott has been quite cloying, if not vacuous, in promising to return the status quo ante 2007. That election was not a clerical error, people deliberately voted to get rid of Howard – just as Fraser was different from McMahon/Gorton et al and Howard was different from Fraser, so too the next Liberal government will be different from Howard.


  18. Andrew:

    The question is whether Fraser’s accusations that Howard perused racist policies is part of what is being discussed. It doesn’t appear that Fraser’s accusations are even remotely close to being true.


  19. Rat:

    who exactly has turned on Fraser? From what I can tell, lib figures have generally ignored him as one would ignore a mad uncle.


  20. JC – I think Fraser’s logic is something like policies that negatively affect people who are non-European appeal to racists, therefore pursuing these policies in playing the race card.

    But I agree the logic is not impressive. Perhaps some mix of the academic and soft left obsession with race, disdain for unsophisticated ordinary folk, and dislike of John Howard explains it. But whatever it is, it is not careful analysis of the available evidence.


  21. As I said above, the Fraser attitude ignores that policy decisions do not take in anhistorical vacuum. The 21st century is a long way from Fraser’s 1970s.


  22. Peter – True in general, but I am not sure it entirely explains the different approach to refugees. Fraser had boat arrivals to deal with as well, and support for the overall immigration program was lower then than it was for most of the Howard era.


  23. People talk a lot these days about the demise of politicians while they are still alive, so I suppose the obituary tag is appropriate. But I can’t stop laughing! What tag will you use if Malcolm decides to rejoin the Liberal Party at some time in the future?


  24. Will Bob Hawke resign from the ALP for exactly the same reasons Fraser has quit the Liberal Party (ie that the ALP is now a far right party dominated by religious nutters)?

    Fraser is streets ahead of Keating and Howard in the best PM stakes. Howard wins the worst PM trophy in perpetuity.


  25. Social democrats should support a flexible exchange rate, consider the examples of the gold standard and the Euro as what not to do. The float enabled the necessary constraints on living standards in the 1980s to be shared more equitably and easily. Didn’t Stone oppose the float precisely because he thought a fixed $A imposed tighter constraints on govt policy? In the early 1930s it was the hard right of the Melbourne banks who opposed depreciation whereas BNSW and Shann (Stone’s hero) who supported it.
    As for Zimbabwe a majority of voters supported an anti-democratic party for understandable historical reasons. Support for the’ internal settlement’ govt would have meant a bloody civil war that would have ended when in 1990 the west would have dropped the internal settlement govt just like the Soviets dropped the Afghan Communists.


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