Professor Pat Weller AO has recalled Malcolm Fraser as an active, busy, hands-on Prime Minister who was perhaps a tougher leader than he may have been given credit for.
Mr Fraser died on Friday, aged 84, after a brief illness.
“He had a government which was always in action,” Professor Weller, a political scientist at Griffith’s School of Government and International Relations, said.
“Malcolm liked to be involved. He liked meetings, he liked to be talking about things. He never let up, he never stopped. This was a serious job that had to be done many hours of the day.
“He worked to his schedule. He worked very hard but whether always productively I think some of his colleagues and staff question. He took the job very seriously.”
Professor Weller is the author of Malcolm Fraser: Portrait of a Prime Minister, published in 1989, and has studied the role and impact of Australian Prime Ministers from Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972 to Tony Abbott in 2013.
Most recently he has investigated why some Prime Ministers fail and others succeed, as part of an ARC Discovery Grant worth $269,392.
Today, he listed among Malcolm Fraser’s most significant achievements the establishment of SBS in 1977, Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, maternity allowances, his support for the African frontline nations against Apartheid and Fraser’s initiatives around multiculturalism.
“His willingness to accept the boats coming from Vietnam is memorable. He had been Minister for Defence during the Vietnam War so there was a sense of obligation to that move. And he did this without any objections from the Labor Opposition. We absorbed a number of Vietnamese refugees, as we should have, and he was very much supportive of this.
“There was in fact a whole series of issues he raised and addressed which today would be regarded as comparatively left wing, even interventionist. In those days they were not regarded as anything very radical at all and he just got on with it.”
Professor Weller believes Malcolm Fraser’s tenure as Prime Minister was always affected by the way he came to power. He was appointed as Caretaker Prime Minister in November 1975, following the dismissal of the Whitlam government, a controversy in which Fraser was central.
“That crisis of 1975 defined his reputation, almost regardless of what he did afterwards. He would always be regarded as the person who brought down the government whether legitimately or illegitimately.”
Claims that Malcolm Fraser fell short around deregulation and was not tough enough as Prime Minister are wide of the mark, Professor Weller says, arguing comparisons with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are unfair.
“He predates Thatcher and Reagan by five years, so the arguments that he was soft were certainly not being heard in 1976 and 1977. Everyone said the ’76 budget was terribly tough at the time. Only later did they say it was terribly soft. But that’s 20:20 hindsight, pretty cheap wisdom.
“Reagan and Thatcher were contemporaries of Fraser, but not complete contemporaries.
“He doesn’t get very high marks now from his own side for what didn’t do in terms of deregulation but he ran a more stable government.”