Farewell Big Mal

It’s the funeral of Malcolm Fraser today. He’s the first of our Prime Minister’s I really have a memory of. His ascension – the infamous November 11, 1975 – was my introduction into the world of politics. Before that day I had no real awareness of it. I was just a kid, so no surprise to that. Then the dismissal of Whitlam occurred and it was news you couldn’t avoid, even as a 11-year-old.

Fraser became the Prime Minister, tall, lanky, haughty looking, even a little imperious. He was not a character that many people warmed to. He was Prime Minister for eight years, and by the end of his tenure I was right into politics. In retrospect, his tenure as prime minister was notable for his strong leadership on human rights, which was to be his calling post politics. He was a strong opponent of apartheid. He was important in the recognition of aboriginal rights. He opened our borders to the Vietnamese boat people (in contrast to today), a hard-working people whose descendants now are a thriving part of our multi-cultural community.

I recall the day he announced an early election was the day the people’s champion, Bob Hawke, replaced Bill Hayden as Labor leader. There was a famous cartoon by Tandberg which showed Malcolm Fraser – hoping to catch the Labor party unawares – instead with his pants around his ankles.

He was out of politics soon after that, and in the years since matured into a mature elder statesman, respected by many, but not all. Back in the day he was painted as a patrician conservative, to the dry right of the Liberal party. He always had his patrician airs, but he had his ‘wet’ side. It’s claimed today that after leaving politics he went left. The truer interpretation is that he became more of a small L liberal in the old vernacular, whereas the party he was once leader of has gone hard right. It’s ironic that Fraser today was almost universally respected by the progressive segments of society; it’s only on the conservative side that he was treated with some disdain.

Fraser quit his membership of the Liberal party when Abbott ascended to the leadership. That’s when the party – long without a heart in my view – lost any semblance of decency and honour. Fraser was outspoken about government policy, particularly when it came to our terrible treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. If the Liberal party had it a conscience, he was it. With his passing there are few left from the moderate Liberal party.

I watched a documentary about Fraser the other night. It went backwards and forwards, following him as he attended meetings and flew around the world meeting with past leaders and humanitarian groups. He was passionate and outspoken about refugees and the Iraq invasion and the dishonesty of politics today.

It showed footage of when he was a child too, a handsome, happy boy so different from the stern, ‘Easter Island’ visage of later years. He grew up privileged in the Western District, wanting for little. It was quite affecting to see him as an innocent child playing with the dog or dressing up with his mates. How time flies! How transient seems when you look back on it like that. Here were images of his childhood, even as he lay dead after 84 notable years. It’s like looking through a telescope from the wrong end, everything foreshortened.

He was a good man Malcolm Fraser, one of the diminishing few. His is a voice, and a moral authority, that we will miss. In a time of pygmies, a giant has left us.

One last side-note. I followed Malcolm Fraser on Twitter. He’s the second person I follow to have died in the last few weeks. It’s a curious feeling. You read their comments, and get an insight into their thinking and personality. It’s fresh and real and then they’re gone. There’s the sense almost, of having just shared a conversation with someone you discover has just passed away.

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