26 March 2015

Speech in Parliament: Vale Malcolm Fraser

It is a great honour to rise and pay tribute to the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia, the Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser.

I first met Malcolm Fraser when I was 11 years old, when he was Leader of the Opposition.

I was with my mother Ann and nine-year-old sister Jodie at the Geelong racetrack.

My sister had broken her arm and was wearing a plaster cast.

Being someone who was in despair over the way in which Australia was being governed at that time, my mother suggested to Jodie that Mr Fraser was going to become Australia’s next Prime Minister and that she should ask for his autograph.

Mr Fraser signed her plaster cast with great grace and humour.

Of course, within a matter of months, there was the constitutional crisis.

Within a matter of weeks, Australians had declined to maintain the rage.

These were such turbulent political times, but Malcolm Fraser’s decision to block supply was entirely endorsed by the Australian people.

On 13 December 1975, the Coalition won the federal election with the largest majority in Australia’s history, and Malcolm Fraser went on to serve as Australia’s Prime Minister until 1983, winning the elections in 1977 and 1980.

When I last saw Malcolm Fraser some two months ago when I ran into him in Collins Street in Melbourne, we had a really lovely chat.

He gave me wonderful advice as a regional federal Member of Parliament.

He said to me: ‘Travel to every corner of your electorate; fight hard for the issues that matter to your constituents; and be tenacious, determined and principled.’

These were the values that he held close to his heart, as the Member for Wannon for 28 years and as Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983.

In contrast to his reputation as a shy and reserved man, I was struck by Malcolm Fraser’s warmth and passion on this occasion.

He spoke about how, if a minister had not responded to correspondence he had written on behalf a constituent within three weeks, he would literally chase the minister down the corridor seeking an answer.

He impressed upon me that the honour of serving one’s constituents is central to the honour of serving as a member of parliament.

I met Malcolm Fraser on quite a few occasions but I did spend a memorable few hours with Malcolm Fraser in the backseat of a Channel 7 helicopter when I was a young reporter.

I had flown to Nareen, his property in the Western District that he loved so dearly, to interview him.

Mr Fraser was heading to Melbourne to catch an international flight, so we offered him a lift.

It was not the most conducive environment in which to have a chat, but I did get the impression that he didn’t much care for journalists.

Malcolm Fraser rallied against injustice, discrimination and racism and he was also a champion of the environment.

While not reputed as a greater reformer, I consider this to be unfair.

He instituted many great reforms.

He was fiercely opposed to apartheid and held the South African regime to account with a conviction that won so many hearts and minds, during his time as Prime Minister and beyond.

He was deeply engaged in the fortunes of Indigenous people; putting in place Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.

Under his leadership, multiculturalism became national policy, and, for the Vietnamese community, that he welcomed in large numbers as refugees after the Vietnam War, he will forever be their hero.

He oversaw the establishment of the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Court of Australia, the Human Rights Commission, the Australian Federal Police, the creation of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and SBS.

He blocked sand mining on Fraser Island, proclaimed Kakadu National Park and the first stage of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

He also enacted the Whale Protection Act, ending whaling in Australian waters.

In many respects, one of Malcolm Fraser’s greatest reforms was to restore economically responsible government.

He was the steadying ship after a time of great economic upheaval under the Whitlam government.

Malcolm Fraser recognised that socially progressive policies must sit hand in hand with good economic management.

In his last term in particular, there were criticisms of Malcolm Fraser’s failure to embrace a market based economic reform agenda, and this does need to be acknowledged.

But as we have seen in this 44th Parliament, reform in the national interest is not an easy road.

That Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam were able to forge a lasting friendship after the deep and bitter divide created by the Dismissal is a great credit to both men.

As Prime Minister Abbott said in his statement: ‘The friendship he built in later life with Gough Whitlam spoke volumes about the character of both men at the centre of the crisis: in their own different ways, they were both fierce Australian patriots.’

After he left politics, Malcolm Fraser continued to be a warrior for issues for which he cared deeply; human rights, refugees, Indigenous Australians.

He established Care Australia and served on a number of international eminent persons bodies.

I recognise also that Malcolm Fraser disagreed with a number of our government’s policies, particularly in relation to asylum seekers.

When he left the Liberal Party, he explained it was a case of the Liberal Party leaving him, and not the other way around.

I respectfully disagree. The Liberal Party never left John Malcolm Fraser.

Our party is a broad church, and disagreements about matters of individual liberty and the rights of the individual are integral to our capacity as a party to modernise, to grow, to adapt to new challenges and new ways of thinking.

It is wonderful to hear the contributions to this condolence motion by members from both sides of the House.

How I wish that Malcolm Fraser could have heard these many tributes to his achievements during his lifetime.

How I wish he could have known how proud we are of his legacy.

This is perhaps a lesson for us all.

I felt the same way during the condolence motion in the Victorian parliament for my mother, Ann, after her death in 2002, when so many members from both sides of the House joined together to celebrate her life and her life’s achievements.

I am heartened, however, that Malcolm’s widow, Tamie, who was such an important part of Malcolm Fraser’s success and such a wonderful attribute from the minute he met her, as well as his children, Hugh, Mark, Angela and Phoebe, and their families, have the opportunity to hear about the great and principled man that Malcolm Fraser was, a man who governed with strength and compassion, forever a Liberal giant.

To his family I offer my sincere condolences.

Vale John Malcom Fraser. May you rest in peace.

26 March 2015