Six Easy Pieces on Australian Politics from Malcolm Fraser

Last year I had the pleasure and the privilege to talk with former Prime Minster, Malcolm Fraser for a couple of hours thanks to taking a subject coordinated by former federal MP and Fraser's former chief of staff, Petro Georgio. Fraser severed as the Member for Wannon for 28 years and was prime minister of Australia between 1975 and 1983. He sadly passed away earlier this year, and when discussing this day recently, my friend Tom urged me to publish my account of Fraser's views and experience so others could, perhaps, benefit in some small way from the wisdom he imparted. How he has seen parliamentary and prime ministerial power and behaviour shifting in the decades since he left parliament in 1983 may be of interest to some. What follows is from my notes (cleaned up and systematised with the occasional flourish), and while some of this might seem fairly obvious, the degraded state of contemporary Australian politics attests to the fact that such fundamentals are no longer being adhered to.

The temperament of a Prime Minister:

The problem with John Gorton (in office from 1968 to 1971, and in whose downfall Fraser played a prominent role) was that while he was popular with the public he was also lazy and incapable of thinking about multiple things at once (Fraser's words). Many politicians can be smooth media operators and give a rousing speech, but at the same time lack the temperament for the real work of governing. Look at Kevin Rudd, great with selfies and lightweight breakfast television, less brilliant at decision making and keeping his cool. According to Fraser, both Rudd and Gorton also played games for advantage within the party rather than being straight with their colleagues, and this contributed to both of them losing the top job at the hands of those same colleagues rather than being voted out by the public.

The relationship with cabinet:

Basically, do the opposite of what Rudd did with Alastair Jordan and Abbott is doing with Peta Credlin, these dominating chief staffers. One unelected advisor trying to keep track of and control everything is both impossible and counter-productive to even attempt. In order to function, Ministers must be allowed to actually do their jobs, and continual oversight by the prime minister's office signals that the PM has no real confidence in the ministers or the departments they lead. If the prime minister does not trust these people to manage their own portfolio, why make them ministers? Also, any debates about policy should be had within cabinet rather than outside or conducted through the media; cabinet must work as a team to function as cabinet government is the very essence of the Westminster system.

The relationship with the party room:

Fraser stated they he always felt he could carry the party room with good policy and good arguments. A dictatorial attitude will create divisions, and such a hostile environment is not conducive to the advancement of a policy agenda, this will also lead to the creation and sharpening of so many knives later to be aimed at the party leader. Pliant MPs toeing the line because they fear a lack of promotion, demotion or retribution and unable to speak their mind creates bad policy and bad governments. Finally, no leader should try and be the conscience of their party, the prime minister is the first among equals and should try and remember this.

The role of the public service:

Bashing public servants as a corps of lazy, entitled bureaucrats lolling around at their desks throwing paper planes and taking long holidays all on the taxpayer's back is a common trope on the political right, whereas in reality most public servants are hardworking and, compared with their equivalents in much of the private sector, quite modestly remunerated for their labours. This attitude has unfortunately filtered through to the political classes, so since the Howard government most department heads are now contracted rather than tenured. This, Fraser called an “absolute bloody disaster”. Consultants are not as accountable as public servants, and as contracts make people too easy to sack, this instability has flow-on effects. For example, a department head concerned about what being fired would do for their future career prospects might be less honest with a PM in order to keep their job, weakening both their performance and opportunities for meaningful policy implementation and reform. Right-wing talking points might make for big talkback radio ratings, but it's no way to run a public service for all Australians where honest advice from departments to relevant ministers is essential.

The makeup of parliament:

Fraser hypothesised that the decline in parliamentary quality was directly related to the increasing homogeneity of the chamber. Back in his day, MPs had previously been doctors, farmers, soldiers and teachers etc, whereas nowadays it's almost exclusively lawyers and former political staffers with the odd unionist thrown in. Put simply, the political class is now made up almost exclusively of the political class and no longer represents the broader community in the way it used to. He cited the example of the seat of Higgins where after the retirement of Peter Costello the seat was won in a by-election by Kelly O'Dwyer, Costello's former chief of staff and the only candidate. Fraser stated that in his day this would not have been permitted, the preselection would have been postponed until more candidates were found, and the act of trying to nominate a successor would have counted against the retiring MP's choice rather than be an endorsement of it as happens today.

The attitude of MPs:

Fraser believed that independently successful people who did not owe their entire career to a political party are more confident in standing up to a prime minister to argue for their constituents or their department rather than running in fear of the PM's press secretary. (Fraser also alleged that ASIO has pressured some MPs to cover up their mistakes, but of course such charges cannot be substantiated by myself.) He tied this into to the decline of respect evidenced in recent “debates” and associated media sniping; the internecine squabbling of people who mostly coming from the same background has dramatically lowered the tone of Australian politics. Fraser suggested that MPs should be allowed to cross the floor on issues important to their electorates after consultation with their party leader as, after all, members are in public not to represent their parties but their constituents. And it has been our voices that have been sorely missing from the floor of our parliament, and we need to bring them back.

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