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Malcolm Fraser, the Last Statesman

Thursday, 2 April 2015  | Paul Tyson


In many regards Malcolm Fraser was the last living monument to the politics of the post-war boom era in Australia. Now that both Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser have died, we have no people of that era of their stature left in the public landscape.

Fraser was of the generation that had direct memories of the Great Depression, so he did not trust unregulated high finance. He had direct memories of the fascist movements that hurled his nation into World War Two, so he did not trust flag-waving, scapegoating, militant nationalism. He believed in universal human rights and in showing genuine hospitality to asylum seekers. He believed in building the common wealth of a nation, rather than in selling public assets and making binding trade liberalization agreements so as to facilitate the smooth and profitable operation of global corporate giants on Australian soil. We now live in an entirely different political era.  

When Malcolm Fraser terminated his membership with the Liberal Party in 2009, this was a clear indication that the politics of yester-year had finally become entirely unable to engage the prevailing centres of political power in Australia in any meaningful way. Mr Fraser explained himself by noting that the Liberal Party was no longer a Liberal Party, but was a Conservative Party. This is a very interesting remark that bears some examination. 

The ideology of liberal democratic humanism that Mr Fraser thought was a rather basic rationale for the existence of the Liberal Party, is certainly not alive in that party any more. But in what sense can an Abbott-styled Coalition government be considered conservative? For it is now the style of all major political players that nothing is conserved if political necessity requires its sacrifice, and nothing is conserved if ‘the market’ finds it a hindrance. Hence, our politicians are committed to relentless reform, to an entirely ‘flexible’ understanding of policy commitments, and to the perpetual upheaving and ‘rationalizing’ restructuring of the institutions of every public service. This is the new ‘conservatism’ (meaning ‘upholding the status quo’ rather than ‘preserving things of value from the past’) to which everyone seeking power within mainstream federal politics seems required to adhere. So the Liberal Party is now a conservative party only in the sense there are no prominent dissidents from this relentless reformism. Given the norms of political pragmatism within the dynamics of a 24 hour media cycle, I can think of no guiding value, no vision of the good society, no traditional or intrinsic commitments that are conserved in our politics now. Conservative politics in that sense has disappeared just as surely as liberal politics in Fraser’s sense has disappeared. 

How do we account for this all-discarding “conservativism” in the Liberal Party, a conservativism so at odds with the liberal humanism of Malcolm Fraser? Daniel M. Bell’s book “The Economy of Desire” has the answer. Our present politicians on all sides of mainstream politics are no longer statesmen; they are servant of global capitalism. They are not committed to the state they ostensibly serve (or any state). More to the point, the purpose of the state is now to ensure that global capitalism works to its optimum. Citizens and political entities – such as states – exist for the advancement of global capitalism. Malcolm Fraser was radically unlike any of our present leaders because he was a true statesman, not simply a career politician serving the tri-defiling logic of party advancement, media manipulation and global capitalism. Let us think a bit further on Mr Fraser’s understanding of the true interests of the people in the state he served. 

Recently Malcolm Fraser published a book titled Dangerous Allies on the Australia/US relationship. It is a very serious text, well thought through by a man of direct experience at the highest levels of Australia/US policy relations. Fraser has always been something of a Realist in terms of geo-political thinking, and this has enabled him to radically change his stance on the Australia/US relationship. Political Realism holds that when there is a balance of power—like between the USA and the USSR in the cold war era—things are more or less stable and there is a check on global imperial conquest. After the collapse of the USSR, Fraser’s Realism notices that balance has now gone from international power. The USA is now the un-assailable sole global super power with no checks on it external to its own interests. Hence the US takes it on itself to police the operational terms of economic and military power for the entire globe. This tends towards both imperial tyranny and hubristic arrogance. The US equates its own interests with the prevailing norms of global capitalism which its military power, international institutions and economic privilege upholds and enforces. But the global system the US has built is embedded in untenable moral and environmental impossibilities, deep-seated cultural and political grievances and structural economic and financial difficulties. The disruptions these factors cause cannot be simply ‘policed’ by uncompromising imperial exercises in overwhelming military and economic power. For these reasons it is fairly obvious to the Realist eye that the days of the US as global superpower will—as with all unrivalled empires of the past—end. If Australia ties itself unthinkingly to a US that is increasingly acting imperially (with no respect for the interest of other states) we will radically damage our relations with our near neighbours and we will sacrifice the interests of our state to the forces of global imperialism.  

Fraser’s argument is, I think, compelling. As a statesman, as a former leader committed to the people of the Australian state, Malcolm Fraser’s last major contribution to public life in Australia was to urge us to totally re-think our relationship with the US. His voice was not heeded because our leaders are not governed by the humanist logic of the liberal democratic Australian state, but by the abstractly fiscal logic of global capitalism, which has little interest in the borders and people of states, other than as a means of policing its own order and under-writing its own financial risks. 

So, Fraser was a statesman. As a liberal statesman, he was suspicious of excessive power, a strong advocate of transparency in government, and a supporter of the priority of the interests of the common citizen over global power. As a humanist statesman he had substantive moral commitments to the UNHCR Refugee Convention. None of these commitments are held to in anything other than (at best) a meaningless lip service by our present batch of conservative politicians, on both sides of parliament.  

But has the day of the statesman in which Fraser exerted power gone? French critics of global capitalism in the trajectory of Deleuze and Foucault note that the state is very important in the era of global imperial capitalism, but its role is no longer the role that politicians like Whitlam and Fraser envisioned. The state is now a subsidiary of global financial power. Our contemporary politicians are ‘statesmen’ in that they play the role of the state as international economic necessity requires it of them. Whitlam and Fraser’s day is gone; there could be no statesmen of their kind any more. 

I think it is true that we will not see statesmen of the likes of Whitlam and Fraser again. The conditions in which states now operate are so radically different to what they were in the post-war boom era that Whitlam and Fraser stand as monuments to what was, rather than as models to what could now be. Yet as monuments they stand in a prophetic relation to the present, they stand in judgement of the inhumanity and de-humanizing logic of political pragmatism and global economic “necessity” as we have now constructed it. Fraser’s voice for humanity regarding the scapegoating and horrifying inhumanity of our treatment of boat arrival asylum seekers judges us. Fraser’s clear eyed caution against tying ourselves to the global imperialism of the US stands in judgement of the complete lack of imagination in our leaders in thinking about our place in the world. We have tied our little state to the global economy and have cast our fate into the hands of the big powers that run that system of power and trade and we are not prepared to think outside of the “necessities” that this dynamic places on our state. 

So Malcolm Fraser has died. He was the last of our statesmen. Yet his prophetic voice speaks still. And his voice is loud with a moral clarity and political common sense astonishingly absent in the current centres of Australian political life. May God rest Malcolm Fraser’s soul, and may we heed Mr Fraser’s prophetic voice and respond with the repentance, creativity and moral courage that is now so desperately needed.

 


Comments

Michael Teekens
February 5, 2016, 2:35PM
5 febr.

Malcolm Fraser passed away. I was quite young at the time when he was PM. Because he went through the Great Depression and witnessed WW II and its aftermath his life was formed after Judeo-Christian values. He was not perfect, but from what I vaguely remember he had principles that he upheld in public life. He was respected
and upheld the values he was brought up to. Only if he could see what life is like today he would just shake his head in dismay. He deserved great respect.

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