30 MAY 2005
Margo Kingston was amazed at the time:
Looking at the old man last night on the ABC, as he gave the fifth annual Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, I was overwhelmed by how radically my feelings had changed towards Malcolm Fraser. Like many others of my generation, I hated Fraser with a passion when he overthrew the Whitlam government in 1975. I felt he had trampled on democracy to feed his “born to rule” mentality.
Decades later, Fraser has gradually become, like several other “elders” of white Australia, a figure respected by many Australians of Labor and Liberal hue. Looking back on his time in office, his achievements seem enormous on race issues, from passing Northern Territory lands rights legislation – still the most advantageous to Aborigines in the nation – to his steely commitment to abolishing apartheid in South Africa.
His performance last night will be seen from at least two angles. To those who don’t see liberalism and indigenous issues his way, he will seem a forlorn, defeated, crumpled and emotional figure. He will seem a frail old man of the past describing core beliefs no longer relevant to modern Liberals, or even to modern Australia.
To me, Fraser was consciously making his last major address to the nation he once ruled, and the Party he once led. He delivered the finest defence of the need for Australia to take its international human rights obligations seriously that I have heard from a politician. I do not agree with all his remedies and suggestions on Aboriginal policy, but the intellectual muscle of his philosophical position cannot be doubted.
There were those who rained on Fraser’s parade that day, like Ron Brunton, one of those White Blindfold thinkers whom John Howard has before and since so cultivated, writing in this case, where else, on the Institute of Public Affairs site, “Australia’s leading free market think tank.” You may get the measure of Brunton from his last paragraph, which is, dare I say, bitchy in the extreme: “People foolish enough to honour a man as vain and destructive as Malcolm Fraser should not be surprised when he turns around and kicks them in the teeth.” Very noble, Ron. He has been rewarded, of course: he is now (as of March 2005) on the Board of the ABC. He is also a ferocious opponent of sustainable environmental policy. A clinical case of rampant reaction, in short. These are the thinkers who dominate what passes for discourse in the corridors of Canberra these days.
All this arises because I have been looking again at Malcolm Fraser’s excellent book Common Ground (savaged in the post-Manne Quadrant in January-February 2003 ) and because today the Reconciliation Australia Workshop began in Canberra.
At the opening of the Reconciliation Australia Workshop in Canberra, Mr Howard departed from his previous approach, saying reconciliation is about the past as well as the future, and about symbols as well as the practical.
“I sense there are new and real opportunities for progress,” he said.
He says the new opportunities have arisen because of a recognition of the need to accept that the Government and Indigenous Australians are not going to agree on everything but can achieve progress in some areas. He has given a commitment not to undermine native title and to work to improve access for Indigenous Australians to communal land. He says he wants to ensure practical benefits flow from the granting of land rights.
Well, we shall see.