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Exclusive: Fraser’s regret

Private notes confirm Malcolm Fraser’s anguish over condemning his Prime Minister to the scrap heap

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

When Malcolm Fraser went to his grave one year ago, he took with him a lingering feeling of ‘anguish’ for denouncing John Gorton as ‘not fit to hold the great office of prime minister’ in an electrifying speech that was the catalyst for Gorton’s downfall in March 1971.

For decades after, Fraser kept extraordinary handwritten notes about his relationship with Gorton in his office in Melbourne. They were briefly quoted in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs (MUP, 2010). His biographical collaborator, Margaret Simons, later retyped these notes.

Despite several requests, Fraser refused to share the notes that chronicle his falling out with Gorton, his decision to resign as Defence Minister and his vindictive parliamentary speech. However, these notes kept inside a minute book were transferred to Fraser’s papers at the University of Melbourne after his death in March last year.

‘My support had always been essential to Gorton,’ Fraser wrote in a September 1971 note. ‘A fact which he forgot or would not admit to himself. Once I had changed from active support to opposition he was doomed.’

‘One can get too near the sun, see too far into the behavior and heart of a man. If you lend money to a man, you lose a friend. There are things that a man cannot accept having another know of him.’

‘A man who wants to be strong, known to be weak, who wishes to be secure but had known only insecurity at birth, who is believed to hold views strongly and firmly but who acts as a straw man when the pressure is really on (defence, nuclear non-proliferation and my resignation).’

Fraser had concerns about Gorton’s views on defence and nuclear policy. ‘The PM’s judgment was so faulty, his performance so erratic, that his position as PM could only be tolerated while there was someone in the cabinet prepared to put his own reputation and career on the line in challenging Gorton if the need arose.’

Fraser says he was prepared to eliminate Gorton earlier, in 1969. ‘I had determined that if for any reason my authority were to be reduced or my position challenged in a way that could remove me from cabinet, then I would have to do my utmost to see that the PM accompanied me.’

The breakdown in their relationship came after a disagreement between Defence and the Army over civil aid in Vietnam was reported in the Australian in February 1971. Gorton made it clear the Army had his support in the dispute.

When journalist Alan Ramsey asked Gorton if Lieutenant-General Thomas Daly had accused Fraser of disloyalty, he did not deny it. Fraser saw this as Gorton being disloyal to him, and resigned from cabinet in a fit of anger. Fraser feared that Gorton was ‘out to destroy me’ and would sack him first. Attempts to repair the relationship failed.

Fraser’s poison-tonged speech trashing Gorton led to a party room motion of confidence in the prime minister’s leadership in March 1971. It was tied 33-all. Then, as several ministers who were there confirm in their memoirs, Gorton exercised a casting vote against himself. He vacated the prime ministership.

In the notes, Fraser also recounts how Gorton became prime minister in January 1968. ‘Harold Holt was dead,’ he writes. ‘The Liberal Party was without a leader. The planning, the campaigning began even at the funeral.’ In hindsight, he thought Paul Hasluck was a better choice. ‘If he had spoken to a few more (MPs) he may have won’.

‘Hasluck was a man of integrity and courage,’ Fraser writes. Hasluck’s appointment as Governor-General was ‘a major disaster for the Liberal cause’. Fraser believes that if Hasluck had challenged Gorton after the October 1969 election – as Billy McMahon and David Fairbairn did – then he would have become prime minister.

Fraser did not regret his actions but the shattering of his relationship with Gorton was a heavy burden. Writing the notes, and keeping them, may have been cathartic. Fraser thought they would justify his actions but they also reveal his torment for ‘a man whom I had regarded as a friend’.

‘This is unofficial writing – a part of history normally left to fade with the autumn leaves,’ Fraser writes. ‘It is worth recalling only for the insight it may give to motivation – the mode and manner of government… a nation needs men who believe in policies for the nation – not forever for themselves.’

The remarkable notes confirm that Fraser spoke to Robert Menzies before he condemned Gorton in parliament. Menzies did not disapprove. ‘He (Menzies) thought John Gorton was a wild man who was going to destroy the party,’ Fraser told me a few years ago. Menzies backed Fraser’s leadership challenges against Billy Snedden in 1974 and ‘75.

At Gorton’s state funeral in May 2002, former Attorney-General Tom Hughes referred to Gorton’s ‘political assassination’ and argued, ‘the judgement of history upon John Gorton will be kinder than upon those who conspired to bring him down.’ It was a lethal speech.

Fraser’s Easter Island statue visage barely twitched as he sat in the pews of Sydney’s St Andrews cathedral next to his wife Tamie and absorbed the withering spray. But, in truth, it hurt. Fraser told me that the priest later apologised for the ‘abuse’ of his church.

Since Gorton’s downfall, politics has become increasingly ruthless. Gough Whitlam was dismissed. Fraser was challenged by Andrew Peacock. Bob Hawke lost the prime ministership to Paul Keating. Countless opposition leaders have bitten the dust. And the last three prime ministers – Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – were forced to resign after party room coups.

Politics can be a brutal and bloody business. Defeat and rejection can be harrowing. But even for those who emerge victorious after the latest act of political violence, their triumph can rest heavy on their conscience.

Fraser knew that all to well.

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Troy Bramston is a senior writer with the Australian

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  • angus westmorland

    I was never quite sure of Mr Fraser, a view that quite a few people that i have met over the years. His conduct to Mr Gorton even by Australian standards belonged to the gutter and said more about Mr Fraser and his character which was later displayed when he and Mr Whitlam had the legendary set to which led to the dismissal of the elected Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr. Obviously i have no idea what Sir John prompted the dismissal but at least he let the voters decide in the great democratic tradition of something called a general election. The outcome was a landslide for Mr Fraser.
    After all those years I really tried to like him ( Mr Fraser ) but ???????????????????????.