Unforgiven: putting Malcolm Fraser in perspective

The export of Australian uranium will decrease the risks 
of further proliferation of nuclear weapons and will 
support and strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation 
Treaty. It will help to make a safer world. 
                      -- Malcolm Fraser

Democratic Rights
On 24th November 1977, Prime Minister Fraser spoke at a lunch-time rally organised by the Queensland Liberal Party in King George Square in Brisbane. The podium was erected on the Ann Street side of King George Square before an audience of mainly liberal party supporters.

In the crowd was a disaffected Irish republican, Frank Dowling, who came forward and yelled abuse at Fraser. On the signal of the special branch officers nearby, Dowling was immediately arrested. It was for the third time that day, this time for ‘disorderly manner’ under the Vagrants Gaming and other offences Act.

Anti-uranium demonstration 30 October 1978
Anti-uranium demonstration, King George Square, Brisbane, 30 October 1978

Fraser spoke from the podium in support of his decision to mine and export uranium. Members of the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee stepped forward as Fraser hurriedly departed. They spoke for Democratic Rights in a state where the government had banned political street marches to prevent anti-uranium demonstrations. They were promptly arrested.

As contractors were dismantling the podium, I got up to speak out against state and federal government attacks on democratic rights and their decision to mine and export uranium. I was arrested and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon with Frank Dowling. I did not fail to point out the apparent contradiction of being arrested ‘for speaking to attract a crowd’ under the Traffic Act when Fraser had moments before been allowed speak in support of his election for a second term of government after is role in the dismissal of the Whitlam government by Sir John Kerr. Whitlam referred to Fraser as Kerr’s Cur someting that travelled with me because of my surname. Such was the animosity directed toward Sir John Kerr, that at rallies I had to remind people that my name was spelt ‘Curr’ not ‘Kerr’ and I was therefore no relation. The federal election was to be held on 10 December 1977 and the liberals lost three seats in Queensland to the Labor Party but won government.

Ten years previously, Malcolm Fraser was appointed Minister for the Army by Harold Holt in 1966. Fraser presided over conscription of 19-year-olds sent to the Vietnam war at the behest of the United States Government of President Lyndon B Johnson.

After the Vietnamese people defeated the Americans in 1975, Fraser trumpeted opening up Australia to Vietnamese opponents of the National Liberation Front government. By allowing the boat people in, Fraser challenged conservative ideas of a white Australian thus finding himself at odds with sections of his own party. In government Fraser implemented a more open immigration policy to overcome labour shortages in Australia and to assist in driving down wages and conditions to break the power of the unions. Fraser never lost his anti-communist stance even though as Kim Beazley put it, he was to the left of the Labor party on nearly every issue in his latter years. As if to twist the knife on Fraser, John Howard told the ABC’s Sabra Lane after Fraser’s death that he was very impressed by the way Fraser argued sending troops to Vietnam, aware that Fraser could no longer stomach Howard’s dutifully following Bush Jnr into Iraq. Two Liberal Prime Ministers with blood on their hands: Fraser contributing to genocide in Indo-China in the 60s and 70s, and Howard by supporting Bush’s shock and awe in Iraq as to produce the pre-modern fundamentalism of the Islamic State. The only difference being one saw the error and the other, against all the evidence, still holding on to his irrational support of US imperialism.

A conscript to Vietnam, Red Gum, was on hand to ask the former Prime Minister of Australia the inevitable question:

Red: And can you tell me, Mr Fraser, why I still can’t get to sleep? And night-time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16? And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?*

Fraser in Vietnam
Malcolm Fraser in Vietnam as Minister for the Army going ‘All the way with LBJ’

Fraser’s response — Defending his own record in government, which included conscription for the Vietnam War, the establishment of “shared” military facilities such as Pine Gap, and rumours of CIA involvement in the dismissal of the Whitlam government, Mr Fraser insisted that even former ALP PM Paul Keating, who recently condemned Australia’s’ diminishing influence, “underestimates the danger of the current relationship with the United States.”

Workers’ Rights
The Fraser government introduced sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act to prevent secondary boycotts by trade unions. What this meant was workers in one industry could not legally show solidarity with workers in another industry by going on strike or picketting the other industry. Secondary boycotts normally occur when one group of trade unions, not directly involved in a dispute, take industrial action in support of other trade unionists. This action can take the form of strikes, go slows, picketing, bans etc.

Fraser introduced these anti-union laws in 1976 to support graziers and meat producers who wished to export live cattle and sheep from Australia thus taking away jobs of meatworkers here and enabling profits to be made by processing the meat in countries where workers were paid low wages and worked under poor, and sometimes, terrible conditions.

When Hawke defeated Fraser in 1983, he promised to get rid of secondary boycott provisions, but he broke this promise thus enablng the courts to break the back of the Meatworkers union by imposing crippling fines under s45D & E of the Trade Practices Act.

The Howard government used the secondary boycott provisions against the Maritime Union of Australia in the 1998 Patricks dispute which resulted in half the workforce losing their jobs and those remaining on lower wages and conditions.

I was unemployed through much of the Fraser government years (1975-1982) however it was still possible to get the dole and therefore possible to survive, albeit frugally, with cost of living paid for by casual employment and subsidised by the dole. The Whitlam government, by making Universities free in 1972,  had made it possible for me to get a degree in 1975.

Aboriginal Rights
In May 1982, I was a member of the Democratic Rights Organisation fighting for free speech in the Brisbane City Mall. Onetime I was speaking out against the state government and mentioned Fraser.  Possibly, because I was tall like Malcolm Fraser, an aboriginal woman came up to me and punched me in the guts as I stood on the soapbox yelling abuse at me as if I were Malcolm Fraser. My comrades had to reassure her that I was opposed to Fraser’s policies against aboriginal people. What was the point of introducing Land Rights in the Northern Territory if there were no economic base and no sovereignty over the land upon which aboriginal people could emerge from poverty. All the well meaning words amount to nothing if land rights could be swept away by mining and pastoral leases that benefit sharedolders far away.

I believe Fraser’s  support of human rights demonstrated in this interview with the ABC’s Liz Jackson should be seen in the context of his record in supporting a war of genocide in Vietnam.

When in 1976 President Gerald Ford offered Fraser, then Australian prime minister, a choice of any American as his dining companion at the White House, Malcolm Fraser requested Rand. When she died, Ayn Rand has a dollar sign placed on her tombstone.

So, at a time that people are saying good things about Malcolm Fraser, the man; I say never forget the sins of Malcolm Fraser, the politician. Much has been made of Fraser’s support for refugees, but what about the legacy he left for aboriginal people and workers in this country. One thing, I can say for Fraser though, that, by opening up Australia to Vietnamese boat people, he ended white Australia. For example this made our local bakery possible – a shop owned by very nice Vietnamese people who cook yummy bread, pies and apple turnovers. However they are a family business where people work terribly hard and who are always under pressure from multinationals Coles and Woolworths who produce cheap bread where the dough is often made by cheap labour  in far off countries.

Ian Curr
March 2015

After the Waterfront – the workers are quiet

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