Cold warrior changes his mind
Dangerous Allies By Malcolm Fraser, with Cain Roberts MUP, 360pp, $65 (HB)
IN the public mind, Malcolm Fraser is best remembered for the following: taking over the prime ministership in 1975 as a result of John Kerr’s dismissal of Gough Whitlam; opposing the white supremacist regime in Rhodesia and supporting the Commonwealth campaign to dismantle apartheid in South Africa; publicly weeping when he was defeated as PM in 1983; and losing his pants in a shady hotel in Memphis in 1986.
Written with the assistance of academic Cain Roberts, Fraser’s Dangerous Allies follows on from the error-prone and award-winning Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, co-authored by Margaret Simons and published in 2010.
The fundamental thesis underpinning Dangerous Allies is that our nation must decide which direction in foreign policy and international relations we ought to take. Fraser poses the question thus: “Are we to continue to follow our policy of strategic dependence or will we, for the first time in our history, move towards a more strategically independent foreign policy?”
Quite unlike the years from 1975 to 1983, when as our 22nd prime minister he was an anti-Russian Cold War warrior more or less slavishly supporting our alliance with the US, these days Fraser stridently promotes Australia’s strategic independence, which would, he argues, allow us to agree and disagree with both Washington and Beijing.
Presently we are, he argues, “too closely intertwined” with US strategies, plans and facilities, including the joint intelligence-gathering establishment at Pine Gap. Indeed he maintains, rather paradoxically, that if we remain an American lackey, this could place Australia in jeopardy in the future, while “making it hard for other nations to take us seriously”.
Thus Fraser, who was a staunch supporter of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, concludes we now ought adopt “the third option’’: that of strategic independence, coupled with armed neutrality. This would “avoid (our) complicity in America’s future military operations and secure a future that best serves Australia’s interests”. Strategic dependence on Britain and then the US may have fulfilled this role in past decades, but “its usefulness as a platform for Australia’s foreign and security priorities” has, he maintains, well and truly ended.
Towards the middle of Dangerous Allies, the unstable future leader of the federal ALP, HV Evatt, is singled out for praise. This is not just for Evatt’s pivotal role in the UN but, more controversially, for his pro-Australian role as minister for external affairs from 1941 to 1949. Fraser writes: “Evatt, as foreign minister, showed more independence and significant strength of mind than any other Australian had to that point in dealing with other nations, especially with great powers.”
In this often turgid and repetitive book, there are some errors. For example, the militant Wobblies — the Industrial Workers of the World — are wrongly referred to as the Independent Workers of the World. The surname of Australia’s first ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Stephen FitzGerald, is misspelled three times. Also, it is not made clear that, as chairman of the Committee to Advise on Australia’s Immigration Policies established by Bob Hawke, FitzGerald edited a crucial 1988 report, Immigration: A Commitment to Australia. In fact, FitzGerald — who served under Whitlam and Fraser as ambassador to China from 1973 to 1976 — wrote all of the first chapter, which cogently sets out the principles, philosophy and politics of immigration. FitzGerald also wrote parts of other chapters, and usefully edited the whole report — which remains as valid now as it was in the late 1980s.
In the first third of Dangerous Allies there are some revealing historical asides, not the least concerning Winston Churchill. As Fraser and Roberts explain, in 1917 Churchill had “come to believe that Bolshevism was the worst tyranny in history, even exceeding that of German atrocities”. According to then British prime minister David Lloyd George, Churchill had “Bolshevism on the brain”.
Also revealing is the role in drafting the Treaty of Versailles of our pro-conscription prime minister William Morris Hughes.
At the end of World War I, the acerbic Hughes led Australia’s delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. Widely known as the “Little Digger”, Hughes was not only keen to extract maximum reparations from Germany and to limit Japanese influence in the Pacific but vociferously opposed the idea of racial non-discrimination keenly promoted by US president Woodrow Wilson. To Hughes, as to many proBritish Australians, the notion of racial equality was repugnant and offensive. It is therefore not surprising that the visionary but sometimes doctrinaire Wilson regarded Hughes as a ‘‘pestiferous varmint’’.
While discussing whether German territories should be controlled by the League of Nations, Wilson asked if, as “the representative of the Australasians”, Hughes insisted on presenting “an ultimatum to the whole civilised world”. The pugnacious Hughes replied, “That’s about the size of it, President Wilson.”
Unlike Churchill, who wanted to defeat the Bolsheviks, Hughes was firmly against any such intervention, arguing in the Imperial War Cabinet of December 23, 1918, that the Allies “should leave Russia and its people to decide what government it wanted for itself”. The only exception would be if the Bolsheviks engaged in external aggression, especially if it threatened the interests of Britain and its empire.
On June 28, 1919, Hughes, accompanied by former prime minister Joseph Cook, signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia in the Palace of Versailles’ glittering Hall of Mirrors. Not only did this enable Australia to be a full member of the League of Nations but it was the first time Australia had signed any international treaty.
Possibly as a result of Roberts’s considerable input, Dangerous Allies does not boast a single narrative voice, which is a pity.
It is also a shame that the book’s tone sometimes rather hectoring.
Malcolm Fraser presents US president Ronald Reagan with a saddle on a state visit in 1981