There are many items to remark upon today, the first being the death of Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister and later a great Australian statesman.
I say ‘later’ because in many ways I do not regard his prime ministership as a great one (though I have to admit I was not living in Australia for the last three years of his time).
Fraser came to power in a most unfortunate way, forcing the Whitlam government from office, through his connivance with the Governor General John Kerr. Fraser’s government introduced Australia to an illness from which it has suffered since then. At that time, he was somewhat enchanted with the ideas of Ayn Rand, who railed against government as such, but especially government spending. Fraser basically sold the Australian people the idea that government spending is inherently bad, at best a necessary evil. If taxes can be reduced, by reducing government expenditures, that is good. The claim was that governments used up money that could be better spent by the private sector or individuals. Furthermore, it was and is assumed that government programs are inherently inefficient, while private business is always more efficient. All these assumptions are questionable, but they continue to be part of the neo-conservative mantra.
In fact, Fraser was not such a neo-con at all. In other regards, his government was progressive. He was a truly liberal Liberal. Probably he was the last truly liberal leader of the party that has that name. Fraser was a strong supporter of publically funded universities. He was also a champion of the emerging multiculturalism in Australia. He took courageous steps as Prime Minister to challenge the apartheid regime in South Africa. He was also the first Prime Minister to challenge the practice of killing whales for commercial purposes and basically saw an end to that industry in Australia. Finally, and of great significance, Malcolm Fraser took strong action to welcome and support the large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, who were coming in leaky boats, trying to escape appalling conditions in their homeland. (If only we could learn from his example today.)
Malcolm Fraser is one of many people who have lost office: but he is also one of only a small number who have gone on to become great statesmen (or women) after losing office. Jimmy Carter is perhaps the example here. Fraser left his political party some years ago, when it ceased to adhere to what he believed were its founding principles. He remained a deeply engaged participant in Australian public life. Right now I am reading his last book Dangerous Allies, which argues that our country needs to take leave off its attitude of dependence (historically upon Britain, then on the United States) and develop a genuinely independent foreign policy.
Many of us were amazed at the delightful friendship that had developed between Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser in their lives after politics. Even more wonderful is the simple fact that the genuine humanity of a person can be seen and known. How fortunate for us all. We need I think to consider what it is about our political life and our media that so prevents the genuine humanity of political leaders from being known.
There are several other things I want to mention, too, in the news today (more briefly).
With so many in our country, I share the horror surrounding the murder of a young woman who was simply going for a walk in a park. People are wondering whether it is safe to go for a walk, even in broad daylight. Sadly, this is not a new question for many in other parts of the world, where people live in fear and defensiveness even just going for a walk or doing the shopping. We have to wonder about the situation of the man who is charged with doing this—and to consider what it tells us about our mental health services (which are so starved of government money). We have to change our perspectives here—and not react with the knee-jerk idea of putting more money into law enforcement alone, as if this was the answer.
I’m saddened too by news commentary that identifies the great failures of the Bush government’s activities in Iraq: where it is now being observed that the problem was not how to remove the regime, but the fact that they had no plans for what would replace it. I guess to have this so squarely stated now is at least the recognition of a problem, albeit tens and even hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, billions of dollars spent, and an entire nation’s culture and many historical treasures have been destroyed—and still there is no peace.
We can only hope and pray for wisdom to prevail and that just possibly we might learn something from this.
In the news today there is reason to give thanks, for a good man and his life well lived. There is also reason to pray, in sorrow, for a grieving family and school, and for a man who is clearly deeply unwell, and for victims of other crimes he is alleged to have committed even on the same day.
I’m also challenged to reflect further on the whole question of how complicit we are as a nation in the destruction of another nation, all at the behest of a third nation. Perhaps one fundamental thing we need to do is demand that no future government of Australia should ever again commit us to war without at the very least a vote of the parliament. So, so much to regret.