Malcolm Fraser's unreliable memoirs rewrite history

Greg Sheridan

MALCOLM Fraser's memoirs, co-authored with Margaret Simons, are the most error-riddled, factually unreliable, tendentious, consistently nasty and overall disgraceful political memoirs I have ever read. Naturally they won the NSW Premier's Literary Award.

This infamous award demonstrates why the Premier's Literary Awards should be abolished. In their nonfiction section, at least, they are not about literature but promoting ideological conformity.

Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983. In office, he had the reputation of being an arrogant, right-wing bully. Later, he decided to reshape himself as a grand man of the Left.

I don't doubt his motives, though it is noteworthy that you get a lot more comfort, certainly more awards, on the Left.

Fraser now has the attraction for the Left of any radical convert. Metaphorically, he has crossed the Berlin Wall, except he went from West to East. The Left is constantly surprised that it dominates the culture in Australia but is repeatedly rejected by voters.

In truth, it dominates the culture only because of its stranglehold on taxpayers' funds, such as these awards. John Howard's memoir - the bestselling political autobiography in our history - is truly popular. It will be fascinating to see if it wins any of these wretchedly compromised awards.

Fraser's visceral hatred of Howard and his relentless denigration of him, often with highly dubious stories, along with Fraser's support of free entry for the boatpeople, more than anything else endear him to the Left.

Fraser's book contains some astounding factual errors. Two among many that Gerard Henderson has pointed out are that Fraser cannot even remember how many elections he won, claiming four, when in fact he won three. Fraser also claims George Orwell's book Nineteen Eighty-Four was inspired by British society of the 1950s whereas it was a satire of East European communist dictatorships. Henderson might have pointed out further that as Orwell died in January 1950 and Nineteen Eighty-Four was published two years before that, he couldn't have been inspired by much in the 50s.

But even Henderson's splendid industry omits many of Fraser's howlers. Fraser claims the neo-conservatives wielded great influence in the Bush administration of the 90s. But George W. Bush was not even elected until November 2000.

But it is not really this sloppiness and inaccuracy that is the main problem. It is the tendentious misrepresentation of the past. Fraser wants to pretend - who knows, perhaps he even believes - he was always a man of the Left. Fraser has every right to change his mind on the big issues that defined his political life, but he should own up to being a Liberal rat, who has ratted on his previous views and his previous party, and not pretend that he was always a Patrick White fellow traveller.

Let me give you just a couple of central examples. Fraser claims that when he became prime minister on November 11, 1975, he was unable to change Gough Whitlam's policy towards Indonesia because he was in caretaker mode, and that this policy required accommodation of Indonesia in East Timor. He further claims that he watered down a letter to then president Suharto expressing understanding of Indonesia's position, that he was extremely reluctant to send this message and did so only because he was told it was vital to do so.

This is wrong on every count and its wrongness is documented in the memoir of Dick Woolcott, who was Australia's ambassador to Indonesia at the time. Whitlam's policy was to favour East Timorese incorporation into Indonesia but that this should be achieved peacefully and by East Timorese self-determination.

Whitlam's policy may well have been self-contradictory but it certainly allowed Fraser to emphasise self-determination if he wanted to. However, in opposition Fraser and his shadow cabinet colleagues had labelled the East Timorese independence party, Fretilin, communist and Fraser and gang at that time were comprehensively anti-communist.

Woolcott's memoir records surprise that the confidential letter Fraser sent to Suharto did not include, as Whitlam had included in all his communications, a statement that Australia opposed the use of force. Woolcott rang Canberra to try to get opposition to the use of force included in the letter and was told not to change or interpret Fraser's remarks.

In other words, Fraser watered down Whitlam's opposition to the use of force, exactly the opposite of what Fraser claims in his book.

An even more bizarre claim Fraser makes, in rationalising his support for the Vietnam War, is that he did not know until 1995 of the US involvement in the coup against South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

Fraser was Australia's defence minister at the end of the 60s. If he didn't know about the US involvement he was surely the worst informed defence minister in the history of this country or any other. The US involvement was absolutely common knowledge, a routine part of any discussion of Vietnam in those days. Morris West, Australia's bestselling author at that time, wrote a novel about the American role in the coup, The Ambassador, which sold more than a million copies.

The anti-communist B. A. Santamaria, whom Fraser much admired, broadcast numerous television commentaries about it. In one, in November 1968, Santamaria said the US "had organised the overthrow of president Diem five years ago, without even taking the precaution to see that he was not killed". American involvement in the coup was discussed routinely in classrooms and university lectures at this period.

Fraser is either misrepresenting his knowledge at the time to suit his ideology today or has forgotten about his knowledge at the time, or was indeed an astonishingly incompetent defence minister.

Fraser presents himself as a great hero on refugees, but Australia took in far more refugees under Howard than it did under Fraser. Fraser claims to have taken in 20,000 refugees a year in his last years in office, a claim completely untrue. Similarly in opposition he called for "a small number" of Vietnamese to be admitted.

His scabrous slanders of Howard, the worst based only on his memory and backed up by no corroborating testimony or documentation, reveal a nastiness of spirit remarkable even in the ego-mad world of Australian politics. This shameful book deserves no awards.


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