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Friday, 20 March 2015

Malcolm Fraser and I - a memoir...or "who is George Gear?"

"Who is George Gear?" It was a question asked by my then boss Gareth Evans when, preparatory to heading for Canberra for the election count he asked me to draw up a list of Labor candidates likely to be elected if, always a big if, any kind of uniform swing, of the type indicated by the current polling, was on. Labor was doing it on the bit and looked likely to get somewhere between 52 and 53% of the 2PP vote.

Sometime during the last few days of that campaign, way back in 1983, I wandered around the corner from our office to the open space in front of the AMP Building in Collins Street. Malcolm Fraser and his supporters were due to have a rally there at lunchtime. Fraser got up and blustered his way through ten minutes or so of the usual nonsense that Liberal politicians spout when they have to give a stump speech but he did say one thing that attracted attention. It went something like; "If Labor gets elected you would be better off putting your money under the bed than in a bank!' Whoever thought it up for him has never come forward and volunteered the information. Or maybe Malcolm himself came up with this piece of mind-numbing stupidity. I can believe that.

Things moved on. By that night Bob Hawke had pulled out a somewhat puerile response to Malcolm's assertion along the lines of ' you cant put your money under the bed because that's where the commies are!" Hilarious! But it went over a treat on the evening news. Score the day for Bob in the news cycle. Richard Farmer very quickly let it be known that it was his line. Winners are grinners. But it was the moment when all was lost and Fraser slid downhill and out of public, or at least parliamentary, life. His exit was marked in one other way that distinguished him from both predecessors and successors. He blubbed on election light. Broke down and bawled. The hard man had a soft centre. And the then unknown West Australian George Gear made it into Parliament, a knife-edge margin but the swing was just enough.  Given his humble origins, he rose to fairly dizzying heights.  The former teacher of electrical trades was made a Minister by Paul Keating and served a term as Assistant Treasurer. He won his seat each time the Hawke or Keating Governments were elected, serving five 'occasions' as they are described in the Parliamentary Superannuation legislation.

I never liked Malcolm Fraser and I didn't go for his re-invention of himself as concerned citizen. I acknowledge that he was tough on any kind of racism and is known to have put people like Sir John Carrick, who favoured supporting the white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia well and truly in their place when they tried to suggest that Australia take a benign and tolerant view of them.  And I often wondered if Fraser spotted that fleck of prejudice that John Howard has in him, the fleck that produced his notorious view about Asian immigration and no doubt contributed to his disgraceful actions towards refugees and the Tampa. It may have been that that caused Fraser to ensure that Howard got nowhere with any agenda he was running when Treasurer and contributed to his reputation as the worst Treasurer since Federation and the one who told the biggest lie about the state of the books when he left office. But I digress....

Now Malcolm's gone. And it seems that the days of 1975 and the damage done to the democratic and constitutional structures by Fraser and his mates Kerr, Barwick, Anthony, Nixon, Withers, Sinclair, Lynch et al seem to be just about forgotten as well. Gough was forgiving. Too forgiving but that's a measure of a great man. Maybe we need Mark Latham or John Faulkner to speak at Malcolm's funeral and set a few things straight.

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