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Remembering Malcolm Fraser

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 24 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:25):  I too stand today to offer a personal reflection on the life and legacy of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and to offer my sincere condolences to his family and loved ones.

I was 14 in 1975 and I have a clear memory of that time and of the circumstances in which Malcolm Fraser became the Prime Minister, and also of the debate and discussion that was occurring around Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War at that time. It is fair to say that, at that age and as an older teenager, I certainly had a few differences with Mr Fraser's opinion about those issues, and about what had occurred. But, since that time, my respect and admiration grew and grew as I saw that, fundamentally, throughout his life he stood firm on principles that he believed in very clearly right back then, principles like the dignity and equality of people, and the importance of delineating and upholding important fundamental human rights. I also saw something that I admire-that is, a willingness to change and to grow as the evidence before him-and before any of us-changed his understanding about things. An example that commentators have been reflecting on since his death is his stance on foreign affairs, and the importance of Australia maintaining independence in foreign affairs and not being subservient to any ally, including the United States.

My father was a conservative and a staunch Liberal party supporter: if anyone had told my father about the situation that I would be in now, making these reflections-I well remember some very robust arguments around our kitchen table in the 1970s between my father and my older brothers and sisters; in particular, about the Vietnam War and about the Dismissal-or that one day, in the second decade of the 21st century, I would be shaking hands with Mr Fraser after a forum on refugees, and that he would be kindly disposed to say hello to me and to speak with me, I doubt my dad would have been able to believe it. To me, that is one more example of having lived long enough to learn and realise that we just do not know where life is going to take us. We think we do when we are young, but if we live long enough we are constantly surprised. It has reminded me of something that I think is really important to take through life, and that is the importance of humility-the idea that we can be pretty sure that we are right, almost 100 per cent sure sometimes, but that we always allow the possibility that new information may come in, or that we may experience new things that we could not possibly have imagined before, which will cause us to grow and to change our minds. Having seen the rapprochement between former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, I think that forgiveness and humanity in human affairs and public affairs is also very important. The other thing I take from Mr Fraser's legacy is his courage-the courage to identify what is important and to make principled decisions, even if they are not popular and even if they are not necessarily understood by those around us.

In particular I am talking about decisions that he made, which I will go through and talk about in a minute, that relate to human rights particularly and his stance on welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to Australia and always being mindful of the inherent humanity and dignity of every person, which of course started in the 1970s with his approach to Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Vietnam war and has continued through what has occurred in more recent times.

Many people have spoken about the many aspects of Malcolm Fraser's legacy but I will focus today particularly on his unswerving stance on human rights. We know that Mr Fraser established the original Human Rights Commission in 1981, and he has been a strong defender of that organisation ever since. As recently as February this year he spoke out powerfully in defence of the president, Professor Gillian Triggs, describing her, among many other accolades, as a very good distinguished lawyer. At that time he felt the need to defend her because Professor Triggs was being attacked by the current Prime Minister and members of this government. He also spoke out powerfully in defence of the work of the commission in inquiring into the issue that has bedevilled governments of both complexions-the detention of children in Australia. In an article inThe Sydney Morning Herald of 4 February, Mr Fraser offered a more general reflection on the state of human rights and the rule of law in Australia:

Because of the increase of arbitrary powers, not subject to appeal or review, that the government has granted its own ministers, the work of the commission is more necessary than it has ever been.

In that article he talked about the expansion of ministers' powers, without any judicial review, without any possibility of appeal, and about the extension of ASIO's powers curtailing basic rights and freedoms, arguing that this is consistent with a clear wish by the government to place its actions outside the rule of law. Malcolm Fraser was always an upholder of the rule of law, understanding just how fundamentally important that is for the kind of Australia that we all say that we want to live in. He went on in that article:

These actions make the Australian Human Rights Commission even more important to safeguard remaining freedoms and to prevent a full introduction of a police state ...

These are serious words, and I think this is a time that we need to consider how serious those words are and why he felt moved to write them. In 2000, Mr Fraser was awarded the Human Rights Medal for his leadership in human rights. The judges at the time pointed out that he had provided national leadership in the pursuit of human rights over a long period. Mr Fraser showed     consistent support for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and many people have commented on his staunch, unwavering leadership in the fight against racism both nationally and internationally.

In 1976 he legislated land rights for the first time in the form of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, and I know how important that legislation was for Aboriginal people in Australia. It still remains some of the strongest land rights law in this country. As has also been noted by many, he was a leading figure in the Commonwealth in the fight against apartheid, which after many years resulted in a democratic and inclusive South Africa and ended white minority rule in what we now know as Zimbabwe.

After Mr Fraser left politics, he was joint chairman in 1985 of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons against Apartheid in South Africa. He had met Nelson Mandela while Mandela was in prison, saying of him to the ABC:

I suppose I see in Mandela all the aspirational things we would like to be, but we know in our hearts we often fall short.

It strikes me that in showing courage and leadership in matters that are so important, Malcolm Fraser did not fall short.

I turn to the issue of refugees. It is notable that Malcolm Fraser accepted Australia's responsibility towards asylum seekers, welcoming them as a result of a war in which he willingly enabled Australia to participate. Following the end of the Vietnam War, of course, there were many people fleeing Vietnam and during the Fraser years Australia welcomed 200,000 immigrants from Asia, more than 55,000 of whom were Vietnamese boat people. The South Australian Governor, Hieu Van Le, a very admirable and impressive man in his own right, has paid tribute to the opportunity he received, as a boat person fleeing the Vietnam War and coming to Australia, from the Fraser government and Malcolm Fraser's open and far-sighted response to our responsibility to refugees from a war that we had participated in. In Australia we have all benefited from the opportunities that were given to so many people who fled then, and have fled wars and conflict and persecution throughout Australia's history. I would like to think that we will continue to benefit from opening up our hearts and offering protection to those people who come to us seeking asylum.

Mr Fraser remained staunch in his stance on the decency and the humanity that we needed to offer people seeking asylum in Australia. That was one of the core principles that he never wavered from. He lived long enough to see, I think with great sadness, the slippery slope that we have ended up on in Australia in terms of the way we treat refugees. In 2011, in conversation with Melbourne University political scientist Professor Robyn Eckersley, Mr Fraser lamented that refugee policy by both Liberal and Labor parties had ended up playing 'to the rednecked people in the Australian community' because that would get the votes. For many years he criticised the bipartisan approach of the major parties to refugees.         In 2013 wrote in The Age:

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are proving there are no depths to which they will not sink to persuade the Australian people they are the toughest in relation to asylum seekers. The demonising of asylum seekers continues apace.

Unfortunately there is no indication that the situation has changed since that time; it is arguable that it has become even worse. As recently as last December, Mr Fraser spoke at the opening of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Footscray. He stated-it must have been sad for him to do this-that Australia was becoming known around the world as one of the most inhumane, uncaring and selfish of all the wealthy countries.


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