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Vale Malcolm Fraser

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 23 Mar 2015

I am glad and I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to speak on this condolence motion today for Malcolm Fraser. I attended a celebration of Harmony Day on Saturday in my home town of Footscray, and the Mayor of Maribyrnong, Councillor Nam Quach, spoke and paid tribute to Mr Fraser there. I last Nam the last time I met Malcolm Fraser, which was at the opening of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Footscray in December last year. Malcolm gave a cracker of a speech at that event, which I will return to. But it was Nam's speech on that occasion that moved me the most, leaving me with tears in my eyes.

Nam spoke of his parents having been Vietnamese refugees; of their escape from persecution on a leaky fishing boat to a refugee camp with Nam's older brothers who were then only very, very young; and—upliftingly—of how they did not need to stay very long in the camp because they were promptly accepted as refugees to resettle in Australia. Nam was very moved to be sharing the platform that day with Malcolm Fraser: the man he and the broader Vietnamese community in Australia, quite rightly, feel an enormous amount of gratitude to. What would Nam's life—his family's life—have been without Malcolm Fraser's decision to accept tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees? I was moved, thinking of Nam and his family, and thinking of the thriving, successful Vietnamese-Australian community, thinking of the contribution they have made to Australia in the last 40 years—to Melbourne, to my home town, Footscray—and thinking of the symbolism and the achievement of Nam, as a Vietnamese Australian from a refugee family, now Mayor of Maribyrnong—and thinking of how things are different now; thinking of the lives that we are destroying in detention centres in Australia, in Nauru and on Manus Island—the lives of people who likewise just want to contribute; to settle down and begin a new life, and to contribute to Australia.

Malcolm Fraser was a complex man. But what shines through to me, what prompted me to contribute to this condolence motion and to pay my respects to him, is his humanity, his willingness to learn and change, and his willingness to take a strong stand and speak out where he saw injustice. These are such important attributes for a leader to have. Like many others in this place, I came of age politically in the 1970s. As a teenager I was shocked and upset by the dismissal. I grieved for the Whitlam government's education and health measures that were dispensed with over the following years. As a first-year university student in 1979 enjoying fee-free studies, I marched against Fraser's razor gang cuts and shouted 'Shame Fraser, shame' with the rest of them. Then, as a passionate campaigner to save the Franklin River, I was overjoyed with the Hawke government's election in 1983.

But times changed. Fraser's stance against apartheid, his founding of CARE, his heading up of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and his support for reconciliation with Indigenous Australia all shifted him in my eyes and in the eyes of many others. I know what tipped him for me from being a former Liberal prime minister who does some good things to something more—it was his reaction to the beginning of the race to the bottom on refugees, the Tampaincident in 2001. He said about that:

I guess we've got some people in Canberra who believe that what they're doing is right. I believe it is profoundly wrong.

I think putting the SAS onto the Tampa did more to damage Australia worldwide than any other single act of government.

His speaking out then, and as we later learned his almost resigning from the Liberal Party then, was in fact completely consistent with his views when he was Prime Minister, when he stated in 1981:

The less constructively a society responds to its own diversity the less capable it becomes of doing so. Its reluctance to respond, fuelled by the fear of encouraging division, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy—the erosion of national cohesion is a result not of the fact of diversity but of its denial and suppression.

They are words that ring very true today. They were also consistent with his views a decade later, in 2010:

This is a demeaning debate, it's a miserable one. It also shows that the politicians who participated in this debate have contempt for all of us, for the majority of the Australian people. They believe that despite all the evidence to the contrary, that if they appeal to the fearful and mean sides of our nature, they will win support.

I met and heard Mr Fraser speak a number of times over the last decade. His care and compassion shone through each time. The events of 1975, and even earlier, with his role as defence minister sending troops including conscripts to Vietnam, seemed a long time ago—which brings me to the Malcolm Fraser I am grieving for today. This is the Malcolm Fraser who spoke out at the launch of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. His speech last December focussed on the asylum seekers legislation that was passed here on the last sitting day of last year. I want to quote from that speech at length, because his words are significant and they deserve to be heard as we mourn his loss:

Our democratic system depends on the "rule of law", it depends on due process, on properly produced evidence, on precedents and on a process that is open to appeal by a higher authority. This legislation gives to the minister, Scott Morrison now, or whoever it may be in the future, total arbitrary, dictatorial, tyrannical powers over the lives and fortunes of asylum seekers. It destroys the "rule of law" as we know it.

He continued in his speech:

Under the UN Refugee Convention, which Menzies signed onto in 1954, boat people were not illegal. The treaty says that those fleeing terror often travel by unorthodox means and often without papers. You could not go to a tyrant and say you have killed half my family, I want a passport and visa to leave this wretched country before you kill the other half of my family. It tears up international law, concerning what is called non-refoulement.

We must not send people back to countries where they might be subject to torture. This government now says people can change their behaviour, they can modify their behaviour and if they modify their behaviour they won't be subject to torture. Or they can live in another part of the country and they won't be subject to torture. How naive, how ignorant can this government be?

He went on to say, referring to the powers of the minister:

The minister's decisions are absolute, they are not subject to review. The determination procedures have been short-circuited to such an extent that any legitimate examination of a boat person's case would be almost impossible. This is a far cry from the Australia we used to know, but it is today's Australia.

Thank you, Mr Fraser, for your legacy, for your speaking out, and for your compassion and care and humanity right up to the final weeks of your life. You will be missed, your optimism and your belief that things can be change will be missed, as the ongoing campaign continues to bring back the care and compassion and humanity of the Australia we used to know. I extend my deepest sympathies to Mr Fraser's wife, Tamie, to his family, including his children and grandchildren, and to his many, many friends from around Australia and around the world.

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