For many Australians, especially on the left, his road to the premiership was tainted by the original sin of having taken power in a bloodless coup, when he convinced Australia’s governor-general to appoint him prime minister (and ousting Labor’s Gough Whitlam) in the middle of a political meltdown that, to this day, serves as a touchstone for constitutional crisis in Australia. As defence minister from 1969 to 1971, Fraser was among the first officials who bore responsibility for bringing Australia into the US-led Vietnam quagmire.
Fraser, who quickly won his own mandate in 1975, and again in 1977 and in 1980, died today at age 84. He served as prime minister from the center-right Liberal Party and, though he came to office with a reputation for very conservative rhetoric, governed more as the patrician Ted Heath than free-marketeer Margaret Thatcher. Though he’d become Australia’s third-longest serving prime minister — he left public office after his 1983 defeat by popular Labor leader Bob Hawke — he became in his later years a pariah in Liberal circles, beginning with what many young Liberal firebrands believed to be a milquetoast and unambitious record for an eight-year premiership.
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In his later years, however, Fraser became something else altogether. When his former treasurer, John Howard, returned the Liberals to power in 1996, he quickly found in Fraser more of a critic than an ally. The most searing rupture came over Iraq, ironically, with Fraser denouncing Howard’s willingness to send Australian troops to fight an American war in the Middle East.
By the end, Fraser had made peace with his ally Whitlam, who preceded Fraser, his old rival, in death by just five months. Fraser had so alienated Howard and the Liberal hierarchy that Fraser became he of an inconvenient fact, too contrarian to embrace with a record too long to forget.
Like Bush, however, whose efforts to reverse the HIV/AIDS plague across sub-Saharan Africa loom larger to his legacy with every passing year, Fraser too had a humanitarian side. He was a friend to the opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime before it became a politically safe position, and he even opposed white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, hastening the rise of majority rule in the new Zimbabwe (at a time when no one could have known just how horrendously Robert Mugabe would betray the promise of its independence). He pushed forward legislation to boost indigenous Australians, and he boosted immigration by welcoming Vietnamese refugees to Australia.
He died unloved — neither by the Liberals who viewed the Fraser years as a wasted opportunity nor by the Labor stalwarts who thought Fraser nothing more than a usurper. But his final message is one that US policymakers should hear more often, as outlined in his 2014 book, Dangerous Allies, a critique of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Australia.
Fraser’s most enduring legacy, beyond the disastrous constitutional plotting that ended Whitlam’s premiership, will be the voice he found later in life, two decades after the end of his own premiership in questioning Australia’s passive willingness to join the United States in short-sighted foreign policy.
Here’s some of the most blunt moments of a long interview that Fraser gave to the Sydney Morning Herald:
We’ve followed America into three wars, really — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Two of them were unmitigated failures.
We transferred strategic dependence to the United States. During the Cold War, this was justifiable. But at the end of the Cold War, a number of things have happened. I believe America has changed substantially, the world has changed substantially, and it’s time for Australia to stand up and establish the circumstances in which we can make our own decisions and decide what we’re going to do with our own future. I’m asking Australia to break with her long past, the whole history of Australia from colonial times through 1990-91.
A lot of my friends think if we get into trouble, America will protect us. I don’t really believe that…. I think [the ANZUS Treaty is] a very weak commitment on America’s part, and I’ve never believed that it guarantees Australia’s future. There are three occasions when America has chosen Indonesia over Australia. Now Australian governments haven’t trumpeted this. They don’t want to tell the world that America is prepared to choose Indonesia over Australia. America is our great and powerful friend, and we have ANSUS. Well, it’s time we started to wash away the myth and look at reality.
It’s a powerful message from someone who represents a party that has allied itself with the United States more than any other country’s leadership in the world, more than Canada and much of Europe.
Even if you don’t believe that Fraser’s criticisms about US foreign policy are strong, it’s notable that he’s one of the most visible skeptics of US president Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia,’ arguing that Australia should decouple itself from US foreign policy, lest the country be dragged into yet another conflict between the United States and a rising China as the region’s superpower:
America has two policies in relation to China. On the one hand, they have a strategic and economic dialogue that appears to go quite well. But then they seem to build up their defenses, from Japan down through Australia across to Singapore and Malaysia, and even now trying to embrace India in a strategic relationship. And the Chinese believe this is a policy of containment. So my Chinese friends say to me, ‘Which American policy do we believe? The one of consultation and collaboration? Or the one of containment?’
America has already has massive military power in the region, it does not need more. American policy in the Middle East has not been spectacularly successful; I don’t want to see them making the same mistakes in the western Pacific, in the region in which we live, and I don’t want to be tied to mistakes if they are being involved in unfortunate adventures throughout our part of the world.
You don’t have to buy into the anti-Americanism of the global left (and, increasingly, right) to realize that losing Fraser was worth at least a point of reevaluation of US priorities, not only with respect to Australia, but to its growing role in Asia altogether.