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Issue #1552      20 June 2012

Fraser’s Whitlam Oration

Malcolm Fraser has become the darling of some progressive circles in recent times. The key figure in the coup against the Whitlam Government in 1975 appears to have spent the latter years of his retirement atoning for some of the divisions and suffering he had a major part in causing during his years as Prime Minister and as a minister in various pre-Whitlam Coalition governments. The late Bob Santamaria, an arch-reactionary commentator and strategist of the Catholic right in Australia in his prime, appeared to undergo a similar transformation in his twilight years.


Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Malcolm Fraser would have cemented his small “l” liberal reputation with his Whitlam Oration earlier this month. In an address entitled “Politics, Independence and the National Interest: the legacy of power and how to achieve a peaceful Western Pacific”, the former PM went to considerable lengths to identify himself with the more progressive trends of Australian political life and history. He paid homage to Whitlam’s role in ending the White Australia Policy and the pioneering initiative in recognising the People’s Republic of China. He lauded his predecessor’s part in the formulation of Aboriginal land rights legislation.

On the way through, Fraser lamented the return of the message of White Australia following the Tampa incident and a “race to the bottom” on the part of the major parties in terms of policy towards asylum seekers. He noted the failure to address Aboriginal disadvantage and dispossession and the further monopolisation of the media. “We have seen how in relation to the mining industry, three enormously wealthy individuals have sought to exercise political power, totally disproportionate to the merit of their argument,” he said.

For all his identification with progressive causes he said that he would probably still take the same steps he took in 1975 to depose his friend Gough Whitlam. He recast himself as a life-long opponent of Apartheid and even tried to portray Menzies as an Australian nationalist and a visionary ahead of his times.

The most quoted parts of the address dealt with the Australia/US alliance. It is stunning in these days of the dominant right-wing agenda for someone with as much influence over public opinion as a former prime minister to show anything but total devotion to this most sacred of political cows. He cast doubt on the judgement of successive US administrations in trying to impose its “democratic values” on societies as varied as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be too much to expect Fraser to question the true motives behind the US’s seemingly endless list of military adventures. The fact that he questions the wisdom of Australia’s endorsement of virtually all of them is, nevertheless, “brave” in respectable company.

Fraser is clear about the origins of ANZUS. It arose out of the Australia’s predicament in the early years of WWII. Britain was pre-occupied with the very real prospect of invasion by Nazi Germany. We were facing imminent occupation by imperial Japan.

“Once it became clear that Britain could not help us, we transferred our sense of dependence, which had dogged Australia since Federation, from Britain to the United States. That sense of dependence remains. Today I believe we should be old enough and mature enough to grow out of it,” he observed.

Fraser pointed out that the expectation of Australian governments that the US would rush to our aid with arms no matter what, was not supported by historical experience and, as a result, Australia could afford the luxury of disagreeing with Uncle Sam a bit more often. It would certainly help to partly restore our damaged image in the Western Pacific and South-East Asia.

The most topical and vital foreign affairs topic dealt with at some length by Fraser was the US’s relationship with China and its significance for Australia. Fraser says the US has a “two-track” strategy in its dealings with China. One is to pursue reassuring dialogue about economic and security matters; the other is to “contain” China’s influence with a ring of military bases and alliances. The US strenuously denies any policy of containment and talks instead of “rebalancing” military power to the Pacific.

“If that is the true American attitude, why does the United States talk of rebalancing military power to the Pacific? They already have massive power in the Pacific. More than all other nations combined. Do they really need more, for what purpose? What is the need to enhance naval cooperation with the Philippines and Singapore? What useful purpose do marines based in Darwin fulfil? What is the purpose of spy planes on Cocos Island? Add to this, strategic discussions involving the United States, India and Japan and naval exercises between those three countries.”

Fraser doesn’t concede the possibility that the US and its allies are actively preparing for war with China; a third “track” in its policy towards an emerging economic rival.

Fraser notes that China is not engaging in an arms race and that it would be starting from a ridiculously disadvantaged position in any case. China does not want the US to withdraw its influence from the region or to suffer a sudden, catastrophic economic collapse. Fraser would like China and the US to be genuine partners for peace and progress in the region. Australia’s foreign policy should be built on a different principle:

“It should be to establish a concert of nations with both the United States and China having equal seats at the table and other nations being appropriately involved.

“We should make it clear that we are opposed to the policy of containment. We should not take any actions that can be construed as supporting that objective and we should not support actions which suggest that military solutions offer an appropriate path to a peaceful Western Pacific, East and South-East Asia. That would be an assertion of Australian policy, principled and practical. It would gain support from many countries throughout the region.”

Hear, hear! For all his sound advice, Fraser supports the US alliance, albeit a looser, more equal and better informed one. He sees the US historically and currently as a force for good. According to Fraser, disasters like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are misadventures motivated by good intentions to establish “democracy” and the rule of law.

The reality that Australian governments have acted in the interests of the country’s ruling class to hitch our wagon to the interests of US imperialism is, quite naturally, beyond the capacity of the former PM for frankness. This analysis would, however, provide answers for the numerous questions posed by Fraser during his Whitlam Oration. Nevertheless, there are some pearls of wisdom for those in positions of power in Australia today if they are prepared to listen. One concerns the future:

“… there are some things that are likely, one of them is that if the United States believes the way to establish good relations with China is to have a military alliance of nations whose purpose is to limit China’s influence, or to contain China, the United States is mistaken. This is the wrong way to preserve peace and security. We should not be part of it.”  

Next article – The Pentagon seeks to regain the initiative in South America

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