10/06/2010 - 00:00

Liberal leadership moves on

10/06/2010 - 00:00


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Few will mourn Malcolm Fraser’s resignation from the Liberal Party.

LAST December’s seemingly amicable parting of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party highlighted just how common such divorces are between Australian leaders and the political parties they’d led.

Before surveying this little-noted occurrence some comments on this one.

Firstly, why did he resign?

We don’t know because he’s been so coy about it, not even releasing a copy of his resignation letter.

However, the fact that it happened either just before or soon after the Liberals dumped Malcolm ‘My Way or the Highway’ Turnbull suggests he backed the imposition of a Kevin Rudd-style across-the-board impost upon Australia’s economy – a carbon emission tax.

We’ve also heard suggestions it may have been because the Liberals intended moving to block foreigners sailing in from various parts of the world expecting to gain residency and citizenship by claiming they’re being persecuted.

If that’s so then he’s adopted what so-called human rights lawyers contend – that Australia should lose control over who can or cannot enter the country.

That would be a strange stance by a former prime minister, since a major reason for Australia’s colonies federating was to ensure full control over immigration.

A country cannot be too careful over whom it gives residency and citizenship to, especially in these increasingly dangerous times.

Whichever, and we can only guess, the divorce wasn’t unexpected.

Mr Fraser has been sniping at his party from the sidelines for years. So it’s best they go their separate ways.

That said, we should note that Mr Fraser, over his nearly 30 years in parliament, received more loyalty than he appears to have given his party and some of its leaders.

And receiving such loyalty meant the party underpinned his salary for years, provided him with a place in the history books, a handsome pension, free international travel, thousands of free lunches, plus lots more.

And he’s reported having said: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”.

This much we can say: gratitude certainly isn’t Mr Fraser’s longest and strongest suit.

There was nothing stopping him, after leaving parliament in 1983, from attending Victorian Liberal Party annual conferences and moving motions to change things if he had policy differences.

I suspect one reason he never did was that he knew full well how useless Liberal Party rank-and-file calls for change are.

He’d have known that because, as a minister and prime minister, he ignored many such motions.

One I vividly recall from the early 1980s was the dogged attempt of young university Liberals Australia-wide calling for voluntary student unionism on tertiary campuses.

They objected to being conscripted into student unions.

Mr Fraser had the power to implement this, as indeed, the Howard government belatedly did in 2003.

Why didn’t Mr Fraser take up the cause in 1980?

Surely not because he put his friendships and association with highly paid vice-chancellors, who lobbied against this, ahead of the Liberal principle of voluntary association?

Although Malcolm Fraser isn’t a politician State Scene regarded highly, did he have any positives?

The answer is, yes, three.

Firstly, he showed genuine interest in maintaining a strong defence for Australia.

This was in direct contrast to his later weakening on the issue of unauthorised arrivals into Australian waters.

So many politicians, in fact most who enter federal politics, ignore the defence question even though the federation was primarily created to better defend the realm.

Secondly, he’s the last Liberal leader to show respect and regard for Australia’s rapidly vanishing federal governance arrangement.

So much so that early in his first government he offered the states the power to impose their own income tax regimes if they desired, something from which all ran like scaredy cats while still grizzling and griping about not getting enough hand-outs from Canberra each year.

If the states had taken-up that offer, sensible arrangements could have been devised with Canberra to steadily do away with central government (Section 96) grants.

That’s another way of saying state begging would have ceased, with the national Treasury’s income tax levels being slashed commensurately and costly duplication between our huge state and federal bureaucracies promptly eradicated.

What would have followed from that is complete removal of duplication in so many areas, which currently cost taxpayers more than $20 billion annually in bureaucratic overload and wasteful backward and forward transfers, called churning.

By removing duplication, Canberra could have moved out of a range of state areas of responsibility – education, health, transport and the environment, among others – and at long last would have given deserved attention to overall national economic management, defence and proper administration of areas such as immigration.

In other words, we’d all be far better off.

Instead the states wanted two-bob-each-way, meaning the opportunity to publicly and interminably gripe and grizzle, while at the same time remaining mendicants, but pretending to be vibrant independent entities.

That brave Fraser attempt to unshackle the states from Canberra makes him a stand-out post-war Liberal figure, unlike John Howard who was a clandestine centralist, and now Kevin Rudd, who is constantly beefing up Canberra’s powers, thereby ensuring the states will simply wither away.

And finally, Mr Fraser had the courage to go all the way to remove the worst government Australia had had, the one led by Gough Whitlam.

Unfortunately, he’s been sliding ever since, to the point of inventing fairy tales about the late Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s role in removing the Whitlam government.

Malcolm Fraser, to his eternal discredit has, since retiring, steadily backpedalled on so many of his strengths, to the point where he’s spent so much time chasing acclamation from Australia’s influential leftist elites by either joining their campaigns or speaking up for them.

Little wonder regret has been lacking since he announced his departure.

That said let’s also not forget that his departure is far from an original step.

Two Labor prime ministers, Billy Hughes and Chris Watson, did likewise in 1916 while still in parliament.

Although Mr Hughes resigned from the Nationalists in 1929, he rejoined in 1931, and went on to lead the successor United Australia Party from 1941 to 1943.

And former Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, spectacularly resigned from his Liberal seats of Higgins in 1975, but stood as an independent Senate candidate for the Australian Capital Territory.

And three Australian Democrats leaders resigned from their party: Janet Powell, who formed the Janet Powell Independent Network, and later joined the Greens; Cheryl Kernot, who joined the Australian Labor Party; and Meg Lees, who resigned and formed another party.

And Labor’s tumultuous ex-leader, Mark Latham, if still on NSW Labor’s membership list, is certainly estranged.

His The Latham Diaries carries damning remarks about the ALP, including a quote from Vere Gordon Childe, author of the 1923 classic How Labor Governs.

“The Labor Party, starting as a band of inspired socialists, degenerated into a vast machine for capturing power, but did not know how to use that power when attained except for the profit of individuals.”

So Mr Fraser is hardly a pioneer in this regard.




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