On Friday morning 20 March, Australia learned that we have lost our 22nd Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Malcolm Fraser.
Malcolm Fraser was an important figure in my life. I arrived in Sydney as a refugee in June 1975, only months before the 11 November constitutional crisis. It has always been difficult for me to comprehend why there was so much hate coming from the left against Fraser. It was E.G. Whitlam, who in my eyes was the villain, because of his handling of the economy, his attitude against South Vietnamese refugees and Australia’s recognition of the incorporation of the Baltic republics into the Soviet Union. The Australian electorate made its judgment and the Fraser government won the largest ever majority.
My next significant experience of the Fraser government was that of losing my job in the Commonwealth Legal Aid Commission in Canberra as a result of “razor gang” actions. However, soon a new opportunity emerged – in 1981 I gained employment when the Fraser government created our first federal Human Rights Commission under the Chairmanship of Dame Roma Mitchell. I spent 5 years with the Commission working on a range of issues, including on the first human rights review of the Migration Act 1958. The Commission was created to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other antidiscrimination measures.
Fraser’s multicultural policies, however, had an enduring impact on my life in Australia. New multicultural policy frameworks were created and racial discrimination removed giving greater access to jobs, English language training and social welfare to new settlers. Fraser firmly believed that Australia’s culture is greatly enriched by the maintenance of diversity and he linked his political success with the advancement of multicultural policies.
Under Fraser, multiculturalism also emerged as a normative ideal of a society based on the principles of social cohesion, equality of opportunity and cultural identity. The Fraser government also believed that it is the government’s responsibility to respond to the settlement needs of migrants, and the 1978 Galbally report identified a need to provide special services and programs for all migrants to ensure equal opportunity of access to government-funded programs and services with a view to helping migrants to be self-reliant. To implement this ideal a range of bodies were established by the Fraser Government, including an advisory body the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, the research oriented Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs and the Special Broadcasting Service “to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society”.
Fraser was also a strong anti-communist. For me, as a refugee from communist Poland, this was very important. I admired his work in this area and collaborated with the Fraser-initiated 1979 Parliamentary Inquiry on Human Rights in Soviet Union under the Chairmanship of Senator John Wheeldon, with Professor Owen Harries, Fraser’s senior adviser on foreign affairs, Richard Krygier of Quadrant and many others. The Polish community in Australia was particularly grateful to Malcolm Fraser for his active support for the Polish workers movement Solidarity and in particular for his boycott of Moscow Olympics and for his generous and personal assistance for the Help Poland Live Appeal in 1981.
Many have observed that Fraser’s political views have moved from the right to the left in the years after he left government. Last year I attended the Whitlam Oration delivered by Fraser at the University of Western Sydney and I found his change of opinion about the usefulness of the USA-Australia military alliance to be particularly challenging but unsupportable.
His work for human rights and multicultural Australia, however, was consistent both in and out of government. Particular achievements in this area include: the establishment of the Australia’s first Human Rights Commission, the office of Commonwealth Ombudsman and the first Freedom of Information laws; removal of racial discrimination from Australia’s institutions, and in particular from our immigration practices; his deep interest in the advancement of indigenous people and in humanitarian work, including supporting asylum seekers and welcoming thousands of refugees form South Vietnam to Australia; and defining and on-going commitment to multiculturalism. Fraser’s unwavering opposition to apartheid won him high international standing. I also pay tribute to his anti-communist work that clearly contributed to the end of the Cold War and the freedom of East and Central Europe from communist oppression.
Fraser’s human rights work will be widely recognised and long remembered, as will his positive role in restoring economic calm after the turbulence of the Whitlam government experience.
Vale Malcolm Fraser.
Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM FAICD