The news that Malcolm Fraser is helping Sarah Hanson-Young’s campaign in South Australia was met with a variety of reactions on Twitter that were entirely predictable. Labor supporters scoffed (and continued a long running campaign against Hanson-Young’s propensity to show emotion during press conferences), Liberal supporters continued to bad mouth Fraser’s years as PM and Greens supporters were left to either be delighted that a former PM was making a stand for refugees or scratching their heads. The latter because many Greens are former Labor party supporters to whom Fraser is an enemy, the bloke against whom they “maintained the rage” for many years. For some observers, the Fraser “switch” to a “socialist” party like the Greens was evidence of either him going soft or the Greens selling out. It is neither. For me, it has given me pause to reflect on my father.
My dad was born three years before Malcolm Fraser, but died some 16 years ago. He was, however, a supporter of the Fraser era Liberals and, with my mum, was a member of the Liberal Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. My house growing up was a heavily political house, in that I was taught to believe that Gough Whitlam was a wasteful PM whose government took unnecessary risks and made financially imprudent decisions like making university education free. To this end, that is why I, aged 9, handed out HTVs for the Liberal candidate in the 1981 state election – a hopeless cause, as Merrylands was a safe seat, containing the Deputy Premier, Jack Ferguson – the father of Martin, Laurie and Andrew. What I remember distinctly from that experience was the friendliness of the Labor volunteers and their excitement of listening to Newtown defeat Easts in the Preliminary Grand Final – a result that was to make the next week Grand Final easier for Parramatta to win. It was the first time I’d ever heard a rugby league game broadcast.
Dad liked the Liberals of that era because they were, in his eyes, decent people who wanted to preserve the traditions present in society and the status quo, as well as small businesses. He was a small business owner in 1981, but had previously had a number of roles in life. He had been a youth club manager for the YMCA, a camp manager at various mines in the north of Australia, then a personnel manager at a dairy processing factory. He was, in many ways, a tough man – his jobs had made him appear that way and he looked like a rugby league prop – but he also had a soft and gentle heart – which I saw whenever he had Beethoven on the record player. This meant that he was never interested in playing competitive sports – unlike many of his relatives, who were deeply involved in the world of rugby league. In addition, the last job as personnel manager took too much of a toll on him – his high blood pressure caused by caring about what was happening to workers who had to be retrenched or affected by company policy in some other way. He always cared too much – and was always less than diplomatic, he told me, which I always took as part warning and part regret. He knew I would go on to be less than diplomatic as well.
He was, but the time I was aware of what he did, a self made, hard working businessman who looked after plants in various offices and banks around Sydney. Three days a week made him enough money to make him happy and give us a comfortable life. Watching him talk to the various bank managers and other people who employed him made me realise that he didn’t care who he was talking to – he treated everyone the same, no matter their position in life. And he was respected for that, no matter how daggy he may have looked in shirts that my mother made for him.
Dad saw in the Liberals a party that wanted to protect what had been as well as people like him – self made businessmen who didn’t want to have to worry about lots of red tape involved with employing others to work for him. He also saw a party that respected the basic dignity of individuals, no matter who they were and where they came from. I remember vividly the happy times we had with a Mauritian work colleague that Dad had sponsored as a part of that colleague’s migration to Australia. If people worked hard, Dad liked them all. One of my last memories of Dad was when we went on our last holiday to Ballina, booked when it was clear that he was near the end of his life. He insisted that Mum and I take off to the Gold Coast for the day and enjoy ourselves while he rested. I remember him, as we left, having a long chat with the motel’s cleaning staff and seeing them have a laugh and a smile.
Dad and Mum left the Liberals in the early 80s when they saw a group of venal young men start to take over the branch at Merrylands. Men who were in the party for power and to see how much money could be made through that power. Dad saw how selfish and disrespectful these men were – anyone with a lack of dignity offended his sense of equality and decency. This was no longer the party of Fraser, John Dowd and the like. This was the origins of what we now see as the Liberal Party of today – the party symbolised by the hardness of Mirabella, Morrison, Hockey and Abbott.
Dad went on to be politically homeless – he could never support the Labor Party, the party of union power, of Hawke, Keating and the like. We infrequently talked about politics in the 90s, except for a couple of occasions. There was his retirement in 1992, when, seeing an inevitable GST, he said “I’m not going to become a tax collector for the Government”. He also became the head of the local Neighbourhood Watch group, which he turned in a local advocacy group for issues in our suburb, when there had been none before. This is why he expressed in running as an independent for the local council, chiefly because our town hadn’t had a representative in the council’s history. It was only a passing ambition, though – he knew he didn’t have the backing of a party or a lot of money and then he became sick.
If doorknocking in one township was the only requirement for an election, however, then Dad would have won in a landslide – as the head of Neighbourhood Watch, he knew most of the residents and had a lot of friends because he listened to them. This respect for Dad was communicated to me in spades when I turned up to the next meeting held after his passing – they loved him and wanted me to walk in his steps. I tried, but couldn’t and left the district soon after, due to work issues. But in that time I ran the Neighbourhood Watch group, it was clear to me, at least, I wasn’t my father.
Flash forward to more recent times, and it is clear that the political landscape has changed significantly from the times of Fraser and my father. I was fortunate enough to be provided the opportunity by the Greens to do what Dad never did and run for the same council he wanted to join. I, however, am not shaped like a politician or even a social galvaniser like Dad. I, having not long returned to the area of my youth, walked into a difficult situation. The previous councillor had managed to alienate a lot of people, the Liberal and Labor party did a preference deal to squeeze out the Greens, and it was a campaign where it was difficult to get noticed. Plus, my job and family situation meant that I had little time for door knocking or community work.
Not that all that concerned me greatly. When the figures came out to show my loss, I was disappointed for 10 seconds. That was my Dad’s disappointment, not mine. I realised at that moment that I didn’t have the heart, passion or time that Dad would have had for helping the people I met during the campaign. Nor did I have the interest in playing the games I saw being played. A poignant moment of the campaign came for me when my mother passed away halfway through the campaign. The morning after, I still had to turn up to a pre polling booth with materials for voters. One of my opponents sympathised genuinely with me as I told him my news, and then, at the end of the conversation, asked whether I was going to a council meeting that night because of some motion that was being proposed that I had supported in the media. I can understand why he asked – he was fully geared for the campaign and to this day feel no ill will towards him for being focused on helping the community as best he can. I clearly wasn’t, however, a politician in that mould. I was a little startled and said no.
I knew this was a changed world when not long after the defeat, I was having yet another argument on Twitter when a particular tweep used my losing result against me in a nasty and gratuitous manner, completely out of the context of the argument. I protect my anonymity for a variety of important reasons, but here was someone wishing to use my real life disappointment against me in something as silly as a Twitter argument. Suddenly, I could feel the weight of my father’s hopes sitting on my shoulders and the weight of that disappointment hitting me in the face, brought up by a Twitter user used to belittling and not caring about the result of his actions. And then two of his friends came in to belittle me further – both of them supporters of the Liberal Party. Here I was being told that I was a fool and should be a figure of derision, a failure, for wanting to help people, to be at the call of others wanting things to be fixed in their area. It was another defining moment for me – and the aftermath showed me who my true friends were on Twitter.
It briefly made me wonder why it is I even go on Twitter and talk to people about politics, about issues that I feel are important. Many tweeps chide me for being too serious, too earnest, for caring too much. They will say the same for me still harbouring the pain caused on that night. Chastised for being too much like my father, is what I hear. One is supposed to be insouciant on Twitter – not care about things that are said for more than an hour. That is why Dad could never have coped with it. For one, he would have gone mad with the silly things said about politics and society on a daily basis. Far too serious about important matters, was Dad. He would have said “what do I care about what is said from the peanut gallery?”. I am not as serious for the most part, but occasionally, I make a stand and refuse to be insouciant – which makes me a target of that same peanut gallery, I know.
And now we have Malcolm Fraser, a liberal man of a similar age of my father, being a figure of derision when he believes that a stand needs to be made in regards to basic human dignity in the way we as a nation treat asylum seekers. I am not for one moment comparing a figure like my father to Malcolm Fraser, but where I do see a similarity is in the concept of making a stand for things that seem important as well as where the modern Liberal Party stands. Australia is a rich nation, a fortunate nation, a nation of great diversity made to seem like a small minded, penny pinching, nation of amateur accountants, seeing asylum seekers as a threat to that wealth, a waste of money. A nation built by Fraser’s mean spirited, hollowman treasurer, John Howard. Malcolm Fraser wants to use his presence as an elder statesman to ask people to pause and reflect on how the way we treat those less fortunate reflects on us as a people. His stand really has revealed a lot about where people on Twitter and in the wider community are in terms of this issue.
It has also showed how far to the reactionary and neo-liberal – not the right – the “LIberal” Party have gone. That party, with the leaving of people like Judi Moylan and Petro Georgiou seems interested just in making government smaller and give them less responsibility for keeping the institutions and public sector of the community going, instead protecting big business, selling off public assets and land as well as the fostering the “right” of anyone to make money, at whatever cost to the morality and dignity of the nation. A party that thinks that videos like this are a right and proper way to conduct politics:
My statement will appear too moralistic / preachy / patronising / antediluvian to many and really, they are entitled to believe that. I will never agree with them.
It also shows that the Greens and their supporters aren’t only what many in the media and on Twitter will tell you, a group of socialist “watermelons” who live in the inner city, refugees of the Whitlamite Labor Party and socialist parties or hipster university students from affluent families, playing politics as a game. Election data will tell people the truth – that the Greens are also supported by a lot of people like me – Blue – Greens, who aren’t necessarily from affluent backgrounds who believe the Greens are about conserving a lot of what is great about Australia – the environment, public institutions, the public service, public transport, unions that are about serving their members, those less fortunate and a dignified approach to the processing of asylum seeker claims that remembers that the asylum seekers are human beings, not numbers on boats. Most of the asylum seekers who apply for asylum are genuine refugees, not “illegals” or “economic refugees” as Bob Carr, long time opponent of large population growth in Australia would have people believe. But people know that. Or maybe they don’t, and there are many Fraser era liberals out there who need to hear that message – help them realise how far away from them the Conservatives / Neo Liberal Party of Australia have gone away from them.
I know my father would probably still never vote Green – except for me, I’m pretty sure. I would have told him pretty quickly that I would have been a pretty pragmatic Green councillor – interested chiefly in doing what I could to preserve the natural environment and helping local groups and institutions continuing to provide services for the community – not issues irrelevant to council operations. Voting for the Greens otherwise would have been a stretch for him. But he would have listened more to Malcolm Fraser than to Tony Abbott. And he wouldn’t be the only one of that era who would be.