I will not forget my first opportunity to meet Malcolm Fraser in an airport lounge, where, with humility you wouldn't expect from a former Prime Minister, he introduced himself to me and then asked at what point there was going to be a new political party formed with particular people from the Labor Party and particular people from the Coalition. I think in the years that have intervened, almost every one of us has been accepted and expelled from that party in Malcolm's mind over the years. It does show the forthrightness of somebody who leaves public office but never retires from public life, and an example to all in that.
There is one part of Malcolm Fraser's legacy as Prime Minister, which I expect no-one, other than me, would refer to given the Department of Finance traditionally has been the most hated department within any Government. As I am the only person holding the portfolio in the room, because the Minister is in the other place, I should acknowledge the Department of Finance was a creation of the Fraser Government. When each side of politics talks about the need for being careful in spending, we all know in that process the role of the Department of Finance is absolutely paramount and has been an important part of economic rigour ever since that point.
There are two elements of the Fraser legacy that I wish to focus on. The first is with respect to environmental protection, the other multiculturalism.
On environmental protection, we need to remember that the Fraser Government was to set a new standard in what a conservative Government would do following a Labor Government. It was a long time since there had been a Labor Government, and it was open to the Fraser Government had they wished to, particularly with the thumping majority he received, to simply try and clear the decks of every part of the Labor legacy. Instead in many ways, in particular in environmental reform, Malcolm Fraser made the judgement call to build on the legacy of the Whitlam Government.
Where the Whitlam Government established the legislation allowing for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Malcolm Fraser commenced the process of declaring it. Where the Whitlam Government had signed up to the World Heritage convention, the Fraser Government made the decisions to start declaring places to be part of that World Heritage list. The Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and, while it became more famous as a reform of the Hawke Government, it is also true that the Franklin River was put on the World Heritage list by the Fraser Government.
In multiculturalism the role of Malcolm Fraser needs to be given the full level of recognition. The term had been used, it had been used by Whitlam Government ministers, in fact it had been used by Malcolm Fraser himself when he was a minister in the Gorton Government. But if we think of how controversial that term was, if we remember that up until that point, up until the beginning of the conversation about a multicultural Australia, the main pathway of discussion of immigration within Australia was about keeping people out. In particular, of using language tests as the device to keep people out.
It should probably come as no surprise that while the term was being used in policy circles, while it was being used at community events, no-one was using the term within the parliament. While the parliament was being held in the different room, the dispatch boxes are the same and 41 years ago, almost to the day, at this dispatch box, Malcolm Fraser, as Shadow Minister for Labour and Immigration became the first member of parliament to ever refer to us having a multicultural Australia or a multicultural society, here within the parliament.
As Prime Minister he set about an important review of settlement services, conducted by the Victorian lawyer Frank Galbally. The significance of that review needs to be understood because this was not simply about Australia deciding the extent to which we would ‘tolerate’ people from other countries, it was deciding how we would invest to welcome people from other countries and to make their pathway into Australian society as seamless as possible.
As a result of that review, the Fraser Government expanded English language teaching services, expanded on arrival accommodation, orientation help, interpreting and translating services, helping recognise qualifications that people had achieved overseas and have those qualifications recognised here in Australia. Of course also establishing the multicultural resource centres which, to this day, provide a fundamental framework for the community in many of our electorates, in the MRCs around Australia.
In talking about multiculturalism, he also established the Institute of Multicultural Affairs. In his first address to them he stated:
“Multiculturalism is about diversity not division. It is about interaction, not isolation. It is about cultural and ethnic differences set within a framework of shared fundamental values which enables them to coexist on a complementary rather than competitive basis. It involves respect for the law and for our democratic institutions and processes.”
Much is made of that part of multiculturalism which involves refugees coming from Vietnam. I will refer to that in a moment, but it is important to pause and note that for multicultural Australia to work, leadership of our country can play a very direct role in facilitating the public conversation about that, beyond the laws, beyond the programs.
Establishing SBS we now mention as a footnote, that was a controversial decision to have taxpayers' money go to programs that had to be sub-titled, yet it provided a window to make sure that multicultural Australia wasn't something that communities just celebrated amongst themselves but were able to share those traditions with the rest of Australia.
The extent of what was done with respect to people coming from Vietnam, I think is made clear in a simple statistic: 300,000 people in refugee camps from Indo-China; 56,000 came to Australia from Vietnam alone. An extraordinary change to our nation and an extraordinary positive decision, but in terms of the leadership Malcolm Fraser was willing to offer on this, I think this quote says it all, when he says:
“If we had taken polls … I think people would have voted 80, 90 per cent against us but we explained the reasons for it.”
And went on to say:
“We were also working to get people to understand the idea and the reality of a multicultural Australia could be an enormous strength to this country not a weakness.”
In doing so Malcolm Fraser helped build on continuing to lay the groundwork for what is the best of so much of modern Australia. With respect to all his family, in particular to Tammy, may he rest in peace.