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Malcolm Fraser: public sector critic, reformer

For many who worked with him, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser was an enigma and intimidating, but led a “rewarding time” for capable bureaucrats. He was both a fierce critic of the Canberra bureaucracy’s culture when it isolated itself from public opinion, and a strong supporter of the corporate memory of a career public service.

As a reformer the public service, Fraser wanted to encourage empathy and accountability, such as through the creation of the first freedom of information scheme and the appointment of Australia’s first Commonwealth Ombudsman, Professor Jack Richardson in 1977. At the time, Fraser declared the need for “ensuring the departments and authorities are responsible, adaptive, and sensitive to the needs of citizens.”

In later interviews, Fraser insisted that he did not clash with his many departmental heads, in fact encouraged disagreement, but insisted on them being responsive to the wider public:

“Canberra really is a most insidious place and it’s getting worse. It’s getting larger and worse because it’s still a public service, political centre and you now have third generation public servants … I had a head of a Prime Minister’s Department saying to me in relation to correspondence, ‘What does it matter? It’s only from a member of the public’. And he should have known enough of me because permanent heads meet together and he would have known the permanent head in the army department, where I totally changed the culture of the department in relation to the public and indeed, in relation to the way they treated their own soldiers and members of the force. But to find the attitude repeated to me by the most senior public servant in the Commonwealth, you know, says — if politicians, if ministers don’t sit on that attitude through the public service, and it’s very hard, then nobody else will.”

He reserved his highest praise for the former head of the Department of Defence during his time as minister, Arthur Tange. “Because he was principled, able, thoughtful, very tough, very hard working,” and able to forcefully disagree with him, a trait Fraser strongly admired. He had less time for officials who couldn’t or wouldn’t defend their assertions or case.

A reputation quickly spread through the bureaucracy, although Fraser didn’t try to change: “I don’t think I’m intimidating and I haven’t [tried to moderate that] really — occasionally I have but I don’t really think I can you know. Public servants are dealing with all sorts of people all the time and if they’re too intimidated to put forward their point of view or to be able to argue their point of view, well, they probably haven’t got what it takes.”

As prime minister from 1975 to 1983, Fraser asserted discipline and the expansion and supremacy of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which he made work much harder than they had before, saying “a lot of the senior people worked Saturdays and Sundays, or late at night if something was needed … but all felt they were contributing and I never had any sense of complaint.” Fraser had three department heads during his time in the leadership: John Menadue, Sir Alan Carmody and Sir Geoffrey Yeend.

In 1981 for the Australian Quarterly, political science lecturer Fedor Mediansky and public servant James Nickels wrote how PM&C replaced Treasury in central functions, mostly due to the leadership style of Fraser himself:

“Under Mr Fraser the important change to PMC is not found in external attributes, in size or internal organisation. Rather that change is the result of the indispensable support provided by the department to Mr Fraser’s style of Cabinet government. In addition, the prestige of the department has grown to the point where its authority and broad ranging co-ordinating responsibilities are accepted by the other departments. At times it may be challenged on key issues by line departments but in overall terms, like its Prime Minister, it exercises a dominant coordinating role in government activities.”

Early in this period Fraser also tried to revert the growth of ministerial staff, preferring the public service as the chief source of advice, but the shift had already become permanent.

There was great value the institutional memory of a career public service, he said, compared with political appointments:

“If you’re advised by somebody who’s been advising two or three other prime ministers before you, has seen the mistakes they’ve made, the successes they’ve made, you’re going to be kept out of trouble much better than if you’d bring on your own principal person.

“… the [lack of a] culture of a permanent public service is something that has, through the years, led to, led very often to very poor quality government in the United States. Six months of every American administration, so six months out of every four years is lost and wasted while the presidents desperately try and appoint people to a whole multitude of jobs. And in relation to the public service we, unfortunately, are significantly going down the same track.”

Tributes have flowed for Fraser from community and political leaders, including opponents and even those who at the time feared him, such as former high court justice Michael Kirby:

“Everyone in the public sector was a little bit scared of Malcolm Fraser. There were the razor gangs. Whether you survived or not, was always a question. We were all frightened of Malcolm.

“He was always reserved, that gave him an aura of control that kept you on your toes.”

Former mandarin Paul Barrett was a senior official through Fraser’s prime ministership, but first crossed paths earlier in both their careers at the Education and Science portfolio. Barrett told The Mandarin it was a significant time for good public service:

“I remember it as a professionally rewarding time when public servants could afford to be very forthright in the advice they gave to government. It was a period when there was vigorous inter-departmental debate, when people could put their views without fear or favour, and those views would end up on the cabinet table for consideration in the decision-making process.”

Always concerned with human rights during his time in office, later in life Fraser became an advocate for an inquiry into the war in Iraq. He never gave up his passion for a humane approach to asylum seekers.

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.