Today Malcolm Fraser died at the age of eighty-four.
I interviewed him only once, on the occasion of the publication of his political memoire co-authored by my colleague at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, Dr Margaret Simons. Here’s a transcript of our conversation from 09/04/2010.
Malcolm Fraser has had a long life in Australian politics: the Oxford graduate entered federal parliament in 1955 at the age of about 25.
He became Minister for the Army and later Minister for Defence, and Education and Science. He then became prime minister, on 11 November 1975, following the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government.
He resigned from parliament following the March 1983 election defeat after nearly 28 years as the Member for Wannon. But his political life didn’t end there. From 1989, Malcolm Fraser helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa as co-chairman of the Commonwealth appointed Committee of Eminent Persons.
He was founding chairman of CARE Australia from 1987 to December 2001, and also served as president of CARE International. He still contributes to public life and public opinion both overtly and behind the scenes.
His co-author, Margaret Simons, is a freelance journalist and writer, a blogger and a teacher of journalism. Her books include The Meeting of the Waters, about the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Affair, and The Content Makers: Understanding the Australian Media. She is respected as a meticulous and intelligent reporter and commentator.
Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs is written by two authors, and their names appear in the same sized font on the cover. So, two strong minds, and one task to produce a book. But what kind of a book was it to be? A memoir? A history? A biography or an autobiography?
Can I take you, Malcolm Fraser, to the origins of the book? You and your government have been written about extensively. What was it that you wanted in this particular book? What was the important overall content for you?
Malcolm Fraser: Well, for quite a long while I hadn’t really wanted to write a book. I suppose there were a couple of reasons for that: I think memories are notoriously fallible and therefore you’ve got to do a lot of work checking everything in the archives, and I’d lived the life, I didn’t want to go through it a second time crawling through 600 yards of archives. So the hard work involved put me off. And so many of these books… I mean, if I’d written a book by myself, when I’d shortly left parliament, inevitably people would have said, ‘Just Fraser trying to justify himself,’ and I didn’t want a book ever that was going to be, you know, ‘Fraser’s trying to say he’s right and everyone else is wrong.’
So much later on-I’ve now been out of parliament 27 years, that’s a lifetime for a lot of people-the Melbourne University Press had been onto me, a few of my friends had been saying, ‘Look, you know, there’s something there that you ought to get down.’ And in the end I said to Louise Adler, ‘Well, if you can produce somebody who can write and can do all the work, I’ll consider it.’ And Margaret obviously can write, because if this book’s readable, and I’m told it is…’
Ramona Koval: Haven’t you read it?
Malcolm Fraser: Well, actually, a couple of times.
Ramona Koval: So I think you think it’s readable too.
Malcolm Fraser: Even Tammy thinks it’s readable.
Ramona Koval: Even Tammy! Is she a hard taskmaster in these things?
Malcolm Fraser: I don’t know that Tammy is all that interested in current history, contemporary history. She doesn’t read too many biographies. And, what, seven or eight, nine months, no words from Margaret, then I got a couple of draft chapters and I looked at them and thought, ‘Well, it didn’t take long to read those, that seemed to go all right, nice and easy.’ I gave them to Tammy, I expected she’d read a page and a half and say, ‘I’ll finish that later.’ Well, she wouldn’t speak to me until she had finished the two chapters, and she said, ‘That’s very readable, that’s good.’ I thought, ‘Ah, we’re going to have a book.’
Ramona Koval: [Laughs] Is that the first time you thought, ‘Ah, we’re going to have a book’?
Malcolm Fraser: No, I thought it was going all right, and you can get from the questioning, the sort of work that Margaret was doing and what she was uncovering in the archives, it was clear that a great deal of research was being done, things were being checked-I might have a memory of something, but I wouldn’t know whether it happened this year or that year and it would need checking-and Margaret did all of that, and so the authority in the book, I think, comes from that hard work and from the checking and to make sure… and then it’s not really… I don’t think it’s trying to sell a line. It’s certainly trying to talk about values and suggest that values are important, but then whether I lived up to those values or not, the reader can make up his or her own mind, and that’s a good reason to go and buy the book.
Ramona Koval: [Laughs] You’re a good spruiker, aren’t you? You’re spruiking it.
But, look, Margaret says that you hadn’t read the accounts of others of the time, the memoirs of Sir John Kerr or Gough Whitlam, or the books written by political journalists about the way in which you came to power and the impact of you prime ministership. So it didn’t sound to me like you’re deciding to do a big corrective of what others have said.
Malcolm Fraser: Well, if you knew the person and knew the subject, you’d have a pretty good idea what they’re saying. It’s like reading The Australian. I just have to look at the headline and I said, ‘Well, who’s got the by-line?’ and I so often feel I could write the words in-between. And I check occasionally to see if I still could write the words in-between, generally yes, so it doesn’t take long to read The Australian.
Ramona Koval: So you weren’t curious about what these old co-politicos were saying? Or what their spin was?
Malcolm Fraser: Not really. I knew what they were going to really say. You know, it depends who they were. Some people were just going to want a book which was totally from memory, it would be full of false… you know, just errors, because their memories weren’t good enough. And they’d always look at it from their own point of view, not necessarily objectively. Obviously people have written good books, like Paul Kelly and whatever, but I’d lived it all that time, I didn’t really want to live it again through somebody else’s eyes…
Ramona Koval: And have to take a red biro through it…
Malcolm Fraser: I apologise to Paul Kelly, I think he writes quite well, but I still…
Ramona Koval: [Laughs] You just didn’t have time to read it…
Malcolm Fraser: No, life’s been too busy. You’ve got to ration what you spend it on.
Ramona Koval: Given the plethora of books purported to be by eminent persons but are often ghosted by writers, who are paid handsomely and more often than not their names are hidden in a list of acknowledgments, it’s very unusual to have a co-author who’s given the billing like this. Were you not tempted to have a ghost writer?
Malcolm Fraser: Not really, no, because I really wanted a book with authority and-Margaret’s word, I think-integrity. If she believed the book lacked integrity, her name wouldn’t be there.
Ramona Koval: So had you been familiar with Margaret’s work before you met her?
Malcolm Fraser: Oh yes, [the] Hindmarsh Island book in particular was probably one of the best known that I think Margaret had written, and the… but also, if somebody was going to do all the work-99 per cent of the writing-it was only fair that their name be there, I thought.
Ramona Koval: Margaret, what about you? Did you ever think you’d be sitting here as a co-author with Malcolm Fraser?
Margaret Simons: Well it depends when you ask. I mean, if it was the last three years, obviously, but if you’d told me five years ago, or 10 years ago I would have laughed…
Ramona Koval: Why? What would have made you laugh?
Margaret Simons: It just seems such an extraordinary thing. I mean, I didn’t know Malcolm before we started work on this together. I, like everybody else, have watched his progress through politics. I was 15 in 1975 when he came to power; I used to live in a student household that had a dartboard with his face on it. Of course, I never, never threw any darts, Malcolm-but, um…
Malcolm Fraser: Can you verify that?
Margaret Simons: I never inhaled, either.
Ramona Koval: So these ideas you might have had about Malcolm Fraser before you met him, you might have been critical of Malcolm Fraser, might you have?
Margaret Simons: I think curious, always, and as you know very well, Ramona, I think curiosity is the single qualification that journalists must have. And I think anybody who’s watched Malcolm’s contribution to Australian public life would have to be curious about how it all adds up and what underlies that. And so when I first got the call from Louise Adler, I was meant to be working on another book for Louise at the time and she suggested I put that one aside and come to this. And my first thought was, ‘Oh that would be interesting!’
Ramona Koval: ‘That would be interesting…’ and that would be complicated?
Margaret Simons: Oh, yes, all of that, and I was concerned about how we would write it, because while I’m not against the idea of ghost-writing, it wasn’t really how I wanted to spend two or three years of my life, it’s not the most interesting thing to do.
Ramona Koval: But they’re very well paid, ghost-writers?
Margaret Simons: Well, they are, but it’s never about the money, is it? If you’re interested in money, you don’t write books. In this country at least, it’s not the way to get rich.
So, you know, I was interested to know how it would work and I was very concerned that it should have some integrity. And I suppose I had the ghost-writing option as a sort of fallback position and I actually had it written into the contract…
Ramona Koval: ‘This is a horrible book and I’m not having my name on it’?
Margaret Simons: Yeah, pretty much. I said in the contract that I reserved the right to have my name not on the book and my thinking behind that was that if it became clear that the book didn’t have integrity, then I would be a ghost-writer but would not take responsibility for the content.
Ramona Koval: OK. So you first meet-obviously you’ve got to meet and suss each other out-Malcolm, what were you watching, what were you noting, what were you concerned about finding? I mean, what would you have seen or heard that would have made you say, ‘Thanks but no thanks’?
Malcolm Fraser: There was very strong recommendation from Louise, so that I suppose is a pretty strong plus. And I would have been looking for perception, understanding of politics, some sort of sympathetic relationship perhaps that you can establish, because if you’re going to be antagonistic it’s not much point spending three years fighting…
Margaret Simons: …fighting. [Laughs]
Malcolm Fraser: And I thought I was interviewing Margaret, but I only learned afterwards that that was wrong, she thought she was interviewing me!
Ramona Koval: What were your questions like for this interview?
Malcolm Fraser: I don’t know that I had many questions.
Ramona Koval: How would you be able to suss out someone’s political nous?
Malcolm Fraser: By the way… I’m not sure. I don’t know that I can put that down on a bit of paper. But you have a feeling for a person, you’re talking with them-I’m not even sure what we talked about then. Margaret might remember.
Ramona Koval: Do you remember, Margaret?
Margaret Simons: Yeah, well, Louise Adler was there as well, so it was a three-way meeting.
Ramona Koval: So, Louise is a bit of a talker…
Margaret Simons: Yes.
Ramona Koval: She would have been talking.
Margaret Simons: Yes. Always.
Malcolm Fraser: Oh, always.
Margaret Simons: But we were… we talked… I asked are there any limits, is there anything you won’t talk about for the book. And the only limit Malcolm set was his children and his personal life-I didn’t have any problems with that. I remember asking distinctly will you talk frankly about the dismissal and he reacted and said, ‘Oh I’m bored with that! It’s been gone over so many times; there are so many more interesting things to talk about,’ which I now actually agree with him about. While obviously a book that doesn’t cover that period wouldn’t be about the whole of Malcolm Fraser, I think there’s certainly a lot more interesting things in the book than that. So, you know, we were sussing each other out. I wanted to work out whether it would be in first person or second person or third person, and Malcolm said, as I’ve written in the introduction, ‘Is there any way it can be in first person without me having to say “I, I, I” all the time?’ And we said, ‘Well, no, actually, that’s…’
Ramona Koval: Not in English…
Malcolm Fraser: Louise originally wanted it in first person. I never did.
Margaret Simons: Yes, that’s right.
Malcolm Fraser: Because I just, you know, I don’t like ‘I’s…
Ramona Koval: I’m surprised by that, because I guess I had fixed ideas about what leadership was about and what the leader might do. I mean, I thought if there was a leader in a political office that the ‘I’ was the last word or something. And I was surprised that you don’t like the ‘I’. Or do you think you’re just being a bit coy?
Malcolm Fraser: No, I really don’t like having to say, ‘I did this, I did that, something else,’ or whatever.
Ramona Koval: But you did, though, you did do those things?
Malcolm Fraser: But you might have done them, but that’s, you’re not necessarily saying, ‘I’ when you do them.
Ramona Koval: What is it about saying ‘I’ that feels so icky for you?
Malcolm Fraser: Oh… well, somebody who talks about themselves all the time I think is generally probably quite boring.
Margaret Simons: I think right from the start it was clear that one of Malcolm’s core motivations for wanting to do the book was not only to talk about the past, although obviously that’s part of it, but to talk to the present and the future. And in that first interview, one of the things he said to me is, ‘It’s got to be about ideas; it’s got to be about liberal ideas and how they are relevant. You know, what’s relevant from my experience and my background for the present and the future.’ And in a sense I think Malcolm’s not interested in the past for its own sake; he’s interested in the past-if it be true, Malcolm-he’s interested in the past for what it can teach us.
Malcolm Fraser: And other values, ideas-but values and ideas are sometimes very similar-other values that politicians, all our politicians, ought to try and adhere to. Or does it not matter? I got asked last night in the Liberal Party thing, ‘Well, you lost a lot of ministers, and you lost a minister over a hundred dollar television set, or two ministers. Now, wouldn’t it have been better to be pragmatic and just do what a later prime minister did and forget about those principles?’ Well, you know, that was opening the doors I thought for easy to answer, because that’s then setting standards from the top and if it’s all right for ministers to breach standards which are meant to apply to everyone, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s all right for everyone to breach those standards. Or I would not be surprised if people out in the street said, ‘Well, if he can damn well do it, I can do it! Why not?’ And so standards have to be set from the top. So, but people again can make up their minds whether they want governments or politicians who try to adhere to standards or ones who are just going to be pragmatic and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he couldn’t help it.’
Ramona Koval: Well, OK, this is the reluctance of the ‘I’ and we’ve heard about it. I think the solution you came to is very effective.
So, the book is told in the third person. It begins, ‘On the wet autumn of 1949, Malcolm Fraser left home for a month-long trip through New South Wales…’ That’s what I mean. You call yourself, Margaret, the narrator, but then sometimes the subject is allowed to break out of the text-contradict you, sometimes, butt in. It’s a very effective way of coming to a solution.
Margaret Simons: Well, I’m glad you think so, because given that I haven’t actually seen it done this way before there was always the chance that it wouldn’t work and I’m glad that the conclusion of most people seems to be that it has.
Ramona Koval: It sort of sounds like you were typing about ‘Malcolm Fraser this,’ and ‘Malcolm Fraser that,’ and suddenly Malcolm Fraser looms above your shoulder and goes, ‘Well, actually, this is what happened… I said this,’ or, ‘I said that,’ or ‘No, that’s not quite what… it happened like that,’ or it’s a great quote, or just a summary of something.
Margaret Simons: Well, as you’d know, Ramona, when you’re writing you always have imaginary readers on your shoulder, usually harsh critics. But in this case, of course, I had the real Malcolm Fraser on my shoulder, and he was the first reader of drafts and so on and then we would argue about the drafts and discuss them and sometimes go and do more research or take a different tack. So it was a very sort of dynamic process. But the beauty of the third person is its flexibility, of course. I mean, if you’re in first person you can’t include other voices very easily, and you can’t quote, you can’t have differences of opinion within the text. And so third person in many ways made my job easier really; it would have been harder to do it in first person.
Ramona Koval: All right, so you agree to work with each other-I’m taking you a little bit back-so, how did you organise this? What papers and books did you have at your disposal, Margaret?
Margaret Simons: Well, I read the earlier biography of Malcolm, Philip Ayres’ book, to sort of get the span, and then I started reading everything else, just about, that I could put my hands on, and we started doing interviews. I interviewed Malcolm just about every week, every week on average.
Ramona Koval: Where did you meet?
Margaret Simons: Usually in Malcolm’s office in the city; sometimes at his home on the peninsula; I think once in your flat in South Yarra?
Malcolm Fraser: Yes.
Margaret Simons: Or twice perhaps there. Anyway, the majority were in the office.
Ramona Koval: How long were the interviews?
Margaret Simons: About two hours, roughly. And sometimes it was more than once a week and other times we’d miss a week, but on average weekly over about a year.
Ramona Koval: So what was the tenor of those interviews? Did you come to say, ‘Look, this is what I’ve been doing this week. I want to find out more about this and that situation,’ or ‘What did you think of this,’ or ‘I think this, what do you think?’
Margaret Simons: Well, we started chronologically, broadly. I mean, we ended up skipping all over the place-I was actually listening to one of those recordings a few days ago and we skip all over the place-but my sort of broad plan was chronological. And then once I got access to the archival material, which took a while…
Ramona Koval: Why did it take a while?
Margaret Simons: Well, first of all I had to get a security clearance.
Ramona Koval: Really! From ASIO or somewhere?
Margaret Simons: Yes, because I was going to be looking at cabinet records and other records younger than 30 years.
Ramona Koval: And that was taking a long time, because you were such a dodgy character?
Malcolm Fraser: You should call in the secret police…
Margaret Simons: It took nearly six months and I only got it because under the Archives Act there’s a special provision for political biographers and so I got it with Malcolm’s help. But it took six months.
Ramona Koval: Why?!
Margaret Simons: Well, you ask them. And it was an extraordinarily intrusive process as well.
Ramona Koval: What did they want to know?
Margaret Simons: I had to go through full-on security check…
Ramona Koval: Not a body search though?
Margaret Simons: Not quite, but extensive interview, information about my own financial situation, my personal life and that of my husband, information about how my husband and I met-because we’ve been together about seven years, so presumably he could be a spy who was chatting me up purely, just in case I got commissioned to write a biography of a former prime minister. It was ridiculous.
Ramona Koval: What do you think about that, Malcolm? Were you surprised?
Malcolm Fraser: I think it was totally and utterly foolish and stupid. And when you asked organisations like ASIO what do they need to make Australia secure in the age of terrorism, they go to quite extreme lengths, as our laws now do. The new ASIO building being built in the parliamentary triangle, I think it’s a total offence to a democratic nation, I really do. I asked… we’ve had one really serious bomb incident in Australia and I was prime minister at the time, the Hilton bomb. And I can remember asking everyone, ‘Have you got enough power to deal with this?’ ‘We’re not used to this in Australia. Is there any shortage of powers available to ASIO, the police?’ ‘No, no, what we need is better intelligence, better information.’ Now, if you look at the extension of powers that have been put in place, it’s an utter offence. People just sit down and accept it, you know. They can come in here and tap you on the shoulder: ‘So we think you saw something, you’re coming away with us.’ You can’t ring up family, husband, anyone; you can’t even get a lawyer. You disappear for a while, while you are interrogated. And if you don’t behave right, you can go to jail for five years.
Ramona Koval: So this just reminded you, this attitude towards Margaret and her bone fides reminded you of the changes that have been made in Australia since you…
Malcolm Fraser: Well, it does in part. I don’t think security was anything like that intrusive in earlier days. I know when I first became army minister I had to go through some sort of check, but I think that was a fairly benign process. And they certainly weren’t asking Tammy any questions, or not that I’m aware of. But in today’s world, you know, it’s… too much has been… Our laws are worse than those in any other country that would claim to be democratic, they really are. And both parties supported them.
Margaret Simons: It seemed to me there was just no room for discretion. I mean, to be sensible. I mean, really, why did my husband have to get involved in that process, just ’cause I’m writing a book?
Ramona Koval: And why your financials? I mean, is that ’cause you’re going to sell…
Margaret Simons: I case I’m subject to blackmail. I don’t know, it was endless. My drinking habits…
Ramona Koval: Your drinking habits?!
Margaret Simons: All that sort of thing… I told them I didn’t inhale as well. But, you know, it was just absolutely ridiculous in this context. And there seemed to be-I mean, I’m not trying to have a go at the individuals who were given the job of doing this, I’m sure they were just doing their jobs-but there seemed to be no room at a senior level for somebody to say, ‘Oh, come on, what’s really necessary here?’ I accept that some sort of check was probably necessary, but there was no room for discretion.
Ramona Koval: Did you see anything that you would have thought, ‘Oh this is why I’ve had to have my drinking investigated…’
Margaret Simons: Not really. There were a few things which I wouldn’t have wanted to use anyway, frankly, which I could see would be sensitive, but they weren’t really part of the story in any case and I don’t think the course of Australian history would be changed if I went and blabbed about them. I’m not going to, of course, but…
Ramona Koval: Malcolm, did you ever keep a diary? I mean, there are some notes in the book that you’ve kept, handwritten notes, but were you a diarist of sorts?
Malcolm Fraser: No, I wasn’t a diarist. I pretended to be once, but that was, I think, before I was even a politician; it probably lasted three days.
Ramona Koval: You got bored with saying ‘I’ probably.
Malcolm Fraser: I got bored with trying to live a day a second time.
Ramona Koval: That is interesting though, isn’t it? That idea of not wanting to go back. Because you’re a man of action, aren’t you? You want to do things.
Margaret Simons: Exactly, yes, he’s an activist.
Malcolm Fraser: Course you want to do things, yes.
Margaret Simons: I think the key to a lot of the history is that Malcolm Fraser is an activist and always has been. And that’s a word that’s often used of people on the left of politics, but he is a Liberal activist.
Malcolm Fraser: But while I didn’t keep a diary, pretty well all the papers that passed over my desk were kept. I didn’t put them through a drafting race and say, ‘People draw this conclusion from that or another conclusion from it, so this lot go into the waste can and that…’ They just went over to the archives.
Ramona Koval: What about the things that weren’t recorded? Because I expect that in politics, it might sometimes be prudent not to write everything down.
Malcolm Fraser: I think it probably is. I used to have ministers sometimes say, a bit stuffily, ‘Prime Minister, I’m going to put a note for file about this conversation.’ I’d say, ‘Right, you do that.’ I never did.
Ramona Koval: What does that mean? Note for file?
Malcolm Fraser: Well, it probably meant the discussion hadn’t quite gone the way he wanted and he wanted his own interpretation of the discussion to be on file somewhere.
Ramona Koval: And, Margaret, what do you do about the things that aren’t always written down? Did you think about that?
Margaret Simons: Well, yes, and I think that’s one of the reasons the interviews were important. Not only to get information, but also to come to understand, you know, to almost hear the dialogue in a sense. Because even when you’re writing non-fiction, there is an act of imagination involved in thinking, ‘Oh that’s how it would have been,’ and that sort of informs the research then if you can understand what the interactions were about. But an astonishing amount is written down. I mean, for a government minister and his or her surrounding staff, almost… a huge amount is on paper, believe me, a huge amount. And there’s even one note, um, from Geoffrey Yeend, which is headlined, ‘This is not for file, Malcolm!’ It’s on the file. [Laughter]
Ramona Koval: So, this idea about what fell inside the lines and what fell outside the lines. Did you have disagreements about where the lines were drawn? What was inside the political memoir, what was outside? Because you said no family and no personal life, but you did interview Tammy, didn’t you?
Margaret Simons: Yes, a couple of times. And she was very important in terms of the drafting, as well. And I’ve said in a couple of public forums that I had bigger struggles with her about what goes in and what goes out than I did with Malcolm, to which he says, ‘Well, she’s always been easier to get on with… I’ve always been easier to get on with than her.’ [Laughter]
But, um… and that was really about Tammy really not wanting to be in the book at all. She is certainly very protective of her own private life…
Ramona Koval: And why did she have to be in the book, do you think?
Margaret Simons: Well, because she’s obviously part of the story. She would probably argue about to what extent and she did argue about to what extent, but she is a very important person in Malcolm’s life.
Ramona Koval: When you say, ‘argue,’ give us a picture of an argument.
Margaret Simons: With Tammy, or with Malcolm?
Ramona Koval: Either. Both, actually.
Margaret Simons: Well, Tammy accused me of writing like Barbara Cartland at one point, something which she’s laughed about with me since.
Ramona Koval: And were you insulted, or just amused?
Margaret Simons: I think I was probably a little bit insulted actually at the time if I’m perfectly honest.
Malcolm Fraser: But you did say she sells books.
Margaret Simons: Yes, that’s right, I did say, ‘Well, at least Barbara Cartland is well read.’ And then Malcolm’s response to that was, ‘Yes, but Tammy has a right not to be a Barbara Cartland character,’ which I thought was probably fair enough. But that was, I was trying to write about the way Malcolm and Tammy met and got to know each other, and most of that didn’t survive; most of that’s gone. And every…
Ramona Koval: Are you sad about that?
Margaret Simons: Yeah. And every sentence that’s there was hard fought for, with Tammy. I mean, Malcolm at one stage said, ‘I’ll leave you two to sort this out and I’ll be very interested to see what the result is.’ [Laughter] So…
Ramona Koval: And did you and Tammy have discussions about what the line should be, Malcolm?
Malcolm Fraser: In the book?
Ramona Koval: About what should be in the book, because I can’t imagine you having separate arguments and then nobody saying anything after Margaret goes.
Malcolm Fraser: No, we didn’t really. But the question what the line is, is wrong. The whole… I think one of the achievements of this book is really that there isn’t a line, unless it’s a line that you make up your own mind.
Ramona Koval: No, I just meant, I don’t mean a political line or an argument, I mean the line between what’s in and what’s out, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate.
Malcolm Fraser: Oh sometimes, but not often, not often. I mean, if it wasn’t involving Tammy, she wouldn’t… you know, occasionally she might have said something about something, but I can’t remember any particular things. It really worked I thought as a very smooth process.
Ramona Koval: So what about disagreements between the two of you? I mean, Malcolm Fraser looks like a pretty formidable arguer, Margaret?
Margaret Simons: He likes to be argued with and, I mean, I agree with Malcolm, overwhelmingly it was a truly collaborative and serious fun, really; very serious fun, but fun nevertheless. But there were moments when I thought something should be in or be given more emphasis, or where Malcolm thought something should be given different emphasis…
Ramona Koval: And did you have a rule about who was going to win this?
Margaret Simons: No, we didn’t have a rule. I think we had and anticipated there might be a mediation process, but we didn’t have to call on that.
Ramona Koval: Who was going to mediate between you?
Margaret Simons: Oh, probably Louise, I suppose, ultimately.
Malcolm Fraser: That would have been interesting.
Margaret Simons: Yes! [Laughter] But, you know, we had discussions and quite often it would be a matter of justifying the line. I mean, Malcolm, as he has said here and it’s certainly true, was a stickler for the evidence. So sometimes he would say, you know, ‘Bring me more,’ in terms of archival support. And that resulted, for example, in the stuff about John Gorton and Malcolm’s resignation from the Gorton cabinet. That actually resulted in me going back to Canberra and doing a whole lot of fresh research on top of the stuff I’d already done, and finding new information, which is new to history, which Malcolm didn’t know about.
Ramona Koval: What was that? Which bit was that?
Margaret Simons: Um, well that is a long and complicated story, but it’s about the relationship between Gorton and Sir Thomas Daly, who was chief of the armed forces, and meetings they were having behind Malcolm’s back as Minister for Defence. Malcolm knew about one of these meetings, but in fact there were three.
Ramona Koval: And how did you feel when you heard this?
Malcolm Fraser: I just wished I’d known at the time, because I could have made my resignation speech even stronger.
Margaret Simons: Mm, but that’s changed the tenor of that chapter.
Malcolm Fraser: I felt totally justified in… you know, you have a… things happen, you have an instinct for what’s happening and for what other people are doing. And some officers, political officers, play games, which mean they leak things out in favour of something or against something or in favour or against a person. And you know what’s happening, you know where it’s coming from. One of the things I can remember telling my staff-I don’t think having discussed it really in relation to the book-but I impressed upon them all, and they all accepted it because they knew it was the right thing to do and it was against their natures to do otherwise, I said, ‘This office does not play games. We are not partisan in any sort of operations with the press. If we see other people doing things, as they will, we still play a totally straight bat.’
Ramona Koval: So when Margaret came to you with that new information, you must have thought you were in very good hands.
Malcolm Fraser: I think I’d probably come to that view well before.
Margaret Simons: It was quite late in the piece…
Malcolm Fraser: Look, I knew that once we got the first couple of chapters. I thought it was all right, I wasn’t all that uneasy really, but until you see words on paper and how those words, how readable they’re going to be or not… because that was key. There have been some quite good contemporary histories written, or even older histories, but which are so utterly dull to read. You know, you really have to plough through every paragraph, and if that was the way a book turned out, well then nobody would be wanting to buy it or read it. Luckily-not luckily, because of Margaret-people are saying the opposite.
Ramona Koval: Well, Margaret, you say, ‘I came to understand his thick reserve, possessed by all the Frasers I met, as inseparable from his sense of dignity. The reserve and the reluctance to talk about himself were constant challenges for an interviewer wanting to bring a sense of the man to his readers, yet in the end I came to like him for it.’ Why?
Margaret Simons: Well, I think it’s very hard to maintain personal integrity and personal dignity in public life. I think it’s very, very hard and without naming names I’m sure we can cast our mind over the headlines of the last few weeks and see examples of politicians…
Ramona Koval: We’ve never seen Malcolm Fraser in Lycra.
Margaret Simons: That’s true. I was actually thinking of exactly that. [Laughter] But, you know, we can see how hard it is to continually put forward ideas and policy proposals and contentious issues, and maintain that personal dignity. Now, there may be other ways of doing it in public life, but Malcolm Fraser’s has been to maintain-and it’s part of his personality as well obviously-but it has been to maintain that thick reserve and I did come to respect that.
Ramona Koval: Are you both happy with the book as it sits now in front of us? I mean, what might you both have liked more or less of? Just in our last minute.
Malcolm Fraser: Oh, I’m happy with it.
Margaret Simons: Yes, I’m happy with it. I’d like a bit more about Tammy. [Laughter]
Malcolm Fraser: Well, I wouldn’t argue against that, but it’s not worth arguing for.
Margaret Simons: No. No, that’s right.
Ramona Koval: It’s worth more than your life to argue for it…
Margaret Simons: More than your domestic peace.
Malcolm Fraser: Ah, well it just wouldn’t have been worth it.
Ramona Koval: I thought it was funny when you said, um, ‘An interview conducted at his Mornington Peninsula home with his dogs at our feet,’ and you say, ‘Sometimes the recording would include a sudden interjection from Fraser: “Go away, you’re being a damn nuisance!”‘ (You don’t mind if I try and do your voice, do you?)
Malcolm Fraser: Not at all!
Ramona Koval: ‘Fortunately he was only sometimes talking to me,’ you say.
Margaret Simons: That’s a bit of a joke. I don’t think he was… I don’t think you ever said exactly those words to me, Malcolm.
Malcolm Fraser: I was probably talking to the dog.
Margaret Simons: You were talking to a dog, yes.
Ramona Koval: Well, Margaret, I think it does give a reader more than a straight biography or a straight memoir might have done.
Margaret Simons: Oh, good. Well, I’m glad you think so, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: Yes, I think it is a very interesting way to approach the subject, the man, the topic.
Margaret Simons: It’s certainly unusual in genre terms I guess.
Ramona Koval: It is. Thank you both for helping us understand what went into the writing of Malcolm Fraser: the political memoirs. It’s published by Miegunyah Press, which is an imprint of Melbourne University Publishing. Malcolm Fraser, Margaret Simons, thanks so much for being on the Book Show today.
Margaret Simons: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Malcolm Fraser: Thank you very much.