Interview: Malcolm Fraser on Australian foreign policy and the role of universities

May 14 / 137

Malcolm Fraser (right) with Retired High Court judge Michael Kirby, who launched the book at the Woodward Centre last month.
Malcolm Fraser (right) with Retired High Court judge Michael Kirby, who launched the book at the Woodward Centre last month.

In his latest book Dangerous Allies (on sale now from Melbourne University Publishing) Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and University PhD candidate Cain Roberts examine Australia's history of strategic dependence on Great Britain and the United States, and question the wisdom of this position in the future. 

MUSSE editor Stuart Winthrope asked Mr Fraser what role Australia should play internationally, and how universities could prepare graduates for the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.

You have talked about a "craving" for dependency on great powers in the heart of the Australian national psyche. What effect has this had on Australia's role and sense of place in the world?

From the beginning, Australia had few people and few resources. We had no foreign policy and no defence policy. We relied on the Empire. That is all history. There was a grand bargain, if you like.  Britain would defend the Colonies, even Australia after Federation, and we would provide money, resources and men to fight the Empire’s wars, which were really British wars. In return, Britain would guarantee our defence.  

The problem is that we carried on that policy long after its use-by date, when Britain no longer had the capacity to defend us, if she should face danger at home. This has meant that Australia felt no need to develop a defence policy or a foreign policy of its own. This only occurred towards the end of World War II.  

Since Federation, Australia has always anchored its foreign policy to powerful friends, first Great Britain and then the United States. In Dangerous Allies, you argue that Australia should adopt greater independence in this area. What would this entail? What do we risk if we do not take this path?

Greater independence would certainly entail a higher defence vote. What is the price of national independence and national pride? The future represents a balance of risks. I am confident that Australia, as an independent nation, could work very well with East and South East Asia and contribute to the security of the whole region. Internationally, we could then work with countries like Canada, Norway and Denmark to advance a more effective and better United Nations.  

This kind of future would serve Australia well. Being a deputy sheriff to the United States puts us in great danger because of the real possibility that America will end up in a war with China, quite specifically because of Japanese provocation in the East China Sea. America would not win such a war. We would be left here as a defeated ally of a defeated superpower and that would place Australia in greater danger than ever before in our history.  

With regard to education, what should universities do to prepare future leaders for the international challenges that this century will bring?

Universities should probably give an even greater emphasis to history, to the lessons of history and to the fact that circumstances change. A policy that might have been necessary during the Cold Waris not necessary after the Cold War, and could lead to danger for Australia.  

Above all, students at universities need to know how to distinguish good arguments from bad, how to follow an argument through to its logical conclusion and not to run away from unpalatable conclusions because they imply change and difficult choices. Being able to sift reality from confusion is critical to people involved in public policy. It is a capacity I think few people have.  

Finally, do you have any thoughts on the changes and challenges which the higher education sector is likely to face with the proposed deregulation in the 2014 budget? Is there a line that governments should not cross in this area?

The challenge facing universities is to maintain higher quality education that is open to all Australians. Successive Australian Governments seem not to understand that higher education must be supported by governments. It cannot be left to the market place alone. Special provision is needed so that poorer families, that don’t handle large sums of money, will not be deterred from sending their sons and daughters to university. A market based system will tend to be more exclusive and more restricted to the better off. This will only exacerbate unfortunate economic trends of recent years.  

Universities have not fought hard enough to establish their importance to Australian society, not only as centres of high quality, indeed excellent education, but also as centres of practical and fundamental research, which is critical to Australia’s future wellbeing.  


Dangerous Allies is available now from Melbourne University Publishing (MUP). MUP is running a 50 per cent off end-of-financial-year sale on all titles via their e-store from Friday 13 to Friday 20 June. University staff and students are also entitled to a 25 per cent discount on all MUP books year-round. Find out how to access this here

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