Malcolm Fraser’s often quoted phrase “Life was never meant to be easy” has uncanny parallels with T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men and their realisation that in a world of desolation between two states of being or between heaven and hell, “Life is very long”.
Indeed, after his prime ministership, Malcolm Fraser saw in his own life’s journey, a chance to reflect and speak out on some of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our times. Palestine was one of them.
Some people think he was seeking redemption for his authoritarian policies during his eight years as this country’s prime minister; others have not been so forgiving. Wherever one’s proclivities might lie, three decades and more of speaking out for those unable to speak for themselves, when he could have retired to his privileged Western District lifestyle, says more about the human being than the politician. He was without doubt a statesman.
He was a Liberal statesman whose worst critics were often from his own party, especially in recent times, when he openly criticised the current state of human rights in Australia and the Western World in a Foreword for The Journal of Jurisprudence (Summer Term 2012). But even before then he took a stand for Palestine.
In 2008, Australians for Palestine, Women for Palestine and the Australian Friends of Palestine sought a parliamentary acknowledgement of 60 years of Palestinian suffering as a counterpoint to the bipartisan motion passed congratulating Israel on its 60 years of independence. Not a single reply to our letters was received from any member of parliament. It was Malcolm Fraser who wrote a very public and honourable endorsement by way of an article saying that he supported our appeal to the Australian Parliament:
to pass a resolution recognising the hardships of the Palestinian people and committing Australia to work for a fair and peaceful resolution and the establishment of a viable independent state for Palestinians.
He was always ready to defend Palestinian human rights and especially criticised Israel’s whittling away of Palestinian land to build illegal Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem. His government had firmly maintained Australia’s even-handed Middle East policy, but he saw that position being eroded with each successive government increasing support for Israel “in lock-step with the US”.
Unlike so many Canberra politicians, he never resorted to craven declarations of allegiances to Israel. In a 2011 article, he said:
There is an Israeli lobby that governments are not prepared to offend” and he went on to say that if Israel and the US persist in dividing the Palestinians into hostile camps between Fatah and Hamas, “Israel will lose more and more friends and will place its own future in danger.
He was very aware that debating issues on Israel/Palestine invariably stirs up charges of anti-Semitism as a way of protecting Israel, but he believed that we should no more stop ourselves from criticising Israel’s bad policies or actions out of fear of being called anti-Semitic, than we would stop ourselves criticising any other country for bad policies because it might be construed as a racist slur against its people. “Paying lip service to our even-handedness”, he said in a 2009 article, is not the way for Australia to play an effective role in finding a just and peaceful solution to what is universally regarded the longest-running human tragedy and injustice of our times. He believed that Australia “must not be cowed into an uncritical view of Israel’s action.”
His words fell on deaf ears in Canberra. By 2014, the Palestinian situation had deteriorated further. Israel’s massive bombardment of Gaza more than five years earlier was only outdone in its viciousness by a new 50-day-long military operation in July-August. More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed and over 11,000 were wounded. So catastrophic was the destruction of homes and infrastructure, that at the peak of Israel’s assault, nearly half a million people were displaced, and months later, some 108,000 Palestinians still remain homeless. The devastation was horrific and the world could not ignore it.
In Australia, some 80 politicians came together to issue The Canberra Declaration on Gaza. It called on Australian parliamentarians to support an immediate ceasefire and an end to Israel’s Occupation of the Palestinian territories and the blockade of Gaza. Malcolm Fraser was the only Liberal from any former or current Coalition members of parliament to sign the Declaration. A month earlier he had tweeted, "If any other country went to war killing as many civilians, women and children, it would be named a war crime." Fraser’s words may yet come back to haunt the hollow men and women in Canberra. After all, “Life is very long”.
To those who see nothing worth remembering or honouring in more than 30 years of a differently lived life, they should know we are all the hollow men and women of T S Eliot’s poem: some condemned to never seeing redemption, while other’s are left to make sense of life’s cruelties in whatever way we can. No one knows that better than the Palestinians.
Rather than think Malcolm Fraser could not stomach his party moving so far to the right, many would like to believe that his realisation of the horrors we visit on each other in the name of ideology, already had taken root a long time ago and that the legacy he leaves with us is that of a vastly changed man. His passing should be yet another moment for reconciliation and forgiveness.
Malcolm Fraser had the courage to look into the eyes of those who offer no hope and for seeing beyond the darkness “of death’s twilight kingdom”. His was one of many lone voices in an infinite wilderness, but it was heard and is recorded for history. He chose to make a difference. For that, Palestinians in Australia remember him with the utmost respect and gratitude.