Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Malcolm Fraser's unheralded India record

Malcolm Fraser's unheralded India record
Published 1 Apr 2015 

We have heard much about Malcolm Fraser's foreign-policy record since his recent death — his stance against Soviet expansionism, his engagement with China, his opposition to South African apartheid and white minority rule in Zimbabwe, and his welcome to tens of thousands of Indo-Chinese as refugees. What is less known was Fraser's prime ministerial focus on India, where he established a relationship of significance with Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai.

Desai and Fraser met at a Commonwealth meeting in London in 1977. Fraser recognised a kindred spirit and sought Desai's support for a new initiative to regionalise the Commonwealth by creating a sub-set to include the small island states of the Pacific plus India, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. And so CHOGRM — the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting — was born. Four were held: Sydney in 1978, New Delhi in 1980, Suva in 1982, and Port Moresby in 1984.

By then Fraser and Desai had lost office and new governments in New Delhi and Canberra brought CHOGRM to an end. In his 2010 memoirs, Fraser expressed disappointment that the Hawke Government lost interest, citing the Solomon Islands and Fiji as small states that could have benefited from 'regular meetings with democracies like India'.

Of most significance was Fraser's 1979 trip to India. He had been invited by Morarji Desai as the official state guest to the Indian Government's Republic Day celebrations, held annually on 26 January. This was quite an honour. The 2015 special guest was US President Barack Obama, and last year's was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Fraser's eight-day visit, with Tamie and three children, was packed with tourist and official engagements, stopping in five Indian cities plus a tiger-watching safari at Corbett National Park in Uttar Pradesh. By any measure it was a success.

So why did Fraser seek closer ties with India? [fold]

First, he wanted to inject substance into a relationship where he felt, correctly, the political impetus had been lacking. But his thinking was more imaginative than this suggests. He saw Australia and India as 'committed to moderation...not at the extreme end of any spectrum'. He felt that, even as aligned and non-aligned countries, they had little significant difference between them, and hence could work well together to resolve world tension. It was an arresting view, and his observations on non-alignment were unusual for a conservative Australian leader.

The diplomatic highlight of the trip was his speech to the Indian parliament, the first by an Australian prime minister. It was elegantly expressed and strongly argued, a speech that remains curiously unexamined by Australian foreign policy historians. Indeed, it contains the threads of many of the future interests that would define Fraser's post-prime ministerial years.

For example, Fraser received loud applause when he declared that 'Australia is Australia, not an appendage of Europe'. Describing Australia in this way, in particular his subsequent reference to Australia as 'Western with a difference', was conceptually innovative, even path-breaking, and hinted at what was to come in 2014 with his radical call for explicit strategic independence from the US.

The speech was noteworthy too for its focus on racial discrimination as a 'basic affront to human dignity'. He said countries like Australia and India should work against southern Africa's 'repugnant, dangerous and self-destructive policies'. His language echoed that of Gough Whitlam's 1973 visit to India. Whitlam too had focused on the need for an independent Australian narrative not open to suggestions of racism. Like Whitlam, Fraser's refusal to tolerate racism in any guise was central to who he was. He never compromised on this principle. It was on display in India and was well received.

Even in 1979 then, Malcolm Fraser was urging 'not to leave everything to the great powers'. Later in the year however, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan overwhelmed most other foreign policy concerns, and he called for a more aggressive Cold War stance by Western powers.

Nevertheless, Fraser's vision of drawing Australia and India together into a new regime of moderate, middle-power states remains a creative attempt to establish a new language of international co-operation, one he was still developing at the time of his death. Given the Abbott Government's focus on India, Fraser's commitment to a strong Australian bilateralism with India should not be forgotten.

Photo by Peter Morris.

You may also be interested in