Australian Biography

Malcolm Fraser - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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Could you tell me what was your earliest memory?

Oh that's very difficult. I have a memory that people tell me I shouldn't have because I was too young. In the Riverina where we used to live, there were mostly droughts, but occasionally floods, and the shearers had to come up from Deniliquin near to our property at Balpool on the Edward River by boat and we hadn't had a wheeled vehicle on the property for over six months. There were no bitumen roads in those days. And the shearing contractor we had, hired the boats - it's only 50 miles, we'll only need one meal. But the river meanders through the red gums and it's not always easy to follow the river channel. It's very easy to get lost. And they left Deniliquin and arrived at our property Balpool three days later. They'd had one meal and so you can imagine in 1931, the sort of mood that the shearers were in. And there were a couple I think who my father knew couldn't survive without alcohol. And I couldn't quite understand how he went out to the boat with a bottle of brandy in his hand. He had a particular target. He knew the cook was going to need a brandy.

This was during Depression times, too, wasn't it?

Oh very much. In a sense at the beginning of the Depression.

Do you have a memory of what that did to the people who came to work on the property?

The Depression?


Well there wasn't very much, wasn't very much work going on in those days. I mean wool would have sold for seven or eight cents a pound, but in parts of the last two years, in real terms, it has been just as low or lower. During some of the droughts in the 1930s you couldn't give away sheep. There used to be a big chicken or egg farm at Werribee run by the Carter Brothers, and they started buying sheep and boiling them down for chook feed. It made good, cheap chook feed. My father heard about this and tried to get his agent to say he could buy the rest of his sheep. And they'd say, 'No it's no good'. They'd had too many offers. But my father rang them up anyway and they said well if he paid the freight, they would accept delivery. So of course it was cheaper to let them die in the paddocks. [INTERRUPTION]

When and where were you born?

I was born in Melbourne, at a private house in - I think - Grange Road, I'm not sure.

And where did you spend your early years?

I spent most of it in the Riverina, on a property about 50 miles north of Deniliquin on the Edward River.

That was owned by your father?


What's your earliest memory from that place?

The memory I've been told I probably shouldn't have, because I was very young - in the Riverina, in those days anyway, there seemed to be floods occasionally and droughts very often. In 1931, the beginning of the Depression, it was one of the floods and we hadn't been able to get a wheeled vehicle on the property for at least 6 months. There were embankments all around the house, to stop it being flooded also and the shearing team came up by boat from Deniliquin one year. The shearing contractor - it's only 50 miles by road - so, you know, 50 miles is not all that far, and he set out with his team of about 24 or 26 people, with one meal for them. Now the Edwards River meanders through a lot of glorious great red gums and it's sometimes very difficult if you don't know the river well, to follow the path of the river. And of course they got lost in the red gum forests and it took them three days, or a little more, to arrive at Balpool. They were hungry and obviously not in a particularly good mood. I never really understood why my father went out to meet the boat when he heard it was arriving with a bottle of brandy. But he knew one or two people in the team needed some good hard liquor to keep them going and that three days without a drink would have been a great punishment for them. But anyway, that was one memory.

What was your father like?

Well, he was a very good father. He ran the property at Nareen but he was one of those who [was] at university in England [when] the First World War started out, and so instead of coming back to Australia, he joined up in the British forces. He initially was going to join the air force, which was just being formed, first air force, and to perhaps see what it was like, he thought he'd go to one of those sort of flying circuses, where, for I suppose a shilling or two, you could be taken up in an aircraft. Well he went up in an aircraft, and the aircraft crashed and he woke up in an ambulance on the way up to London and he thought well, maybe aircraft is not the thing for him. But he joined up in the British Army and so he spent four years in France and he was trained as a lawyer but he never practised. Like people back from any war it was often very difficult for them to settle down I think afterwards. And the atmosphere of the 1920s as I understand it, and read about it, you know, people weren't really expected to. So instead of practising as well as running a property, he really just ran Balpool and perambulated from there to Melbourne occasionally.

Your grandfather had made quite a fortune, hadn't he?

Well he, he was - my grandfather was a remarkable person, because he was a Canadian, he came from Nova Scotia, which was a very impoverished and still is an impoverished province. His ancestors had come from Scotland in 1745 or six and they would have had their heads chopped off if they hadn't. But he'd heard about the gold rushes in Australia and got to Australia about 1948 - not 19-, 1848-49. He had some training as an engineer, his biography, such as it is, just suggests that he was working the goldfields for the first 10 or 15 years, but I'm not quite sure in what capacity. But he emerged after a relatively short time as a member of the Victorian Parliament, as a railway contractor and builder, as a bridge builder. He went into other commercial enterprises and then he got involved in farming of grazing properties in the Riverina and later through a second marriage, across Queensland. He was present at all the conventions leading up to Federation and participated in those conventions. Somewhere I've got the original copies of the Constitution with his remarks attached to the different clauses and whatever. And he was a foundation Senator then till he died about 1919.

So he was in the first Senate of the Australian Parliament?

Yeah, he was in the first Senate. Oh and one of his other activities - as an engineer he thought there ought to be artesian water across a lot of Queensland and going into the Northern Territory. He couldn't get anyone in Australia who could drill a deep bore, so he brought out a Canadian water boring team, and everyone thought he was mad. But the first artesian bore was put down at a place called Thurllagoona, just near the Queensland-New South Wales border in about the centre of the border - you know, centre east and west - and they struck water. And that really altered the face of an enormous amount of both Queensland and the Northern Territory.

So he was the first to sink an artesian bore?


He was an entirely self-made man then, from rags to riches really, in his lifetime. So the notion that you come from a long line of privileged people isn't entirely correct.

Oh not entirely, no. I mean, after all, if you have to flee from your homeland, which for me would have been Scotland some hundreds of years ago ...

Why did they have to flee?

Well they were on the wrong side of the war at Culloden. They fought for the Scots against the English. And then after that conflict the British sent - who was it, was it the Duke of Cumberland - to Scotland, with the specific objective of butchering as many Scots as they could find.

So Scottish migration was urged along a little bit then?

Well it was forced migration. Just as the British forced migration - or the English forced migration - from Ireland.

Now, this grandfather, was he a figure in your childhood at all?

No, because he died in 1919 and my only - I have no memory of him at all, but I have a memory of his house in Toorak at a place called Lawler, four acres in the prime part of Toorak, which was sold at the middle of the Depression, or the beginning of the Depression.

Sold because of lack of funds in the family?

Well it was just Depression. And you know, he'd died and assets needed to be split up I suppose, between different members of the family and whatever.

And it was sold?


Is it still there?

Oh no. It was pulled down - subdivision, whatever. I think a road went through it because four acres was quite a nice chunk of Toorak in those days. [INTERRUPTION]

Was it a big drama in the family that the family home had to be sold?

Well I don't think we'd ever lived in it. Certainly I never lived in it, so - and again I was very young, so it wasn't any drama from that point of view. I don't think my father liked it very much.

Now, what about your mother, what was her background?

Her family had been in New Zealand, and went to Perth and she and her sister spent, before they got married, I suppose a fair bit of time in Sydney or Melbourne. And she got engaged to my father and they got married.

Did you have any brothers or sisters?

I've got a sister.

And where do you come in the family?

I'm second.

So was your sister around on the property when you were growing up?

Ah, she went to boarding school. One of the penalties of being on a property and - certainly in the 30s or 40s - was that the only way of going to school was going to boarding school. She was regarded, I think, as a slightly rebellious child and went to boarding school at a very young age. And so for a lot of the time she would have been at boarding school and our paths would cross in the school holidays and whatever. So she was around from that point of view. But otherwise not.

So how old were you when you went to boarding school?

About eight.

In those years, those eight years that you were growing up on the property, were you fairly isolated there, or who did you play with?

I used to spend some of the summer in Melbourne or try and get down to the beach at Portsea or whatever. But - and you know, sometimes people would come to stay. But it was a long way and in the 1930s motor transport isn't ... You know, if somebody came up from Melbourne to stay, that was a great event. Did the car - did they get there without breaking down? All that sort of thing. Then you have the war years where you couldn't travel, or you couldn't travel much and you had gas producers and you couldn't buy petrol. So there wasn't really much visiting between properties. And it's, I mean here you know, you might go 10, 20 miles to visit people for dinner or something. But in the Riverina you might have been going 50, 60 or 70 and so - and again it was during the Depression and people didn't want to spend more petrol if they didn't have to spend petrol. You know, it really was a question of counting the pennies for everyone I think in those days ...

You were born in ...

... so that you know, if other employees on the place had kids that's fine, and that sometimes happened but they were sometimes transient and they'd be there for a bit and then they'd go.

So you couldn't rely on the friends that you made, they might disappear?

Yeah, they could disappear. Mm.

Were you lonely?

I don't think so. I don't think, you know, if you haven't known another existence you don't really know. If you haven't known something else, you don't know what you may be missing. And there were a lot of things that I used to enjoy enormously in the - you know from a quite young age I'd go shooting. I went down the river with a rifle or ... one of the things when I did go to boarding school, they had a shooting club or team, even though it's a preparatory school, and you know, I was one of the few, I had my own 22 rifle. It was only used in target shooting and whatever, but if you had a rifle you were allowed to take your own.

You were already good at it?

All under close supervision. And I think that's the best age really to teach safety with firearms and respect for guns so that you don't get into trouble. And you know, a bit later, but quite early, I was still, I was given a 410 and you'd go up and down the river trying to shoot something. I can remember an Indian hawker arrived on one occasion and I bought a packet of Turf cigarettes. I went up the river and smoked one, and I very nearly didn't get back. It was lucky I'd gone up river before I started smoking it. I floated downstream and got back and crawled up into bed. Nobody could understand why I was in bed in the middle of the afternoon, and I wasn't going to tell them.

Have you ever smoked since?

Oh yes. I've never liked cigarettes. I used to smoke a pipe or - a pipe was a good thing to chew on, during boring political meetings - and if you wanted to annoy other people at the meeting you'd probably light a cigar or something. But you're not allowed to do those simple things today.

But you, as a child, learned that solitary pleasures, like shooting and doing the other things that you did around the property, could be satisfying.

Oh yeah. I mean I used to - we obviously had ponies and a 15 and 20 mile ride from quite a relatively early age was nothing. You know, you'd just gallop everywhere and the ponies were fit. And we had 5 000 acres of forest country, flooded country, the sort of country those shearers probably got lost in. And occasionally station hands would get lost in that country because they had no sense of direction. And I can remember riding out one day with my father and he said, 'Never come up through this country alone'. And I'd already been riding alone for a couple of years without getting lost.

And you were just a little boy?

Relatively small yeah.

So you felt quite confident.

Well I had a sense of direction. I think if you're living in that environment you develop these things. Whether I'd still have a sense of direction I'm not sure, but then I had a sense of direction. I never felt that I didn't know what direction to go in to get home. And by the grace of God, that proved to be right.

Do you think that there was anything out of this early time, when you were very much on your own, and finding your own sense of direction, your own way about, that shaped you for your later life?

Oh I don't know. I think you know, they're the sorts of questions I find it very difficult to answer. A whole lot of things shape you and when you're asking that question, you're really saying, 'Would you have been a different person if you'd been brought up in Melbourne?' - you know, I find it almost impossible to answer that. I think you can have some memories out of that sort of experience, because I mean running a farm is really like running a small business. And we had a team of Italians on the property, doing the sort of things that would be very much frowned on these days but then was regarded as good practice. You know, values change. But they were ringbarking trees, and as the Depression bit, I was with my father when he went out to tell them that he wouldn't be able to keep them on, that they'd have to go. And they were probably a team of four or six of them and they'd been camping out on the job and you'd take out food and rations to them once a week. So they were having a pretty tough time of it too. And then they said that could they stay and go on working just for food and tucker, because they had nowhere to go. And my father said that he was sorry, he would like to be able to, but he wouldn't be allowed to because of union rules and because of Arbitration Court decisions and he'd be prosecuted if he tried to keep them on the place under those circumstances.

And how did you feel about that, watching that happen?

Well I don't think anyone liked it. The Italians didn't like it, my father didn't like it, and I didn't like it. But it was the way it was. I mean my father was right. He would have been prosecuted, or could have been if somebody had gone to the union and said, 'Look, these guys are working for no pay, just getting food and tucker'. You're just not allowed to do that. [INTERRUPTION]

In your father's shoes, would you have perhaps in those circumstances, those extreme circumstances, taken the risk of letting them stay?

I don't think you could. I think there were too many of them. I mean you might be able for one or two people, but you know, even the food and rations for six or eight people was not something that, you know, if you're really saving every last cent or penny as it was, even that's something that you don't want to be involved in.

Did the Depression affect your family directly very much?

Well you know, it's hard to understand it, but you know, it affected everyone. There were swagmen all along the roads and they'd have their signs on the front gates - If you go in there you'll get some work, a meal, and there'll be a place to sleep, or there's no point going in there, they'll turn the dog on you. There was a swagmen's language around the countryside. And it is really very difficult, there was no social welfare safety net for anyone. People had to do what they could by themselves and you know, being Australians they did. I don't - you know, you talk about a high level of unemployment today and there is. And with those who only work part time and would like to work full time, it's probably 20-25%, which is 1930s Depression levels. But the real difference is the social welfare safety net, which makes sure that people don't starve and whatever. Now none of that existed. So everyone was affected, businesses were affected, and it wasn't until the war began that things started to look up. I mean all the prescriptions of governments around the world were making the Depression worse. They thought they were doing the right thing in the conventional wisdom of the day. But they weren't. So there would have only been a handful of Australians who weren't affected by those circumstances.

Your family was in a relatively better position than others. Did they have a conscious, a consciousness of the need to reach out to some of the people who were much worse off?

I think everyone had that consciousness. But again, a capacity to do that was very limited. You'd have banks breathing down your neck, saying, 'You can't do this', or 'You mustn't do that', and so you know, to a much greater extent than today, I think people were alone themselves.

Growing up there, alone as it were, with your parents and the property, were you particularly close to your mother?

Well I think I was close to both my parents. I don't think I was closer to one than the other.

What did they think of you?

I have no idea.

They didn't ever say, 'You're a good boy, Malcolm', or ...

Oh well parents say all sorts of things to their children.

So you had no consciousness of being characterised by them in any particular way? I mean were they proud of you and did they give you an idea of who you were that was clear to you, that they expected certain things of you?

Well they would have expected that you know, certain patterns of behaviour and you had to be clean and you had to do that, and some things that young children just don't understand. You know, why should you be clean? You just go out and get dirty again. But you know, they were different days too. Because it was remote, and because there was no school, we had a governess for a while. I suppose for quite a while. But I'm not sure that I ever learnt much from governesses. There was one who - a German who was meant to teach us German, and she spent most of the - the old crystal radio got chucked out and we got a new short wave radio set, and she was always a bit tired in the morning because she'd been up all night listening to Hitler's speeches. But she'd never tell us what he was saying, which is not surprising. I'm afraid she ended up in a concentration camp for most of the war.

Did she?


Straight from your property to ...

I don't know whether it was - no, I don't think straight from the property. But she was obviously fascinated by Hitler and what Hitler was doing for the Germans. She was a great, big, blonde German.

So in the early part of your childhood, as you were born in 1930, there was a sort of virtually 10 years that led up to the war. Were you conscious of the fact that in the world outside this property, that there was forces gathering that were going to make a big change to things?

I, not to a great extent I don't think. I mean the whole ten years wasn't spent at Balpool, because a part of each year, certainly as you got a bit older was spent by the seaside or whatever for a while. But I think a lot of people grew up - I mean parents act quite differently today. I mean the idea then for parents, or I think for my parents, was you shelter your children, you try and protect them from all the nasty influences that they're going to have to grapple with when they grow up. And that sheltering is probably not a good idea. I think it's much better if children learn that certain things exist and have to cope with them. And they're generally much more resilient than parents think anyway. So I think I was probably, and my sister also I suspect, sheltered too much from outside influences if you like, or what was happening in the wider world. Much more than we probably should have been.

So to sum up that period before you went off to preparatory school, how were your days spent?

Oh you'd probably more often than not, go and saddle up the pony and go for a ride, or go shooting somewhere.

And what ...

Or spend a bit of time with your governess, which I wouldn't have liked. When you're out of, if we were shearing, go out to the woolshed, which would have been three miles away. Sometimes visit other people who were working on the place and whatever.

What kind of values do you think your parents were most concerned about communicating to you at that time?

Oh I suspect all the normal conventional values that parents expect of children. Nothing particularly special or unique.

Just a standard farm boy's life, you think?

I don't even think farm boy's in terms of values. I think the standard values that most parents of the day, most parents probably still today would have expected of their kids.

What sorts of characteristics were they trying to encourage, do you think?

Well, you know I don't think it was any conscious effort, but honesty and telling the truth and I suppose working hard, or whatever.

Hard work was valued?

Oh yes, work was valued. Work was essential. It was the 1930s.

So where did you go to school?

I went to a preparatory school in Glamorgan for a while. This was in the latter part of the 1930s. Then I went to - and this almost down at the start of the war, to a boarding school for four years at Moss Vale.

That was Tudor House?

That was Tudor House. And then I went to Melbourne Grammar.

And at Tudor House, did you enjoy that?

I enjoyed it but I didn't - well there was another kind of isolation because you're cut off from everything you've known for the whole term. It was during the war and you'd be very lucky if your parents, or one of them could get up to see you once and whatever. And most of the other families would have come from Sydney or round about, not all that far away, so like all schools even during the war, there would have been parents' days or sports days or father's cricket matches and that sort of thing. And I think, you know, quite mistakenly, I was always looking to the stage when I could leave school, because I thought then you'd be free. There are other sorts of constraints. But I never liked the discipline or the straightjacket that schools and boarding schools put you in. You accept it but, you don't have to, you don't have to love it.

What was it that you particularly didn't like about it?

I just didn't like restraints and rules that you had comply. I think I complied with them mostly, but I always thought that once you left school, finished your education, you're then free and you can do what you want to do. Life's not like that either.

So at the boarding school, did you feel - do you remember how you felt on the days when the other boys had visits and you didn't, because your parents were too far away.

No, I don't know that I did. You know, I knew they couldn't be there, because it was the war and you couldn't travel, or you had to get a permit or you didn't have petrol and my father was in the Air Force in the Second War, so there were all those restraints. You just accepted them. I don't think children that sort of age really, they accept what the position is without too much question.

Do you remember the other boys there? Were there any that you are still friends with?

Oh quite a number, but most of them, you know, they're New South Wales, or if they're off the land, it's from different parts of the world. So if we see them occasionally that's as far as it goes. But you know, there are a number and some that I still see or hear or have contacts with quite often.

As a boy coming from this isolated state, from a property where you hadn't mixed with other children, did you find that difficult? Did you find it hard to pick up and play in groups?

Well, Tudor House was very good at organising people. So every minute was organised, you know, you did your drill in the morning. You did this and then you had sports in the afternoon, and they'd organise things on the weekends and Saturdays and Sundays. So you know, if you weren't used to it or whatever you just fitted into the scene.

But you didn't like it, so having come from a world in which you could pursue your own activities at your own speed, with your own interests, you were suddenly put in team sports, team activities all the time and did you find that pretty irksome?

No I enjoyed you know, cricket and tennis and rugby, whatever. And I was in the teams and, and I enjoyed all of that. It wasn't a particularly conscious thing in finding it irksome. It was just that, if I'd been asked what I was wanting to do, if I was enjoying myself, I'd say I'd enjoy myself more when I've left school and can do what I want to do. Without really knowing what it was like. My father would say, well you know, it's not quite like that. Enjoy it while you're at school because it's the best days of your life and whatever. But when you're a child like that it's very difficult to see that you're living through the best days in you life. You think they're over the hill when you get into the next paddock.

[end of tape]

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