Saturday, April 03, 2010

EASTER READING: Glenn Stevens wasn't the first Governor to open up to the media

Bernie Fraser was the first.




Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum
Saturday 23rd of November 1991

ON THE marble wall of the austere Reserve Bank building in Sydney, emblazoned in great gold capital letters, is an extract from its charter:

"It is the duty of the Board ... to ensure that the monetary and banking policy of the bank is directed to the greatest advantage of the people of Australia ... and will best contribute to the stability of the currency, the maintenance of full employment and the economic prosperity and welfare of the people of Australia."

Ironic: in Australia today the unemployment rate has soared to 10.1 per cent, the highest since the Depression; the currency has been deregulated; the economy is still in deep recession; and ordinary Australians are worse off than they have been for years.

At the end of a gloomy woodpanelled corridor on the top floor of the Reserve Bank is another irony in the form of Bernie Fraser, Governor of the bank, head of Treasury through most of the '80s, and one of the three or four most powerful men in the nation.

At first glance he appears to be what you'd expect...
a quiet, incredibly softly spoken, pinstripe-suited, balding ex-Treasury mandarin who is a self-confessed economic rationalist and who, with Paul Keating, pushed through the deregulation of the financial system and was chief architect of the current Labor Government's economic strategy.

A shy, unpretentious man who can drone on for hours about the fiscal/monetary/tariff mix in the womanish voice of your least favourite aunt, he is hardly known to the public. He is also widely admired for being efficient and absolutely incorruptible. The very image of a Reserved banker.

The irony lies in the fact that, so far from being a free market hawk of the Hewson species, Fraser believes intensely that government should intervene to protect ordinary people who suffer from the system, wants better "safety nets" for them, thinks the idea of screwing down the inflation rate at the cost of worse unemployment and bankruptcies is "crazy", and is now under attack from the New Right for being too soft and wimpish.

He's also a fiercely independent man who believes in the independence of the Reserve Bank, detests those who say he is under the thumb of the Government and (in the past) Paul Keating, scorns businessmen who "got fat from doing bugger all" and politicians who "can stuff things up pretty effectively", and believes Australia has a bright economic future as long as the "rorts and speculators and bloody urgers" - as well as the "crazy work practices" of some unions and workers - can be shaken out of the system.

He's no wimp. A working-class bush boy from Junee, he wasn't averse to giving school bullies "a punch in the throat" and has held on to those values ever since. Says David Morgan, a former Treasury colleague and now one of the top echelon at Westpac: "He's a quintessential public servant ... plenty of Reserve Bank governors and Treasury heads would really like to be Treasurer, but he's preferred to work in the backrooms. He's dead straight. I've never seen him tug his forelock to anyone, including prime ministers; I've never thought he's wimping out or bowing to political pressure.

"He's incredibly determined and bloody stubborn. When he's made his mind up, nothing can shake him. Neither Treasurer, nor Prime Minister, nor anyone else."

It's hard to associate this with the Bernard Fraser who, sitting hunched and self-protective behind his paper-laden desk on the 12th floor of the Reserve Bank, comes across at first like a demure Sir Humphrey Appleby, of the Yes, Prime Minister TV series. But looking at that black Celtic face, the black-brown eyes, the immensely prominent upper lip, the jaw smashed in Rugby League, a different persona emerges. If you stand next to him, all 182 centimetres (5 feet 11 1/2 inches) and 85 kilograms (13 1/2 stone), he exudes quite a formidable physical presence. He was, he says, "fairly big at school, which helped" - it stopped him being picked on as the poor kid in sandshoes from the house with all its windows broken.

"I'm my own man, I do my own thing," says Fraser quietly later on. "I don't feel a member of any group. I formulate what is in the interests of the public as a public servant; that means everyone, not just pressure groups. Do something to help somebody. I'm well aware that sometimes the markets don't work very well. Government intervention is absolutely essential in many areas, you can't just let the markets run rampant and let all the human debris that's flung off that operation just pile up, so you have a scrapheap of unemployed people. That's never been part of my philosophy."

He stops. His tone is even, confident, but still absolutely without emotion. "I have felt for some time now that I have been able to make judgments about things with a greater measure of success than other people; y'know, decisions come very readily to me; I feel I can defend them."

Some of his hardest arguments have been with his own colleagues in the Reserve Bank and Treasury, where he is regarded as a dove, the "odd man out", because of his concern for the social impact of economic policy. Hell, he even supports the Accord.

Fraser's technique is to argue, cajole, persuade, kid people along till they come around to his point of view. "At the end of the day I've usually been able to carry the argument, get a proper basis for action. That's what I seem to be able to do."

Does he in fact see a lot of the Treasurer? "I haven't seen much of John Kerin ... according to Hewson we're on the phone all the time ... but in fact he's been preoccupied, I don't know him well."

What about Paul Keating, who appointed him head of Treasury and later to the Reserve Bank | "Well, I'm happy to be a mate of Keating's, I put a good deal of credence and value in my mates; I could never be a mate of some of the characters who accuse me. No, I don't see much of him, never have, but I have a pleasant feeling being around him; there's something there that clicks.


For a man who is supposed to be the perfect bureaucrat, the even-handed servant of 30 years of Liberal and Labor governments, and a man who has avoided the limelight like a disease ("I'm a very private person - I like it that way"), Bernie Fraser is an amazing surprise.

His personal demeanor is cool, polite and unassuming to the point of caricature. "He's a little introverted," says his brother Bob, NSW manager of Budget Rent-a-Car, in a classic understatement. He never loses his temper. His colleagues have never heard him shout at anyone. He listens hard, never interrupts, and comes across as both gentle and sincere. As he says himself, "I'm a fairly normal, easygoing, easy-to-get-on-with person."

Yet he obviously feels strongly about things, he can be bloody-minded and outspoken, and he's had the guts to front up to treasurers and federal Cabinets alike and tell them things they didn't want to hear. (Keating and John Howard, who hate each other, both like Fraser.)

He has a command over the Aussie vernacular which even Paul Hogan would be proud of and his conversation is littered with "dickheads", "f---wits" and other expletives. He plays tennis, squash and cricket with an intensity which belies his apparent lack of personal ambition. ("I've never really chased positions of power or anything; they just sort of fell into place for me.")

He's played Rugby League all his life, started off in the backs but moved into the forwards as he slowed down, and still plays touch footie on the Domain with bank colleagues 20 years younger. ("I can see the gaps but I can't get through them |")

A few years ago Fraser's marriage broke up. He took up with another woman. Since then that has come to an end, too, and Fraser is now rattling around in a deserted, sepulchral Reserve Bank apartment in Kirribilli, living a bachelor life, ironing his own shirts, corn chips for dinner, Weetbix for breakfast, expiating his guilt by working at the bank from seven in the morning to seven at night or later.

It's an awful life for a man who has depended upon being part of a close-knit family for nearly all his time on earth and he says now: "I can't blame it on anything. Except myself. I just thought things were going to turn out differently. I caused a lot of grief to a lot of people. It weighs heavily with me; it's something I just have to learn to live with. I feel responsible. I feel guilty still."

It is early evening and Fraser is sitting in the virtually unfurnished cream-and-brown kitchen which passes as his living quarters in Kirribilli. There are night birds calling outside, and the whoosh of an occasional car motor, and that sad sense of desolation which seems to descend on the genteel purlieus of the North Shore after dusk. He gets ups, takes out a bottle of"plonk" (a Leo Buring hock) from the fridge, slaps it on the table. His father was a drunkard, but it hasn't turned him off: he likes a beer, used to have 40 or 50 dozen reds and whites stored away in his Canberra house, but he's given all that away. Foolish stuff.

"Frankly, I'm not sure what I'm doing," he says. Silence. "For the time being I'm sort of concentrating on work, trying to mend a few fences with the kids. They spend a bit of time here, I'm hoping the two girls might come here to live. The boy comes up from Canberra." Silence. "They blame me for the break-up of the marriage." Silence. "I survive. People survive.

"I've had a good run playing around with power, exercising power; having done that, sitting where I am now, where I sit most nights, it's not the right sort of ... if one had a rerun it wouldn't be the same order of priorities, I'd much rather be a s---kicker around the place and part of a happy, friendly relationship - that's much more important than pulling a few strings here and there and being forgotten the day after you move out. I say to other people now who I see pursuing careers at the expense of other things, I say, 'Hey, think very hard about this - it's not really worth it'.

"There was an enormous amount of work in the second half of the '70s; I was moved up the ladder a bit and it became a matter of cleaning up after some of the excesses of the Whitlam years ... y'know, it sort of fell apart, and I'm left with the job."

Fraser stops. He has been talking with as little apparent passion as ever, without a trace of demand for sympathy. He moved to Sydney in 1989; his extramarital relationship deteriorated from that time on.

"Mid-age crisis? No. I don't see myself as a victim of anything. These things happen sometimes; you wish they hadn't."

It sounds like, I say, one of the few mistakes he's made in his life.

"Yeah," he says wryly, "that thought's occurred to me."

Fraser is such a strong, confident bloke you wonder where he got it from -until you find out about his background.

He was born in Junee, on the south-west slopes of NSW, which he describes as "a pretty bushie town" and grew up in real poverty; his father was an unskilled labourer, a railway worker when there were jobs around, always too proud to front up for the dole, spent a lot of time scrounging around; his mother spent her time raising Bernie and his two younger sisters and two younger brothers; both parents were Irish, and Catholic, but the Catholicism wasn't heavy and he grew up an amiable pagan.

What did mark him, indelibly, was the way his father used to get drunk, come home, and knock Bernie and his mother about: "Saturday was an ordeal ... and great remorse the next day ... in other ways my father was great - we used to go fishing a lot together. We were good mates on the river; it was when he'd had a surfeit of grog that he was a mess, and it was bad."

It's made Fraser acutely aware of what happens to people, especially wives and children, who get caught up in such situations and explains his commitment to safety nets and government help to those who need it. Strangely, though, it didn't turn Fraser into a Labor man; his father was, a fierce one, and Fraser himself voted Labor in his first couple of elections but since then, he says, "I've been a bit of a swinging voter."

He was appalled, for instance, at the way the Whitlam Government blew out the deficit and increased wages so dramatically; in one year, he believes, it"blew away" years of careful economic policy which preceded it. It clearly offends, still, Fraser's Drizabone bush rationalism; like many right-wing Labor politicians, he doesn't want to restructure a brutally unfair society, he just wants to make the system work better.

To use his own words: "I'm not a conservative but I'm not a mad radical that wants to change things overnight. To get a growing economy with low inflation, that's more than enough challenge for anybody."

At Junee school he was the poor kid from the condemned weatherboard house which had no electricity and who couldn't afford proper shoes, even in winter. He studied for the Leaving Certificate with the help of a kerosene lamp, wrote his school essays on the kitchen table, spent a lot of his spare time chasing rabbits, getting five bob a pound for rabbit skins, driving tractors and doing odd jobs for farmers; "There was no disguising the poverty of it."

The house had a bit of land around it and one of Bernie's jobs was to grow vegies to help the family eat: he grew Imperial 847 lettuce, Queensland Blue pumpkins, Hubbard squash, became a good gardener, still likes it. These days he has a 88-hectare farm near Queanbeyan, outside Canberra, which he describes as "a bit of an indulgence", drives up there regularly, knocks the heads off"thistles or rabbits or anything else that might get in the way" ... The bush boy lives on.

What school did give him, however, was an enormous boost in confidence which has stayed with him ever since.

He discovered that, despite being so disadvantaged, he was as good as anyone else at football, tennis, running, which was a big part of his life. Then in fourth and fifth year at high school he discovered he was as good as anyone else academically as well. "Those schooldays were very important in shaping me," he remembers. "I was driven on a bit, I guess, to perform in those areas."

He became a prefect, then head of school, came home to Mum with armfuls of sporting trophies - on speech days he had so many the teachers used to have to stuff them down his shirt | Says his mother, Kathleen, who still lives in Junee in a house Fraser bought her: "He's been a wonderful person, as kind as kind can be, every shilling he earned he came home and gave to his Mum ... things were tough ... he was very different, he studied ... whatever Bernie did, Bernie did it off his own bat. People blame him for the recession, but they've got to blame someone, haven't they?"

Says Fraser: "You've got to discount half of what my mother says."

At school's end Fraser won a scholarship, went to New England University and studied arts and economics; his idealism got him interested in Third World countries. "I had naive ideas I'd offer myself to the Indian Government and go and solve their problems ... wrote a few letters ... I got sort of sidetracked into problems closer to home. But I kept up that interest and worked on the foreign aid side of Treasury for quite a while. Why didn't I follow the Indian thing through? The Indians didn't want me."

In 1961 he joined the Department of National Development in Canberra and two years later applied for "a lowly job in Treasury, and to my surprise I got this bloody job". By 1984 he was head of Treasury and ready to instigate the most dramatic overhaul in Australia's economic policies since the Depression.

With three other Treasury officials - Chris Higgins, Ted Evans and David Morgan - and the support of Paul Keating, who had become Treasurer with virtually no economic experience, Fraser and the Gang of Four, as they became known, set out to internationalise the economy, force it to become leaner and more competitive, get rid of the subsidies and tariffs and pork-barrelling which they argued had crippled it for so long, and turned to the discipline of"the market" to make it work.

Yes, he admits, he has been pretty cool about some of the shock waves which resulted, and that coolness has irritated a lot of people. But he's proud of being an activist, "working my arse off" to produce more change in the last decade than in the previous 20 years.

Sometimes, he says, "the heart gets mixed up with the head a bit". He still gets "very annoyed, very angry" when he sees people suffering unnecessarily like his Mum and Dad did. But he is absolutely confident that the way he has pushed economic policy, and is still pushing it, is the right way to go.

"The internationalisation of the economy is inevitable, irreversible," he says. He is suddenly desperately earnest. "Given that, the smart thing to do is come to terms with it as quickly as you can."


Every second weekend or so, Fraser jumps into his big blue Reserve Bank Mercedes Benz and drives down to his farm - he's proud of the fact he can make it in three hours, whereas if you observed the speed limits it would take four. The farm is very important to him: when he finishes his governorship of the bank in five years' time (and if Hewson hasn't managed to get rid of him)he will probably retire there.

Fraser's always been interested in racing and back in the '60s owned a racehorse, Jomo, which ran a couple of placings on the Canberra track. "My father used to punt on the horses every Saturday; he'd put two bob on for me as well," he explains. "Gambling's a trait of the working class Irish |"

What does he do with the farm?

"Well, I run some cattle, from which I get a little bit, and run some thoroughbred horses, from which I get f--- all."

A gambler? "Not in terms of putting large sums of money on horses - I put large sums of money into horses trying to breed a winner." Fraser laughs and laughs at the folly of it all. "I've got a few young ones running around -hope springs eternal in racehorse breeders. The cattle, however, are for hamburgers."


Not the least of the paradoxes in Fraser's current position is that, after a lifetime of extolling the hardline Treasury approach to the economy, he now finds himself under attack for not being right-wing enough. Yes, he believes in privatisation: "It's no big deal, but we're better off selling Qantas and Australian Airlines and using the money on welfare." But isn't that just a one-off windfall, like Margaret Thatcher's notorious bid to privatise everything from health to water supplies? "Yes," Fraser agrees, reluctantly.

Yes, he believes in lowering income tax rates and flattening the tax scales, though not as much as Bjelke-Petersen and Hewson have proposed. Wouldn't higher taxes for the wealthy be fairer, and encourage savings, and help transfer wealth down the scale instead of upwards?

Fraser shifts uneasily in his chair, mutters about "incentive" (though not"incentivation", John Howard's disastrous catchphrase), and says there's too much argument about dividing the wealth cake up instead of creating a bigger cake: that's the best way to make everyone better off.

He doesn't like what he calls middle-class welfare and dole cheats, supports the stringent targeting of those who are worst off by cutting back on other benefits, and argues "you'll never have enough money for everything you need". Much of his rhetoric is familiar rationalist rhetoric. But that's not enough for Hewson and his Shadow Treasurer, Peter Reith: they see Fraser as to o soft, not a "pure" enough free marketeer.

Intellectually he is fairly conventional. He doesn't have time to read a lot, certainly not on political or social issues. In art he likes the Heidelberg School and soft, lyrical landscapes. He subscribes to the Australian Opera and goes to his favourites like Carmen and Madame Butterfly. Goes to the theatre and movies, but doesn't like anything which is too difficult to understand; his taste is characteristically middlebrow, mainstream.

Yet even here there is a surprise: Fraser loves poetry and writes it himself, whenever he gets what he deprecatingly calls "a blinding insight". He likes Judith Wright, A. D. Hope, Les Murray, Henry Lawson ... and Geoff Page, who was a fellow student at Armidale.

His morality can transcend his intellectual limitations. "I get very pissed off with people who just take," he says, "and that applies to whether they are the top level of society who are ripping off the tax system and indulging in property speculation and all the rorts, or whether they're people down the other end cheating on unemployment benefits."

Does he differ, say, from a merchant banker? "Merchant bankers are bloody urgers for the most part," he says fiercely. "Investment bankers, merchant bankers, some of these carpetbaggers really conned a lot of people into doing things a few years ago that they're paying pretty dearly for now."

But Fraser, basically, does not want to change the shares which people have in society, or challenge the power system, or question its structures. Unlike his predecessor, Dr H. C. "Nugget" Coombs, who was a socialist and a reformer, Fraser is a technocrat, though he protests he doesn't feel like one.

Asked if he was a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and now shorthand for the elite which dominates Australia's economic/political structure), Fraser replies: "What's a WASP?" As for political theory: "It isn't that relevant to the real world I'm working in." Almost a rebel? Yes: but in the end he buckles under to the system which destroyed his father. And is now trying to destroy him ...


"Make no mistake, Fraser is holding out against the barbarians at the gate," says a leading academic economist. Another describes the economic theorists behind the Hewson line as "the New Uglies: they don't give a stuff what their policies produce in terms of unemployment and so on".

Says Fraser: "My main task here might be to see out the next five years, if there's a change of government."

People shouldn't underestimate his courage. At Treasury, he stood up to John Stone; at the bank he keeps an open mind, listens, then decides. If he and the Government, any government, fall out, he can take the issue to the national Parliament. If Hewson tries to sack him, the scene could be set for the most profound political confrontation since Kerr and Whitlam in 1975.


Like so many other Australians, Fraser would like to buy a house but can't afford to. Since his marriage broke up and he moved to Sydney he's been renting the cavernous Kirribilli flat which he sort of camps in. Unlike other public servants who've been lured into business by huge salaries and the flash life (last financial year salaries paid to top directors of Australian businesses rose 20 per cent to an average $600,000 a year), Fraser has put his public duties first.

Says David Morgan, now at Westpac: "He's dedicated to the lot of ordinary Australians." Says Fraser: "I like the public bit of being a public servant."

He looks around the bare, unfriendly walls of his bachelor pad. "It's not easy to move out of here - I haven't got any money," he says. "I can get a sort of reasonably cheap loan from the bank ... but to buy another house you need a deposit ... I could sell the farm. I've thought about that, but I haven't been prepared to do that ... I've spent an awful lot of bloody energy clearing bloody scrub, cutting up logs, picking up stones, doing fences ... you never get the value back but the satisfaction's there ... I keep hoping my boy will become more interested in the farm ..."

He laughs again. "I'll see what happens. That's how life's been for me, see how things go. I never set out to achieve."

It's weird: the Governor of the Reserve Bank, former head of the Treasury, the man who put up interest rates in Australia to their highest level ever, worrying about getting a loan from the bank.


Fraser agrees he has to bear some of the responsibility for the current recession. "I could disclose some qualifications, but ..." He hesitates. "There's no doubt some mistakes were made; it would be nice if you had no overheating but things got away in the late '80s; no-one has worked out how to get rid of the business cycle. And then the measures that were taken led to some overshooting in the opposite direction."

No, it hasn't shaken his faith in deregulation, it was just a lot of things happened at the same time: the financial system was deregulated, there was strong economic growth, investment soared, there was a lot of speculation in assets, the banks weren't ready for the new environment and indulged in a major expansion of bank credit ...

"We were guilty of overselling deregulation," he says. "It was a new mix, a dangerous mix; the banks had been regulated and asleep, the tax system favoured asset speculation, and thereafter interest rates had to be pushed up to extremely high levels to dampen the exuberance, and they caught up a lot of other people who had nothing to do with property speculation."

And now?

Fraser is certain the recession has bottomed out and that the recovery has started ... though he acknowledges the recovery will be more modest than earlier ones. Housing is starting to stir, so is personal consumption, investment will be up in the early part of next year; unemployment will take longer to recover but, like the economy, jobs will bounce back, mainly in the services sector.

"It always looks like a pretty big hole to dig yourself out of and it's going to take a bit of time to get the economy growing rapidly again but that will happen - things change even though they look hopeless.

So he doesn't believe in the banana republic/Argentine/doom-and-gloom scenario for Australia?

No. "I'm an optimist about the Australian economy and have been for quite a long time. I don't know if it's because my lips turn up or whatever (smiling). If the world economy doesn't fall into a hole, one should be optimistic. We've got a lot going for us; it's just a matter of stopping shooting ourselves in the head."

For the next hour he patiently goes through the various problems, possibilities and options. Of the future, he says: "We've got problems now but we'll come out of those. The longer-term future is pretty good. I don't think I'm in the minority in thinking that."

He has one reservation. Politicians can screw it up. At a business dinner the night before, there was "a lot of mindless calling on the Government to dish this out, dish that out, give everybody a tax break, be seen to be doing something - that's the way politicians panic, they'll throw money at anything."


Six am: The alarm clock wakes Fraser from his chintz-covered double bed. He showers, shaves, sometimes goes for a swim in North Sydney pool, 15 or 20 laps, no problems, but he finds it's boring and usually settles for evening tennis at White City with David Morgan instead.

Weeties for breakfast, orange juice. Black pinstriped banker's suit, white shirt, black socks, black shoes, striped tie, as impeccably conservative an ensemble as you could wish to have: after all, he is the Governor.

Downstairs in the garage, surrounded by cardboard cartons still unpacked from Canberra, is the Merc. Fraser backs out and heads for the Harbour Bridge. (He got rid of the chauffeur as a good rationalist costcutting measure, though it added to the unemployment index.)

By 7.10 am he is at the bank, behind his desk, looking through the newspapers.

8.30 am: Meeting with the secretary of the bank about the day ahead.

8.50 am: Meeting with the bank's market analysts about what's happened on the New York and London stock exchanges overnight; the bank helps fix the Australian dollar exchange rate by buying and selling on the market, needs to know immediately of dollar fluctuations overseas, tries to predict crises like the infamous October '87 crash.

So it goes on all day: meeting after meeting - with his four assistant governors, with overseas visitors, with government departments, Treasury, the private banks.

Of the banks, Fraser says: "On some things we agree, work together to bring financial results about; on others we disagree but we've got the whip hand so we're able to bring them to heel. I have to try to manipulate them; I feel a bit like a shepherd and they're part of the flock ... though they wouldn't like to see themselves as sheep (laughing) ... the financial system's got a few problems but, jointly, we're trying to address those
... the banks are clients of the Reserve Bank, basically."

Today, however, is a special day: Melbourne Cup day. Oh, it also happens to be the day of the bank's monthly board meeting. With even the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, joining in the clamour for lower interest rates to help the national economy out of recession, this is a particularly important meeting. Everyone - banks, the markets, the Labor Government - is waiting to see what happens.

The board members fly in from all over Australia: Sir Peter Abeles, head of TNT and Bob Hawke confidant; Tony Cole, head of Treasury; Professor Robert Gregory, from the Australian National University; Bill Kelty, ACTU secretary; Jack Davenport, chairman of AGC; Brian Quinn, of Coles-Myer; and Deputy Governor John Phillips. The heavies.

By mid-morning the board has decided to lower interest rates by 1 per cent. Fraser rings Kerin in Canberra and tells him; the public announcement is made the next day.

Fraser believes interest rates "might have to come down quite a way further". He says: "A lot of people have been treated harshly and their confidence has been knocked for six; you can't turn confidence on and off like a tap. Even though we've brought interest rates down a long way they're still relatively high. We want to keep those inflation and current account gains..."

The Cup. Fraser puts a few dollars on Let's Elope, watches the race on his TV set, wins - "there's no way anything could beat her after the Caulfield Cup" - and back to the slog.

6 pm: He's still at it. Some nights he goes out to a formal dinner but, as he puts it, "I could go out every bloody lunch and night ... it's a waste of bloody time ... standing around with a glass of wine in my hand."

7 pm: He's getting tired. Twelve straight hours, a board meeting, a Melbourne Cup. He grabs his coat, catches the lift to the basement, jumps into the car, and drives over the Bridge in the soft gleaming of a Sydney spring evening to ... an empty flat, an ironing board, a bottle of plonk in the fridge, a TV set, and the end of another day trying to give 16 million Australians the best possible economy they can have.


The more people get to know Bernie Fraser the more they like him. He is direct, unassuming, funny, charming and, rarest of all, fairly selfless. A lovely man.

A great Australian? Probably. As he says himself, he has held true to the values he absorbed as a povertystricken kid in sandshoes running around in the dusty back streets of Junee.

John Kerr and Garfield Barwick, both from similar working-class backgrounds, turned against the class that spawned them with a savagery that has traumatised the Australian political system, and the Labor Party, ever since. Fraser, despite his 30 years' brainwashing in the reactionary air-conditioned nightmare of Treasury, has stayed loyal.

In his heart, at least. But has his head been on holiday?

At the undead centre of Fraser is a conundrum: how come a man of such idealism, of such rough and vernacular integrity, ends up as front-row forward for an economic ideology which emphasises capitalist efficiency at the expense of everything Fraser says he stands for?

And how come he's ended up in this hollow flat in Kirribilli which, as he says with scarifying honesty, "is not what I want ... I'm just sort of living from day to day ... and trying, you know, to get on with one's life"?

Maybe the answer is, finally, lack of imagination. If Fraser has a Shakespearian flaw it is a narrowness, a lack of intellectual curiosity, which makes him reluctant to challenge the system to which he's committed his life.

Because economics is a social as well as a technical science, Fraser comes across as a goodie. It's hard to imagine the Reserve Bank in saner or more compassionate hands. All his instincts are with the underdog.

"No, I don't feel a member of a ruling group; I mean, here I am, I work from seven to seven, make a contribution as best I can, go home and watch TV and read a book, like anybody else; I'm not sitting on a throne or wielding great power. I don't feel like that ..."

Yet, whether he feels like it or not, Bernard William Fraser, ex-bush boy, economic rationalist, idealist, and latest target of the barbarian Right, is also a key figure in the bureaucratic/financial/political complex which wields enormous hegemonic power in Australia. You conform to it or you're in trouble

Hegemony has been defined as "the rule of the governors with the consent of the governed". Fraser's instinct is to humanise its brute power but he's also its captive, part of a subtle system of control. Bernie Fraser should know that: after all, he's the Governor.

Related Posts

. Ian Macfarlane: The Governor 1996 - 2006

. Tuesday Column: Inside this morning's meeting of the Reserve Bank Board