Fraser's biographer, Philip Ayres has written that:
The centrality of Fraser's part in the processes leading to Zimbabwe's independence is indisputable. All the major African figures affirm it.
At one time, Fraser and Mugabe were close. Mugabe once said of Fraser, according to Ayres, that:
I got enchanted by [Fraser], we became friends, personal friends ... he's really motivated by a liberal philosophy.
Since Mugabe took power 27 years ago, Zimbabwe has declined from a once prosperous nation to a hellhole marked by political violence, corruption, starvation, and a rapidly declining population.
What has been Fraser's response to this? You would think that having helped propel Mugabe to power that Fraser would have a good account of his own actions and a detailed explanation of Zimbabwe's plight.
But he doesn't. The few comments he's made about Zimbabwe reveal Fraser to be startled, perplexed and at a loss to explain the situation. Worse, he continues to play the role of "naive liberal" when it comes to African politics.
For instance, back in 2000 Fraser was interviewed by John Highfield on the ABC. The transcript of the interview is titled "Fraser perplexed at turn of events in Zimbabwe". Here's how it begins:
JOHN HIGHFIELD: Mr Fraser, what do you make of these goings on in Zimbabwe? After all it was in the late 1970s that you and your friend, Kenneth Kowunda, persuaded Mrs Thatcher to come across to your view and give Zimbabwe independence.
MALCOLM FRASER: I find it very hard to understand the disintegration that has, in fact, occurred because I really did believe, and I think many people who knew what was happening in the country believed, that President Mugabe started very well. I can remember speaking with Dennis Norman who was a white farmer in Mugabe's first government, and he spoke very highly of him and spoke very highly of his policies at that time.
Highfield later asks Fraser if the elections in Zimbabwe should go ahead. Fraser appears to put a great deal of misplaced faith in the elections:
MALCOLM FRASER: I believe that the elections should go ahead as scheduled. I also believe that the Government should commit itself to doing everything possible to try and ask the - well, not to try, to ask the whole community to be calm, because there are going to be elections. I suspected an announcement of an election date would itself have a calming influence because people would know, "Well, on this day I can have a real say." And then there also obviously should be a commitment to all parties to accept whatever the outcome of that democratic process might be.
In 2005 Fraser was again interviewed on the ABC, this time by Maxine McKew:
MAXINE McKEW: If I can cite one country where you've had a considerable input into its birth as an independent country, and of course that's Zimbabwe, if you look at the latest example of self-inflicted misery and poverty, it's really in that country and it's all because of the activities of President Mugabe and his forcible removal of thousands of people and, of course, in the process, ruining their livelihoods.
MALCOLM FRASER: Well, Zimbabwe seems to have gone through one tragedy after another and this is the latest chapter, it's the latest tragedy ... I really do believe that if President Mbeki, President Obasanjo of Nigeria - South Africa and Nigeria together can make it plain that Africa will not tolerate this kind of behaviour from African leaders.
MAXINE McKEW: But the point is they do tolerate it, don't they?
MALCOLM FRASER: Well, I think it's up to them to demonstrate that they don't. The African organisations, continent-wide organisations, now have a commitment to human rights, so it's up to them to make sure that that commitment is maintained, that human rights are preserved.
So Fraser has no explanation for what has happened; he regards it as a "tragedy" (as if it's a kind of accident that no-one could foresee). He then puts his misplaced faith in the intervention of African leaders.
All of which raises the question of how Fraser can remain so naive and perplexed about important international affairs.
I wonder if it has to do with liberal ideas about equality. When liberals talk about equality, they usually don't have in mind the idea that people are equal but different. If you were to ask if men and women were equal, it probably wouldn't satisfy a liberal to answer "Yes, but not at the same things." A liberal is looking for an equality in kind.
Perhaps this is because liberals think of equality in terms of people having the same potential. At any rate, I expect that some liberals are naive because their ideal of equality leads them to think of people as being the same.
It's possible that Fraser believes that having liberal political values is what gives you worth. This means that if everyone is to be equal, in the liberal understanding of equality, we must all have the same potential for such liberal values. To doubt this would be a denial of the possibility of human equality.
Therefore, African leaders who make the right kinds of liberal noises, who sign up to charters of rights, or who seem like decent fellows to white liberals, are to be taken at face value as expressing the same kind of things that Malcolm Fraser himself holds to.
You would think that liberals, having wandered away from a belief in a transcendent morality, would be free to act in a worldly-wise, crafty, Machiavellian way in politics. And Fraser has been accused of doing so in some aspects of his career and business dealings.
In foreign affairs, though, Fraser represents the gullible, unperceptive side of the liberal political personality - the side which cannot, and doesn't want to, comprehend deep-seated differences in political cultures and which utterly fails, time and again, to predict the ultimate outcome of political events.