Bert Kelly, The Bulletin, February 10, 1981, p. 91.
Until this week, I had been congratulating myself on the way I have handled our “family” meetings at which we have been dissecting “Malcolm’s Message,” the PM’s statement of Liberal philosophy made last December 5 in Adelaide. By exercising all the cunning footwork I learnt in politics, I have prevented Eccles from dominating our discussion and, believe me, that is no mean achievement. But I am afraid that this week’s meeting rather got away from me and the fault was Fred’s, not Eccles’s.
I began the meeting by reading from the Message this stately quotation: “Perhaps the most fundamental of the Liberal’s belief is the right to freedom to choose … It is this belief in the right to freedom to choose that distinguishes most clearly and directly our own open, expanding, caring, co-operative society from the grey, imposed and shut-in collectivity of the socialist State.”
When I read this out Mavis started to sniff, which she always does when she gets excited. Eccles was shuffling around a bit, but it was Fred who put the cat among the canaries. Fred doesn’t say much at meetings; he grunts a good deal and snorts sometimes, but no one could say that he tries to overwhelm opposition with eloquence. But on this occasion he let me have it with both barrels.
He started by saying that because recently he had been surprised to find that he had a better harvest looming than he expected, he suddenly decided to buy one of those big, self-propelled headers. He chose an imported header because he wanted it to reap small seeds as well as wheat. But when he went to buy the machine of his choice, he was told that it would cost an extra $2000 because of the customs duty that the government had imposed. So I can understand his irritation when he heard me meandering on about the virtues of having free choice.
“Free choice indeed,” he snorted, “I wonder how much extra the header would have cost if the choice had been unfree!”
I admit that this rather rocked me, but I came back at him by saying that, although I was sorry about the extra $2000 he had to pay for the header of his choice, at least he had the choice of paying the extra money to get it; he got the machine he wanted. But my argument seemed to inflame him even more. Fred has a brother in the car business and Fred went to him after harvest a bit flush with money, to buy a particular imported car. He had the money and was even reluctantly prepared to pay the 57.5 percent duty on the car of his choice. I can imagine how savage this must have made him because it would have meant that the car cost $4000 extra. I bet there were some awful mutterings about free choice when Fred heard that.
Then Fred’s brother told him that he couldn’t have that car anyway because the number of cars of that model that were allowed by the government to be imported was limited by an import quota and that all the cars that were allowed in had already been sold. You can imagine Fred’s reaction when he heard me reading about the Prime Minister’s dedication to the principle of free choice!
While Fred was fulminating about this, I glanced across at Eccles who winked at me. We were well aware that, if Fred knew what we knew, he would blow his top properly. Only a few months ago, we knew, the IAC had advised the government that if it felt that it had to continue this awful import quota system for cars, then at least some of the import licenses should be auctioned so that at least some of the shady business could be exposed to market forces. But the two ministers concerned, Mssrs Lynch and Moore, insisted on keeping to themselves the responsibility of allotting the import quotas.
I know there must be some explanation for this kind of behaviour. You just cannot have the PM sounding off about the virtues of free choice and at the same time have his ministers making sure that no choice is available. Mavis is sure that Fraser could not have known about the ministers’ decision: perhaps they have been doing things behind the PM’s back.
Or the pair of them may have bullied Fraser into submission. That doesn’t seem likely somehow. Sir Phillip has never lacked eloquence, but he hardly seems the bullying type. Perhaps Moore has hidden depths.
So this week’s meeting ended up in a nasty mood. Fred said sourly that the freedom of choice about which the PM was so eloquent reminded him of the choice that Henry Ford used to give his car customers.
He told them that they could have the choice of any colour they wanted as long as it is black!
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