MANY Western District blue-bloods would like to believe that Malcolm Fraser was once capable of walking on water, but a jackaroo who spent a year working with the former prime minister has actually witnessed him float above the ground.
Checking the voltage of electric fences on his property Nareen, north of Coleraine, the imposing former member for Wannon appeared to delight in grabbing the wire with his hand and have the power surge through his body.
“He actually levitates when he has the electric wire in his big fist,” Michael Thornton said.
“My way of checking it with a piece of dry grass seemed so pathetic.”
Thornton counts his senior jackarooing stint with the Frasers as one of his best experiences because it instilled a sense of worth and pride in a young man who had been bullied and tormented for much of his young life.
“Working for Mr Fraser gave me huge confidence … I discovered that he was just a normal human,” he said.
Now 61, Thornton has penned his memoir Jackaroo, recalling his teenage years at boarding school, learning the skills of cattle and sheep farming on the tough Habbie’s Howe station in the Strathbogie Ranges, wool classing in England and working on a hereford stud near Mortlake, before finally securing a position at Nareen.
His first encounter with Mr Fraser, then minister for defence, was on a hot Christmas Eve in 1970, when he was told to turn up at his pastoral spread for an interview. Invited into the homestead for lunch, he gratefully accepted the offer of a can of beer, only to discover he was the only one drinking.
The mind of a doubting 21-year-old came into play, with Thornton suddenly nervous and wary. His estranged father was an alcoholic who died after toppling from a hotel balcony when Thornton was 13.
“I thought Fraser had ASIO checking me out to see if I was an alcoholic like my dead father,” he said.
To make matters worse, Tamie Fraser served up spaghetti bolognese, which Thornton struggled to eat without making a mess of the grand dining table and white linen serviettes. Under the watchful eyes of the Frasers, their four children and Mr Fraser’s mother, he saw it as another test of his character.
Today, he realises there was no ulterior motive in their kindness. “They probably didn’t serve spaghetti to embarrass me at all,” he said.
Twelve months on, after passing the interview, Thornton was once again welcomed to the table — this time for Christmas lunch, where he enjoyed a traditional family gathering complete with hats, crackers and bad jokes read out by Mr Fraser himself.
“It was a lovely gesture, but as a loopy 21-year-old, I thought it was another trap,” Thornton recalled.
He said Mr Fraser was quick to adopt modern farming practices on Nareen, including intensive grazing with rotational electric fence systems, artificial insemination and introducing simmental blood lines into his hereford herd, which was almost “sacrilegious” at the time.
“He was quite ahead of his time and he was great to work for. I was on award wages for the first time,” Thornton said.
The jackaroo was at Nareen when Mr Fraser stood up in Parliament on March 10, 1971, and announced his resignation as defence minister. Mr Fraser slammed prime minister John Gorton’s interference in his ministerial responsibilities and accused him of disloyalty, saying he was “not fit to hold the great office of Prime minister”.
Mr Gorton resigned from the post later that day after a tied party vote of confidence in his leadership.
Thornton recalls hanging a radio up on a nail in the killing shed wall and listening to Mr Fraser’s speech live from Parliament while he killed four sheep to provide meat for the family and workers.
“Figuratively speaking, we were both slaughtering things at the time,” he said.
Mr Fraser became Prime minister more than four years later, long after Thornton had finished his stint at Nareen.
Thornton still refers to him as Mr Fraser. “Always did, always will,” he said.
Although Thornton grew up in Melbourne, his maternal grandfather ran a major Australia wool-buying firm and wanted his grandson to join the industry after
experiencing rural life at the 7000-acre Habbie’s Howe.
The station can be compared to today’s version of a boot camp, only much harder. The property trained 80 jackaroos over a 50-year period under Dick Webb’s critical and pedantic supervision. His harsh methods worked, with the young graduates highly regarded throughout the country for their work ethic.
Thornton’s worst day was discovering the meaning of the term “lamb marking”. The workers rounded the lambs up and then began the annual task which involved vaccinating, ear-marking, tail-docking and, for the males of the species, castration.
Habbie’s Howe employed the old-fashioned method where workers cut open the scrotum with a knife, squeezed out the testes and bit them off with their teeth before spitting them onto the ground to be devoured by the waiting dogs.
“It was just standard practice,” Thornton said. “Everyone else standing around that group was a country kid and knew what was going to happen, but I squeezed my knees together watching them go for those testicles.”
Thornton, too, was forced to learn the skill and vividly describes the grisly experience in his book.
“That’s life. That’s how it was and I tell it, warts and all, even though I’m very much aware there will be a lot of tut-tut-tutting going on.”
Thornton completed a diploma of farm management at Glenormiston Agricultural College during a two-year course in 1972 and 1973, just a year after the facility was opened.
He became secretary of the Glenormiston Football Club and, in a drunken rage one night, phoned the manager of the Terang Express newspaper to complain about its coverage of the league, saying it was atrocious and offering to write an alternative piece.
It was published and he felt committed to continuing to write.
Thornton’s career as a rural journalist began flourishing and he later went on to a career in raising money professionally for schools. After volunteering for six months last year to work in Vietnam with a street kids’ charity, he returned home to a position as director of advancement at Melbourne Business School.
His work on Jackaroo was tragically interrupted earlier this year when his youngest son, Jamie, died at the age of 28 after struggling with juvenile diabetes for 16 years.
“He was a lovely, caring, gentle kid. He was really looking forward to the launch of the book,” Thornton said.
Surgery had failed and doctors recommended they turn Jamie’s life support machines off. “It took him 12 days to die,” his father said.
The excitement of seeing his work published has been clouded by a huge void.
“It’s been a shit of a year,” Thornton said.
The memoir is dedicated to Jamie and Thornton’s two older children, Richard and Melissa.
He now takes the opportunity at every book event to urge parents to give their own children an extra hug.
Michael Thornton will be giving a talk and signing copies of Jackaroo at Bellcourt Books in Hamilton next Saturday, July 23, at 10am.