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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Malcolm Fraser (1930–2015)

by John Farquharson

No Australian politician became Prime Minister in more controversial circumstances than Malcolm Fraser, whose name will be forever associated with the dismissal of the Whitlam government, and no prime minister's accession to power has been more hotly debated ever since. Certainly, few political events convulsed the nation as that did.

Yet, however shocked and outraged people were at the time, at the subsequent election, just a few weeks later, on December 13, 1975, the electorate ignored Whitlam's appeal to "maintain the rage", and confirmed Fraser in office with the largest majority in Australian history.

From being opposition leader, Fraser, who has died aged 84, won his way to The Lodge by blocking Supply and creating a House of Representatives-Senate deadlock, which Governor-General Sir John Kerr broke by dismissing the Whitlam Labor government and appointing Fraser as caretaker prime minister until an election was held.

But Fraser's seven years in control of the Treasury benches were dogged by turbulence, contention and a difficult and intractable economic situation. Even so, he won three elections and was the Liberal Party's longest serving prime minister after Menzies until John Howard surpassed that record.

He revealed himself to be one of the Liberal Party's most progressive leaders. Yet after his defeat by Labor's rising star, Bob Hawke, at the March, 1983 election, he was disparaged and cast into the wilderness for nearly a decade. Even his own party kept its distance. When he offered himself as the Liberal Party's federal president in 1987, he withdrew when soundings indicated clearly that party preference was for businessman John Elliott. His role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government still rankled, even among some Liberals. He again withdrew in 1993 when Tony Staley became a candidate. In some eyes, Fraser's reputation also was still smudged by his resignation as defence minister in 1971 — an act that led to the downfall of his leader and Prime Minister, John Gorton.

He had precipitated that crisis by charging that Gorton had been disloyal to a senior minister (himself) and was not fit to hold office. Added to that was his move to topple Billy Snedden as opposition leader. He failed in his first attempt, but succeeded in his second bid on March 21, 1975, when he won a party-room ballot by 37 votes to 27.

All these events left a mark. Perhaps more so, because he was never a popular figure, though respected for his strength and political authority. So he was politically excommunicated, dashing his hopes of fulfilling an elder statesman role in Australia. Full public rehabilitation did not come for him until the Liberal Party decided to bring him in from the cold in June 2000 and bestow the party's highest honour, life membership. Even John Howard, whom Fraser had criticised savagely a week earlier, was prepared to be magnanimous, declaring him to have been a "great Liberal leader". Howard's praise for his former leader stopped there.

Even though Fraser went on to win public support for his strong anti-Howard stand on humanitarian issues and other social causes, Howard never publicly criticised Fraser. That restraint probably stemmed from the fact that when he became prime minister, Howard was concerned about the way Fraser had been treated. One of his first actions was to offer Fraser a diplomatic appointment, but it didn't suit the former prime minister's lifestyle and commitment at that time.

The 1990s also saw a reconciliation between Whitlam and Fraser. In a speech paying tribute to Fraser's strong anti-Howard stand on humanitarian issues, Whitlam said: "Malcolm Fraser has now replaced me as Public Enemy Number One in the demonology of the Australian right wing. I must say I am much more relaxed about being supplanted by Malcolm Fraser for a second time than I was the first time".

Fraser won respect for seeking to use his post-PM years constructively. Much of that respect emanated from his role in establishing the CARE organisation in Australia, thus enabling him to make a major impact on overseas aid, both through the Australian arm and the worldwide body, CARE International; he led both at different stages. He was also outspoken on affairs of the day, ranging from media ownership, the rights of asylum seekers and their detention, the treatment of Aborigines to the role of the High Court, to name a few.

Fraser faced a tough task after winning the 1975 election with a mandate to curb the excesses of the Whitlam years, restore order to the economy, confidence to investors and sound government. To do this, he set about slashing public-sector expenditure, reducing the tax burden and initiating a drive to beat inflation. But the economic recovery he sought eluded him. It foundered on unemployment, demands for higher wages and developing globalisation. The challenge of globalisation demanded deregulation, whereas Fraser, ever the traditionalist, put his faith in regulation. He also failed to take the opportunity to reform the industrial system.

Nevertheless, he chalked up significant achievements in other areas of government. He championed multiculturalism; revived Australia's flagging immigration program, accepted thousands of Vietnamese boat people as refugees and accepted by regular refugee entry more than 50,000 others; extended native land title rights and appointed three particularly sensitive Aboriginal Affairs ministers in Fred Chaney, Ian Viner and Peter Baume.

In foreign relations, he strengthened Australia as a middle power able to punch well above its diplomatic weight, and for most of his years as prime minister, he was the leading figure in the Commonwealth of nations. He played a prominent part in negotiations that saw Zimbabwe become an independent nation, staring down British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the process. However, he missed out on the Commonwealth secretary-generalship because then Prime Minister Hawke was heavy handed in pressing Fraser's nomination and because many saw it as "Africa's turn".

On other fronts, where Whitlam had failed, Fraser negotiated a practical border arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea. He also supported environmental undertakings, reformed the family support system, established the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and banned whaling around the Australian coast.

After his retirement Fraser admitted "the major mistake we made was not to go for full industrial power for the Commonwealth in 1976". A radical approach was needed and Fraser never took it. He also felt he made a mistake with the timing of the 1983 election by setting it in March rather than later in the year. A further error of judgement, he admitted, was his decision to quit politics immediately after the 1983 poll. If he had stayed on for a time, he believed the Liberals might not have spent a decade locked in a destructive leadership struggle between Howard and Peacock.

As Prime Minister he was in the Menzies mould. His philosophy in politics was to "stay totally in control all the time". He ran cabinet meetings on the basis of "consensus by exhaustion". He had complete command over the machinery of government, was a stickler for due process, while his ability to master briefs and his cross-portfolio knowledge was said to be "awesome".

Tony Eggleton, who worked closely with Fraser as director of the Liberal Party's Federal Secretariat and was a political adviser, has a vivid recollection of Fraser's determination, which could be translated into bloody-mindedness. "I still smile", he said, "when I remember Big Mal striding across the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel in London, convinced that he was taking a short cut to his suite. Despite the protestations of personal and hotel staff, Malcolm headed for a door and disappeared into the broom cupboard to an accompanying clatter of mops and buckets. Despite some loss of dignity, he managed to crack a smile".

Fraser was a formidable and aggressive politician, a patrician with a high sense of public duty, ambitious for himself and his country. He was also his own man, uncompromising but compassionate. He did not dodge controversy and didn't place great store on personal popularity. Though often described as a "poor communicator", he could, and did, make effective public speeches. With his wooden, Easter Island like face, he was shy and uneasy with people at a personal level and had no small talk at social occasions. His tendency to be "a loner" was noted during his school days and undoubtedly emanated from his early childhood.

Fraser was born in Melbourne into a wealthy Victorian pastoral family with a background in politics. His grandfather, Sir Simon, whom he came to greatly admire, had served in the Victorian Parliament and then as a senator in the first Commonwealth Parliament.

His early childhood was spent on his parents' 11,000-hectare grazing property, "Balpool-Nyang" on the banks of the Edward River, near Moulamein in the NSW southern Riverina. After his only sibling, his sister Lorri, went away to boarding school, Malcolm was very much on his own. The only other child nearby was the rabbiter's daughter, with whom he played occasionally.

In 1940, he was plucked from that environment, where he had developed a robust self-sufficiency, to board at Tudor House on the outskirts of Moss Vale in the NSW southern highlands. He flourished there both academically and at sport until the end of 1943. Then it was Melbourne Grammar in 1944, after his parents sold "Balpool" and moved to "Nareen" in Victoria's western district.

Fraser disliked the atmosphere at Melbourne Grammar, which he found repressive. Then it was on to Oxford and Magdalen College, where he took the modern greats tripos — philosophy, politics and economics, rather than law, which his father had done. He struggled with the economic component of his degree, but finished with a third — not a bad result.

Fraser developed an interest in politics at Oxford, and not long after he returned to Australia in 1952, he joined the Liberal Party while working with his father on "Nareen" until the opportunity came for pre-selection for the seat of Wannon. He eventually won in 1955, and in the following December he married Tamara (Tamie) Beggs, daughter of a grazier from Willaura, near the Victorian town of Ararat.

An elegant and engaging woman with her social ease and charm, Tamie turned out to be Fraser's best political asset. She supplied the touch with people that her husband lacked. Soon after they married, Fraser became one of the first MPs to set up home in Canberra. The Fasers moved into rented accommodation, which they occupied during parliamentary sittings.

When he took his seat in Parliament, Fraser, at 25, was the House of Representatives' youngest member, but he had to wait 11 years before advancement came his way. He was frustrated and puzzled when people such as Billy Snedden and Peter Howson, who had also entered Parliament in the same year that he did became ministers ahead of him. However, his chance came with Harold Holt in 1966 as minister for the army. He handled the portfolio with flair and competence during the testing Vietnam war, before becoming minister for education and science 1968-69, then minister for defence 1969-71. He served again in education and science under McMahon until the Coalition lost the 1972 election to Labor.

Fraser left his mark in each portfolio, but particularly defence, where he had a strong rapport with the departmental head, Arthur Tange. The fruit of their cooperation came with the Tange Report of 1973, which was adopted by the Whitlam Government and led to the abolition of single service departments; their responsibilities merged under a single Defence Department. He also initiated planning for what became the Australian Defence Force Academy and was a strong advocate of forward defence.

Fraser was prepared to sacrifice ministerial rank by moving against Gorton. For a time he pondered whether he had any "future at all in politics" until McMahon brought him back into the ministry. In so many respects a strong leader, he was a complex man of many contradictions. Doing the right thing was always important for him, yet many of his actions could only been seen as questionable. While demanding personal loyalty from his colleagues, they couldn't always be sure that it would be reciprocated.

His aloofness alienated many within the Liberal fold and beyond. Yet he had a natural rapport with people of other races. As then senator Fred Chaney once famously remarked, "He doesn't have a racial bone in his body, otherwise I wouldn't work for the bastard".

Fraser's third term in office was not an altogether happy one. It was marked by damaging leaks, reshuffles and forced resignations. Several of the resignations, insisted upon as a matter of principle, were not really necessary, especially those of Senator Reg Withers over impropriety but not illegality, Michael MacKellar and John Moore over a customs issue. But most destabilising of all was the resignation of Andrew Peacock as minister for industrial relations in April 1981.

Earlier, as foreign minister, Peacock had been at odds with Fraser over the government's recognition of Cambodia's Pol Pot regime. Then, having been shifted to the industrial relations portfolio, Peacock, who favoured a more diplomatic approach, took exception to Fraser's confrontationist stance against the 35-hour week and resigned, electing to go to the backbench.

Fraser had always seen Peacock as a potential rival, and relations between the two continued to deteriorate, until Peacock finally made a direct challenge in 1982. But at the subsequent party meeting Fraser convincingly retained the leadership, defeating Peacock 54-27. These ministry upheavals not only rocked the government, projecting an image of instability, they also showed up Fraser's poor management of people.

For decades, Fraser was stalked by his celebrated enjoinder to the Australian people, "Life wasn't meant to be easy". What few people realised was that the quote from George Bernard Shaw's play Methuselah continued "but take courage child, for it can be delightful".

Wherever Fraser's name comes up, so, too, does the incident in 1986 when he was robbed of his passport, money and trousers in a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Reports, which were greeted with hilarity in Australia, said he had wandered into the hotel lobby wearing a towel and saying he thought he had been drugged. His biographer, Philip Ayres, has suggested that Memphis softened and reduced Fraser: softened the image of the man, reduced the stature of the politician.

It certainly depicted him as more human, as did the emotion he showed when making his speech conceding defeat in the 1983 election — his voice faltered and his eyes became wet.

In retirement, Fraser also had to deal with the future of his 3500-hectare family property. "Nareen" had been in the family since 1944, but neither of the Frasers two sons, Mark and Hugh, wanted to take on the place. To boost the property's income, the Frasers turned it into a bed and breakfast establishment, while retaining their own privacy. Finally in 1997 they decided to sell and in 1998, and moved to a property at Red Hill, on the Mornington Peninsula.

Many people thought the move would be a wrench, but he had never felt for "Nareen" as he did "Balpool", which he loved. So he and Tamie quite happily settled into their new home, which they called "Thurulgoona" after the property in Queensland where Fraser's grandfather had drilled the first bore that inaugurated the artesian well system that was to so benefit Australian agriculture. There, too, among other things, Fraser always found time to practice his wood-turning hobby in which he was quite skilled — another unexpected side of the former prime minister.

As his retirement years progressed, there was greater appreciation of the constructive and positive nature of his post-prime ministerial contribution. His international stature went unquestioned, being enhanced significantly by his determined, and ultimately successful, efforts to secure the release of three CARE Australia aid workers — Steve Pratt, Peter Wallace and Branko Jelen — captured and imprisoned by Serbian forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Fraser flew to Belgrade where, in two separate meetings, he argued and negotiated with the then Serbian President, Slobovan Milosovic, for the men to be set free.

There was also a growing respect for his liberal and forthright views on domestic issues. His was the voice that was most often heard when he felt that the government of the day was acting inappropriately at home and abroad. He did not hesitate to register his concerns when, in the context of the terrorist threat, he felt the Howard Government was introducing measures that impinged on basic rights and were a betrayal of Australian principles of a "fair go" and the abrogation of UN conventions.

History may be much kinder to Malcolm Fraser than opinions in contemporary times suggest. In some respects at least, he might well be judged as having contributed as much, if not more, than John Howard.

His wife, Tamie, sons Hugh and Mark, and daughters Angela, Phoebe and their families, survive him.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Fraser, Malcolm (1930–2015)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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