Malcolm Fraser, the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia – and chief architect of the most controversial event in Australian political history – has died at the age of 84.
A towering figure and political colossus, John Malcolm Fraser overcame the infamy provided by his role in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal to become Australia’s fourth-longest serving Prime Minister. His leadership revolved around progressive policies within the conservative framework provided by the Liberal Party, and even though his administration was dogged by internal division, economic trouble, and external criticism over the Whitlam dismissal, Fraser still won three successive elections between 1975 and 1983 – a feat matched by only five other leaders in Australian history.
Those victories represented the pinnacle of a political career that lasted nearly three decades, itself the natural consequence of a privileged upbringing within a prominent Victorian pastoral and political family. The seeds were sown by Sir Simon Fraser – Malcolm’s grandfather – who had left Canada for the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s. Having established himself as a man of wealth, Sir Simon then made the transition into politics, first at state level and then as one of six inaugural Victorian Senators in the national Parliament post-Federation. Sir Simon Fraser was a conservative in the true sense, with little time for the more liberal ideas that his grandson would one day espouse.
Malcolm Fraser: Early life
Malcolm himself was born in Melbourne in 1930, some 11 years after Sir Simon’s death. It meant an early childhood during the worst of the Great Depression, although his family – with its basis in livestock – was less exposed to the misery and hardship suffered by other farmers and indeed much of the nation. In fact, Fraser followed a familiar path for Liberal politicians, sent by his parents in 1940 to the boys’ boarding school Tudor House in the highlands south of Sydney. Four years later, his family sold their property in the NSW Riverina and moved back ‘home’ to Melbourne. During this period, Fraser spent large amounts of his childhood on his own – the fault not entirely his own – and he consequently gained a reputation at Tudor House and the prestigious Melbourne Grammar for being shy and reserved, perhaps even a ‘loner’.
Despite his family’s rich history in public life, Fraser’s own interest in politics was not cultivated until he studied at Oxford, alongside such contemporaries as future Canadian Prime Minister John Turner. It is surely no coincidence that Turner would go on to serve the centre-left Liberal Party in Canada, whilst Fraser would bring a greater liberalism to the centre-right Liberal Party in Australia. Fraser returned to Australia in 1952, and immediately set about furthering his political career by running for the seat of Wannon. In 1954 Fraser came within 17 votes of unseating Labor incumbent Don McLeod, in an election that otherwise saw a small national swing towards Labor. A year later in 1955, Fraser won the seat in a landslide.
Some would argue that electoral redistributions helped Fraser’s cause – a theory borne by the fact Wannon has remained Liberal ever since Fraser won it – but nobody could argue that Fraser’s skill, character and depth of intelligence hadn’t played a part. What Fraser lacked, though, could be found in Tamara Beggs, the daughter of another farming family whom Fraser married in December 1956. She would play a critical role in Fraser’s political career over the coming decades – although the first decade would be spent on the backbenches throughout Sir Robert Menzies’ administration.
His political career started slowly, but a confluence of events would soon propel him to higher honours.
Malcolm Fraser: Political career
Fraser was persistent, though, and his chance came in 1966 when Menzies retired and the new Prime Minister Harold Holt took a gamble on his fellow Victorian. Fraser was named Minister for the Army in the early years of the Vietnam War, before alternating between Defence and Education & Science in the lead-up to the historic “It’s Time” election of 1972. Fraser had spent much of those years trying to implement and defend the government’s increasingly unpopular response to the Vietnam War, including policies such as conscription and the doctrine of ‘forward defence’ (whereby Australia would fight enemies on international territory rather than wait for those threats to arrive in Australia).
During this period, Australian politics was in a period of upheaval. Prime Minister Harold Holt had drowned one December morning in Victoria, and his replacement John Gorton lacked the authority to control the increasingly fractious Liberal Party. Gough Whitlam and Labor were emerging as a viable alternative government, and the Vietnam War was a huge issue of concern. Despite this, Fraser applied himself with dignity and diligence. More than that, he also demonstrated his willingness to put principle ahead of politics, when in 1971 he resigned from Cabinet and precipitated the downfall of Prime Minister John Gorton. Fraser was returned to Cabinet almost immediately by Gorton’s successor William McMahon , but it was short-lived as Gough Whitlam stormed into The Lodge in 1972.
From the Opposition benches, Fraser watched Whitlam’s administration flounder under the economic, administrative and social realities of government. He could sense his opportunity, and after one abortive attempt in 1974, Malcolm Fraser finally became the leader of the Liberal Party in March 1975. He soon began instructing his colleagues to block ‘supply’ bills in Parliament, which he deemed the most effective method of causing trouble for the Whitlam Government and sparking an early election. Supply bills are used to fund the day-to-day activities of government, and Fraser’s determination to block supply resulted in the Khemlani affair – a scandal which critically wounded Whitlam’s administration.
The caretaker PM, Malcolm Fraser, following Gough Whitlam’s dismissal.
Malcolm Fraser: Prime Minister
The killer blow in Fraser’s ‘one-two punch’ strategy came in November 1975, when Fraser convinced then-Governor General Sir John Kerr to use his constitutional powers to dismiss Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister. It would remain the single most dramatic and contentious act in Australian political history, and from that point on would forever define Fraser’s career and his ascension to the Prime Ministership. Not that it mattered with the electorate; the anti-Whitlam/pro-Fraser sentiment following ‘the dismissal’ was such that Fraser led the Liberals to the largest federal election victory in Australian history.
In government, Fraser immediately set about reversing the more extravagent policies and programs of the Whitlam years. He abolished some ministries, fundamentally changed Medibank, reined in the stubbornly-high levels of inflation that had dogged Whitlam, and massively cut spending across government including to the ABC (one of many decisions which made Fraser’s opposition to similar cuts by later administrations audaciously hypocritical). He did, however, resist calls to implement a broader economic program more in line with traditional conservatism. Fraser also used his previous experience in Defence to create the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) – a central training location for future Australian service personnel – and facilitated greater government transparency through Freedom of Information (FOI) laws.
Elsewhere though, Fraser’s strong support of the US in government exposed the sheer hypocrisy of his position post-retirement when he railed against US military bases on Australian soil and criticised Australia’s association with America. Fraser was also responsible for protective environmental measures such as the bans on mining near Fraser Island and the Great Barrier Reef, as well as the creation of Kakadu National Park and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. He further abolished whaling and other activities that adversely affected animal populations. He also banned uranium exports to nations who did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Strutting the world stage wasn’t Fraser’s style, but he achieved much in the name of human rights and multiculturalism
Malcolm Fraser: His greatest achievement
His greatest achievements, though, came in the areas of foreign affairs and immigration. During the Gorton government of the early 1970s, Fraser had become the first elected representative on either side of the political spectrum to use the word “multiculturalism”, and as an advocate of boosting the population through immigration, Fraser made it his goal to increase immigration and facilitate greater ethnic diversity as a source of economic and social strength in the years immediately following the end of the racist ‘White Australia’ policy. His creation of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) to provide multilingual broadcasting, and acceptance of more than 200,000 refugees from the Asian region (including almost 60000 post-Vietnam War), in particular have changed Australian society for the better, forever.
Fraser pushed through legislation first proposed by his predecessor Gough Whitlam on Indigenous land rights, and internationally voiced his strident opposition to apartheid in South Africa. He was also the principal force in eradicating white minority rule in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), although hindsight allows us to be critical of his support for Robert Mugabe. In an all-too-rare example in global politics, Fraser backed up his rhetoric with actions and diplomacy in a genuine effort to abolish white-led oppression across southern Africa. It was a remarkable achievement, and reaffirmed his commitment to basic human rights first evidenced by his creation of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Relaxing as he reads a newspaper in 1978, Fraser remains popular and comfortable in government.
Malcolm Fraser: His downfall
Malcolm Fraser was widely known for saying “life wasn’t meant to be easy”, and he found that out the hard way in the later years of his administration as his administrations struggled to deal with the 1979 Oil Crisis, internal machinations, a local recession, and a collapse in electoral support. Internally, the party’s instability became evident when Andrew Peacock unsuccessfully challenged Fraser for the leadership in 1982. Externally, the emergence of the universally-popular Bob Hawke was turning the electorate back to the Labor Party as the Liberals struggled to manage the economy. Fraser tried one last political manoeuvre to save his government in 1983, attempting to call a surprise early election and defeat the unassuming Labor leader Bill Hayden.
Unbeknownst to Fraser though, Hayden had resigned less than two hours earlier and thus opened the door for the incredibly popular Bob Hawke to take over the Labor leadership. The timing proved critical for Australia’s political and economic future; Hawke, not Hayden, ended up contesting the 1983 election, and handed Fraser’s Liberal Party its worst-ever defeat as Labor claimed power in a landslide. Fraser retired soon afterwards, eventually taking up roles with the United Nations, Care International, and other humanitarian bodies. He also began his slow and steady withdrawal from the Liberal Party, denouncing many of their increasingly conservative policies and views until he finally resigned from the Liberals following Tony Abbott’s ascension to the party leadership in December 2009. In 2013, he endorsed a South Australian Greens senator because of his revulsion at Labor’s handling of refugees.
Fraser was, to the end, a man of contrasts – and for all his moral posturing on social issues, and proclamations on the state of certain political parties, he never truly shook the perception of hypocrisy that arose from his ever-changing positions on social, economic and other issues between his death and his time in government. Some would call it flexibility or the wisdom of age. Others would call it the struggle of a former centre-left politician to stay relevant in a nation that had otherwise forgotten him and his administration, being wedged as they were between Labor’s Whitlam and Hawke – two of the most popular, progressive and lauded Prime Ministers in Australian history.
Whitlam (left), Hawke (centre) and Fraser (right) were ideologically similar, if politically divided on party lines
Malcolm Fraser: A political giant
Nevertheless, he was a true political colussus whose classic Liberal Party upbringing, education and social status never sat entirely comfortably with the more progressive views he espoused both in power and in retirement. Whilst his rise to Prime Minister was a combination of good fortune and brilliant politics, there is no doubt that Malcolm Fraser was the perfect replacement for Gough Whitlam. Fraser shared the same socially progressive views of Whitlam, but the former added the moderate fiscal conservatism and basic understanding of economics lacking in the latter. He led the Liberal Party into government on the back of a protest vote, and kept them there for three successive terms whilst implementing and continuing radical, much-needed reforms in areas such as multiculturalism, immigration, foreign policy, and the economy.
Not only did Fraser maintain and continue the social and environmental work of Whitlam, he also pushed the case for social reform and basic human rights protections, and chalked up significant domestic achievements that paved the way for his successors, the Hawke/Keating Labor Government, to focus on trade and economic matters and set about modernising Australia’s economy. In short succession, Australia has lost two of its most successful and most controversial former Prime Ministers. It seems almost fitting that Fraser would depart five months to the day since his predecessor Whitlam – former political foe turned great friend – passed on. In so many ways, those two men defined the era in which Australia as a nation finally grew up.
John Malcolm Fraser was a liberal’s Liberal. More than that, he was a great Prime Minister – politically brilliant, a genuine leader, and that rare specimen whose social conscience ensured he rarely if ever placed political expediency or external considerations ahead of doing what he believed was fundamentally just and right. Australia will forever be poorer for his passing.