Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

John Malcolm Fraser (born May 21 1930), Australian politician and 22nd Prime Minister of Australia, came to power in the controversial circumstances of the dismissal of the Whitlam government. After two huge election victories and many legislative achievements, he was defeated by Bob Hawke in 1983, and ended his career alienated from his own party.

Table of contents
1 Rise to Leadership
2 Prime Minister
3 Decline and Fall
4 Elder Statesman

Rise to Leadership

Born in Melbourne, Victoria, but growing up on a property near Deniliquin in western New South Wales, Fraser was the son of a wealthy grazier (sheep-rancher). His mother, Una Fraser (nee Woolf), was Jewish, a fact which influenced his attitudes towards multiculturalism. The Frasers had had a long history in politics: his grandfather, Simon Fraser, had served in the Victorian parliament and later in the Australian Senate. Fraser was educated at exclusive private schools and completed a degree in politics and economics at Oxford University in 1952.

Fraser contested the seat of Wannon, in Victoria's Western District, in 1954 for the Liberal Party, and won it in 1955, becoming the youngest member of the House of Representatives. In 1956 he married Tamara "Tamie" Beggs, a grazier's daughter. The couple had four children. Tamie Fraser professed to have no interest in politics but was influential behind the scenes.

Fraser developed an early reputation as an extreme right-winger, and he had a long wait for ministerial preferment. He was finally appointed Army minister by Harold Holt in 1966. Under John Gorton in became Minister for Education and Science, and in 1969 he was made Defence Minister: a challenging post at the height of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and the protests against it.

In March 1971 Fraser resigned abruptly in protest at what he said was Gorton's interference in his ministerial responsibilities. This led to the downfall of Gorton and his replacement by William McMahon. Under McMahon Fraser once again became Minister for Education and Science. When the Liberals were defeated at the 1972 elections by the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam, he became a member of the Opposition front bench under Billy Snedden's leadership.

Fraser soon became convinced that Snedden was a weak leader, and Snedden's defeat at the 1974 elections hardened his view. In March 1975 he staged a leadership coup and became Leader of the Opposition, on a policy of using the conservative parties' control of the Senate to force the Whitlam government to an early election as soon as possible. A tall, patrician figure with a hectoring speaking style, Fraser was detested by Labor voters, but seen as a hero by conservatives.

Prime Minister

In 1975, following a series of ministerial scandals in the Whitlam Government, Fraser decided to use his Senate numbers to "block supply" - to prevent the government's budget passing the Senate and thus force it out of office (see Australian constitutional crisis of 1975). Several months of deadlock followed, which were ended only when the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, intervened and dismissed Whitlam. Fraser was sworn in as Prime Minister, despite not having a majority in the House of Representatives, and immediately advised Kerr to call elections for both Houses.

The Liberals had a landslide victory, and won a second term nearly as easily in 1977. Fraser used this period to dismantle some of the programs of the Labor government, notably the universal heath insurance system, Medibank, and embarked on a round of sharp cuts to public spending. But he did not carry out the radically conservative program that his enemies had predicted, and that some of his followers wanted. He in fact proved surprisingly moderate in office, to the frustration of his Treasurer (finance minister), John Howard.

Fraser was active in foreign policy. He supported the Commonwealth in campaigning to apartheid in South Africa and white minority rule in Rhodesia. In 1981 Fraser played a leading role in the settlement which created an independent Zimbabwe and installed Robert Mugabe in power - this was applauded at the time but is now held against him. Fraser was a strong supporter of the United States and supported the boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

In immigration policy Fraser also surprised his critics. He expanded immigration from Asian countries and allowed more refugees to enter Australia. He supported multiculturalism and established a government-funded multilingual radio and television network, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). He legislated to give Australia's Aboriginal people control of their traditional lands in the Northern Territory, but would not impose land rights laws on the conservative governments in the states.

Decline and Fall

Fraser the elder statesman

At the 1980 elections Fraser saw his majority sharply reduced and the Liberals lost control of the Senate. Fraser was convinced, however, that he had the measure of the Labor leader, Bill Hayden. But in 1982 a protracted scandal over tax-avoidance schemes run by prominent Liberals plagued the government, and the economy experienced a sharp recession. A popular minister, Andrew Peacock, resigned from Cabinet and challenged Fraser's leadership. Although Fraser won, these events left him politically weakened.

By the end of 1982 it was obvious that the popular trade union leader Bob Hawke was going to replace Hayden as Labor leader. Fraser wanted to call a snap election to defeat Hayden before Hawke could replace him, but he was prevented by the tax-evasion scandal and by an attack of ill-health. When Fraser was able to call his election, in March 1983, it was too late. Hawke replaced Hayden and Fraser was heavily defeated.

Fraser immediately resigned from Parliament. Over the 13 years that the Liberals spent in opposition, they tended to blame the "wasted opportunities" of the Fraser years for their problems, and Fraser grew resentful of this and distanced himself from his old party. The Hawke Government supported his unsuccessful bid to become Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Elder Statesman

In retirement Fraser served with distinction as Chairman of the United Nations Panel of Eminent Persons on the Role of Transnational Corporations in South Africa 1985, as Co-Chairman of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons on South Africa in 1985-86, and as Chairman of the UN Secretary-General's Expert Group on African Commodity Issues in 1989-90. Fraser became president of the foreign aid group Care International in 1991, and worked with a number of other charitable organisations.

After 1996 Fraser was critical of the Howard Liberal government over foreign policy issues (particularly support for the foreign policy of the Bush administration, which Fraser saw as damaging Australian relationships in Asia). He campaigned in support of an Australian Republic in 1999 and in the 2001 election campaign he opposed Howard's policy on asylum-seekers.

This completed Fraser's estrangement from the Liberal Party. Many Liberals became unrestrained in their attacks on the Fraser years as "a decade of lost opportunity," on deregulation of the Australian economy and other issues. As Fraser passed 70 he had lost none of his combativeness and generally gave as good as he got in these exchanges.

Malcolm Fraser was portrayed by actor John Stanton in the mini-series The Dismissal

Preceded by:
Gough Whitlam
Prime Ministers of Australia Followed by:
Bob Hawke

Preceded by:
Billy Snedden
Leaders of the
Liberal Party of Australia
Followed by:
Andrew Peacock