Malcolm Fraser

21 May 1930
20 Mar 2015
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John Malcolm Fraser AC, CH, GCL (21 May 1930 – 20 March 2015) was an Australian politician who was the Prime Minister of Australia and the Leader of the Liberal Party from 1975 to 1983.

Having become a Member of Parliament in 1955 at the age of 25, Fraser was first appointed to the Cabinet in 1966. After rising to become Minister for Defence in 1969, he was regarded as a contender for the leadership of the Liberal Party following their defeat in 1972, but he lost that contest to Billy Snedden. Fraser challenged Snedden in 1975 and was elected Leader of the Liberal Party, becoming the Leader of the Opposition.

Fraser was appointed as caretaker prime minister on 11 November 1975 by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, following the controversial dismissal of the Whitlam Government in which he played a key role. He went on to win the largest majority in Australian political history at the subsequent election. After two further election victories in1977 and 1980, he was defeated by Bob Hawke in 1983 and left politics a short time later. On 20 March 2015, Fraser died at the age of 84 after a brief illness.

John Malcolm Fraser was born on 21 May 1930 in Toorak, Victoria, to a family with a history of involvement in politics and the pastoral industry. His grandfather, Simon Fraser, Sr., emigrated from Nova Scotia in 1853, becoming a successful pastoralist and speculator, and later a member of the Victorian Parliament, the Federation Conventionsand the Australian Senate. Fraser’s uncle, Simon Fraser, Jr., was a noted sportsman who rowed for Australia at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, and also played Australian rules football for Essendon and University in the Victorian Football League.

Fraser’s father, John Neville Fraser, had been educated at the University of Melbourne, and was a pastoralist at Deniliquin in the Riverina region of New South Wales, and later at a property called “Nareen Station” in Nareen, near Hamilton in the Western District of Victoria. Fraser’s mother, Una Woolf, was of Jewish descent on her father’s side.

Fraser grew up on the family’s pastoral properties and was educated at Glamorgan, now part of Geelong Grammar School, and Melbourne Grammar School, before completing a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1952. While at Oxford, Fraser was a classmate and friend of future Canadian Prime Minister John Turner. Partly due to his time in Oxford, it was at this time that Fraser began speaking in the RP-like “cultivated” version of Australian English.

Upon returning to Australia from Oxford, Fraser contested the seat of Wannon in 1954 for the Liberal Party, losing to Labor incumbent Don McLeod by just 17 votes. However, a redistribution made Wannon a notionally Liberal seat, and McLeod announced his retirement shortly before the election in 1955. Fraser subsequently won the seat with a majority of more than 5,000 on a swing of 8.5 per cent. Aged just 25, he was the youngest Member of Parliament; he would continue to represent Wannon until his retirement in 1983.

After more than a decade on the backbench, Fraser was appointed to the Cabinet by the prime minister, Harold Holt, in 1966. As Minister for the Army he presided over the controversial Vietnam War conscription program. Under the new prime minister, John Gorton, he became Minister for Education and Science and in 1969 was promoted toMinister for Defence, a particularly challenging post at the time, given the height of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the protests against it.

In March 1971, Fraser abruptly resigned from the Cabinet in protest at what he called Gorton’s “interference in (his) ministerial responsibilities”. This precipitated a series of events which eventually led to the downfall of Gorton and his replacement as prime minister by William McMahon. Gorton never forgave Fraser for the role he played in his downfall and to the day he died in 2002 could not bear to be in the same room with him. McMahon immediately reappointed Fraser to the Cabinet, returning him to his old position of Minister for Education and Science. When the Liberals were defeated at the 1972 election by the Labor Party under Gough Whitlam, McMahon resigned and Fraser became Shadow Minister for Labour under Billy Snedden.

After Snedden was defeated in 1974, Fraser unsuccessfully challenged him for the leadership of the Liberal Party in November. Despite surviving the challenge, Snedden’s position in opinion polls continued to decline and he was unable to get the better of Whitlam in the Parliament. Fraser again challenged Snedden on 21 March 1975, this time succeeding and becoming Leader of the Liberal Party and Leader of the Opposition.

Following a series of ministerial scandals engulfing the Whitlam Government later that year, Fraser began to instruct Coalition senators to delay the government’s budget bills, with the objective of forcing an early election that he believed he would win. After several months of political deadlock, during which time the government secretly explored methods of obtaining supply funding outside the Parliament, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, controversially dismissed Whitlam as prime minister on 11 November 1975. Fraser was immediately sworn in as caretaker prime minister on the condition that he end the political deadlock and call an immediate election.

On 19 November 1975, shortly after the election had been called, a letter bomb was sent to Fraser, but it was intercepted and defused before it reached him. Similar devices were sent to the governor-general and the Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

At the 1975 election, Fraser led the Liberal-Country Party Coalition to a landslide victory. The Coalition won 30 seats from Labor to gain a 55-seat majority, which remains to date the largest in Australian history. Fraser subsequently led the Coalition to a second victory in 1977, with only a very small decrease in their vote. The Liberals actually won a majority in their own right, something that even Robert Menzieshad not been able to achieve. Although Fraser thus had no need for the support of the (National) Country Party to govern, he retained the formal Coalition between the two parties.

Fraser quickly dismantled some of the programs of the Whitlam Government, such as the Ministry of the Media, and made major changes to the universal health insurance system Medibank. He initially maintained Whitlam’s levels of tax and spending, but real per-person tax and spending soon began to increase. He did manage to rein in inflation, which had soared under Whitlam. His so-called “Razor Gang” implemented stringent budget cuts across many areas of the Commonwealth Public Sector, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

Although Fraser had long been identified with the Liberal Party’s right wing, he did not carry out the radically conservative program that his political enemies had predicted, and that some of his followers wanted. Fraser’s relatively moderate policies particularly disappointed the treasurer, John Howard, as well as otherThatcherite ministers who were strong adherents of free market economics. Fraser’s economic record was marred by rising unemployment, which reached record levels under his administration, caused in part by the ongoing effects of the 1973 oil crisis.

Fraser was particularly active in foreign policy as prime minister. He supported the Commonwealth in campaigning to abolishapartheid in South Africa and refused permission for the aircraft carrying the Springbok rugby team to refuel on Australian territory en route to their controversial 1981 tour of New Zealand. However, an earlier tour by the South African ski boat angling team was allowed to pass through Australia on the way to New Zealand in 1977 and the transit records were suppressed by Cabinet order.

Fraser also strongly opposed white minority rule in Rhodesia. During the 1979 Commonwealth Conference, Fraser, together with his Nigerian counterpart, convinced the newly-elected British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to withhold recognition of the internal settlement Zimbabwe Rhodesia government; Thatcher had earlier promised to recognise it. Subsequently, the Lancaster House Agreement was signed and Robert Mugabe was elected leader of an independent Zimbabwe at the inaugural 1980 election. Duncan Campbell, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has stated that Fraser was “the principal architect” in the ending of white minority rule. The President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, said that he considered Fraser’s role “crucial in many parts” and the President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, called his contribution “vital”.

Under Fraser, Australia recognised Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor, although many East Timorese refugees were grantedasylum in Australia. Fraser was also a strong supporter of the United States and supported the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. However, although he persuaded some sporting bodies not to compete, Fraser did not try to the prevent theAustralian Olympic Committee sending a team to the Moscow Games.

Fraser also surprised his critics over immigration policy; according to 1977 Cabinet documents, the Fraser Government adopted a formal policy for “a humanitarian commitment to admit refugees for resettlement”. Fraser’s aim was to expand immigration from Asian countries and allow more refugees to enter Australia. He was a firm supporter of multiculturalism and established a government-funded multilingual radio and television network, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), building on their first radio stations which had been established under the Whitlam Government.

Despite Fraser’s support for SBS, his government imposed stringent budget cuts on the national broadcaster, the ABC, which came under repeated attack from the Coalition for its supposed left-wing bias and for allegedly “unfair” or critical coverage on TV programs, including This Day Tonight and Four Corners, and on the ABC’s new youth-oriented radio station Double Jay. One result of the cuts was a plan to establish a national youth radio network, of which Double Jay was the first station. The network was delayed for many years and did not come to fruition until the 1990s. Fraser also legislated to give Indigenous Australians control of their traditional lands in the Northern Territory, but resisted imposing land rights laws on conservative state governments.

The Frasers with the Reagans at theWhite House in 1982
At the 1980 election, Fraser saw his majority more than halved, from 48 seats to 21. The Coalition also lost control of the Senate. Despite this, Fraser remained ahead of Labor leader Bill Hayden in opinion polls. However, in 1982 the economy experienced a sharp and unexpected recession, and a protracted scandal over tax-avoidance schemes run by some high-profile Liberals also began to hurt plagued the Government.

In April 1981, the Minister for Industrial Relations, Andrew Peacock, resigned from the Cabinet, accusing Fraser of “constant interference in his portfolio”. Fraser, however, had accused former prime minister John Gorton of the same thing a decade earlier. Peacock subsequently challenged Fraser for the leadership; although Fraser defeated Peacock, these events left him politically weakened.

By early 1982, the popular former ACTU President, Bob Hawke, who had entered Parliament in 1980, was polling well ahead of both Fraser and the Labor Leader, Bill Hayden, on the question of who voters would rather see as prime minister. Fraser was well aware of the infighting this caused between Hayden and Hawke and had planned to call a snap election in autumn 1982, preventing the Labor Party changing leaders. These plans were derailed when Fraser suffered a severe back injury. Shortly after recovering from his injury, the Liberal Party narrowly won a by-election in the marginal seat of Flinders in January 1983. The failure of the Labor Party to win the seat convinced Fraser that he would be able to win an election against Hayden. As leadership tensions began to grow in the Labor Party throughout January, Fraser subsequently resolved to call a double dissolution election at the earliest opportunity, hoping to capitalise on Labor’s disunity and prevent them from replacing Hayden.

On 3 February 1983, Fraser arranged to visit the Governor-General of Australia, Ninian Stephen, intending to call a surprise election. By coincidence and without any knowledge of Fraser’s plans, Hayden resigned as Labor Leader just two hours before Fraser travelled to Government House. This meant that the considerably more popular Bob Hawke was able to replace him at almost exactly the same time that the writs were issued for the election. Although Fraser reacted to the move by saying he looked forward to “knock[ing] two Labor Leaders off in one go” at the forthcoming election, Labor immediately surged in the opinion polls.

At the election on 5 March the Coalition was heavily defeated, suffering a 24-seat swing, the worst defeat of a non-Labor government since Federation. Fraser immediately announced his resignation as Liberal leader and formally resigned as prime minister on 11 March 1983; he retired from Parliament two months later. To date, he is the last non-interim prime minister from a country seat.

In retirement Fraser served as Chairman of the UN 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. He was a distinguished international fellow at the American Enterprise Institute from 1984–86. Fraser became president of the foreign aid group Care International in 1991, and worked with a number of other charitable organisations. In 2006, he was appointed Professorial Fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law, and in October 2007 he presented his inaugural professorial lecture, “Finding Security in Terrorism’s Shadow: The importance of the rule of law”.

On 14 October 1986, Fraser, then the Chairman of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, was found in the foyer of the Admiral Benbow Inn, a seedyMemphis hotel, wearing nothing but a towel and confused as to where his trousers were. The hotel was an establishment popular with prostitutes and drug dealers. Though it was rumoured at the time that the former Prime Minister had been with a prostitute, his wife stated that Fraser had no recollection of the events and that she believes it more likely that he was the victim of a practical joke by his fellow delegates.

In 1993, Fraser made a bid for the Liberal Party presidency but withdrew at the last minute following opposition to his bid due to Fraser being critical of then Liberal leader John Hewson for losing the election earlier that year.

After 1996, Fraser was critical of the Howard Coalition government over foreign policy issues (particularly John Howard’s alignment with the foreign policy of the Bush administration, which Fraser saw as damaging Australian relationships in Asia). He opposed Howard’s policy on asylum-seekers, campaigned in support of an Australian Republic and attacked what he perceived as a lack of integrity in Australian politics, together with former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, finding much common ground with his predecessor and his successor Bob Hawke, another republican.

The 2001 election completed Fraser’s estrangement from the Liberal Party. Many Liberals criticised the Fraser years as “a decade of lost opportunity” on deregulation of the Australian economy and other issues. In early 2004, a Young Liberalconvention in Hobart called for Fraser’s life membership of the Liberal Party to be ended.

In 2006, Fraser launched a “scathing attack” on the Howard Liberal government, attacking their policies on areas such as refugees, terrorism and civil liberties, and that “if Australia continues to follow United States policies, it runs the risk of being embroiled in the conflict in Iraq for decades, and a fear of Islam in the Australian community will take years to eradicate”. Fraser claimed that the way the Howard government handled the David Hicks, Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases was questionable.

On 20 July 2007, Fraser sent an open letter to members of the large activist group GetUp, encouraging members to support GetUp’s campaign for a change in policy on Iraq including a clearly defined exit strategy. Fraser stated: “One of the things we should say to the Americans, quite simply, is that if the United States is not prepared to involve itself in high-level diplomacy concerning Iraq and other Middle East questions, our forces will be withdrawn before Christmas.”

After the defeat of the Howard government at the 2007 federal election, Fraser claimed Howard approached him in a corridor, following a cabinet meeting in May 1977 regarding Vietnamese refugees, and said: “We don’t want too many of these people. We’re doing this just for show, aren’t we?” The claims were made by Fraser in an interview to mark the release of the 1977 cabinet papers. Howard, through a spokesman, denied making the comment.

In October 2007 Fraser gave a speech to Melbourne Law School on terrorism and “the importance of the rule of law,”which Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella condemned in January 2008, claiming errors and “either intellectual sloppiness or deliberate dishonesty”, and that he tacitly supports Islamic fundamentalism, should have no influence on foreign policy, and that his stance on the war on terror has left him open to caricature as a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”.

In December 2009, shortly after the election of Tony Abbott to the Liberal Party leadership, Fraser resigned from the Liberal Party. Fraser said “the party was no longer a liberal party but a conservative party.”

In December 2011, Fraser was highly critical of the Australian government’s decision (also supported by the Liberal Party Opposition) to permit the export of uranium to India, relaxing the Fraser government’s policy of banning sales of uranium to countries that are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 2012, Fraser criticised the basing of U.S. military forces in Australia. In 2014, speaking on the Russian RT television network, he criticised the concept ofAmerican exceptionalism and U.S. foreign policy.

In late 2012, Fraser wrote a foreword for The Journal Jurisprudence where he openly criticised the current state of human rights in Australia and the Western World. “It is a sobering thought that in recent times, freedoms hard won through centuries of struggle, in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have been whittled away. In Australia alone we have laws that allow the secret detention of the innocent. We have had a vast expansion of the power of intelligence agencies. In many cases the onus of proof has been reversed and the justice that once prevailed as been gravely diminished.”

In July 2013, Fraser endorsed Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in a television advertisement.

On 20 March 2015, his office announced that Fraser had died in the early hours of the morning, noting that he had suffered a brief illness.

In 1956, Fraser married Tamara “Tamie” Beggs, with whom he had four children (Mark, Angela, Hugh and Phoebe).

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