In Memoriam: Vale Malcolm Fraser
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In Memoriam: Vale Malcolm Fraser

In Memoriam: Vale Malcolm Fraser

He will be best remembered for his role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975 and for his recent public commentary on foreign and domestic policy, but these two periods of his life do not capture his whole life, nor the man that would serve as our Prime Minister for eight years during a very difficult time for the Australian economy & people.

John Malcolm Fraser was born on 21 May 1930, the second child and only son of Neville and Una Fraser, and grew up at a family property in the Riverina region of New South Wales. Later, the family – with sister Lorri – moved to the property known as Nareen, in Victoria. Dr Margaret Simons, who would later help Mr Fraser with his political memoirs, wrote that he “attributed his shyness, abrasiveness and social awkwardness to this solitary, although reasonably happy, early childhood”. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar and Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economy (PPE) in 1952.

Entering the House of Representatives as the member for Wannon in 1955 – a seat he would continuously hold until 1983 – he was the “baby of the House”, the youngest member. The following year, on the day after the closing ceremony of the Melbourne Olympics, he married Tamie, the love of his life. The couple would later have four children: Angela, Mark, Phoebe and Hugh. Promotion from the backbenches did not come until 1966, when Harold Holt appointed him as Minister for the Army. In an interview for the ABC’s The Liberals in 1995, he told Pru Goward that he had approached Holt and indicated that if he were not ministerial material, he was prepared to resign as the member for Wannon.

John Gorton would appoint him Minister for Education and Science, and then, in 1969, as Minister for Defence. In one of Australia’s well known political dramas, Mr Fraser resigned as Defence Minister in 1971, accusing Gorton of gross interference in his duties. In his resignation speech, he told Parliament that Gorton was “not fit to hold the high office of Prime Minister”. Which is ironic, considering that Andrew Peacock would later resign from the Fraser Government and deliver a speech of a similar theme. This resignation began the chain of events that led to Gorton’s downfall and replacement with William McMahon. McMahon appointed him Minister for Education and Science, and Mr Fraser held that portfolio until the defeat of the McMahon Government in 1972.

In Opposition, Billy Snedden (later Sir Billy) appointed him Shadow Minister for Labour. After the re-election of the Labor Government in 1974, leadership rumblings and tensions were rife in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party. It ultimately took two challenges to Snedden’s leadership before Mr Fraser became Leader of the Opposition. In a television interview, he said that he hoped to catch Mr Whitlam with “his pants well and truly down”.

As Leader of the Opposition, Mr Fraser is best remembered for his perseverance in bringing down the Whitlam Government through the deferral of the Appropriations Bills in 1975. The Labor Party themselves fuelled that fire with the Connor and Morosi Affairs. This is evident that when the former Deputy Prime Minister, Lance Barnard, retired from politics, the Liberals picked up a 17% swing in his seat of Bass. One of Mr Fraser’s enduring legacies is that he used the power of the Constitution, first tested by his predecessor as leader, and succeeded in bringing down a Government that could not get its appropriations through the Parliament. That, I am justified in saying, will be a contentious point of discussion in Australian politics for decades to come.

On that Remembrance Day, Sir John Kerr commissioned Mr Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. In the election held on 13 December, in which he encouraged Australians to “turn on the lights”, the caretaker Government produced the largest majority in the House of Representatives at that point in history. The Fraser Government would be re-elected in 1977 and 1980.

The Fraser Government’s achievements in economic and multicultural policy stand out. We have all heard of the Razor Gangs. While the then Secretary of the Treasury, John Stone, wanted deeper cuts to government expenditure, the Fraser Government actually sustained a level of government subsidies. It was under the Fraser Government that the Campbell Inquiry was established, which recommended reforms to the Australian economy. It would later be said that the Campbell Inquiry’s report was the second most important reform of the economy, second to the floating of the Australian Dollar. On the multicultural policy front, the Fraser Government removed the last elements of the White Australia Policy, expanded the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), and welcomed the arrival of 150,000 refugees from Vietnam. Mr Fraser was unashamedly a multiculturalist.

In 1982, Mr Fraser said that “liberalism has recognised what the Socialist Labor Party has never recognised that Australia can be great, can be strong, prosperous and humane – only if the capacities of the Australian people are used to the full”. In that same lecture, he also said that “the constructive achievements of liberalism grow out of a vision of what this country can be, and the belief that it is only through Liberal policies that this vision can be realised”. Those two statements, summarise Mr Fraser’s political philosophy.

In 1983, he called an election on the day that Bob Hawke became leader of the Labor Party. He was soundly defeated, and later resigned from the House of Representatives. Even though he retired from politics, he did not retire from public service. He served on the Eminent Persons Group of the United Nations in the 1980s and was essential in the establishment of CARE Australia, a global relief project, in the 1990s.

Once a life member of the Liberal Party of Australia, he resigned his life membership in 2009 in protest of the party’s direction. Like Reagan and the Democrats, it can be argued that he did not leave the party, the party left him. His principles remained constant, and his contribution to public life should be cognisant of that fact. His contributions in public debate are something to be cherished and not to be denigrated.

While our nation has lost a political giant, we must remember that Mr Fraser’s family have lost a husband, father, and grandfather. Our nation is thinking of Tamie, Angela, Mark, Phoebe, Hugh, and his grandchildren today. Our thoughts and prayers go to them above all.

Jeremy Travers
You can find Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyTravers.

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