Malcolm Fraser (born 1930), prime minister of Australia from 1975-1983, was regarded as one of the toughest and most successful leaders of the Liberal party.
John Malcolm Fraser was born and raised in "grazier" (sheep rancher) country in New South Wales and Victoria. His only profession outside of politics was that of grazier, running the family property of "Nareen." Indeed, Nareen remained his first home even while he was prime minister, and he returned to it after his defeat in the 1983 elections.
Fraser was educated at the elite Melbourne Grammar School and attended Oxford University, where he received an MA in 1952. In 1954 he was pre-selected as the Liberal party's candidate for the House of Representatives' seat of Wannon in Victoria, but he was defeated. In 1955 he re-contested the seat successfully and retained it until he retired from politics.
At 24 he was the youngest member of Parliament and had the prime minister, Sir Robert Gordon Menzies, as his patron. However, his youth meant that his backbench apprenticeship was long. He served on numerous government committees but was not given a ministerial position until after Menzies had retired. Menzies' successor, Harold Holt, named Fraser minister for the army in 1966, from which position he became an outspoken advocate of the Vietnam War, a supporter of conscription, and a controversial figure. His penchant for "risk taking" became apparent. Under Prime Minister John H. Gorton, Fraser received the ministry for education and science and fought for increased federal aid to education. Following the 1969 election, during which the Liberals maintained the government but received their first serious electoral losses in eight years, Fraser was shifted to the Ministry of Defense where he continued his support for a hawkish policy line.
Fraser continued in his aggressive style, fighting publicly with members of the military and coming into conflict with his prime minister. On March 8, 1971, Fraser resigned abruptly, accusing Gorton of "significant disloyalty to a senior minister." In fact, Fraser was distancing himself from a man whose leadership capacities were questionable. On March 10 Gorton was defeated as leader in a "spill" within the Liberal party, and William McMahon became prime minister. However, the Liberals were defeated in the 1972 election and became the Opposition for the first time in 23 years. Fraser became shadow minister on primary industry and later spokesman on labor and immigration.
Road to Prime Minister
The Opposition through its control of the upper house (the Senate) thwarted the Labor government, which called an election in 1974. Labor was returned, though with a reduced majority in the lower house and still lacking control of the upper. Nonetheless, the Liberals regarded the election as a setback and as a defeat for its then leader, Sir Bill Snedden. In March 1975 Malcolm Fraser defeated Snedden and became leader of the parliamentary Liberal party and the Opposition, a position he used to bring on the downfall of the Gough Whitlam Labor government. It was at Fraser's instigation that the Senate failed to pass the budget and created a constitutional crisis in what was possibly the biggest risk by Fraser in a risk ridden career. Fraser's popularity plummeted during October 1975 while the standing of the Labor party improved. However, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, stepped in and dismissed Whitlam as prime minister, dissolved Parliament, and appointed Fraser "caretaker" prime minister pending an election. After he was sworn in as prime minister on November 11, 1975, Fraser directed the Senate to pass the budget and the cause of the crisis disappeared. Following a bitter election campaign Fraser became prime minister of Australia, having won the December 13 election with a record majority of 91 seats in the 125-member lower house and 35 seats in the 64-seat Senate.
Fraser became prime minister during a period of extreme economic difficulties with recession, inflation, and unemployment. His theme as prime minister was to blame the big spending previous Labor government and to attack the public sector as "parasitic" and the source of the Australian economic malaise. His aim was to reduce the size of the public sector and to stimulate the private. He was the first of the neo-conservatives and later advised Margaret Thatcher of England on electoral and policy strategy. He reduced the number of government departments and combined the functions of others; he introduced staff ceilings to control the size of the public sector and had revolutionary legislation passed which attacked public service tenure.
The period of the Fraser government was marked by bitterness and rancour between public service and government. The difficulties were not helped by the government's attacks on the integrity of its public servants. The most notorious of which was one of Fraser's ministers calling public servants pigs with their "snouts in the trough." Fraser also established a "razor gang" whose function was to investigate ways of cutting back on government functions. Despite promises to the contrary, Fraser disestablished the national health program of the Labor government and cut back dramatically spending in the areas of education and welfare. Pensions, unemployment benefits, and legal aid eligibility were all reduced.
Fraser's foreign policy centered on "hard line" anti-Communism, suspicion of the Soviet's intentions in the Indian Ocean, and general skepticism about detente with the Soviet Union. Following the Soviet Union's attack on Afghanistan, Fraser cut off all academic exchanges and withdrew official Australian presence at the Moscow Olympics—although, in defiance of the prime minister, an Australian team in fact competed. Internationally, his other main area was Africa. At a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) he received international respect for his stance on Africa. He was an advocate for civil rights and a severe critic of the government of South Africa.
The Fraser Government
The Fraser period of government was one of high activity. It was not a traditional conservative government and, despite its cutbacks in public service, it demanded more of that service. Fraser also proceeded to revise the "Westminster" system of government and through various mechanisms placed more control into the hands of the prime minister, reducing the independence both of his senior public servants and his own party colleagues.
Fraser called elections in 1977 and in 1980 which he won. Despite his successes as leader and at three elections, Fraser was not a popular figure. He clashed with members of the mass media and was seen as arrogant, haughty, and ruthless. Despite his height (over six feet four inches), his style was neither imposing nor one which suited television. Moreover, the economy did not improve and the 1980 election saw the Labor party demonstrate some electoral success.
Fraser came under increasing criticism from within his own party and in particular from his most serious challenger for the leadership, Andrew Peacock. Peacock had taken a leaf from the Fraser book of tactics and had resigned as a minister with a blistering attack on the Fraser authoritarian style of governing. By so doing Peacock was able to distance himself from what he saw as the increasingly failing policies of the Fraser government. In what was generally seen as a frantic attempt to avoid electoral defeat, Fraser called an early election in March 1983. However, his move did not prevent the Labor party selecting as its leader the populist Robert Hawke. Hawke led the Labor party to victory. Peacock was elected leader of the Liberal party, and Fraser resigned from politics.
Critic of his own party
After his resignation Fraser was an outspoken critic of sections of his own party and in the election of 1984 was "waiting in the wings" should Peacock be resoundingly repudiated by the electorate. Despite the fact that the 1984 results demonstrated Peacock's electoral acceptance, Fraser maintained his criticisms. It should be remembered that Fraser was defeated while still young for a political leader (53), with plenty of time for a political revival. It should also be stressed that politics was his only real profession for 30 years. Fraser maintained a high profile internationally, having been an invited guest of honor at the prestigious conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Moreover, he was involved in a number of meetings of "ex-leaders."
Fraser returned to farming in Nareen, but he did not abandon political life. He became involved in international affairs, particularly as a member of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons, which worked to eliminate apartheid in South Africa. In 1996, Fraser was named special envoy to Africa by the Australian government to push Canberra's campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council. At home in 1997, Fraser was an outspoken critic against consolidation of ownership of the country's print and electronic media. He also called for a national apology from Australia for the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families, following the release of a human rights report on the matter. Fraser endorsed the report's finding that the removal of an estimated 50,000 Aboriginal children under a policy that existed until the 1970s amounted to genocide.
On the events of 1975, see Gough Whitlam, The Truth of the Matter (1979). See also, J. Edwards, Life Wasn't Meant Easy (1977), named after a famous quote by Fraser, and Anne Summers, Gamble for Power (1983). A detailed analysis of his period as prime minister is forthcoming under the tentative title of First Amongst Equals by Patrick Weller. Further material on Fraser can be found in A. Patience and B. Head (editors), From Whitlam to Fraser (1979) and A. Aitchison (editor), Looking at the Liberals (1974), which includes a chapter by Fraser. □
Fraser, (John) Malcolm