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Research Guides

Malcolm Fraser: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers

Chapter 1: Malcolm Fraser

The following text is part of a short biographical essay written by journalist and author Dr Margaret Simons. Use the navigation bar or the 'Next' and 'Previous' links below to view other parts of the essay. Chapter 1 comprises the full essay.

Ministerial career

Image 9: Minister for the Army, Malcolm Fraser, takes a close look at a Fifth Battalion Company outpost during his visit to the Australian Task Force in Vietnam, 1966.

Image 9: Minister for the Army, Malcolm Fraser, takes a close look at a Fifth Battalion Company outpost during his visit to the Australian Task Force in Vietnam, 1966.
NAA: M1382, 5
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It was just over a decade before Fraser left the backbench. When Harold Holt replaced Robert Menzies as Prime Minister, Fraser got his break. He was appointed Minister for the Army in January 1966, not long after the November 1964 re-introduction of conscription, a policy he strongly supported. Fraser's experience as Minister for the Army, and later Minister for Defence, led him to become disillusioned with the US alliance, in particular the way the superpower treated its Australian ally, often neglecting to inform it of key decisions. However, both as a Minister and Prime Minister, Fraser regarded unity with the United States in the face of the communist threat as essential. Much later, he came to regret the Vietnam War, declaring it a mistake.

A significant Fraser initiative – and one that was to have a big role in later events – was his establishment in April 1967 of the Australian Civil Affairs Unit to provide the South Vietnamese with welfare, building programs and medical assistance. In one of his radio addresses to his electorate, Fraser spoke about 'the other war … the fight against ignorance, sickness and poverty', which he said was as real as the casualties on the battlefield. The practical assistance being given by troops to enable the Vietnamese people to improve their standard of living 'may ultimately be the measure of the success of the Australian commitment'.13 Four years later, it was Fraser's commitment to Civic Action that formed the backdrop to the first major crisis of his political career.

Following Holt's drowning in December 1967, Fraser supported John Gorton for the prime ministership and was rewarded with his first Cabinet post as Minister for Education and Science. The two issues that dominated his time in the portfolio were state aid for independent schools and the growth of tertiary education. In August 1969 Fraser announced that rather than granting aid to independent schools on the basis of need, he would distribute the money across the board, with the grants being determined purely by the numbers of students. Fraser justified this on the basis of classic liberal notions of freedom of choice,14 although in later life he claimed that concern not to stir up anti-Catholic sectarianism was also a motivation.

A preoccupation of Fraser's time in this portfolio was promoting the teaching of Asian languages in schools. It was also during this time that he became the first politician to refer to Australia as a 'multiracial society' – probably the first time the notion of multiculturalism had been referred to in an Australian parliament. Fraser used the word 'multiculturalism' itself later that year in a speech where he argued that love of, and loyalty to, Australia were in no way incompatible with differences in culture and affection for the homeland.15

By 1969, Fraser was being written up by some journalists as a future prime minister.16 Meanwhile Gorton was vulnerable, having almost lost the October 1969 election. The relationship between Gorton and Fraser was strained. They disagreed fundamentally over issues to do with states' rights, with Fraser believing the states were a necessary check on federal power. One of the controversies that focused these disputes included disagreement over whether the states or the Commonwealth should control the continental shelf. Fraser also believed that Gorton expected uncritical support, which he was not prepared to give him. However, Gorton was re-elected as leader with Fraser's support after the 1969 election. Fraser was rewarded with the post of Minister for Defence.

Image 10: John Gorton's Ministry on the steps of Parliament House, Canberra, with Malcolm Fraser at rear right, c. 1968.

Image 10: John Gorton's Ministry on the steps of Parliament House, Canberra, with Malcolm Fraser at rear right, c. 1968.
UMA, 2007.0053, BWP/24556
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By now public support for the Vietnam War had waned and the moratorium marches had begun. The US policy was now 'Vietnamisation' of the war. The emphasis was on training and encouraging the Vietnamese to defend themselves, so that the United States could extricate itself. Fraser had the task of trying to recalibrate Australia's defence policy to meet both the realities of what the United States was doing, and his own understanding of what was needed and what was right. He differed from Gorton in believing that 'forward defence' and engagement in the region were essential to Australia's long-term security interest. Gorton was less inclined to engage with the region on issues of defence, and this led to more disputes and differences with Fraser.

The relationship between the two men broke down in May 1970, after Gorton demanded support from his minister over states' rights issues. However, the final showdown between the two men came over Civic Action in Vietnam. A cable leaked to an ABC journalist appeared to suggest that the Army was winding up Civic Action without Fraser having been consulted. The result was a confrontation between Lieutenant-General Thomas Daly, Chief of the General Staff, and Fraser. The crisis came over a newspaper article that alleged Daly had told Gorton that Fraser was being disloyal to the Army.17 Gorton had been given the opportunity to deny the allegation, and had failed to do so. Fraser concluded he had no option but to resign. His resignation speech, on Tuesday 9 March 1971, was one of the most severe pastings ever delivered to an Australian Prime Minister by one of their own side:

The Prime Minister, because of his unreasoned drive to get his own way, his obstinacy, impetuous and emotional reactions, has imposed strains upon the Liberal Party, the Government and the Public Service. I do not believe he is fit to hold the great office of Prime Minister, and I cannot serve in his Government.18

Gorton was finished. The next day he called a Liberal Party meeting and there was a motion of confidence in his leadership. The vote was tied. Gorton resigned. William McMahon was elected the Liberal Party leader and became the new Prime Minister. Fraser had played a decisive role in bringing Gorton down, and made lasting political enemies.

Fraser went to the backbench and used his time to engage in reflection on his core political philosophy. Among other contacts, he met and corresponded with Bob Santamaria, the Catholic activist. He also worked on a new defence policy in collaboration with academics and other thinkers. Fraser made speeches and wrote articles that stand out as statements of liberalism and its expression in the 1970s, including the Alfred Deakin Lecture of July 1971, delivered just five months after he had brought Gorton down, which contains the 'life wasn't meant to be easy' phrase that for the rest of his career many saw as summing up his character and political attitudes. Properly understood, though, the Deakin lecture was a speech about the pragmatic yet idealistic approach demanded by liberalism:

We must be particularly aware of the great weaknesses of man's idealism which is to forget the frailty of the human race, to believe that man is something that he is not and so construct a view of society that can only exist in the mind. We can only draw reality from our idealism when we can accept that while we strive for perfection, we will not reach it in this world nor our sons after us. Recognition of this truth should soften the radical, bring tolerance to the fanatic, temper the extremes of love and hate. But it will not make our vigilance or struggle any the less necessary.19

One of the most significant products of Fraser's reflections was a shift in his attitude to China. In his early speeches about Vietnam he had blamed China more than the Soviet Union for provoking and funding insurgency and war. He had seen China as a communist threat equivalent to that posed by the Soviet Union – and not really distinct from it. Now he had a quite different view. He said that Australians should ask themselves how much of China's policies were motivated by communist ideology, 'and how much of Chinese policies would be founded in China's past and often tragic history?' China had no cause to love any of the great powers, he said, 'least of all the Soviet Union'.20 In his attitude to China, and in some other things, Fraser was closer to Gough Whitlam and the Labor Party than to his own side of politics, but because he still supported the Vietnam War he was seen as reactionary by both sides of politics.

On 20 August 1971, Fraser once again became Minister for Education and Science. This period saw him make big increases in expenditure for education. Meanwhile, the government was in trouble. Whitlam as Leader of the Opposition was dominating the popular imagination and the Parliament; and Prime Minister McMahon was increasingly a figure of ridicule.

On 2 December 1972, 23 years of Liberal–Country Party rule came to an end with the election of the Whitlam government. Billy Snedden replaced McMahon as Liberal leader. Fraser became Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, then Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations. He was unsuccessful in getting the post he would have preferred – Foreign Affairs.

Over the next two years, as Snedden struggled with the leadership and lost the snap election of 1974, Fraser began jockeying for the position. Following an unsuccessful challenge to Snedden's leadership in November 1974, on 21 March 1975 Fraser was elected Liberal Party leader by a convincing 37 to 27 votes.


Chapter notes | All notes

13 Radio address, 13 April 1967. NAA: M13692, 38.

14 Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 13 August 1969, pp. 185–93.

15 Speech to State Zionist Council of New South Wales, 16 November 1969. NAA: M1374, 29. Most attribute the first use of the word 'multiculturalism' in politics to a speech by Immigration Minister Al Grassby in 1973. This is not correct. See Mark Lopez, The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945–1975, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2000.

16 Una Fraser Collection, 2008.0058, Herald (Melbourne), August 1969, copy in scrapbook, item 3/1 box 1.

17 Alan Ramsay, 'General says Fraser is disloyal to service', The Australian, 4 March 1971.

18 Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 9 March 1971, p. 684.

19 'Towards 2000 challenge to Australia', Fifth Alfred Deakin Lecture, 20 July 1971.

20 Australia, House of Representatives, Debates, 22 April 1971, pp. 1928–33.


Chapter 1
Malcolm Fraser