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.
Leader of the Opposition
Although Billy Snedden had already explored the option of blocking supply, Malcolm Fraser said at first he would not be holding the threat of an election over the government. The Senate was 'primarily a house of review – and apart from exceptional circumstances should not frustrate, certainly not on a purely obstructionist basis'. He left open the possibility that if the government became 'reprehensible' the Opposition might have to 'use whatever power is available to it'.21 After the death of a Labor Senator from Queensland and his replacement by an anti-Labor Senator, the Opposition had the numbers to block supply in the Senate.
The story of his time as Leader of the Opposition is largely about how Fraser came to believe that the government had indeed become so 'reprehensible' that the Opposition had a duty to act.
Fraser agreed with much of the Whitlam agenda, but there were parts to which he was implacably opposed. Most important, there was economic management – increases in taxation and a salary and wages policy that, Fraser said, had contributed to what was by early 1975 the highest levels of inflation ever known in Australia. There was runaway government spending, squeezing out private investment.
Key to the liberal idea of individual freedom, said Fraser, was the principle that so far as possible people should have a choice over how to spend their income. Free enterprise was inseparable from other kinds of freedom, and Gough Whitlam threatened free enterprise. When Bill Hayden delivered his Budget in August 1975, most commentators in the media were mildly congratulatory. Hayden had acknowledged a need to slow the growth in public expenditure. Fraser was less sanguine. He said in his radio address to his electorate:
… that [Hayden] should win the praise from commentators merely for identifying the problem while still failing to take steps to remedy it is a paradox easily explained by the low esteem in which this government is now held, and the low expectations people have of it.22
Fraser also criticised Whitlam for his lack of compassion towards refugees from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon. With harrowing pictures of the invasion of Saigon filling the evening news, Fraser told his electorate that the Whitlam government had to act. Australia should be prepared to take 'some thousands of refugees, adults and children'.23
Image 11: Vietnamese refugees board a plane for Australia, 1979.
NAA: A12111, 2/1979/46A/28
It was the loans affair, in which the Whitlam government sought to borrow vast sums of money for infrastructure development through shady international intermediaries, that triggered Fraser's decision to block supply, with the final straw being the forced resignation of Minister Rex Connor – the latest in a recent string of ministerial resignations and sackings. Shadow Cabinet made the unanimous decision to block supply on 15 October 1975.24
What followed was one of the most extraordinary periods in Australia's political history, with Whitlam exploring all avenues to hang on to government, and Fraser holding his senators to the line, although the archival record reveals that several of his colleagues had serious doubts about his tactics and tried to dissuade him from his course. Crucial was Fraser's reading of the character of Governor-General Sir John Kerr, whom Fraser was convinced, correctly, would act to resolve the crisis. Another critical factor was the strong alliance between Fraser and Doug Anthony, Leader of the National Country Party and a friend since both were elected to Parliament in their twenties.
Kerr sacked the Whitlam government on 11 November 1975, and appointed Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. An election was announced that day. On the day of the Dismissal an estimated 20,000 people rallied in capital cities. There were strikes in several states, and calls for a general strike. During the crisis leading to the Dismissal, the public opinion polls had shown that most Australians did not support the blocking of supply but, as Fraser had predicted to his colleagues, once the election campaign was called the figures changed. Fraser ran his campaign on economic issues. The election result on 13 December was the worst for Labor in the post-war period. The Coalition had a record majority, and became the first government since the 1961 election to hold a majority in the Senate.