Chapter 1: Malcolm Fraser
Image 5: Malcolm Fraser, 1976.
NAA: A6180, 29/4/76/11
This short biographical essay was written by journalist Dr Margaret Simons who co-authored, with Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm Fraser: the political memoirs published by The Miegunyah Press in 2010.
Malcolm Fraser has been one of the most controversial and possibly most misunderstood of Australia's prime ministers. He was commissioned as caretaker Prime Minister on 11 November 1975 following the supply crisis and the dismissal of the Whitlam government. This was one of the most turbulent and divisive periods in Australian political history. Yet Fraser was elected weeks later, on 13 December, with a record majority and a 29-seat turnaround against the Australian Labor Party in the House of Representatives and a majority in the Senate.
Because of the way in which he came to power, and the causes he had until then championed, Fraser was seen at the time as a firm right-winger and Gough Whitlam's opposite. With the perspective of history, it is clear that in many ways Whitlam and Fraser were similar. Continuity between their governments included concern for the rights of Indigenous Australians, including land rights, the pursuit of open government and human rights. On foreign policy, Fraser was a Cold War warrior and strong defender of the US alliance; yet like Whitlam he advocated an independent Australian foreign policy, and he made clear that the Whitlam initiatives bringing Australia closer to China and the Asian region were bipartisan. Fraser was one of our most active prime ministers on the world stage, making Australia a leader in the battle to end apartheid in South Africa – an agenda he continued to champion in his life after politics. It was also the Fraser government that brought the end of the White Australia Policy into practical effect.
Whitlam and Fraser differed most sharply on economic management, with Fraser advocating restraint and cuts after the big spending period of Whitlam. Even here, though, Fraser was not by today's standards an advocate of small government. He believed in a strong role for an interventionist government. Nor was he an economic conservative, as some have claimed. A reading of the archival record makes clear that he and his staff can take much of the credit for the groundwork of the financial deregulation pursued by the Hawke–Keating governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fraser the Prime Minister is perhaps best seen as a transitional figure between the Australian settlement1 and the modern era. Another key to understanding his role in public life is as an activist – prepared to force a crisis when he believed it necessary, and rarely concluding that the right thing to do was nothing. The supply crisis of 1975 is the best known, but not the only, example.
The early part of Fraser's career was driven by anti-communism and his belief that an expansionist Soviet Union represented the main threat to individual liberty. These factors motivated his entry into politics, and later his vigorous support for Australia's role in the Vietnam War. Yet he was a classic liberal – on the liberal wing of a political party that combined liberal and conservative thinking – and this became clearer in his post-political career, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
From the 1990s onwards, Fraser has been associated with causes more commonly seen as left wing, including Aboriginal rights and a compassionate approach to asylum seekers. In 2009, this led him to resign from the Liberal Party, claiming that it had betrayed its liberal ideals. Fraser himself has always claimed that he has not changed – that the concerns that have driven him have always been the classic liberal values of individual liberty and the rule of law. The archival record, from his earliest public statements as a young candidate to the inner workings of his Cabinet, largely supports his contention.
1 A strong set of broadly accepted policies and attitudes shared across much of the political spectrum, noted by various people including Paul Kelly in The End of Certainty: power, politics and business in Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.